American Free Journal

Ending on a High Note in the Desert

Less_Traveled_s The Road Less Traveled, Joshua Tree, 14" x 14", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

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As the end of the residency approaches, I'm trying to get in everything I wanted to work on. July was windy and then really hot, but August has been beautiful. Mostly in the 90's during the day and in the 70's at night. Just awesome. I wonder if this bodes badly for September? I've worked on broadening my approaches, trying some new things, exploring new places. I think I have some 70-odd paintings. (I haven't been able to shoot very many of them yet, but will at some point for a future post.)

Some of the best memories: out looking for a spot to paint the full moonlight, I stopped along the road in Lost Horse Valley. As I stood there in the moonlight, I started to notice a shape or two flitting about in the half-darkness: bats. Then I noticed a few more. After my eyes adjusted, although only a handful were ever visible at any given moment, you could sense the hundreds of bats flying all around you, sometimes only a foot away. I don't know if something with the moon brought out more bugs, or that they naturally congregate there, or something else. But it was so quiet, the only sound was of the approaching bats' clicking, echolocating, like the sounds of a few marbles bouncing quickly onto a tile floor.

My easel and umbrellas were quite battered by the winds, and knocked over a few times. One evening, though, in the lower Colorado desert, I set up to work about 20 feet to the side of a large wash. After painting a bit, I heard a noise like a car approaching in the distance. As it grew closer, the sound distinctly became the rushing wind, barreling down the mountains - straight through the wash. From my vantage, I could see the smoketrees and creosote in the wash straining under the onslaught; but the only thing that reached me was a nice cool breeze. As this tended to happen every so often, I grew accustomed to it and congratulated myself for being clever enough to avoid painting in the wash, my original intention. As I heard another gust approaching, I must have reached over to grab a tube of paint, or brush, or something - I don't recall what - but as soon as the wind hit the wash this time, it made a quick turn and blasted into the easel from the one weak spot. Though it was tied down, the easel was still thrown a few feet, and the palette skidded face-down across the sand, leaving streaks of yellow and orange on the desert floor. I decided to call it a day, and laughed while I cleaned everything up. Not much of the paint was salvageable.

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I can't wait to return home now and sort through everything from the residency. Already have many ideas from the sketches and notes.

Update from the High Desert

Breaking camp to find another spot. I've been painting out in the high desert now for just about a month, and thought I'd mention a few things since I've been asked (Yes, mom, I'm wearing sunglasses and plenty of sunblock). Although I've been here numerous times previously to paint and hike, this is the first really extended period of time I've had with the landscape. Being able to plan out ideas and know when certain effects will happen throughout the day.

My schedule has been (modified) to head out very early to paint when it is still cool (in the 60's or 70's), rest or take a nap during the hottest part of the day (no idea exactly, but 100-108, somewhere in there), and return to paint later on when the heat starts to taper off (the high desert is much cooler than the lower desert areas, like Palm Springs, which tends to be around 115 degrees. You can't do anything when it's 115 outside). Knowing when to return indoors is key, as you acclimate easily and don't notice the temperatures rising. I've tested myself a few times, intentionally or not; once painting at the Oasis in 29 Palms at 4:00 p.m., it must have been 110 degrees. I put frozen water bottles in my pockets to stay cool in addition to a hat, sunblock, sunglasses and umbrellas. Also nearly blinded myself - it's very reflective out there - not so fun. The desert is wonderful, but you are made much more conscious of how far you should push yourself working in this environment.

The wind is also another constant factor, so staking and weighing everything down is now part of the normal routine. Easels blow over, sand blows into your paints, tumbleweeds blow into your easel (yep, they do). I once had to stand and just hold onto everything for about 10 minutes until the wind died down. (If you have a rock band and need to shoot photos for your album, the desert is great because you always have that wind.)

One of the local papers out here, the American Free Journal, picked up on the residency. The publisher happened to pass by one evening and they ran a photo of me standing out against the wind in front of Mount San Jacinto one week, and the following week had a short article on the residency and the artists, both of which were nice to see. The local artists, residents and artists-in-residence have all been wonderful to meet and very hospitable.

Glenn Dean painting in Joshua Tree National Park

The Palm Springs Art Museum is a great place to visit in the summer, they blast the air conditioning and have some nice artwork to enjoy. I managed to make it there when a few paintings by members of the Taos Art Colony were on view. Plus, every summer the museum hosts artwork from an anonymous local collector - including Manet, Monet, two Van Goghs you've never seen, one of which he left his thumbprints in when carrying the canvas; plus Matisse and Degas, among others. The cicadas outside are deafening.

Maynard Dixon (18

This little guy likes to eat all of the cacti in the yard. So I give him watermelon rinds and he's pretty pleased.

My apologies to the residents of Pioneertown and the Joshua Tree Highlands if I startled anyone with my easels and umbrellas.