When I pulled into Tecopa Hot Springs on January 11, my car was completely filled with bubble-wrapped prints and paintings for my first solo art show. A curated selection of photographs that spanned over ten years and oil paintings I had labored over since 2016, were neatly stacked in rows along with my camera gear and suitcases. Cowboy boots. Coffee. Oh, and lots and lots of water.
I drive a really big car.
While heading up Highway 127 from Baker to Tecopa, California, I watched the sun light up the sky in gold and orange as it set over the mountains to the west . I thought about all of the times I’d seen the sun set over the mountains in the desert, in Death Valley and its surrounding neighborhood. In fact, the first time I went to Death Valley alone, I drove up that same highway late in the afternoon, watching the sun lowering in the sky, scared to death because it was 2006, there was no cell service and I was alone for the first time in my life on a major road trip. I wanted to try to paint Death Valley.
I remember thinking to myself at the time, “What the hell are you doing? And why do you think you can paint Death Valley? People don’t paint Death Valley. They take photographs of it, they don’t paint it.” But I wanted to try. I’ve been trying for seventeen years, along with taking thousands and thousands of photographs of it. At a certain point I assumed this would end.
As I drove along Highway 127 nearly two weeks ago, the thought in my mind was that it was the end of a Big Journey. Not just the end of driving for five hours from Calabasas to Tecopa. I was there to hang a solo show that I figured was the culmination of seventeen years of working in the Death Valley area. It was The End. I’m done, finished, time to move on to something new. I’d been given an opportunity to show people what I’d worked on all of those years. Not simply putting it on the Internet on my blog, or on social media, but showing it in real life, which is always better than looking at it on a screen.
I’d spent an enormous amount of time driving and driving, and walking around alone, looking, feeling, searching for what I knew was the soul of this place that is Death Valley, it’s history, it’s nature, it’s being. I’ve felt it all of these years, and what I really wanted to do was to put that feeling into photographs and paintings, so that other people could have that same experience through me.
I never once wanted to make glossy, romantic and perfect pictures. That isn’t my thing. What I set out to do when I first went to Death Valley was to try to paint that landscape. The colors and shapes of the land, and the emotional reaction that I had to it. It’s a place that isn’t just a National Park, or a desert. It’s a being. It’s alive and has a spirit you can feel if you take the time to be completely alone in it, listening to the way the wind sounds blowing through canyons and creosote. Sometimes in order to capture what I’m after, my work has ended up being a little heavy, dark or tweaked. But I like it like that. It’s a part of me.
One of the benefits of hanging around a place for a long time is the people you meet and become friends with. For me, one of those people is Amy Noel, who owns Tecopa Hot Springs Resort. It’s the place where I stay when I go to the desert to work, unless I decide to lodge down in Furnace Creek when I want to work in the park itself.
Amy is also an artist. She spent many years working at the Getty Museum before choosing to move to Tecopa to run a resort and form the Tecopa Artist Group Gallery. Amy has a knack for finding artists who have something to say, and is a brilliant curator. She gives these artists opportunities to show their work to the locals as well as tourists and guests. Amy immediately understood what it was that I have been trying to do all of these years, has been one of my biggest supporters, and has included my work in several group shows. She asked me in 2021 if I would like to have my own show. I said yes.
On Saturday, January 14, we had the reception for my show. A storm (after several previous atmospheric rivers) had moved into California and decided to start raining right when the reception began, but that didn’t deter a lot of people from coming. At one point the gallery was full of people who went out of their way to come and see my work. There really are no words to describe how it felt for me to stand back and see the end result of years of my labor and quirkiness hanging on those walls. It made me realize that I had actually done what I set out to do all of those years ago. Seventeen years later.
What meant the most to me, though, was the overall reaction from the viewers. They said, “You understand our desert.”
It was then that I realized it is not the End of my journey. It’s merely – the Beginning.