October in the desert is the time when those long, hot days start giving way to crisper evenings and cooler days, perfect for stepping into the private world's of some of the hundreds of artists who have made this place their home. Started in 2001 by a small group of artists, the Hwy 62 Art Tours has evolved into a major arts happening in Southern California, with over 100 participating artists, in their studios and in group shows, with readings at a Pop-Up Salon (Red Arrow Gallery), performance art (Harrison House) and a locally-based, aerial circus gala event. I had the honor of compiling a CD of Fred Drake's (see House of the Moon) music, for people taking this unguided desert tour, commemorating ten years since his passing.
A pleasant, two-hour drive from the better established arts communities along the coast, this Art Tour extends from Morongo Valley in the west to Wonder Valley in the east, encompassing Yucca Valley, 29 Palms, Landers, Pioneertown and the most famous 'centerpiece' of the Morongo Basin, Joshua Tree. Hwy 62 Art Tours take place the final two weekends in October - the time to see what these local artists have been up to over the past year.
The distance from the acknowledged centers for art in Southern California - as well as the relatively low cost of living in the desert - leaves room for more experimentation and less pretension. There is a very home-made feel to this arts event, organized entirely by volunteers from the local Arts Council.
At the opening reception for the artists, held this past weekend at 29 Palms Art Gallery, a welcome, evening chill is in the air, along with the excitement of the kick-off event, where many interpretations of the vast desert landscape share space on the walls, from Melissa Spurr's sun bursting though monolithic, Stonehenge-like boulders under threatening skies, to Nancy Miehle's desert flora, tastefully scattered in the foreground of distant, snow-covered mountains.
Stained glass artist Leslie Anne Shaw is showing Dragon Viz Roc, an ancient eagle from Greek mythology, which hangs, easily, alongside Mayah Martin's mosaic piece featuring Hindu God, Ganesha. Gods and goddesses, myths and legends, co-exist nicely in this part of the world.
A perfect model for a Greek God, say, Apollo, might be James Oliver, also known as Zircon, from Zircon Wish Aerial Entertainment. James' blonde shock of hair and athletic good looks make him an attractive focal point for this grassroots, theatrical group, which performs it's newest work as the opening night event for this year's Art Tours, showing that this annual event is not simply a collection of landscape paintings.
I'll never forget driving through the dark desert night, down the dirt road one night a year ago. I told my excited 6 year-old boy that I hoped an audience had found it's way there, but I couldn't be certain until we reached the mysterious quonset hut - the Zircon Wish big top - at the end of the road. Inside, it was Fellini meets Children of Paradise at a psychedelic rave.
James financed the building of a permanent big top by selling his home in Sierra Madre, at that moment when the economy made Joshua Tree one of the few places a struggling artist could pull off something so grand.
The pulsing rhythm and bursting splashes of laser light flashed as we found our way to a place on the floor mats, among the capacity crowd. I'd never witnessed a circus from this close up. We were basically at the foot of the stage, looking directly up at the performers, with our jaws dropped. For a tiny fraction of a Cirque du Soleil budget - and admission price - Zircon Wish made the fantastic real for each child, inside - or beside - everyone present.
For James, this desert circus fantasy began around the same time as the Art Tours, turn of the century, in L.A. While working with choreographer Luis Torres and a Spanish, Menudo-style group called Mia Loca, famous for their fan dancing, James attended an event where he was fascinated by the performers' Chinese Pole acrobatics and aerial silk dancing. James contacted a friend who knew a friend of the performers and his life as a circus performer began. His first gig was at Circus Disco, on Santa Monica Boulevard, for an anniversary party where singer Thelma Houston was also on the bill.
A tiny, androgynous man-child named Jose, saw James in rehearsal at Circus Disco and asked if he could climb the silk rope. Jose took to the air with ease and his alter-ego, Wish, was "created, when the fairies bestowed upon the Mayans, the gift..." Soon, the pair were orchestrating a dual routine.
"I choreographed the piece to win his heart," says Zircon, referring to his partner/fiance, Wish.
The theme for this years performance is "Phantasia" and it revolves around a young boy who runs away to join his fantasy world in the circus.
"We wanted to give a glimpse into what an artist's life is really like," says James.
Robby, the son of two gay men, was training to become a circus performer, when his coach began berating him for gaining a minimal amount of weight.
Small for his age, "Robby is 12, but he could easily be 8 or 9 years old. He weighs all of about 50 pounds, so it was absurd to fill his head with ridiculous notions of 'proper weight'. He's just a child."
Robby had left the room and run upstairs, crying. James followed him, promising "you can always be in our circus." Robby started training with Zircon Wish and "Phantasia" will be his debut, performing his own act.
In the final sequence of "Phantasia," Robby is watching Wish perform on the lyra, a giant steel hoop, when Robby is compelled to achieve his own dream, launching into his own performance, with the entire troupe watching. In the end, Robby receives his circus ears and tail, transforming from human to mythological creature.
"We'll do the performance for the Art Tours opening night ceremony, with a dance party afterwards. Then, the following morning, we'll do it again for an audience of kids."
With costumes and set design by Wish and artist Lisa Bruner, who brings her mask-making talent from years of working with the Renaissance Faire, the level of artistry - and homespun charm - is beyond that of Cirque du Soleil. A moving flower garden transforms through the use of LED lights, the result of Lisa seeing the one flower Zircon had constructed and suggesting, "I can do better. Will you trust me?"
Working in the circus requires the kind of trust that we experience as children when we close our eyes and fall backwards into someone else's arms; The trust that is necessary in every aspect of Zircon Wish - even the 'power struggle' of the limited electricity that's available to work with - is part of what makes this circus so magical. To witness these artists achieve their dream, of flying through the air, of catching each other in loving, tender embrace, serves as a beautiful metaphor for the power of this ancient art form, with the most modern of accessories, in this humble outpost, unexpectedly situated, down a dirt road, under a dark, starry sky.
Hwy 62 Art Tours takes place October 20/21 and 27/28.
Top image: Vann Nguyen | Photo: Hwy 62 Art Tours.