Art and Palm Springs go together like the chemical reaction of alcohol ink spread out on a canvas. It’s a strange cornucopia of harsh geography, colorful history, and strange transplants that have transformed this stretch of desert into a playground for artists of every ilk.
On the surface, Palm Springs is known as a desert oasis, fashionable resort town, and global mecca for innovative modern architecture. The first settlers came here and built adobe huts to live in. These eventually grew to include resorts with high ceilings, swimming pools and tennis courts. Gradually a synergism grew between the arid setting of the desert and the dwellings within it.
Among the founders of Desert Modernism were Bauhaus-influenced architects Albert Frey and E. Stewart Williams, whose legacies can still be seen in numerous public and private structures around town. Yet beneath that façade of blue skies and bright white modern buildings is an environment bubbling over with creative endeavors from all the arts.
From the outrageously expensive art pieces on El Paseo Drive in Palm Desert to the rudimentary scratch pieces at the East Jesus outdoor gallery in Slab City, artistic endeavors have taken on every imaginable form and fashion, shape and design, subtle and in your face expressions of thought and ideas. Over time, Palm Springs and its surrounding communities have carved out their own hotbeds of artistic expression.
The Backstreet Art district is located several miles from downtown Palm Springs in an old strip shopping mall. There are dozens of artist-owned galleries and working studios, which feature paintings, sculpture, photography, jewelry, ceramics, as well as performing arts.
A much larger area for artists is located at the Palm Springs Art Museum and north of downtown in the Art and Design District. At one time this area was a barren stretch of boarded up storefronts and half empty motels that offered none of the glamor and cache of old or new Palm Springs. Over time that changed and now the Uptown Art and Design District is a true enclave of galleries, design shops, restaurants, and housing for the creative minded types.
The Ultimate in artistic regeneration and commercial display is located down the valley in Palm Desert. El Paseo Drive is a mile long commercial strip that is generations and millions of dollars from the mud huts of early painters deep in the desert. It is meant to embody the style and elegance of high society in the desert. This art-strung boulevard houses over 250 retailers, professional services, renowned restaurants and locally owned boutiques. It is the ultimate avenue for anything and everything you never knew you needed or wanted.
Desert art has come a long ways from those first ancient petroglyphs through ‘en plein air’ to the rich tapestry of creative talent that resides here now. There are a plethora of art shows, film festivals, world-class gallery and museum events, rotating exhibitions, national touring and locally produced theater, classical to contemporary music concerts, couture fashion shows and architecture and design tours. The Southwest Arts Festival is just one of a dozen or more art festivals throughout ‘the season.’
South of Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley lies a cluster of primeval ancient relics of art that confuse, shock and amuse the errant wanderer who happens upon their grounds. I discovered that several years ago when I stumbled upon several enclaves of mystery just south of the Salton Sea. It was a ‘Mad Max’ holiday replete with mummies at East Jesus, flying dune buggies, a conflagration in Slab City and a death stare at Bombay Beach.
The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake measuring more than 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in spots. It has a surface area of over 380 square miles and sits at 332 feet below sea level. Today the salinity level of the sea stands at 45 ppt. Only the tilapia fish is able to survive in such waters. While fishing is still good for the tilapia, fish kills continue to plague the area with their harsh smells.
It will take years, perhaps decades before the sea might possibly return to its past glory. More feasibility studies will be made, more funding sought and grand schemes hatched. The possibilities for commerce, recreation and development are enormous. Until then the Salton Sea is a magical place for walk the shoreline, observe the birds, and time your visit to avoid the smell of dead fish littering the beaches.
Down the dusty road from the Salton Sea is Salvation Mountain. This strange collection of painted hills is one of the premiere examples of folk art in the middle of nowhere America. The site has become a mecca for those influenced by and intrigued with this kaleidoscope of painted hills, crude cave dwellings and religious scripture. The cave’s paint can and hay bale construction would challenge even the most daring of spelunkers. Who knew that such a place would continue to draw visitors long after its creator had passed away?
The artwork is made from adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of lead-free paint. It was created by the late Leonard Knight (1931-2014). A deeply religious man, Knight created an art piece that encompasses numerous murals and areas painted with Christian sayings and Bible verses. Knight’s philosophy was built around the ‘Sinners Prayer.’
Slab City, otherwise known as ‘The Slabs’ is a snowbird campsite used by recreational vehicle owners alongside squatters from across North America. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from an abandoned World War II Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.
It’s estimated that there are about one and fifty permanent residents (squatters) who live in the slabs year around. Some live on government checks, others just want to live ‘off the grid’ and a few come to stretch out their retirement income. The camp has no electricity, no running water, no sewers or toilets and no trash pickup service. Sounds like a dry run for the apocalypse.
Despite the free shoe tree on the way into town and the free library, most of the residents have sectioned off their trailers, tents, and sleeping bags with tires, pallets, or barbwire. Free is free unless it comes to their piece of the desert then even squatters want their personal space recognized.
No trip to Slab City would be complete with a swing by East Jesus. East Jesus has been described as an experimental, sustainable art installation. East Jesus is a colloquialism for the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services. Made from discarded material that has been reused, recycled or repurposed, East Jesus encourages visitors to imagine a world without waste in which every action is an opportunity for self-expression.
West Satan is a simply a suburb of East Jesus. I found the art gallery there fascinating and mind-expanding. It was tripping out without the acid and a glimpse into the lives of those who don’t want to be a part of ‘any scene’ here in fantasyland or the rest of the world.
I’ve always been intrigued by a dark cluster of trailer homes strewn alongside the Salton Sea half way to Slab City. ‘Bombay Beach, North Shore’ always seemed like the perfect title for a play. With apologies to Slab City, Bombay Beach isn’t much of an alternative. Its housing seems beaten down by the harsh summers and its distance from civilization. I drove down its main street and intended to stop to ask directions until I looked into the dead eyes of one young woman shuffling down the gravel roadway. One stare was enough for me to gun the engine and ‘get out of Dodge'.
Some artists choose to express themselves and show their wares in galleries in the valley or in remote spots like Slab City. Others are off radar and like it that way. Whispers come from the mountains surrounding the Salton Sea as do siren calls from the high desert.
The high desert communities of the Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, and Joshua tree continue to attract musicians now as it has since the turn of the century. This is another world of vast nothingness peppered with the sad remnants of past lives. It’s a place where stillness thunders louder than the wind and God did some of his finest paintings. It is a vast virtual sound studio for the creative musician and blank canvas for artists of every discipline.
The area is a mecca for aging rock stars and modern-day bohemians along with ordinary people all in search of a new beginning. It’s the place where people go to get lost and be creative.
Joshua tree and these surrounding communities embrace another form of existence - all of which is surrounded by endless horizons.
The high desert of the Morongo Basin is like a modern day outback of more than 9.5 million acres of public land in the California desert. Its home to old walking trails first used by Native Americans between seasonal encampments then followed by Spanish explorers and finally 19th century gold seekers and pioneers. Reminders of past human lives are everywhere.
Facing the Morongo Basin across the valley floor is a little mountaintop community called Idyllwild. On the surface it seems little different from the dozens of other villages that lay scattered about the San Jacinto’s, San Bernardino’s or Santa Rosa Mountains nearby.
There is the usual façade of cute craft shops and art stores. Three-two taverns and mom and pop restaurants lay hidden among the pines. Bait stores and gas stations line the mountain lakes. But in Idyllwild something is different from the norm. Behind the scenes live the hundreds of real artists who make up the character of Idyllwild. It isn’t Greenwich Village or North Beach or the Uptown Design District but it still has a unique character all of its own.
Idyllwild’s artistic history goes back to the early 1940’s when the first artists came and stayed to live and hone their craft. About that time Idyllwild became home to a summer camp offering education in all forms of art and music. Over time other artists arrived in the hamlet with their paints and sketch pads and well-worn guitars. They carved a living out of the pine and granite and overwhelming beauty of the place.
Complementing the visual arts, other disciplines began to hone their craft and grow their own businesses there. Film makers, theatrical entrepreneurs, actors and musicians all added to that cauldron of creativity. Like some spontaneous combustion of talent and mindset, Idyllwild became a mecca for those seeking the solitude of the forest and the comradery of like-minded souls.
“Art is a language that everyone speaks in one form or another.” So says Cat Orlando, just one of a number of artists who have opened galleries or their own exhibits recently in Idyllwild. Together they present a kaleidoscope of form and function, color and texture, whimsical and serious, composition and symbolism. There are works of art in acrylics, oils, stained glass, pottery, metal works, alcohol ink, pencil drawings, photographs, 3-D and dottilism objects…to name a few.
With over eighteen different arts organizations, Idyllwild hosts a number of festivals each year that focus on the arts and nature. Complementing the visual arts scene is a plethora of live music and theater events. Film festival fanatics find a perfect venue in the January Idyllwild Inter-national Film Festival with between 175 and 180 films playing at different venues throughout the community.
Yet as much as time changes the flavor of art, Sharon and I still get to immerse ourselves in the daily show all around us. Each morning, sunlight still dances off the mountainsides, and then casts imaginative shadows over our lives.
It’s like a new show that takes place every day and we get to be in the audience and live it along with that celestial talent from above.