The Secret Lives of Vintage Trailers
The Tin Goose was just an old school bus parked outside the Joshua Tree Saloon until Marcia Geiger decided to make it the subject of a painting. In Geiger’s version, the Goose looks at you head-on and unflinching. It seems to be reciting the dreams and defeats of every seeker who ever lived aboard. The piece won the Preston Ormsby Award for Excellence at the 2016 Palm Springs Artists Council Exhibit (ACE Show), and the image became an instant High Desert classic.
The Nebraska-born artist has made a years-long study of the “infinite procession” of transformed buses and campers she’s encountered in the Mojave. Derelict trailers are as ubiquitous here as the 1940s jackrabbit homestead shacks. When Geiger zeroes in on a particular vehicle, she tunes into the backstory about the veterans, drifters and retirees who sought reinvention in a “canned ham” or Airstream. Often her campers appear abandoned, yet the owners themselves are revealed via an alchemical trick of the artist.
Cheryl Kandel has collected several pieces by Geiger and says: “I am drawn to the subject matter because trailers and campers represent the freedom of the road to me.” Along with Mobile Desert Domiciles, as Geiger calls her series, the artist looks at other “real time” subjects such as old skulls, saloons, machinery and guitars. It’s all consistent with the notion that objects contain souls and stories, just the same as human subjects.
Marcia is well-known in desert art circles as a member of Palm Springs’ Desert Art Center, the Palm Springs Art Museum Artists’ Council, and the Joshua Tree Art Gallery–as well as being a board member for the Morongo Basin Cultural Arts Council.
—Please fill us in on your background.
I grew up on a farm near Cozad, Nebraska. The town was founded by Ashcan School leader Robert Henri’s father, John J. Cozad, and Henri spent his boyhood there. (Anyone interested in the life of Henri should read “Son of the Gamblin’ Man” by Mari Sandoz). I have been an artist as long as I can remember, but my talents were humored, at best, by the people I grew up around, if not outright discouraged when I showed an interest in pursuing an artistic career. Although I studied Commercial Art at a community college in the early 80s, I couldn’t really get into it, so my body and spirit wandered pretty aimlessly for a many years, until a 6 week house-sitting job in Joshua Tree came my way in 1989. I have lived in the area ever since. In 1996, I moved 12 miles north of town to Landers, on a very quiet 5 acres.
Apart from primary and secondary school art classes, and an associate’s degree in commercial art (circa 1983), my only art instruction was from Irene Scoggin Bertrand, who lived in the high desert, but had moved to DHS by the time I met her in 1989. She was giving painting lessons once a week at the Joshua Tree Community Center.
The mid 90s and early Naughts were not a creative time for me. I got married, helped my husband run a business, and learned bookkeeping skills (which still supports my ‘habit’, enough to pay the bills and keep the wolves at bay, anyway). In 2005, I slowly began painting again, and joined Joshua Tree Art Gallery in 2010, featuring paintings of vintage guitars being played.
—You once said that the desert adopted you rather than vice versa. Can you tell us about the desert as a subject in your work.
I came to the desert tired from my wandering, and had never been here before. The people I house-sat for came back, saw my potential, bought me painting materials, and arranged for me to take lessons from Irene Scoggin Bertrand. That was probably far more of an influence on me than the desert itself, but I have become acclimated to it, and couldn’t think of living anywhere else at this point.
—What was your very first trailer painting?
My first was of a small trailer in Pioneertown, which belongs to a friend, Constance Walsh.
After painting a realistic version (Lanternlight-Moonshadow), at the time I needed a break from realism, so I was doing what some people called a ‘paint by number’ style, where I laid down flat areas of paint, and forced myself to not try and blend the edges. It was difficult, but successful, and it helped me loosen up somewhat with my painting style. When I went back to that style, I kept an eye out for funky old desert trailers and vehicles to paint.
—Vintage trailers are trendy now but you discovered them years before they were hip. What was the attraction for you?
To paint successfully, I really need to have a deep interest in my subject. I remember as a child on the farm, an aunt and uncle would come out from Illinois with their little canned ham trailer for a few days for pheasant and duck season in the late fall. I have always loved both being in small spaces, and the wide open spaces I grew up in, and the idea of having both at once excited me. Perhaps that is what also has kept me here in the desert, so many small spaces in one very large open space.
My interest in trailers never wanes, but my interest in painting them comes and goes. I have also done a series on koi for example, the guitar series I mentioned earlier, and right now I am getting ready to do a series on smoke trees, and another of ‘doors in walls’, of which I hope to have a few of both completed by this autumn.
—You’ve mentioned “realtime subjects” such as the wall above the Joshua Tree Saloon bar. Can you tell us more about that painting?
It is natural, for me anyway, to change and evolve as the world around me changes and I experience life changes personally. I have been going to the Joshua Tree Saloon for some time now, but never really got the inspiration to paint any of it, until I noticed this wonderfully decorated and placed bovine skull above the bar, surrounded by foreign currency, and a couple of canteens. At the time I was doing a series on skulls, so it naturally caught my interest. I suddenly saw a story there: The implication of a skull, being dried up, next to empty canteens, surrounded by the currency of travelers who came there to quench their thirst in the desert. The local watering hole, serving everyone who needs to come in from the oftentimes harsh weather here and replenish themselves.
—Did you actually ever live in a trailer?
Shortly before I moved to the desert, I lived in Shreveport (Bossier City, actually) La., for a few months. I lived in an old trailer-park type, at a hotel who rented them out to transient residents. If you think of the Roger Miller song, “King of the Road”, that would be it – without the stogies! It was awful, and probably was a big motivation for me to take that house-sitting job in Joshua Tree. Since moving to the desert, I have had a few trailers that I used for camping over the years: a small vintage Cardinal which I adored, but my husband thought was too cramped, a cabover camper with ‘all the amenities’ (not a ‘trailer’ per se), and a 1973 21″ Airstream Safari, that got devoured in the recession of the late 2000s, along with my marriage. I was trailer free until the Goblin stole my heart last year.
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