Sustainable, Upcycled Art in Glorious Deserts of the American Southwest

We went cool-hunting for eco-aware art in the dusty ends of California.

sustainable art, upcycled art, recycled art
TakePart News Editor Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is a journalist who has worked in many corners of the world for major news organizations.

Any time you hear about something being "eco-" anything, you worry about greenwashing or a marketing angle being involved, which might have been what is so refreshing about the eclectic art menagerie called High Desert Test Sites.

Nary a mention of "green art" was to be found in the deeply cool catalogue or online materials, but many of the smart exhibits brought an organic commentary to modern ills in a way that heavily marketed "eco-" art is often less successful. 

Part of it might have been the setting: Remote sites in desert lands from California to New Mexico. All this week, HDTS is attracting art lovers from around the world for some mind-boggling displays set against the stark and often gorgeous backdrop of America’s Southwest.

Putting art in the wild, distant corners of little-seen deserts is so much more exciting than loping through the air-conditioned hush of so many museums and galleries.

HDTS organizers, who have been holding the event since 2002, know the event brings art lovers into the world of desert economies, and they encouraged travelers to spend money in Joshua Tree and surrounding communities this year, which were hard hit by the federal shutdown of the national parks. Pretty cool.

Here are a few stops I made during opening weekend in California. You can check out events that are set to continue through Oct. 19.

Artists in Wonderland

A smirking local eyed us as we hunched over our maps and traced our path to our first stop: Philip and Margot Ittleson’s Pink Post Office Projects.

“Wonder Valley. Wonder what’s out there?” she asked.

We looked at her in anticipation; clearly, we had yet to find out.

“Nothin’,” she said flatly, smiling to herself a little.

Turns out, she was a little wrong about that.

Our first stop was the Pink Post Office Projects, a series of pyramids that dot the vista outside an abandoned post office that once served all the post-World War II homesteaders, veterans who were given parcels of land in this sunbaked stretch of California desert.  Those temperatures eventually drove much of the population of Wonder Valley elsewhere and its population dwindled, making the post office unnecessary. 

The Ittleson's year-round installation isn’t always open to the public, but during HDTS visitors wandered through the multi-color pyramids that have found-object chandeliers and bedding strewn about inside them—a modern take on minimalist tee-pee living. 

Ancient Egyptians believed the pyramid shape had spiritual powers—I don’t know about that, but I felt downright spooked by the massive jungle gym on the campus, the likes of which I had not seen since I used to swing from one in elementary school … until a kid fell off it and broke his arm, causing the school to tear it down. I was tempted to try to monkey-bar my way around this one for old time’s sake, but held off. Because I’m not 8 anymore and grownups don’t play on the art.

Foxhole fine dining 

Foodies may love hitting up hole-in-the-wall restaurants for rarified eats, but not many can say they’ve been to an awesome “hole in the ground” eatery.

That’s not the only thing about modern foodie-ism that Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt’s Secret Restaurant turned on its head. A meal of duck confit tacos, nopales quesadilla and acorn cake topped with smoked crema and prickly pear syrup could cost you a wad of cash at an upscale restaurant. But Dornberger’s delectables were paid for on a donation basis. When I asked him what I owed him he shrugged and said “You can just throw some money down here if you want.”

And what an experience: delicious, adventurous and wild. But as it turns out, a Secret Restaurant can be tough to find.

Kicking up a cloud of dirt in our wake, we drove along the bumpy Iron Age Road until we saw a cluster of cars parked near this sign.

For a moment, I considered the possibility that this was some sort of roving criminal scheme to get people to park somewhere remote, get them out into the desert, take their keys at gunpoint and leave with new wheels.

I eyed my dwindling cell phone battery as I squished through the loose, cactus-pocked sand in sandals and a floral dress that I can’t imagine would have been the most survival-oriented outfit a woman wears to the desert but FASHION.

Then, past the Joshua trees and prickly things and teeny yellow flowers that dotted our unmarked path, we saw a few people huddled around what looked like an metal utility box in the desert.

Down in a four-foot-square hole in the desert sand, Bob Dornberger was busily slinging beans and flipping tortillas for the crowd of Tecate-sipping art fans sitting in the sun-scorched desert.

At one point, a propane leak forced him out of his cooking foxhole, but the faithful crowd hung on for more huaraches and pomegranate seed speckled desserts.

Outmuscled Muscle Cars

We trekked out to an abandoned shack that was transformed into a mock car dealership, complete with the patriotic flags bearing Pontiac’s logo flapping in the desert breeze.

“We Build Excitement” puts vehicles up in the air, in what look like still images from the “Dukes of Hazard”—but instead of the General Lee, we see General Motors’ discontinued models.

As a Southern California girl and the daughter of an engineer, car culture is unrepentantly in my veins, so I couldn't help feeling a little sad about the flashy automobile graveyard for once hot and sexy cars. Maybe it's better to run out of gas than fade away.

4. Living Spaces and All The Junk We Keep 

Lars Fisk’s “Self Storage” is a commentary on the “maxed-out consumerism” that is rampant in a country where we keep paying for stuff that we don’t use, and ostensibly don’t even need, to be locked up in endless fields of storage spaces that are cropping up all over the country.

The seeming self-storage container is actually masking a Volkswagon camper, illustrating that where other people store their former lives and material belongings, a minimalist housing space exists that can be fully functional as a home.

5. The Beaten Path

If you can’t make it to HDTS this year, the trek out to Joshua Tree can still be an art-laced journey.  The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture redefines upcycling with its collection of salvaged materials turned sculptures.

Take for example the 1992-93 piece called Shelter. Purifoy gathered wood from a friend’s house that burned down to create a smaller home with a bed and creepy materials hanging throughout, an homage to an earlier work he'd created after the Watts Riots that disintegrated after being exposed to the elements at the outdoor museum.

And then there's this piece of "art" that helps you remember that sometimes, we just can't take anything all too seriously.

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