Pioneertown and the Pilgrim Painter
Updated: Aug 8
Windows down, 94 degrees, I pass by Pappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace, the honky tonk where Paul McCartney actually played a set several years ago. The crazy high mountains of San Bernadino County are in every direction and absolutely command the environment. It is hard to fathom how they got like that. Why are they are so diverse? There's nothing like the Mojave Desert to put Vermont into complete perspective.
I arrived around mid-day on 7/1/21 to the little cabin on Apache Pass just outside of Pioneertown CA, in the high hills of Rimrock. I expect to stay here until mid August, which is almost now as I'm writing this. It's been both busy and a very laid back several weeks, and I'm just now caught up with notes/writing about the cross country trip here. Now it's almost time to make the trip back! Wow Pilgrim, time really flies.
While my cabin is several miles out there in the "country", there are neighbors around who knew I was scheduled to arrive and the property manager was prepared with provisions for my arrival. All is good, and I settle in.
Lately I've been exploring about 'grounding' and the idea that one's own thought energy can be directed in a direct line to the earth's core just by standing barefoot on the ground. This is what I do every chance I get. Traveling as much as I do, grounding myself an essential part of my day.
So after I fluffed the cabin and unpacked the car a bit, I went outside to do just that. I figure after the long journey here, I need that more than food right now. Ah, this puts me in a zone. For years I've practiced relevé, a ballet pose where you center yourself and hold your balance while up on your toes with your arm outstretched. If I can hold this for 100 secs or use a barre for balance for 15 minutes, whatever that day might bring, it's meditative and I feel I've connected with my inner self.
In the first few hours here, I could resonate with the energetic vibration of this environment. In a visual sense, looks like a different planet. In a third eye sense, feels like a spiritual home. Things move here but, it might be awhile before you might see that with your eyes open. Close your eyes; that's the feeling of the energy of the High Desert.
There was a bit of an adjustment to my entire system for the first 3 days. First of all I had to get used to the altitude. Just driving from Arizona to Palm Springs 479' altitude, climbing up through Desert Hot Springs, to Yucca Valley to Pioneertown at 4000', and Rimrock at 4500'! (By contrast, Perkasie is about 450 ft.) I could feel the pressure. I had the last remnants of a sinus infection so it was particularly noticeable for me.
By the end of my first week here, I had risen all but one morning with the sun. It's up over the horizon but hidden behind the mountain in view from the front porch. As it makes it's gradual development of luminous pink color to coral and gold, it breaks on the mountain's silhouette with a blaze of white yellow light. The show has crescendoed and the morning has broken.
Everything is generally very still and quiet. Birds are quite vocal though, and the double hoot of the desert quail and Gambel's quail is mostly what's heard. Quite honestly they were obnoxious when I first got here, but now I love their songs and they break up the dead silence.
Day 3, 5:40 am PDT, with a cup of coffee, feeling groovy sitting on the orange, vinyl 60's chair on the front porch of the cabin. It's the early morning light on the horizon and the little light there is makes the sand look purple. I'm staring with wonder at the silhouette of the Joshua tree and shrubbery and completely zoned into to how I will execute them in my paintings --- something catches my eye ????! what do I see??? I don't know...wait...it's moving towards me at an angle from right to left at the neighbors' house about 30 feet away and now less as it's moving toward the driveway! Is it a dog? Greyhound? NO, a cat something...no camera....it's huge though...at least 3' to tips of ears!
As the beast approaches, and it's more of a smooth glide (I'm frozen moving only my eyes) it becomes clear that it is a bob-bb-bobcat! I stayed frozen for a sec or 60, then, not even afraid, I walked in the direction it went to see if it was still walking away from me. It was gone from view.
I finished my coffee with a flutter of inner excitement and appreciation for the abbreviated wild animal show I was audience to just now. Wow. Spectacular. Feeling grounded.
I go back inside to get the day started and have some breakfast. I begin to plan my outings for early morning plein air; repacking my gear in the event that I can hop out to paint for a couple hours before the temp gets too unbearable. I was ready to go when....what?...what do I see now? A roadrunner zipping by!--meep meep! Even with my camera in hand, I couldn't begin to capture it before it disappeared into the desert at the speed of light.
Side note- I love roadrunners! It's my icon for quitting cigaretting, as my son often referred to it, haha! Yes, the hypnotist had me stare at something on his bookshelf while I underwent the hypnotherapy session and there was a small object that caught my focus. I didn't know what it was until it was over and I could get a closer look at it. It worked. A 30 year habit, done. Thank you little roadrunner!
So, out here in the Wild West, as the film industry knows, there are more picture perfect locations than you could snake a rattleshake at. But where to begin, I ask you? There's a painting in every direction. Start slow, I say, pace yourself. At any time of day the view can change with the cast shadows. There's a lifetime of subject matter.
OK, how about I start at where I left off in 2014, the beginning of my oil painting hobby, and the OK Corral. As a thank you for the first visit out here to the high desert, I gave my friends and owners of the place, a small painting that I had done when I got back to PA of the OK Corral in Pioneertown. I had only been oil painting for about a year at that point and I thought my work was pretty snazzy then. LOL! It's a bit embarrassing, but reviewing older work is very helpful to me. I'm more excited than ever to paint a new challenge, even if it's a scene I've done before. I'm a much different painter now and I could easily guarantee the 2 paintings of the same subject will be quite different.
My new painting was started after a particularly beautiful sunset one evening about a few days after I arrived. Every evening I make the gorgeous drive to "Pi'town" to get images while the light is especially warm and the shadows are long. I took the reference photos and hustled back to the cabin to begin blocking in the scene while it was still attached to my retinas.
The next morning, I toned my canvas with washes of bright permanent rose and medium burnt sienna tones. Immediately I became awake to the possibilities that this painting has a little mind of it's own. So yes, it pretty much painted itself. It was a fun and fast. Felt so good to shake off that road buzz. Now time get down to some serious study of them thar hills.
Sunset at OK Corral 2021, oil on linen panel, 10x10.
The next few studies were done after a drive either in the morning or late afternoon to the locations. Typically, I shoot reference photos, sketch and make notes. I don't usually share these with people because to me they me look like I'm in elementary school and that wasn't a good look for me. However, having these handy for reference helps me tremendously, even more than the photos.
What runs through my mind as I begin a painting is kind of like a highlight reel of a few artists that I have studied with- Kenn Backhaus, Sandra Corpora, Adriano Farinella. Some of their knowledge they have imparted on me now streams through me as I approach and execute a painting. There is a myriad of questions I ask myself as I'm sketching to make some decisions easier when I'm actually standing at the canvas. Are the shadows warm or cool, is that tree necessary to the success of the composition, how can I simplify, what are the value relationships...etc. I sketch fast and sometimes don't even look down while drawing. It has to be that way, otherwise I get too bogged down in the minutia, and don't see the bigger shapes in the composition. Squint. Stand back. Contrast. Design. Finally I get a few thumbnails that I can use as guides when I'm blocking in my painting either in the field or in the studio.
I have 3 easels I'm using here now, a French easel that I found brand new at the Yucca Valley Swap Meet for $25! Score! A table top workhorse is what I use primarily, and I have my plein air pochade box. As I block in one painting, I might work on another easel to take a break for the previous. Sometimes I finish alla prima, but most paintings are works in progress until I put until my signature on the bottom and think of a title.
This painting, now in it's final stages was started plein air after I painted the the mountains in the opposite direction in Desert Hot Springs. It was a quick sketch with color notes and darks filled in. It's a 9x12 oil primed linen from Centurian which is taped with archival tape to the panel. I've been doing this lately so that I could 1/ Resize the painting by cutting it and mounting with bookbinding glue to hardboard and 2/ Stack and pack. With this, I still have to finish the water tower armature and the highlight details.
To date, there are about 20 paintings of various sizes and stages that I made in the last 4 weeks. I don't think any are quite finished yet except for the one that just sold!
I''l be posting more installments of the my time spent here in Rimrock, Pioneertown, Palm Springs, LA, and of course my trip back! Stay tuned and please comment.
Being here is an amazing "art-venture" and I look forward to each new day. I'm an open vessel for the light and inspiration that finds me as I'm standing upon these rocks and immersed in an existence, filled with wonder at the way life really is here in the High Desert of California. I appreciate the desire to observe and record in the form of painting, and am so grateful for the opportunity to be tuned into and listening to this part of the world, for at least a little while.
*I later confirmed bobcat with my new friends John Z, a Pioneertown ranch cowboy from Brooklyn, and his wife Anitra from Sweden. More about them in another blog! But after scouring through many images of wildcats, I found one that looks most like what I saw, only the one I saw was a bit grayer in color.