November 19, 2014

Highway 62 Art Tours

Written by  Esther J. Lee
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Visitors in Perry Hoffman's Tile House Visitors in Perry Hoffman's Tile House Photo by Esther J. Lee

It is well known that the desert attracts artists and creative types, and that there is an ever growing arts community in the High Desert of California. This region includes Joshua Tree, Morongo Basin, 29 Palms, and Yucca Valley. The primary access to the arts community is through its art events, but the Hwy 62 open studio Art Tours is different. Two weekends long, the Tours gives visitors a unique opportunity to meet artists in their respective studios and/or homes. What began in 2001 with just 24 participating artists has since grown to 140 artists and 95 studios (some artists share a space). This year the event took place during the nice and cool fall season, on October 25-26 and November 1-2. I went on the first weekend with my parents, who are art lovers, and left with a strong impression of the scale and identity of the High Desert arts community and culture, one that is nurtured and defined by the environment.

 Our first stop on the tour was Gallery 62, a new cooperative space that showcases local High Desert artists. Here we picked up a catalog, which listed each artist with a thumbnail image of their work and a number locating them on the map. Due to the number of participating artists, it was difficult to decide who to visit, but upon a recommendation we set off for Noah Purifoy. A well respected artist, Purifoy spent the last fifteen years of his life living and working in Joshua Tree. His home and art space is now maintained by a foundation. The site, ten acres large, is filled with sculptural and architectural work made from found objects and discarded domestic and industrial materials. It is not uncommon to find variations of debris assemblage in the desert, but Purifoy’s work comes from an extensive practice and vision.

We then shot out east to Wonder Valley and 29 Palms in order to start our trek from the farthest studios back westward, but this proved to be somewhat of a challenge. The studios in the area were more sprawled out and easily overshot, but we did manage to find a few. One of these was Perry Hoffman’s Tile House, a part time studio/home and vibrant mosaic retreat that the artist crafted and infused with his own art and personal style. Back in Joshua Tree, where there is a dense cluster of studios, we visited painters Jenny Kane, Susan Abbott, Karine Swenson, and James Okeefe. Kane and Abbott, both watercolorists, celebrate the landscape, flora, and fauna in their work, while Swenson, who works primarily in oil, does both abstract and representational work- the latter of which captures the spirit of her desert animal subjects. Okeefe creates abstract design flatwork with dots, a style he references to Australian Aboriginal art, while Eames Demetrios uses an abandoned home as a vehicle to present a parallel language and narrative. Each artist has a practice, studio/home, and story that is interesting, and that contributes to a collective identity.

The scavenger-esque sensibility of the Hwy 62 open studio Art Tours ignited a sense of adventure. The sporadic signs placed on the roadside that helped guide you to studios contributed to this feeling of active and engaging participation. We studied the map intently and devised itineraries of our own, but in the end our visits became a compromise of time, visibility of signs, and spontaneous on the fly decision making. Although we could only visit a handful of artists, it occurred to me that the event was not about the quantity of studios/art you saw, but the meaningful exchanges with artists that you were given the chance to have. And each visitor’s itinerary and exchanges were going to be different.

The Hwy 62 open studio Art Tours is an event that attracts and acquires repeat visitors, and every year it is growing. And indeed, after our initial visit, my parents felt compelled to attend the second weekend, where they found great delight in the ceramic work of John Greenfield, and the paintings and studio/home of Snake Jagger.

The Hwy 62 open studio Art Tours allows people to explore not just art, but a culture, community, and story. It fuels the imagination to contemplate the diverse creative production and possibilities in this place called the High Desert.

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