Just as Anna had texted me, I saw a gate with the metal smiling face on it, letting me know that I had arrived at Desert Dairy. The fence that separated the house area from the dirt road had bicycle wheels and other metal and wood objects that gave the illusion of flying bicycles in a long parade of woven metal. Between the bicycle fence and the old pink house was a garden area of succulents, stone bordered paths, and lots of mini art installations made of ceramics and rocks and a variety of found objects. It looked like a place I would see in the 70’s, like the school field trip to Watt’s Towers, or the hippies that I liked to visit two houses down even though my mom didn’t want me to.
I parked next to a Prius in an area that looked like a parking area where maybe five or six cars could fit. Along the edge of the fence were a variety of leaning old windows and standing carved and painted long necked dinosaurs. Ted and Anna, the hosts, and owners of Desert Dairy, came out to meet me. Ted, wearing a cowboy hat atop his wild curly hair, was taking the tortoise for a walk around the front garden area, as one does out here, I guess? Anna, with her ponytailed blond hair and bangs peeking out from her hat, came up to me and welcomed me to Desert Dairy. At her feet was Toule the dog, named for Toulouse-Lautrec, the post-impressionist painter. Maybe this was the first test of artists when they arrive, maybe Anna figured only real artists would know who Toule was named after. Hoping that my flowy attire and my knowing Toule’s namesake name were two points in my favor toward earning the title of Artist in Residence. Anna showed my where I would be staying, and said she would give me a 30-minute tour once I got settled.
I went back and forth from my little room to my car to get my luggage, having to make a number of trips and glad I had luggage with wheels and a fold up wagon for the rest of it. Ted apologized for the lack of a path, saying he hadn’t finished it yet. The broken pieces of flat steppingstones that lead from the cars to the house abruptly stopped halfway to my room and the wheels and I had to fight with the gravel and sand the rest of the way. I pretended I was strong and could manage pulling my luggage without any help; I was trying to make a good impression.
Ted answered a phone call on one of my trips back and forth, and by the next trip I saw that Ted had lost the tortoise, and that he and Anna were trying to find it. I froze; what should I do? Do I keep moving my luggage because, well, no one asked me to help look for a tortoise and, besides, I only just met them? Would it be presumptuous of me to just join their tortoise search? If I didn’t help, would I seem like an insensitive animal-hater or that I was judging Ted for not paying attention to his tortoise (because I was, indeed, judging Ted for not paying attention and losing his tortoise. As I was trying to figure out what to do, I realized I was just standing there, staring at them while they looked under bushes and behind logs, and that just standing there staring was probably the worst option of the three. I decided to help them, secretly hoping I would find this tiny tortoise, and become the instant hero of the Desert Dairy and mentioned in gratitude to all artists who came after me.
Spoiler Alert: I was not the one to find the tiny tortoise, Anna did. I returned to unpacking my car and began to unpack in my room. The area that would be my living space for the next couple weeks was attached to the east side of the house, connected by a door that was once in a horse stable, so one could open just the top half of the door, or the middle third of the top half of the door, or a variety of other latched openings. This was definitely the kind of door I would expect to find at an artist residency, especially one that specialized in using found objects. As I looked around me, I saw the whole space used recycled items, some repurposed for uses other than they were originally attended. “Just like I do,” I thought. I hoped that the funky found décor would help me feel comfortable once I unpacked, because everything just felt so foreign to me still.
At 4:00 I was almost done unpacking everything, setting up my toiletries in the tiny bathroom, unloading my food stuff into the dry goods area and the small fridge, when Anna sent me text asking if I was ready for my tour. I walked around to the front of the house and met her by the gate. As we walked around, the winds started to pick up a bit, and my “cool flowy artist clothes” were suddenly no longer practical as I felt like I was wearing a hundred tiny flags being whipped by the wind.
Walking away from the house everything felt so far away and the expanse of the atmosphere around me was even more prominent. The largeness of the space made me feel small, this coupled with my effort to mask my anxiety was beginning to chip away at my self-confidence. Walking from the crumbling mosaiced walls of a building that no longer existed, I looked all around to the distance where the edges of the sky rested upon the peaks of craggy mountains, amazed still at how far I could see and the clarity of it all.
Anna showed me the actual dairy building, and the “white box” room where I would be working. After showing me how the lock worked and code to open it, I promptly forgot both those facts as we walked in. The walls that gave the room its name sat upon the linoleum floor crumbling in spots here and there. A large white folding table was in the center of the room, and there was one misshapen black metal chair with a wooden seat that must have had a cushion at some point. I asked if there was an easel I could use, and Anna said she could bring in the one that Ted uses in the dairy since he’s not using it right now. This white box room felt far from the main house, far from my home, and so much farther from anything I was used to. At the same time, I was so excited to have this art room all to myself, this space that I didn’t have to share with anyone else, and a bedroom that I didn’t have to share with anyone else; every part of my life was shared with others, I had no idea what it was going to be like having time and space all to myself, not having to share myself with anyone else if I didn’t want to.
Anna told me about Michele, the artist who had created the mosaic on the crumbling walls, who comes to the residency every year to create installation art. She was stuck in France during the time when was supposed to come stay here, so she rescheduled and would be coming to Desert Dairy in a couple days and staying in the main house. It’s unusual to have more than one artist staying at a time, but the pandemic threw the “usual” out the window. Anna said Michele was very nice and I could interact with her or be completely on my own while I was there, whatever I wanted. This was how Anna shared everything with me, offering but not obligating. Her voice was calming, sharing information thoroughly but careful not to flood me, even though I was feeling more and more flooded as we toured.
I followed her up a sand dune, my sneakers slipping and sliding as we ascended, my flowy clothes blowing around me, holding my breath low so she wouldn’t hear me huffing and puffing up the dune, still trying to make a good impression. The 360-degree view at the top was worth it, and she suggested coming up here at some point to watch the sunset. Again, I was struck with the expanse of the desert, the differences in the textures of the mountains all around and the variety of their colors as the soon-to-be setting sun shone down up on them at different angles. The mountains to the east started turning salmon pink, and the mountains under the sun were becoming a silhouetted purple.