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Adventures of a Water Sign in the Desert Chapter One

The long drive to the Desert Dairy Artist Residency was fueled by caffeine and anxiety. I had ideas but no true knowledge of what the next two weeks would be; I had never been accepted as an Artist in Residence before and, being only four years into taking my art career seriously, I wasn’t sure I was ready. I only knew that I desperately needed to get away from my life at home, if only for a short time, and that my “job” there would be creating art. I prayed to the universe that I didn’t pack too much and that I didn’t forget to pack anything important. I kept replaying my packing list over and over in my head, reminding myself that I had all my meds, and I hoped I could likely purchase any forgotten items. I wasn’t sure what I would be inspired to create once I was there, in fact, I was afraid that I would not feel any inspiration at all. I am uncomfortable not having the structure of everyday planned out, projects decided and broken down into bullet points and the next “to do” item clearly delegated to a numbered list on my phone. To cover all my bases, I brought three different kinds of air-drying clay, on armature and extra wire in case I make something large, plenty of pens, pencils from hard to soft, and markers of varying thicknesses. I brought almost all the paints I could pack, a variety of brushes and even more palette knives, a few mediums, and gels to add to the paints for texture, and all the strongest glues and adhesives I had. An entire section of my Subaru hatchback was dedicated to wooden painting panels ranging in sizes from tiny 3x4’s to long ones stretching from window to window in the backseat. I brought plenty of empty jars to fill with art utensils or water or tools. I did not bring the one thing that I integrate into almost everything I create, and that’s old found objects; rusted bits of wire or can lids or doll parts, anything that has been discarded and beautifully covered with the patina of age and decay. The Desert Dairy Artist Residency is known for its buried treasures of rusted metal and ceramic or glass shards under layers of sand and gravel that are constantly being exposed by the desert winds, and that was one reason I chose this one for my application. The one rule I made for myself was that everything I created here, I would incorporate what I found here.


The expanse of the landscape played tricks on my eyes as I drove. Unlike how walking past the tall buildings of New York makes a mile seem like a few steps away, driving in the desert, the mountains maintain their far, far distance while you drive and each miles stretches toward forever. The little towns scattered along the highway defied the strip malls and big box stores of my neighborhood, instead peppering the landscape with motels built from another era, small restaurants, thrift stores and plenty of abandoned buildings and homes. Entering the town of Yucca, I drove by the Apache Motel, its angled neon sign not yet lit up in the afternoon sun. Passing a number of trailer park locations in various stages of disrepair, I was knee-deep in a cultural shift, a clear departure from my San Fernando Valley, suburban life. Every block had a thrift shop; one block held temporary space for a carnival, rides of faded red and yellow metal designed to swing riders around or flip them upside down on a zipper. A small roller coaster with caterpillar cars on the track remained frozen mid-hill, and a row of green tents with game signs like Water Blaster or Bottle Toss were lined up in front of the Fun House.


I welcomed the foreignness, the departure from what I knew; this new venture outside my comfort zone into the Artist Residency world I hoped would be enhanced by living in an environment of stark contrast to my daily life. The initial thrill of getting away was slowly being replaced by the fear of maybe I wasn’t ready to be an Artist in Residence; a slow fade from a colorful joy ride to adventure into a grey-toned imposter syndrome-riddled “fish out of water” scene. “Artist in Residence” sounds so important, it sounds like the kind of position that only experienced artists participate, artists who sell a lot of their work, who are known in the community, and who are competent enough to make an impact and create a body of work that can be shared with the local community. An artist who, by my age, is well established, supported by collectors, teaches workshops, has artwork permanently positioned on the walls of museums... that wasn’t me. My career took a different turn after college, and my private life consumed all my creativity for about ten years. I wasn’t sure if I could still be considered an “emerging artist,” so I called myself a “re-emerging artist,” older than many others in the art community at this stage. My internalized ageism kept my self-confidence at bay, telling me I am not far enough along in my art career, not a good artist, and too old.


I passed through the town of Joshua Tree, with its namesake foliage dotting the landscape and its mile-long main street of hipsters among the Joshua Tree Saloon, various gift shops and health-conscious eateries. Finally, I arrived in Twentynine Palms, passing the one grocery store, a Stater Brothers, and turned the corner at the military barber shop right after the Fosters Freeze. I’ve never been to a Stater Brothers; I’ve only seen their commercials on TV, and I thought they were only in the Midwest. I also don’t think I’ve been in a Foster’s Freeze, but I knew they were my mom’s favorite ice cream when she was a kid, so I may have to give it a visit.


I passed a large hand-painted sign that said, “Concerned Parents Group Meeting, Luckie Park/Patriotic Hall, Feb. 18/6 p.m.” I wonder what these parents are concerned about. Are they all concerned about the same thing? Is it a free-for-all venting session of everything these parents are concerned about? I was driving on a long straight road, passing only a couple streets, one with a small boat on wheels with a hitch (where are there any bodies of water around here) next to a small, dilapidated rowboat with only a hint of white paint along the wood seams. I saw a black sign on the left with red trim and a white cow painted on it, with the address of my destination painted on the cow so turned my Subaru onto the little dirt road, glad I had all-wheel drive.


I was almost there, almost to the residency, and all the butterflies that were taking a nap in my stomach now crashed into one another in frenzy of anxiety in my body. I hoped my attire of loose flowy pants, vintage tank top and long blue cardigan shouted “Artist,” but not in a way that looked like I was trying too hard.


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