Art Desert Highway: Creative Stops in Joshua Tree

It’s no secret that the string of high desert towns along Highway 62 – Pioneertown, Joshua Tree, 29 Palms, Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Landers, Wonder Valley, and environs – has long been home to an eclectic, prolific, and constantly evolving community of artists and independent creative explorers. The area’s visionary cultural bent finds expression in everything from land art and open-air installations to maker boutiques, craftspeople, architectural confections, gallery spaces, artist residency projects, and many more unconventional, undefinable offerings. Like every once-sleepy enclave of immense natural beauty currently withstanding an influx of recovering urbanites, Joshua Tree’s cultural landscape is a fascinating mix of stalwarts and new arrivals, with expanding L.A. connectivity and deepening regional identity.


Shari Elf’s landmark Art Queen & World Famous Crochet Museum is one old school landmark that has held its own, looking as inviting and iconically eccentric as ever. One of the most recognizable artsy outposts in the region, the intimate architectural entropy, mixed media installations, enchanted doll trailer, and hand-embellished slow-fashion boutique compound is surrounded with other favorite local art destinations. This micro-arts district includes La Matadora Gallery, The Station’s quirky souvenir site in a vintage gas station and garage, Space Cowboy Bookstore, and the artist-run gallery and bookish collectibles emporium, Hey There Projects.


Opened by Colleena Hake in summer 2017, La Matadora’s program embraces the ornate, gothic, folkloric rococo of ritualistic found-object assemblage, as though all the world were an altar being built. Their current (through December 4) exhibition Holy Relic features work by artists Alea Bone and Shrine – two artists who each elevate the choreography of found-object arrangement to fresh heights of spirit-infused, meaningful mosaic.


Hey There Projects was founded in 2019 by artists, friends, locals, and sometime Angelenos Mark Todd and Aaron Smith, with the simple goal to showcase emerging and established artists in a broader regional discourse, specifically in a setting of natural beauty instead of concrete jungle. It further includes a retail space which features folk art, books, zines, wearables, collectibles, ceramics, and sundry “desert lifestyle supplies” like the ubiquitous inventively scented candles that are somehow literally everywhere. Think of the Wacko/La Luz de Jesus arrangement, but less Lowbrow and more dusty trails. They are currently exhibiting a two-person show featuring new portrait-based works and sculptures by Ryan Heshka and Rob Sato; next up is the annual print show in December, just in time for giving the gift of art.


More or less across the street, weekend mornings are well spent wandering the wonderland that is the Sky Village Swap Meet – a truly trippy fabricated ghost town that plays host to a panoply of vintage, estate, tag sale, salvage, and straight-up curiosity sales, as well as several slightly inexplicable, quasi-immersive, extremely photogenic, interpretive architectural concoctions that are their own reward quite apart from the epic treasure bargains. A giant chicken, a faux stained glass citadel, a handmade crystal cave, some last chance saloon-type Dada, and weathered wagon wheels are festooned with vintage appliances, estate china, handmade jewelry, curious ornaments and rescued art.


There’s a new gallery and bookstore at Joshua Tree Retreat Center; the 29 Palms Art Gallery is thriving and continues to offer community-based arts and education programming; and the Yucca Valley Art Center which was forced to close during covid has reopened post-pandemic as the Joshua Tree Gallery of Contemporary Art and is presenting some really interesting local and international programs.


Heading north up toward Landers, the internationally known mecca of sound-frequency based chakra alignment, ley line-enhanced waters, and extraterrestrial wisdom that is the Integratron is very much still functioning as intended. The intimate meditation yard and sculpture garden of its grounds are free and open, but you’ll want to book your sound-bath session tickets ahead, it fills up fast. The sessions are accompanied by informative lessons on the site, the structure, and the broader bohemian history of the project, but simply put, it’s pretty much the ultimate sound-bathing and consciousness-attuning experience everyone says it is.


Off another long and winding road toward the north, and if you’re willing to quickly scale a lowkey mountain, British land artist Andrew Rogers’ Rhythms of Life is a two-part petroglyphic sculpture perching atop a rocky ridge. Meant to be physically experienced up close but only fully optically perceived from the air, like all of Rogers’ work around the globe, it blends historic research into regional civilizations with a modern take on the meaningful monument.


While you’re out Landers way, besides attempting to eat at La Copine, whose legendarily elusive seasonal schedule and interpretive reservation system is a bit of an experiential art piece in itself, check out the fairly new artist-run Goat Gallery. They are currently showing an exhibition of text-based mixed media works by Atwater/Whitewater resident Bettina Hubby, whose love of enlightening puns is only exceeded by her love for wild desert vistas and sacred rocks.


Noah Purifoy also loved a pun and the desert, and the late artist’s greatest work, the Desert Art Museum, is still out there doing amazing. After the LACMA show of several years ago, certain of the site’s largest works were returned to the parcel of land, a bit tidied up from the experience, and indeed the whole site seems neater than before, for better and worse. Entropy and erosion are being kept at bay, but one misses the sense of the desert sands being in a slow-motion battle to reclaim the artist’s found-object monuments for its windswept oblivion. But its commentary on reclamation and repurposing materials, re-envisioning what art and the art world can be, sustainability and skepticism are as poignant – maybe more so – than ever.


Down the road from this historic site, sculptor, storyteller, and one-man imaginarium Eames Demetrios’ Krblin Jihn Cabin is also somehow still standing. Purpose built as a ruin, a disrupted intrusion into our plane of existence from a neighboring nested reality, the site draws on the harsh, hardscrabble balance of freedom and exile that informs so much of the western mythology. Its vibe is both secular and consecrated, inviting the wind and sun inside its abandonment, carving out a moment in the shape of a place for a story that did not need to have taken place in the desert, but could not have happened anywhere else.


If you’re looking for a specific occasion to take this particular road trip, the BoxoPROJECTS 10th anniversary festival Boxo10x10 kicks off on November 19, and its artist residency-derived site-specific projects, performance events like opening night at the Integratron, and other public programs, most free, some ticketed, continue through December 31.


Ten artists who have participated in residencies at BoxoPROJECTS over the past ten years are featured in Boxo10x10, a 10th anniversary exhibition and celebration of exploring “contemporary art at the new frontier.” The milestone offers a moment to reflect, celebrate, and look ahead. The residency, which launched in 2012, provides artists from a range of disciplines with an inspirational space outside their everyday experience, as well as an extended family of artists, experts in a range of topics from ecology and land use to indigenous history and geology, and independent thinkers from across art theory, philosophy, and social practice. To date, Boxo has hosted and presented nearly 50 residencies, visiting and studio artists, 15 exhibitions, and three editions of the conceptual and convivial sculptural installation mini-land art festival, the Joshua Treenial.


For Boxo10x10, artists Eli Hirtle, Heather L. Johnson, and Jim Toia return to Joshua Tree to create installations that advance their previous residency projects. Kelly Berg and Ben Cuevas will present work updated or completed since their time on site, while Megan Evans, William Lamson, and Ana Sanchez-Colberg reprise aspects of their projects from afar. Caroline Partamian and Ethan Primason, who settled in the area following their residency, will produce a sound installation and performance at the Integratron.


One of the messages of BoxoPROJECTS – and indeed all these high desert projects and many more like them – is to absorb, honor, respect, and reflect on the natural landscape. To that end, remember that one more special thing about the area is its immediate proximity to the glorious Joshua Tree National Park. Branching off from its main north-south route is an east-west semi-circle with entrance/exits along Highway 62 in Joshua Tree and 19 Palms. Whether you’re pressed for time or just not feeling like a proper hike, this loop takes about half an hour to cruise, moving through several miles of stunning, continually changing terrain. Tip: like everything, it looks its best at magic hour.


A spectacular way to scratch your itch to be in nature without giving up hotel-style creature comforts completely is to stay at a place like AutoCamp Joshua Tree. A gated community of sleek, shiny, superbly outfitted, full mini-kitchen, cozy and comfy AirStreams (and a few tiny houses) with a charming clubhouse, 24-hour glamping-themed general store, s’mores kits, wine fridge, outdoor dining rooms and wood grills, and even some music and wellness activities on site, centrally located AutoCamp is much less remote than it feels. It’s a big enough site to rent a handful of AirStreams for a group outing, but private enough for a more romantic or just relaxing alternative to both motels and full-on campgrounds. Stepping outside into a light pollution-free view of the starry night and waking up to the big bright cloud-streaked blue sky at sunrise, at the same time being mere moments away from hipster beanery Joshua Tree Coffee Company and the excellent scones at Boo’s Organic Oven, might just be an art-curious city-slicker’s perfect high desert happy medium.











































































































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