Today's Desert Artists
Art in the Desert
For a thousand generations, humankind’s artists and musicians have given expression to the vision, spirituality, history and worldview of their peoples. We see the evidence on the walls of caves in Spain and southern France, where nomadic Paleolithic hunters painted stunning images of Ice Age animals, their quarry, perhaps 40,000 years ago. We see the evidence on the rocky surfaces of stone alcoves, cliff faces and boulders throughout our deserts, where Paleo and Archaic hunter and gatherers, Puebloan agriculturists and the raiding tribes painted or chiseled a galaxy of images at thousands of sites, with some of the oldest possibly dating more than 10,000 years B.C. Since those early images were likely part of the ritual and magic of the peoples, we can imagine the primal chants and rhythms that may have surrounded the sites during ceremonial events.
Today, traditions of art and music have continued in the plazas, cafes, mission churches, galleries, museums, streets and countrysides across the Southwest; artists have continued and expanded their ancient media, bringing new insights into the hearts and souls of the peoples of our rich cultural heritage.
Three who have continued to answer this universal and timeless call to human creativity, each in his own way, are Roy Purcell, Albert Szukalski and James Westborn Blair.
In 1966 Roy Purcell created the remarkable work called “The Journey,” 2,000 square feet of murals on granite cliff faces in the Cerbat Mountains near Chloride, Arizona. An art student who worked part time as a miner, Purcell painted during his off hours. He worked in the abstract Modernism tradition, rendering a rich mixture of cultural motifs and symbolism on that most ancient of media, a rock surface. You have to wonder what his fellow hard-rock miners must have thought about this strange young man with a brush. Purcell used pigments that remain vibrant and alive to this day, and he helped make Chloride something of an artists’ colony now that the mining industry has dwindled. Click here for a video on Chloride and the Journey.
Purcell capitalized on “The Journey” to help launch his professional career. He has since produced images that are now a part of collections of major international corporations such as Standard Oil Company (AMOCO), Dow Chemical and The Royal Bank of Canada.
In 2001, he published Portraits of Nature, a collection of watercolors of the wildlife and plants of the Mojave Desert, which extends from southeastern California into southern Nevada and northern Arizona. He enlisted six desert specialists to ensure the accuracy of his work and to write captions for the illustrations. It is his vision of the Mojave.
As Purcell told students in a session at a local school, according to the View Neighborhood Newspapers website, “I’ve always loved nature, ever since I was a little kid. Then in 1992, we had a lot of rain, and all the flowers out in the desert bloomed. I went out to photograph the flowers and I got help identifying them. Then I started to paint them. That’s when I started the book. Then I did animals, insects and reptiles. I did 500 paintings in all, but only 300 made it into the book.”
Chloride lies in northwestern Arizona about 15 miles north northwest of Kingman, and even though “The Journey” is located a mile and a half up a very rough dirt road into the edge of the Cerbat Mountains, it is well worth the drive. Watch a video on Chioride and the "The Journey".
During a visit to Death Valley for one year’s spectacular wildflower season, I drove through the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada, where I discovered a startling, unearthly and discordant sight. It appeared to be a series of life-sized figures draped in long white robes. They looked like ghosts from the ruins of the nearby town. I would learn that it was, in fact, a plaster sculpture, “The Last Supper,” the work of the late Albert Szukalski, one of several Belgian artists who created what they called an “art situation” in this isolated region of the Mojave Desert.
Szukalski came to the Nevada desert in 1984 to create “The Last Supper.” He intended for it to last for only a couple of years. Instead, it endures to this day. In fact, it has inspired the founding of the Goldwell Open Air Museum, now the location of several other artists’ work.
Szukalski chose the Mojave Desert in part because of its physical resemblance to the Middle Eastern deserts. His vision was to blend Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco with the American Southwest to create a new paradigm that would unify the old world with the new. The location of “The Last Supper,” so close to Death Valley, holds its own symbolism. It echoes timeless themes of loss, death and redemption. Szukalski subsequently created two other pieces here, “Ghost Rider” in 1984 and “Desert Flower” in 1989.
You will find that a tour of the Goldwell Open Air Museum is an enigmatic, but profound experience. In addition to Szukalski’s sculptures, you will discover a 25-foot-high work of pink cinder block, a 24-foot-high steel prospector with a penguin, a jumble of shining chrome car parts, and a powerfully carved figure of a winged feminine Icarus. There is little in the way of pamphlets, brochures or explanatory plaques. You simply have to react to the sculptures on their own terms. Watch a video about the Goldwell Open Air Museum.
The Goldwell Open Air Museum, located near the ghost town of Rhyolite, is located four miles west of Beatty, Nevada, off State Highway 374, the road that leads to Death Valley, California. Admission is free. It is always open, day or night. You will discover seven outdoor sculptures. An on-site visitor center with exhibits and a gift shop is open most weekends from September through May. The museum is supported by donations, which are tax deductible. For more information click here.
James Westborn Blair
Well-known Christian singer and composer James Westborn Blair became so fascinated by the story of a man named “Seldom Seen Slim” that he wrote a song about him.
Seldom Seen Slim, a silver miner whose real name was Charles Ferge, lived on the California side of Death Valley in the late 1800’s, occasionally near Ballarat, now a ghost town. He lies buried there today in the community’s Boot Hill, the 28th grave in the old cemetery.
According to his obituary, published in the Los Angeles Times, August 18, 1968, “Slim, known as ‘the last of the one-blanket and burro prospectors,’ somehow scrabbled a living out of the sun-scorched, iron-hard hills around Ballarat, long after its gold strike petered out and it became a ghost town in 1917. He never struck it rich, but he did manage to acquire an old Volkswagen and a beat-up house trailer, which was good enough to live in after time took its toll on the abandoned adobe buildings of Ballarat.” Although he lived in an isolated area, Slim would say, “Me lonely? Hell no! I’m half coyote and half wild burro.” Those words would become the epitaph on his tombstone. His funeral was broadcast on television around the country, as he was the last of a breed known as Rainbow Seekersprospectors who spent their lives in the Mojave Desert near Death Valley.
Blair recorded his song about Seldom Seen Slim in mp3 format. Click here to hear it and add it to your collection of music. Blair is part of the Sons of Light Music Ministry and Cowboys and Shepherds, two non-profit Christian outreach groups. They play virtually everywhere for free, bringing quality original religious music at any venue to which they are invited.
While they have marched to their own artistic drummers, Roy Purcell, Albert Szukalski and James Westborn Blair have nevertheless all drawn on ancient traditions and the desert landscape as common threads of inspiration in shaping their work. We are all the richer for it.
Also See Rhythm of Life and Atlatl Land Art in Yucca Valley, Ca.
By Jim Bremner
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