earth art

I’ve been thinking about earth art in the desert. At RSF we “collaborated” with the soil to produce paintings on canvas.

Soil Art, framed, 2013

Soil Art, framed, 2013

I would like to see more art installations at Rainshadow Farm. Earth art or earthworks are perfect for a high desert landscape.

Mini-installations have been created around the cactus food garden, using plant arrangements, rock, pebbles, logs, branches, fallen Joshua tree branches and leaves, recycled concrete, glass and metal pieces, bricks, bones, pottery, and metal containers.

Lone mesquite by the cactus garden

Lone mesquite by the cactus garden

Nascent communi-trees at RSF.

Nascent communi-trees at RSF.

Parideaza Farm has “written the book” for contemporary farm art. She calls it “articulture” and I wish that she would soon publish so that everyone can see what is possible in the intersection between agriculture and art.

The landscape of the farm produces the media for this earth art. To some extent, the design is ephemeral, subject to the actions of nature. New elements are added each year, sometimes each season. This artwork is land-specific and farm-specific.
One of my first loves was visual art. Eco-art was a part of my creative outlook from a young age. When I was a teen I often ride my bike to the local library and picked up books explaining how to make paints from natural materials.
I remember experiments with flour, clays, linseed oil, turpentine, milk, egg yolk, crushed minerals/earth pigments. I painted onto plywood boards, Masonite panels, and canvas. I also crushed flowers, fruits, berries, and seeds for paints. I painted watercolors with these and with strong teas and herbal infusions. I knew that people used black walnut husks to make a type of paint, although that was something I never tried.

I have friends who have made their own paper from earth materials.

Really, the possibilities are endless.

Getting down to the practicalities for RSF, it’s vital to remember that some forms of outdoors earth art will be more permanent than other forms.

It is dry during much of the year. When it’s not dry, we may be flooded. The simmer can bring very high temperatures. This summer, we had days with 30 degrees difference between the highest daytime temperature and the coolest temperature that night. The sun can be intense; winter days and nights at any time of year can be cold. We have wind. Storms with winds of 60 mph are not unusual. Winter nights with strong winds can be bitterly cold. The winds can be strong enough to blow farm structures away, as local farmers and gardeners know too well and have often experienced. This would be true for earth art. The relentless sun can cause changes in materials used in art. Paints can fade; glass can change color. Glass may contain elements that intensify or darken in color when left outside. Animal visitors may capture, eat, or toy with the earthworks, depending what is used in their construction. This doesn’t bother me as I see earthworks in the farm yard as ephemeral art.
Our soil close to the house has a great deal of clay. It floods when there are rains and in some places it sinks, other places it may crack. All of this might be considered when creating an installation. Out past the orchard, the soil is much sandier. I can think of two issues with this soil. First it can be blown by the wind and affect the art. It can “sand” the surface of a work of art.

The work below would probably not work at RSF. However, fabric elements and inclusion of trees might be incorporated into the landscape.

Poetry Tree 2012

Poetry Tree 2012

Art and Poetry Tree, Long Island, 2013

Art and Poetry Tree, Long Island, 2013

The Poetry Tree: installation by Lidia Chiarelli (Immagine & Poesia) as a homage to the Italian poet Guido Gozzano. Agliè (Torino)- June 2012

Spiral Jetty

Spiral Jetty

The installation above likely wouldn’t work here because I’m not willing to bring in earth-moving equipment to create piles of earth, displacing the local ecosystem. Robert Irving Smithson (1938-1973) created it in 1970 at the Great Salt Lake in Utah from piles of rock, earth, and salt. At times the spiral jetty has been submerged, as the water level in the lake has fluctuated.

The Nazca lines (400-650AD) are ancient earthworks. Lines were created by removing dark red surface pebbles on the desert soil, uncovering lighter earth underneath. There are dozens of these earthworks, in the shapes of animals, trees and flowers.

Nazca Monkey

Nazca Monkey

These are macro-earthworks, visible from foothills nearby their location.

The concept of drawing on the earth with the earth could be questionable from a modern ecological standpoint. Parts of the Mojave Desert is covered with cryptobiotic soils that holds the soil in place. This soil formation is fragile; if disturbed, it can take anywhere from several years to a hundred years to regenerate, depending on how fast any given soil component grows. Cryptobiotic soils are fascinating by themselves. They are a work of nature composed of living algae, cyanobacteria, fungi, lichens, and mosses. They contribute to the health of the desert ecosystem by stabilizing soils, maintaining soil moisture, and functioning as nitrogen fixers. I suppose if you wanted to create a Nazca-style set of earthworks in the Mojave Desert, you would only need to scrape away enough of this fragile soil to reveal the earth below it and you might have a work of earth art that would last a very long time. That is, a long time unless one of our flash floods came along and washed the whole thing away.

Blue gray Lichens in Apple Valley

Blue gray Lichens in Apple Valley

This may be a moot point at RSF as this area has been built upon, walked upon, and developed in other ways for over a hundred years. I’m not inclined to want (or be able to afford, for that matter) to bulldoze most of the back acre of land to inscribe a raven figure, as interesting a project as that might be. The largest Nazca figures are 660 feet across, which, if we were determined to replicate this type of earth art here, would require a big chunk of the land behind the orchard. It’s not going to happen.

Still, even without creating monolithic earthworks, the possibilities at RSF are endless.

We’ve already found the soil near the house can be turned into a reasonable adobe. We can sculpt. We have already experimented with our small earth oven. It works. We can use the soil to help build adobe benches or even a larger desert earth oven.

RSF quick built adobe oven

RSF quick built adobe oven

Ephemeral outdoor, environmental art. Natural materials, found objects (lovely since the desert is everyone’s dumping ground), installations of all kinds. Art for Rainshadow Farm. Art for us all.

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About rainshadowfarm

I teach anthropology, am an archaeologist, a drylands agroecologist, community educator, and a single mother of eight grown kids. I currently own and operate an educational and research farm in the southern Mojave Desert, Rainshadow Farm. I'm 100% West Virginia hillbilly. Not necessarily in that order.
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2 Responses to earth art

  1. This is very cool, what you are up to in the desert! I love the idea of eco-art and have long wanted to integrate some here. You have re-inspired me to get cracking!

  2. Oh good! Please post about it when you do it!

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