Lancaster, Palmdale, and Apple Valley aren't widely known as an art haven or a creative mecca. But the high desert can often be a catalyst for artists and creative types, fueling inspiration for their most innovative work.
The magic of the high desert is elusive. Perhaps, the dry, flat land of this area draws power inward, harnessing energy, and the desolation channels introspection and reflection. Alone, we create. The minimalism of the desert can frame ordinary objects in an extraordinary way. Perhaps even wayward trash and forgotten refuse can be beautiful, if only it had the right context. The desert itself becomes a canvas; an outdoor gallery of abandoned objects, assemblages created through decay and time.
Karyl Newman and Larissa Nickel -- who together form the arts collaborative "Hinterculture" -- are the creators of Desert Engagement: Hinder Swill Achieving Recycled Trash" (DEHSART). The two female artists created DEHSART as a way to not only help clean up the Antelope Valley, but also to inspire others to explore and enjoy their unique and inspiring landscape. Newman and Nickel formed their collaboration, Hinterculture, to reveal the outlying history, art, technology, and business of the high desert by mining sites for social, cultural and aesthetic purposes. "There is a lot of really wonderful stuff in the desert, and a lot of people just don't know about it," says Newman.
Throughout the desert, DEHSART creates artwork that is made of trash -- waste that has been discarded by illegal dumpers and abandoned onto the barren landscape. The semi-permanent, recycled sculptures they've created have remained there over time. Many high desert sculptures, like theirs, were created on a whim by anonymous artists and have continued to live on. People enjoy stumbling upon these art monuments -- something about them seems magical and nostalgic.
Aside from their artistic value, the monuments double as statement of activism, educating the public about the problem of illegal trash dumping in the Antelope Valley desert region.
"This is the result of the creative community dealing with this issue," Nickel says. "It's important to think about this stuff not as a waste, but as a resource. Our mission for DEHSART is to use art as a catalyst for prevention, awareness and engagement to cultivate social connections, collective action, and civic empowerment about a problematic issue of trash in the greater Antelope Valley."
Illegal dumping is an issue throughout the high deserts of Palmdale, Apple Valley, Antelope Valley, Lancaster, Joshua Tree, Landers, Victor Valley, Twentynine Palms, and the Morongo Basin. In movies and photographs, the area looks desolate and empty -- not a place full of waste. That may be true in some parts, but in many sections of the high desert, people have abused the emptiness of the land and dumped garbage, unwanted waste, dead animals, used car parts, and unwanted clothes onto the ground. The film "Erin Brockovich" (2000) centered around this same issue, which culminated with the Pacific Gas and Electric environmental disaster in the town of Hinkley, west of Barstow. Hinkley is in the high desert, and its environmental issues were and still are real. The results of illegal dumping can be detrimental to the residents of these communities, and some kinds of illegal dumping can lead to health problems for many.
Because the high desert is a vast and wide area, it cannot be policed for illegal dumping as frequently as it may be desired; but Nickel and Newman don't think their communities have to settle for that. Recently, the two were awarded a Task Force Grant, which helps them fund their community projects. In its third year, the Task Force Grant has helped fund many similar initiatives to stop illegal dumping the Antelope Valley and other high desert areas. The Antelope Valley Illegal Dumping Task Force Group was also created in light of these problems; it acts as a forum for people to talk to the government, offers resources for community members, and helps fund education about and prevention of illegal dumping. "We would create awareness engagement through social media and mapping sites, using the monuments we build onsite with materials we find, and incorporate video into the work as helpful public service announcements," says Nickel.
After receiving the Task Force Grant in March, the DEHSART project was able to build momentum. Alongside DEHSART, Museum of Art and History (MOAH) in Lancaster helped the cause with a project called "Wasteland: Turning Illegally Dumped Waste into Art," and all teams were working toward a similar goal of art education and enrichment in the high desert areas. Nickel and Newman were inspired by the collaborations that MOAH held with local high schools, and aimed to participate in any capacity needed. MOAH and DEHSART both received the Task Force Grant, and have engaged the communities in the high desert, with regards to community collaboration and participation in the Wasteland projects. Though the projects have common goals, the implementation of the different projects are independent from one another. The DEHSART team also helped film public service announcements for the Antelope Valley Illegal Dumping Task Force about illegal dumping and how the public can get involved.
DEHSART has continued to create artistic monuments throughout the Antelope Valley region, building these sculptures with the discarded trash or waste found at each site. These creations give new purpose and life to the forgotten objects left here. DEHSART has also created maps to their sculptural monuments so that people can visit the sites and participate in their creation.
Nickel and Newman are reaching out to other artists who are looking to get involved in this kind of project. Jennifer from JCPenney®, a local artist and photographer, is currently in talks to collaborate with DEHSART on explorative projects to engage the community. "We started the project in research, then to design and figure out the valley as a whole -- thoroughly bringing awareness in this issue, educating ourselves as well as the community," says Nickel.
At the end of this summer, DEHSART will be featured in an episode of "Curiosity Quest". "Palmdale and Lancaster had the team from 'Curiosity Quest' do an episode on illegal dumping," says Nickel. "We accompanied them on the shoot day. [The show] gave a good research base to understand more of the problem, and getting people talking about it."
"All of these partnerships give DEHSART multiple audiences: from local government and civic organizations, to educators, to artists, the public, and even illegal dumpers who will come across our site-specific monuments," they said. "The multiple layers of this project continue to deepen as more people become involved and contribute their ideas or experiences with illegal dumping. So the journey is a little unknown, and that ambiguity is both a risk and a reward."
This grassroots organization and the collaborative powers of its two creators are only just beginning, but the public response has already been strong. Locals have been passionately moved by the generous and genuine efforts of the artists involved. It seems inevitable that DEHSART's creative force will only grow as it further benefits the residents and communities of the high desert.
DEHSART doesn't conspire to punish those that dump waste; their main goal is to force people to look at the root of illegal dumping and inspire them to reimagine their landscape into something beautiful.
"We understand that we can't eradicate the problem completely," says Nickel and Newman. "We want to get people thinking differently about waste -- hopefully in a more artistic sense, where cultural waste is reconsidered as a resource. We intend to inspire people that anyone in the community can use their abilities to create art or engage in an environmental cause -- by innovative action and by working together to enact some type of change."
For more on DEHSART, visit their website.