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Category Archives: Travel & Residencies

Signal Fire: Unwalking John C. Fremont

The wind slowed us down. We could have blown over the ridge, turned to insects and given our lungs and legs mercy. In a parallel universe, we completed the five-mile uphill hike to Squaw Peak without difficulty and with extra time to lay in the sun and swim in the elusive lake. In our reality, an unexpected patch of snow blocked our path, obscured the trail and made navigating with backpacks too difficult. As the wind intensified and the sun set we were forced to set up camp some distance from our goal, as truth took hold–there would be no summer swimming in the days ahead.

Klamath River Basin map

Klamath River Basin map

We would later learn that we had misread the the topographic map, and that the area we believed to be at an altitude of 2000 feet was actually at 9000 feet–a difference substantial enough to make our labored breathing and my own dizziness make more sense in retrospect. It is June, after all, and by now the time for icy wind, ubiquitous patches of snow and need for four pairs of socks should have passed. But summer comes late to the mountains, and the Warner Mountains in a remote area of northern California are no exception. We scrambled to gather wood, get our tents up in the wind, and dig out all our layers of overpriced fast-drying synthetic fabrics.

Undead tree with wolfs moss

Undead tree with wolfs moss

The next morning the wind had completely subsided. I remembered a Modoc prayer I had learned the day before “How good I felt when the sun has shone on me and warmed me on a cold day.  You are our great sun.  Thank you for your care.”  Birds were singing (probably not of electoral politics) while our guide Ryan fetched drinking water from the nearby creek and early-risers boiled water for coffee. The sun gave us comfort and we would stay a second night, day-hiking to find nearby overlooks and eventually the lakes, in all their still-snowy glory and ice crystal clarity. Beneath walls of orange pickle-shaped rocks, undead trees were splattered in wolfs moss, imported from some fantasy novel by a now missing portly director.

The three days of heightened awarenesses of thighs and calves in the Warner Mountains were part of a week-long trip exploring in southern Oregon and Northern California with a group of new friends via Signal Fire, a Portland-based artist/activist group. Our journey took us through rocky deserts, wetlands and river headwaters, as we stitched together a fraught mental fabric of pressures from farmers, fish and native peoples, symbolically reverse-retracing (“Unwalking”) segments of the historical route of John C Fremont in and around the Klamath river basin.  Discussions focused on “continuing demand for indigenous sovereignty, as well as the contemporary legacies of development and resource extraction.”

Grateful for some physically and intellectually challenging experiences, ideas for new projects and collaborations, and most of all some brilliant new friends.

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Big Bone Lick and the Birth of Extinction

At Big Bone Lick State Park looking at Bison

At Big Bone Lick State Park looking at Bison

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology

Did you know the concept of extinction was born in Kentucky? Before unearthing these huge mysterious fossils of unnamed mammals, no westerner had seriously contemplated the idea of extinction. The concept did not jive well with the deist views of our founding fathers–Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others imagined the universe as kind of a large clock or watch set in motion by God. That this same god would create a creature and then allow ever single member of that particular species to die seemed strange and even unbelievable. This was an America before dinosaur bones had been discovered, before the endangered species list, and just before my ancestors began shooting buffalo from westbound trains for fun.

Letters from Jefferson and others reveal a deep personal interest in these bones from Kentucky, bones which eventually turned out to be new species like the Mastodon, Wolly Mammoth and Jefferson Sloth.  These discoveries turned the world of science upside down and gave rise to paleontology, the science of prehistoric life. That these early Americans were forced to accept evidence over ideology (a skill that seems to be lost on many contemporary thinkers) makes for a great narrative. To read these letters and get a first hand account of this story, including some great Native American myths about where the bones came from, I highly recommend the book Big Bone Lick, by Stanley Heeden.

How did Kentucky go from the birthplace of American paleontology to a hotbed of fundamentalism?  Now there is even a theme park devoted to debunking hundreds of years of science in the name of religion.  It seems to me like Kentucky could benefit from a 1600 square foot mural about natural history!

Last weekend, after a long week of painting mastodon bones as part of an outdoor mural in Covington, KY, I took my girlfriend to the state park to see the site of these discoveries.  It’s a great park with some great hiking trails.  And as you might expect, yes they do have some big bones on display!  These bones below are from bison.  The mastodon skull was simply too cool to be captured in a photograph.  You’ll have to visit yourself!


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Dayton Kentucky City Council Cancels Mural

Old Map of Dayton, KY
Old Map of Dayton, KY

 After a great deal of energy, time, and taxpayer money was invested, Dayton City Council reversed its position and blocked a summer mural project from happening, despite a strong outpouring of community support, enthusiasm for my designs at the last city council meeting, and knowledge that the project was already completely funded.  Thanks to Penny Hurtt and Cathy Volter for voting for the mural! As for the other four Dayton Kentucky City Council Council members, Bil Burns and Bobby Allen were pretty quiet, Virgil Boruske didn’t want a mural in the first place, and Jerry Gifford was particularly unpleasant.  Maybe this outcome will shake things up in the next local election.

I am still a little unclear as to why the project (which, again, was already been completely funded) was voted down, but I’ve got to chalk it up to small town politics and in council member Gifford’s case, pride.  Gifford explained to everyone in attendance that despite enjoying the new designs, “If I already voted against something and I change my vote, what does that say about the power of my vote or the power of city council?” I was surprised at Gifford’s willingness to express this view so unapologetically and publicly, as it seems to me that the first priority of those in political office should be to represent their community, not to preserve their power.  Later, Gifford conceded that he too was an artist, although maybe not as good.

Working with the community of Dayton, however, was a great pleasure.  I still believe the city has a bright future.  And this story has a happy ending anyway–the project was since moved upstream to Covington, KY, where we were welcomed with open arms!  Read about my new bigger, better project here!

Here are some photos of my visits and research at the Charles Tharp Dayton Kentucky History Museum before the project was cancelled.  Charlie Tharp and Barry Baker showed me around and taught me a lot of interesting things about the city.

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Hidden Valley, Joshua Tree National Park

well at a certain point in Joshua Tree i decided it was better to get out into the park and surrounding area and suck up all the experiences i could, rather than hole up in the house and write and try and make art. one can make art anywhere.  the experience of a time and place can be fleeting.

unfortunately i don’t know that i can truly explain with words the kind of pull that Joshua Tree has for me.  i do know that is is not for everyone.  but it is very special for me.  so it is with a small amount of sadness that have returned to more institutional surroundings and a mechanized lifestyle.  i managed to cram a lot of experiences into a couple weeks including an extremely eventful day with internationally recognized photographer Natasha Peterson.  First, we had a therapeutic and mind-expanding “sound bath” at the Integratron, a structure built with instructions from Venetian aliens and inspired by Tesla technology.  Then we visited Garth, a man who has lived in a stone tee-pee for 30 years while running a hippie commune called “God’s Way, Love“.  Finally, we had an extremely close encounter with a rattlesnake in a cave (my third and final)

so i am in Cincinnati now trying to wrap my head around a few ideas.  i recently completed this internet project,, about information storage, nostalgia and age, and technology.  in the desert, the things i was drawn to the most were the rocks, petroglyphs, and the stars.  i enjoy the strange joshua trees, the creatures like snakes and ringtail cats and gigantic beetles, the sunsets make me want to cry, the dirt, the eccentric people and their personal mythologies and conspiracies.  but the rocks, the glyphs, and the stars have this thing in common, this thing i am interested in–age and presence and mystery, a sense of gravitas.

so i am trying to think about why and how these threads run through my past work and what the next steps are for new works.

here are some more photos from my last few days.


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Alexis Sonnefeld Desert Badass

Were you at any point in your life obsessed with Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee?  Well meet the real deal: local Joshua Tree resident and all-around desert badass Alexis Sonnefeld.  Alexis has been gracious enough to let me tag along with him through some awesome hikes, climbs, and scrambles around Indian Cove and Rattlesnake Canyon over the last week.  if you need a guide for climbs or hikes in the Joshua Tree area, this is your man.

Alexis Sonnefeld, desert badass

within five minutes of meeting Alexis, he showed me how to safely remove a scorpion from my shower.  important desert skill number 87.  it is not uncommon to meet people out here with a surprising array of skills.  the harshness of the desert climate attracts creative people who seek out and enjoy challenges.  Alexis is a self-admitted goal oriented perfectionist, a climber who grew up in California and Greece, and is an accomplished pianist and astronomer to boot.

The first time out hiking and climbing with him, after some scrambling up a huge, steep wall of rock that left my feet tingling Alexis said “Okay Joe, now we’re going to do some climbing.”  After a long pause he said “that is your name–Joe, right?”
i replied “Yes that’s my name, why?”
“You did not respond”
I told him, “I did not respond because I thought we already were doing some climbing!” At that point we passed vertically through a difficult gap in some rocks, which I later learned is Alexis’s test for tourists.  Thankfully, I passed, so I was invited to accompany him on other journeys. that was the last moment i was nervous on the rocks.  as it turns out, nervousness is not helpful.

a lot of my friends do not consider themselves “outdoorsy” people.  admittedly, there are far fewer spaces in the midwest that might inspire one to greatly appreciate the outdoors.  by contrast, many people here treat the land with a high level of regard, often with a spiritual or religious respect.  furthermore, physical strength and fortitude are not particularly high-valued qualities in the insular, bookish world of grad school or the art world.  so it has been truly refreshing to run around on the rocks out here with Alexis, and to be in an environment where some grit is not only valued but required.

tonight Alexis and Thomas were shooting pool at the Joshua Tree saloon.  I stopped by for one drink.  we ran into a drunk man who kept pointing at Alexis and saying “This guy!  everytime i’m at Indian Cove this guy is there and jumps out of the rocks.  This guy is a fucking mountainman!  He’s always schooling me.”  (On the presence of mountain lions, coyotes, etc.).
The drunk man’s friend chimed in “is he some kind of ranger or something?”
“No.  Rangers’ got nothing on this guy”
“it’s true,” I said.  “the other day i watched Alexis show a ranger an easier route back to the campsite.”
It was a real Chuck Norris moment.

anyway, so near Indian Cove is Alexis’s favorite haunt, Rattlesnake Canyon.  it wouldn’t be called Rattlesnake Canyon if there weren’t an abundance of real live rattlesnakes.  after stepping in some patches of quicksand yesterday, Alexis walked first and narrowly avoided a bite from a speckled rattlesnake.  just like they do on tv, the snake rattled and flashed its fangs and slowly, slowly slithered back into the brush.  it is incredible just how clear the signals from nature can be; there is no room for misinterpretation: “take one more step and i am going to sink my fangs into your leg.  it is going to hurt like hell.  also, i hate you.”  (That was the first of two rattlesnake encounters I have had on my adventure here, the second being quite similar.)

i respect the rattlesnakes and scorpions for being such wonderfully open communicators.  most creatures and plants are not so forthcoming about their feelings or intentions.  i randomly met an interpretive park ranger on a hike the other day and was having this very conversation.  he recited this quote from Edward Abbey (who is the late angry Gandalf of Joshua Tree):

Everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals.

catsclaw Acacia, in Joshua Tree National Park

even the plants in the desert are preemptively angry with you.  some, like Acacia (also known as catsclaw) will literally rip holes in your skin if you steer too close.  Alexis characterized it as being attacked by a whole lot of cats, all at once.  and unfortunately it is everywhere.  so far i have been lucky.

if the small dangers do not make you feel alive, the trade-off is that the landscape is magic.  the desert is a puzzle of miniature dream-like worlds that change dramatically from area to area.  after a long hike we arrived at a secret cave with clear, refreshing natural spring water and small waterfalls.  i was terribly hot and somewhat exhausted by the time we arrived at the cave.  the water was like medicine.  no chlorine or mud.  just crystal, glassy water from the earth, with constellations of tiny tadpoles swimming around me, becoming alive.


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Abandoned Homestead Cabins and Photographer Kim Stringfellow

There are a lot of abandoned Homesteader shacks out here in Joshua Tree.  Here is one i stumbled on the other day.  Also, I had the great pleasure of meeting award winning photographer Kim Stringfellow, who did a great book project on these homes and shacks.  Here is a nice article, and accompanying video from KCET’s program Artbound, below.  I love the characterization of the aesthetic here as of “rustic bohemia”.


video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

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Ten Acres of Weird & Awesome

Yesterday I visited Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture, ten acres of weird and awesome.  This is from the Noah Purifoy Foundation:

Born in Snow Hill, Alabama in 1917, Noah Purifoy lived and worked most of his life in Los Angeles and Joshua Tree.  Purifoy moved his practice out to the Mojave desert in 1989, where he lived for fifteen years until his death in 2004. Recognized as the founder of the Watts Towers Art Center in the 1960s, Purifoy created ten-acres full of large-scale sculpture on the desert floor in Joshua Tree.  Constructed entirely from junked materials, this otherworldly environment is one of California’s great art historical wonders.

I don’t really need to say much else about it, except that it blew me away.  Junk Dada.  truly one of the strangest and coolest art experiences i have had. visit for more.


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A Non-Linear Universe and the Power of Bronze Plaques

Krblin Jihn Kabin

Today I stumbled upon a historical site near the house I am staying just outside of Joshua Tree National Park.  I had read briefly about The Krblin Jihn Kabin online, one of many abandoned homesteader cabins in or near the town of Joshua Tree.  Realizing it was so close, I stopped by on my way home today to check it out.  After driving down a long dirt road, I found the cabin and began to read the plaque.  I was introduced to the world of Kymaerica, a parallel universe in which a group of displaced people founded their own Christian cult and fought a civil war.  Weird.  I learned that the cabin once belonged to Jihn Wranglikan, one of the founders of the Wranglikan faith.

Nine Pointed Kmpass (compass)

According to the plaque and accompanying signs, one of the weird beliefs of the Wranglikans was the idea that “the letters ‘c’ and ‘o’ were the most obscene letters in the alphabet–unfit to be spoken by God’s children,” so the Wranglikans created their own dialect.  Other odd beliefs included an intense obsession with the number nine, so intense that parents were compelled to remove one baby toe from each of their ten-toed babies shortly after birth.  I walked in to examine the Wranglikan Nine-pointed Kmpass, devoid of north, carved into the stone floor.  Then, I had the distinct sense that someone was watching me.  I left confused.

maybe you are thinking “this can’t be real”.  that’s what i thought too.  after spending some time googling Jihn Wranglikan, then puzzling over the websites and i came to realize that the entire story was made up by Eames Demetrios,”geographer-at-large”.  Eames Demetrios is apparently traveling the world setting up bronze plaques to commemorate events that never happened featuring people that never lived.  or at least, events and people who never lived in our “linear” universe.  These plaques exist at locations that are already intriguing.  Joshua Tree has plenty of these abandoned cabins, and plenty of strange religious groups too, so this is a natural fit.  Here is the lengthy, made up story.

here, you may be asking why anyone would go to all the trouble of creating these stories and then presenting them as if the stories were true.  it is extremely weird, i know.  having dabbled briefly in what i will hereafter refer to as “alternate reality art” myself in Erlanger, Kentucky, and now having been duped into experiencing a “piece” from the perspective of an unsuspecting audience member, i can provide three reasons for these kinds of projects:

1. it’s fun.  in a world where the most exciting thing that happens is one week of watching videos of sharks swim around on televisions, clearly every day life can be insufferably banal and lacking.  this is why god invented the prank phone call.  some alternate reality works are essentially cerebral pranks.  People have always derived a sense of gratification from having secret knowledge.  I think this is especially true of artists, performers, magicians and pranksters, who often invite their audiences into the truth or untruth of their worlds.

2. alternate reality art challenges institutional knowledge and power structures.  I already knew a bit about homesteaders and had never heard of the Wranglikans nor any of their strange beliefs.  But my brain, conditioned as it is to accepting wholesale anything engraved on a brass plaque, kept trying to fit this story into my existing historical framework, despite the extreme impossibility of the events described.  this left me questioning the truths of other plaques i had read at museums.  all of this is rather postmodern and deconstrucivist, to the extent that it indirectly raises into question the reality of our reality and the reliability of our metanarratives.  i’m not sure that this was Eames Demetrios’s intention, but it is a result.  This might be a good time to bring up the ideas of the hyperreal and the simulacra as discussed by postmodernist French social theorist Jean Baudrillard if i had time and i felt qualified.  but i don’t and i’m not so i won’t.  (but if was your girl.)

3. alternate reality art can expand our notions of media to include works that seamlessly bridge the gaps between our “real” physical world and the world of cyberspace, pushing the boundaries of what art and storytelling can be.  the Kymaerica website and other sites that connect online fictions with real places blur the lines of real and cyberspace.  corporations like google and facebook have already capitalized on these connections, whereas the art world has moved more slowly.  at most art schools the majority of fine art is created in physical space, or at least, ultimately shown in the physical space of a gallery.  fine art projects that exist online are generally contained there, and projects that exist in physical space generally only use the internet to promote openings.  written narratives and other works can now cross the old physical boundaries of place to transcend traditional categories of art and entertainment.  rather than continually try to only adapt old media (books, CD’s, etc.) to a new world, we also need new kinds of media that will compliment our new technologies.

4. Eames Demetrios has said that the goal of his project is “to look at the world fresh.  to try and imagine another way of seeing how this planet could be.” (from this talk).  Now, i know that i necessarily want to imagine a planet where a cult of wild-west baby-torturers lived up the street from me.  however, i do agree with his larger point that any challenging work of art involves creatively seeing and creative vision.  As a sidenote, (and speaking of creative vision) Eames Demetrios, the creator of the plaques as well as the creator of the Kymaerxthaere parallel universe, is the grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, the famous husband and wife duo who created the Eames Lounge Chair.  sometimes, vision runs in the family.

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Alternative Living in Joshua Tree

The Integratron – Rejouvnating Sound Baths

I have been thinking a lot about “living” lately, especially since coming here to the town of Joshua Tree. In the midwest it is easy to take for granted the amenities and burdens of suburbia–the structures we live in, the ways we organize our societies, and the groups and ideologies we adopt.  Here, there is still so much space (both for living and for thinking).  It’s not a given that there should be Dollar General store on the corner or that houses should be rectangular, built in close proximity, and have aluminum siding.  Or for that matter, that sundays should be spent at church rather than in The Integratron, a large tholos built in accordance to instructions from aliens from venus.

Even grass is a huge luxury that almost no one in the high desert can afford.  So out of necessity, life and living are different in the remote Mojave than in most parts of the country.  Or at least, that was the plan.  Joshua Tree basically sits just past the edge of the swath of urban sprawl coming from from Los Angeles.  Unfortunately the nearby towns of Yucca Valley and Twenty Nine Palms seem to be succumbing to American homogeneity, with Walmarts, a Burger King (although I do love burger king), Dollar General, etc.  Joshua Tree, sandwiched in the middle and as of now still separated by a few miles of desert, retains an independent local character that is rustic, charming, and of course refreshing.

In the surrounding desert there are many interesting buildings inspired by the natural building movement, an interest in sustainable living, new age spirituality or the simple American desire to be unique and creative.  Artist Bevery Doolittle’s home is a real work of art.  Even Frank Lloyd Wright designed a few buildings here in the town of Joshua Tree, to house the Institute of Mental Physics.

“Small Liberties” Wagon Station – Andrea Zittel with Jonas Hauptman, from Andrea Zittel’s blog


eco-dome, superadobe

The other day I passed two superadobes being built, as well as some interesting pod-like structures out on a hill.  I learned the pods were placed there by internationally renown artist Andrea Zittel as part of a series of collaborative experimental living structures called wagon stations or “Small Liberties”.  For an interesting snapshot of a true proponent of alternative living and “investigative living”, check out this interesting (if somewhat long) video below.  Zittel’s home, as well as the home I am staying in, is an upgraded homesteader house from the 1940’s or 50’s, a time when the government was giving a four acres of land away to anyone who promised to “improve” the land in some way.  As a sidenote, my great grandfather was a homesteader and helped to build the town of Cody Wyoming, with Buffalo Bill Cody and others.  Eccentricity, creativity, and an interest in self-sufficiency have always gone hand in hand (i know that’s three hands, they are alien hands).

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Joshua Tree National Park

The strange and beautiful Joshua Tree at dusk

Hello from the high desert!  I am here near the magical Joshua Tree National Park, doing an artist residency, collecting material for an internet art project supported by a Wolfstein travel grant from the University of Cincinnati.  Joshua Tree is perhaps my favorite place on earth (so far).  I have not yet been able to explain with words exactly why, but perhaps I can do so with other media.

Joshua Tree at sunset

Joshua Tree National Park is a sprawling area of 790,636 acres (about 12,000 square miles) on the transition zone between the Mojave and Sonoran (Colorado) deserts of mostly wilderness.  Sand and boulders team with creatures such as lizards, roadrunners, rattlesnakes, mice, and even some bullhorn sheep.  The park gets its name from the wonderful Joshua Trees in the Mojave section of the park (where I am staying).  The trees were so named by the Mormons during their first trip through the desert.  For the Mormons, the trees were like the Biblical Joshua, pointing the way.  However, most other early American explorers had the opposite reaction, describing the trees as grotesque and terrible.  The trees are not actually trees at all, but a member of the Agave family, a yucca.

Yes, the Joshua Tree is also the namesake of the popular album by the Irish rock band U2, although i don’t think they really spent any time here.  Bono found out about the tree after the album was recorded.  He allegedly enjoyed the biblical tie-in, and came to the Southwest with a photographer to take the cover shot.  Other interesting rock and roll tales include the theft and burning of the body of original alt-country star Gram Parsons here in the desert, after his untimely death in a motel just up the street from where I am staying.  Parsons did solo albums and played with several bands including the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers.  Apparently he and Keith Richards used to drive out here and get wasted and look for UFO’s.  Because of its relative proximity to Los Angeles (2 or 3 hours), Joshua Tree National Park has been a mecca for LA musicians and artists looking for inspiration or solace.

Joshua Tree Rockhouse

i am staying in the fabulous Joshua Tree Rockhouse just outside the park.  the house is incredible.  the Rockhouse is a homesteader’s house from the 1950’s which has been slightly upgraded to include more contemporary amenities.  it is stocked with some odd instruments and my favorite thing here–a white Steinway baby grand piano.  i have spent the last few days creating in the house, exploring the backyard, and venturing into the park in the evenings and at night taking pictures and watching the Perseid meteor shower.  i have also been reading and researching local geography, ecology, and sociology.  if you are interested in learning more or visiting, the most comprehensive book I have found is James Kaiser’s Joshua Tree: The Complete Guide.  this area is so rich visually and culturally i hardly know where to begin; i am still sorting out how all the sounds, melodies, images, and ideas i am gathering will come together in an online project, but for now, here are some documentary photos of the house and the desert.

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