Addressing the Ephemeral: David Babb's Secret Garden

David Babb, Secrets #18 and #24, Digital illustration, 2014

Welcome to Zone 8. Located in the high desert of the California Mojave, the hardiness of the region is defined by the United States' Department of Agriculture, who highlight the zone's harsh geographical climatic conditions. It is categorized by the types of plant life capable of growing and withstanding the temperatures that range from extreme heat to bitter cold.

For gardeners, the landscape brings to mind a scene from the dystopian landscapes depicted in the film "Mad Max" -- a space devoid of life, dry, brown and vacant. That depiction of the arid wasteland environment was, in fact, the initial vision that Idaho-raised artist, and avid gardener, David Babb says he conjured when he moved to the tough desert climate of the Mojave.

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Although daunting to a gardener accustomed to a different climate pattern, the inherent connection between Babb's art and his affinity with nature required him to adapt to the mysterious new environment to practice sustainability in both his landscape and artistic working methods. After joining Antelope Valley College as an Associate Professor of Art in 2002, Babb began crafting an elaborate backyard garden that features the unique flowers and plants which thrive in the Mojave desert. His garden is a site of inspiration, transience, and memory. It creates a living representation of the ebb and flow between humans and the natural world -- a place of experiences and discovery, growth and cyclical death.

Babb's initial fascination with gardening, he says, began during his visits with his grandparents. "My dad's parents had the tallest delphiniums I've ever seen and my granddad hung rocks on the pine trees to sculpt and shape them in their Oregon yard," he states. "My mother's parents' home was in Buhl, Idaho and the rows of dinner plate dahlias they grew caused cars to screech to a halt, as the stories go. I've been obsessed with plants since then. I started seriously cultivating plants in 1997, when I was able to purchase my first house. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was trying to recreate some of the most magical and idyllic memories of my childhood -- my grandparents' gardens."

Garden photograph courtesy of David Babb, 2012
Garden photograph courtesy of David Babb, 2012
Garden photograph courtesy of David Babb, 2012
Garden photograph courtesy of David Babb, 2012

Having received his Masters of Fine Art in painting from the University of Idaho, Babb now employs a variety of media in his practice including painting, photography, video, and installation works inspired from the students he teaches. His recent series of digital works titled "Secrets," features nocturnal photographs of the �owers from his garden compiled into illustrations which reference line, color, beauty, and humanity. "I am unashamedly nostalgic and romantic by nature. I want my artwork to address the ephemeral, the impossible, and the transience of life's myriad experiences," explains Babb.

The "Secrets" series is an exploration of the ambiguity between place/space and memory. Using the changing landscape of nature and place as a metaphor they express how we perceive and project our individual identities, histories, and memories. The works question the roaming nature of our perspectives as we move from childhood into our adult lives to envision the residue between the environment and nurtured development as dependent on our experiences, location, history, recollection, and momentary personal identities.

Crossing between the visual language of portraiture and the landscape, representation and the abstract, Babb's practice overlaps a sense of identity with the interconnected and communal experience of nature, and its re�ective awareness of shared or private moments that inscribe our personal memories and construction of place. The mental constructs and psychological landscapes of childhood are the vehicle for representing experiences of magic, fear, discovery, innocence, imagination and secrets -- buried secrets.

David Babb, Secrets #1 and #2 and #8 and Secrets #11 and #12,  Digital illustrations, 2014
David Babb, Secrets #1 and #2 and #8 and Secrets #11 and #12, Digital illustrations, 2014
David Babb, Secrets #4 and#9 and#21, Digital illustration, 2014
David Babb, Secrets #4 and#9 and#21, Digital illustration, 2014

Although lovingly photographed and lit for vibrant color and shadow at night, the idyllic landscape and the underlying and subversive content is more akin to David Lynch than "the Pastoral." The dichotomy between the archetypal beauty of flower references combined with the night world of the unconscious and subliminal are explorations of the id and the dark underside of memories.

As J.J. Long and Ann Whitehead note in the "W.G. Sebald: A Critical Companion:" "Photography parallels the traumatic experience, for it records that which is not necessarily registered by the consciousness....Although photographs can aid a moment of recollection, this memory will inevitably turn out to be fleeting and will rapidly fade into the surrounding darkness."1 Exploring the wilderness of childhood, and the magic of nature, broadens familial narratives, the works encompass an indefinite space with long shadows, unfamiliar horizon lines and a psychological spin. Nostalgia, and the experiences we sublimate, reinforce the transcendental experience, Romantic era poet William Wordsworth writes in "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."

     Hence in a season of calm weather

          Though inland far we be,

     Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea

          Which brought us hither,

                     Can in a moment travel thither,

     And see the Children sport upon the shore,

     And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.2

David Babb, Secrets #4 and #6, Digital illustration, 2014
David Babb, Secrets #4 and #6, Digital illustration, 2014

Babb's curiosity in the region's desert flora also intersects with early historical wildflower enthusiasts and documentarians such as "A Flower-Watcher's Guide" author and historian Milt Stark, and watercolor artist Jane S. Pinheiro, who came to the Antelope Valley when her husband began working for the aviatrix and Happy Bottom Riding Club owner Florence "Pancho" Barnes.

Pinheiro, a boisterous community activist, painted botanically accurate specimens of the Mojave flora, compiling information that documented where the plants were located, and their seasonal time of bloom. She assisted the Lancaster Woman's Club, and the Wildflower Preservation Committee in raising money to purchase land that eventually became the 1,745-acre California Poppy Reserve, which is considered the most consistent poppy-bearing land in the state, and houses an interpretative center dedicated to Pinheiro. The explosive desert wildflower blooms and other natural sites where visitors can experience the natural beauty and learn about the distinctive species of the desert include Saddleback Butte, the Theodore Payne Foundation, the Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, the Devil's Punchbowl Natural Area, and in the important ecological activism of the region's Antelope Valley Conservancy.

David Babb, Secrets #5 and #7 and #14, and Secrets #2 and #10, Digital illustrations, 2014
David Babb, Secrets #5 and #7 and #14, and Secrets #2 and #10, Digital illustrations, 2014
David Babb, Secrets #3 through #26, and Secrets #5 through #13, Digital illustrations, 2014
David Babb, Secrets #3 through #26, and Secrets #5 through #13, Digital illustrations, 2014

Transitioning from this lush agricultural expanse of Idaho to the desert climate of the Antelope Valley, required him to discover the beauty and natural flora native to the region, and to explore the western Mojave's sense of design, shadows, colors, and lines in the plant life so fundamental to his artistic works. In the spring months of April and May, the desert erupts with blankets of native wildflowers --monolopia, sand verbena, lupines, primrose, sage, monkey flower, filaree, and of course the California poppy. The once sleeping landscape becomes a vibrant field of unexpected color in shades of yellow, purple, red and orange which are documented by photographers and explorers in the Desert USA annual wildflower report. The expansive desert environment has its strengths including the proliferating native species that chose their location in order to thrive outside the existence of the invasive human species.

While the continuing drought conditions in California are requiring extreme actions to conserve our precious water resources, Babb is reflecting on his own environmental footprint. "Thinking about water has made me think about other ways I limit my negative impact on the earth," says Babb. "I do not have any lawn grass, and I have foundation plants that require little water, like agave, California pepper trees, eucalyptus trees and desert willows. I've even rigged up a garden hose to my second story bathtub shower, so all of my gray water goes right into the garden. I choose annual plants for the pollinators, especially the bees. I really like the structure and foliage of my vines and pomegranate trees, so I like to make jelly as gifts."

In many ways, the garden is about understanding sustainability, how we cultivate and destroy our environment as an emblem of beauty, and the sublime destructive characteristics of nature. The garden is ever-changing, it lives a life all its own dependent on the climate, the region, and our personal sense of responsibility towards sustainable ecology. As the seasons come and go, David Babb's secret backyard garden shifts and changes with the passing days, months and years, weathering through snow and drought shifting between place and memory, a narrative where the desert climate of zone 8 is depicted by its own unique and ethereal version of our Earth Mother.

Garden photograph courtesy of David Babb, 2012
Garden photograph courtesy of David Babb, 2012



1J.J. Long and Ann Whitehead, eds., "W.G. Sebald: A Critical Companion" (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 'Introduction,' 14.

2Arthur Quiller-Couch, ed. 1919. "The Oxford Book of English Verse: 1250-1900," (Oxford: Clarendon, 1919, [c1901]; Bartleby.com, 1999.) 'Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,'



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