The deserts of Southern California intersect with the urban sprawl of its cities in ways that are both invisible and perceived in sharp relief. A place of seemingly endless horizons seeded with possibilities, the desert has long been a retreat and an important alter ego to Los Angeles’ own tarmac-and-concrete-bounded vistas. “One of the characteristics of the desert that draws folks, especially the creative community, is the wide open expanse,” says Danielle Segura, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT). The organization, which just celebrated 10 years, works to protect the Mojave Desert ecosystem and beyond in California, Segura says, “from the southern border with Mexico to the tip of Death Valley.”
Over the past couple of years, the MDLT, which is headquartered in Joshua Tree, has begun dialogue with other organizations about ways to bring conservation efforts to the attention of artists using the land in creative projects. As those dialogues have expanded, Segura says, the trust has seen an increase in the number of artists and other creative types in the desert, and the prominence of events like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and this year’s inaugural Desert X suggests “a need for this conversation.”
Bernard Leibov, co-founder and co-curator of the Joshua Treenial, has been talking with the trust about possible ways to collaborate for quite some time. Leibov, who also founded BoxoPROJECTS, an arts initiative in Joshua Tree that offers artist residencies, says that in the five years he has been doing residencies on his property, he’s seen a number of artists from other environments, particularly urban ones, “want to do things — start to do things — that just weren’t coherent for the environment here.”
At some point, Leibov says, the MDLT thought of developing a kind of curriculum to provide artists with a context for making art in the desert environment. The resulting project, or curriculum, “Reading the Landscape: A Conscious Artist’s Checklist” is based in the science of desert ecology and data from biological assessments and land and climate change studies says Segura.
“Reading the Landscape” provides artists with a set of guidelines designed to foster respect for desert ecology, and concrete steps for protecting the desert environment. It also includes useful tips for operating safely in the desert. “We really want to make sure that artists and audience can maintain the magic and inspiration that they feel in the desert,” Segura says. “If we can help them [in that] and bring awareness with this list and guideline, that’s our goal.”
In addition to the guidelines, the studies that the MDLT used are available on their site, as well as links to other resources. “For example, to get very practical, if you need a BLM permit, we want to make sure we connect the audiences with [the resources] they need,” Segura says.
The public launch of “Reading the Landscape” was at the 2017 Joshua Treenial, which allowed the MDLT and Leibov to pilot an important aspect of the curriculum. Each exhibiting artist was paired with a MDLT volunteer, in what Segura says was one-on-one mentoring that facilitated sharing with the artists the biological framework and key aspects of the BoxoPROJECTS site where the triennial took place.
Gregory Michael Hernandez, whose installation “Decalogue Chapel” was part of the Joshua Treenial, has been going to the desert to make art for about 10 years. Over that time, he says, he has had plenty of questions but no one to consult. In the months leading up to the Treenial, Leibov introduced him to Leslie Hughes, a MDLT staff member working on “Reading the Landscape.” “It gave me an opportunity to give her some insight as to how I work as an artist,” Hernandez says. A lead mentor on “Reading the Landscape,” Hughes ultimately worked with a number of the artists installing at the Treenial.
Hernandez’s engagement with “Reading the Landscape” has made him thoughtful about the materials artists use to make art in an urban environment. “Instead of thinking that it’s easier not to care because the city can be gritty and dirty,” he suggests, “wouldn’t it be great if this project evolved to where there were a whole bunch of resources for artists?”
Gerald Clarke, an artist and member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians, feels that working in the desert is transformative. “I love the West in general because of these huge skies and [how] you can see the mountains. It affects the ego, I think; it shrinks you down as a human being. You get perspective on how small we really are.”
“The Sacred Melt,” Clarke’s installation in the Treenial, adapted forms found in traditional Cahuilla basketry into a kind of ground sculpture. Above the basketry forms, an 18-inch sphere of ice was held aloft with a tripod of steel poles. “The connection to global warming was readily apparent. It lasted about 20 hours until it melted away,” he recalls. For him, “Reading the Landscape” appropriately contextualizes making art in a fragile environment. “I think the people at the Mojave Desert Land Trust, they are kindred spirits. They live out in the environment, and they recognize, it’s not empty, it’s a living thing, and it needs to be respected,” he says.
When Sonja Schenk met with Leibov to scout the location for her work, Leibov was clear about minimizing the impact. “Part of what he’s trying to do, I believe, with the Treenial is to have an art show that celebrates the place without in any way destroying it,” Schenk says. Schenk’s “Red Shift” was the most remote piece in the Treenial, located away from any lights in order to activate the piece at night. Hughes cleared a path through the landscape that provided access while reducing impact. “We talked about where there were burrows and evidence of animals and keeping people away from certain areas. As an artist, it was just really nice to feel like someone was there watching out for the place,” Schenk says.
According to Segura, several other organizations have approached the MDLT about using the guidelines in their own programs. The trust is currently working with the Coachella Valley Art Center in Indio and Joshua Tree Highlands Arts Residency in Joshua Tree on how to implement “Reading the Landscape.” Segura says she is pleased that they are finding partners in different parts of the desert, especially since their conservation efforts cover 25 million acres, and artists will continue to be drawn to the desert. “This landscape just beckons people to wander,” she says, “and we just want them to wander in a really responsible way.”
Top image: Art installation by Paula Flores during the 2017 Joshua Treenial. | Courtesy of Mojave Desert Land Trust