Many thoughts were on my mind as again I took to the long and empty roads, en route to meet with Michael and our Visionary Death Valley workshop group. A train of thoughts was set in motion just days before my departure, sparked by a startling revelation.
I once suggested that the most important question an artist must be able to answer is: why do you do what you do? It is no small irony that my own attempts at an answer were heretofore not quite satisfactory. I always knew that I needed to do what I do, whether I could clearly articulate the reason or not. I knew that it was important and meaningful to me, and that I had to do it, if for no other reason than that I felt I had to do it. There was never a doubt in my mind that my own sense of myself would not be complete if I didn’t. Yet, words failed me. And then I found it – the answer. It was so simple and clear and obvious, and in a place I never thought to look.
On occasion I like to read the musings of artists, scientists and philosophers. Not just any artists, scientists and philosophers, but ones who found their way to transcending the narrow confines of their formal disciplines and were able to derive profound meaning from their work. Nietzsche is among my favorites, in no small part due to his fascination with art and how it relates to the human experience and our perception of reality. “There is one thing you must have,” Nietzsche said, “either a soul that is cheerful by nature, or a soul made cheerful by work, love, art, and knowledge.” And there it was. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that my own soul is not cheerful by nature. I need to engage in creative work – in love, in art, in knowledge – in order to give my life meaning. That is why I am an artist, and why I believe I was destined to become one despite a life spent in large part on decidedly artless pursuits. I need to engage in the work so that I can look away from The Abyss. I believe that in our work, we each ultimately find our way to what is most personal and honest and important about ourselves, and the reasons and rewards for being who we are.
The empty road meanders down from the high plateau of my home. For a short and uninspiring period I am on a freeway before departing again into the blissful solitude of rural roads. The land reveals episodes in a saga of monumental events on a time scale that makes my own existence seem miniscule. Small towns tell the stories of dreams and struggle and change: here, the skeleton of a pioneer home; there, the rusting chassis of a vehicle that had seen its fair share of demolition derbies … each attached to unknown people who lived and loved, laughed and cried, failed and succeeded. The stories surround me, aching to be told, to be passed on, and I take joy in filling the missing chapters in my mind. I stop to make photographic records of meaningful anecdotes along my own journey, wondering if perhaps some day someone will try to imagine the gaps in what remains of my own story.
This is the America I fell in love with. Not the America of Hollywood and skyscrapers and celebrities and excess, but the America of free spirits and eccentrics, and defiant individualists, and stories of life in these breathtaking, soulful and still-wild places. I think that something invaluable will have been lost if we forget how to live rurally, in the land, disconnected from the buzzing hives of cities and the self-defeating pursuit of riches. Here there may be found peace. Here, people move at a slower pace so they may experience more of each moment, and where neighbors know each other as only characters in the same story can. How arrogant for anyone to suggest that such a life is not, in so many ways, better than the stresses and artificial existence of congested streets, malls and office buildings.
A radio show highlights advances in social networking and artificial realities. A celebrated guest pontificates the advantages of living online over “ordinary” reality. I struggle to perceive a mind so narrow as to dismiss the greatest mysteries of existence – the very nature of reality – as ordinary. Is this the generation to emerge from spending one’s formative years “socializing” through “media”?
I stop often. Shapes arouse my imagination and demand attention. The Mojave is a desert so different from the canyon wonderland of the Colorado Plateau, where I live. Still, its prickly, jagged veneer cannot mask the sensuous and delicate forms underlying its arid nakedness. More stories find me, emanating out of rocks and birds and the desert wind, each responsible for shaping a small part in the rich tapestry of a desert experience, as am I.
Arriving in Death Valley seems a different experience in the quiet winter months than during the “busy” seasons. Mine is the only vehicle on the road. I have one day to myself before meeting Michael and our workshop group. I drive the rugged and recently-flooded road into a canyon of steep limestone walls, away from the park roads, and set up my camp for the night. Warm afternoon light mixes with the delicate scent of creosote – the distinctive smell of Death Valley. After the long drive, I take pleasure in walking around the hills as the light fades. I toast the first stars with a few sips of fine Scotch and spend most of the evening watching the darkness, listening to the silence, and allowing my thoughts to drift.
I enjoy more black-and-white photography these days. As I become more fluent in monochrome, yet more stories emerge from the land, and the Mojave becomes a little more familiar. More of my Mojave portfolio can be seen here.