In the Southeast, everything seems to live and grow because of an abundance of water. The Appalachian Trail, the coastal waters, and the lush hiking trails in Georgia offer unique and awe-inspiring experiences. Yet, I feel the desert has a lot to offer young art students, not only for its austere beauty, but also for what it lacks. For me, sitting in a desert landscape allows my mind to wander to places unknown. Only if I stay put for a while do I awaken to the life that exists in this harsh place. The lack of sound, except for the occasional wind, bird, or squirrel, heightens the experience and I become more aware of, and focused on, my surroundings. I wanted my students, art majors in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design at Georgia State University to experience this, and more.
On May 11, 2015, I drove nine undergraduate students into Joshua Tree National Park for the first time. They ranged in ages from 19-25. Only two had been in the desert and their experiences were minimal. My plan for the class was two-fold: immerse them in a three-week field study of Joshua Tree National Park, where they would produce a body of work, and expose them to artists and other individuals who live in the area. The goal was for students to improve their artistic and conceptual skills, while also learning about the history and culture of the land and its people. Among the highlights were visits to A-Z West, The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum, and Sky’s the Limit Observatory. We also met with local artists Kim Stringfellow, Sant Khalsa, Frederick Fulmer, Bobby Furst, and Steve Rieman. The artists, while diverse in their artistic practices, were selected because they all had strong connections to the place they lived, and their work was informed by their knowledge of the environmental, social, or cultural issues of the Southwest.
For the first two weeks the students and I worked at The Ranch, one of the properties offered to artists every summer as part of the Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency Program. The final week the students had a popup show at Wilson’s Ranch House in Joshua Tree, CA.
It can be difficult for an established artist, much less a student, to come away with strong work after only three weeks. I was concerned they might play it safe, work with materials they already knew, or work in a style they had already mastered. Therefore, we talked about keeping an open mind and responding to their experiences. A lot of work was produced; a lot of work was discarded.
- • Alexis Huckaby and Shae Edmon, seemingly influenced by Bobby Furst’s work, were interested in a feminist critique of Western landscape art and popular culture.
- • Joshua Sun Yu used the highway as a metaphor for class and upward mobility. His four-channel video contained deadpan views of ordinary street corners, highways, and bus stops shelters. Cars passed along the highway and a van was stuck in the sand on the side of the road. All the while pedestrians walked along the sidewalk or waited for a bus.
- • Sara Endrias used the required reading, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” by William Cronon, as a springboard for her work. An artist with strong religious beliefs, Endrias’ installation includes landscape photographs hanging above a table covered with personal religious cards and her journal entries.
- • Sarah Bryan’s three-panel wall sculpture, Home is Where Nothing Is, was inspired by a fieldtrip led by Kim Stringfellow to abandoned ‘jackrabbit’ houses in Wonder Valley. Bryan wrapped twine around nails to reference the roads in Wonder Valley, and placed three anonymous portraits of a man, a woman, and a child (purchased at a local thrift shop) in each of the panels to denote a family.
- • Danielle Miller’s approach was to make handmade paper out of plant life, trash, and miscellaneous materials found on the ground.
- • Michael White juxtaposed landscape photographs with close-up details of objects found or seen at each location.
- • Although we traveled to different sites in the park as a group, more often than not, Poe Grimlock spent the time alone, away from others, in search of a private location for meditation and artistic inspiration. Primarily she drew mandala-like abstractions that she would later paint and glue sand on.
- • Zoë Cato made detailed sketches in the desert that she later collaged onto 4” x 4” blocks of wood. Passages from daily writing exercises, as well as miscellaneous found objects, were often included on the blocks.
I am proud of my student’s artistic accomplishments. However, what they gained from the Field School was more than the opportunity to make a few pieces of artwork. First, the group formed a tight bond, helping each other out when there were artistic, personal or financial challenges. Second, spending time with local artists inspired them in ways that will continue beyond this one class. Third, working in a place where nature rides right up to your doorstep made for lasting impressions at the studio. We worked around an abundance of jackrabbits, birds, and lizards, along with one very large gopher snake who made its home under the foundation. Finally, we all take away fond memories from our trips into the park. It is magical to see coyotes with pups at Barker Dam, to find a grinding stone used by Native Americans long ago, and to climb to the top of the rocks at Hidden Valley and watch the sunset.
Field Studies classes are highly supported at Georgia State University. With some tweaks to the curriculum, I will return with a new group in 2016.
Nancy Floyd has been an exhibiting artist for over thirty years. She holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and lives in Atlanta where she serves as Professor of Photography in the Ernest G. Welch School of Art & Design, Georgia State University.