Painting in Joshua Tree

Nov 27 2018

Last week, Seth and I went to Joshua Tree, which is one of my favorite places on the planet. Maybe it's because I'm into all that mystical shit (birth charts, astrology, tarot) but I've always had a fascination with the unknown and damn is that feeling magnified when you're in the American desert. The sky goes on for miles and the craggy mountains always watch from a distance. The stars remind you just how insignificant you are and shit, is it quiet. So quiet. Quiet enough to hear a raven's wings flap or your distant neighbor sneeze.

The thing that draws me to the desert is intrigue and I knew I'd need to paint while visiting. You see, I am a painter of plants. I choose plants because they are generic enough to project my wild world of color and pattern on. I can paint plants without much thought. I tried to paint desert plants while at home but it was tough without actually being there so I ordered a travel easel and prepared to bring this show on the road.

Taken on the High View Nature Trail

Once we got to our cute homestead cabin, I knew that painting here would be easy. Remote nature affects your soul. It brings out feelings you don't feel in the inner city.

A little side note about our cabin:

It was built in 1956 under the Small Tract Act of 1938. This government act basically granted land to folks for a nominal fee since the desert wasn't considered economically prosperous. The cabins are sometimes known as "jackrabbit cabins" and are usually small structures sitting on 5 or so acres of vast desert expanse in the Wonder Valley area near Joshua Tree National Park. I'm fascinated by this and can see myself owning one to either live in or use as an art studio some time in the very near future. Most of the ones that are left are abandoned and need lots of work but hey – I'm up for the challenge (someday).

I started painting on our first full day at the cabin. I started in the morning, around 9am, and sat in the front "yard" of the cabin. I was immediately drawn to the small plants that dotted the walkway – purple prickly pear cacti, huge yellow and green aloe plants, giant yuccas – the first painting, titled "The Front Porch" is a literal interpretation of what I saw a few feet in front of me.

The Front Porch, 11x14 acrylic on canvas

I was really pleased with "The Front Porch" and wanted to keep the momentum going. I moved my easel to the backyard and painted the next piece in the series, "High Noon" while facing due west. I drew upon the landscape for inspiration as well as my immediate feelings. It was hot. For real. I'm wearing a tank top while painting it, which says a lot considering it was 40 degrees earlier that morning. The oranges and general warm tones come from the heat that I felt. The navy dots on the far right were inspired by an outdoor shower that the cabin had. The shower walls were made of concrete with wine bottles throughout, which gave the appearance of polka dots.

"High Noon", 11x14 acrylic on canvas

In progress!

For the rest of our stay, Seth and I woke up before dawn and sipped coffee in the hot tub. Desert mornings are real cold in November, let me tell you. It was low 30's and dark with Venus shining brightly in the eastern sky. By 6am, the horizon would glow. Some days, it would glow orange. Other days, a very light yellow. The first sunrise was on a crystal clear morning and we literally watched the fiery red sun rise over the mountains. I've never seen anything like that before and that inspired "Dawn in the Desert" which I painted immediately after sunrise, starting around 7am.

"Dawn in the Desert", 11x14 acrylic on canvas

It's weird how the next one, "Backyard Yuccas" came to be. I am primarily inspired by color and typically start a piece by deciding what the color palette will be. Without color, I'm essentially lost. After "Dawn" was finished, I knew the next one had to be yellow. Yellow is the color that you just FEEL when you are out in the desert. I had breakfast and moved my easel again (I moved locations for every painting), this time to the front yard, facing west. It was about 10:30am so the sun was to my immediate left. The sky was a clear blue and the sun was warm and welcoming. I was facing one of the largest yuccas on the property so I painted it with the yellow sky dominating the landscape. That's just how it felt. The sky was actually blue but yeah....it's hard to explain....it felt yellow.

"Backyard Yuccas", 11x14 acrylic on canvas

"Backyard Yuccas" tumbled out of my brain and onto the canvas with ease – it's the shortest painting I've done at 45 minutes. I was pretty beat after completing 2 paintings before noon so Seth and I decided to get out of the house to do some shopping in nearby Pioneertown, an Old West movie set that was home to Judge Roy Bean and The Cisco Kid (both things I've never heard of but w/e).

Near the fire after dinner

That night, Seth built a fire in our little stove outside on the back porch. Some of my clothes still smell sweet and smoky from sitting in front of this fire. Later, we stargazed (and planet gazed) from the hot tub while sipping on gin and soda. I even saw a rapidly moving satellite although I wasn't able to point it out to Seth. The next day's paintings were marinating in my mind and I knew I had to do one based on the night sky. But what? Black always feels too harsh to me and I'm not a huge fan of blue on it's own.

"Starry Night", 11x14 acrylic on canvas

The finished piece, "Starry Night, " sits above this text in glory and splendor but let me tell you, it wasn't easy. I put myself under immense pressure to perform with this series. Especially after doing four paintings that I loved, I just HAD to get two more out. That's some pressure and it will murder your creativity if you let it get the best of you.

I started with deep royal blue and accented with hot pink and bright yellow. Even though this one is inspired by the night, I wanted the vibrancy of the night desert to shine through. The night is when the desert's creatures are most active and it's hardly a dull place. Once I got the hot pink yucca finished, I took a break – on the verge of a mini meltdown.

Why? Because I was halfway done with the piece and not loving it. I took a break to have breakfast and talk with Seth, which helped me check my perfectionism and I went back to the task with a clear head and appreciation for the process. Once I started adding another layer of detail, things started to fall into place.

It was Thanksgiving day and we had planned to hike since the parks were open. So, we headed out to a trailhead that I had found in the All Trails app – turns out it was a free trail because it is *technically* not in Joshua Tree National Park! And it was perfect. A short distance (~2 miles) with a nice uphill struggle, followed by a view, followed by the most beautiful descent into a valley filled with Joshua trees, yuccas and cacti. I took a minute to sketch what I saw because I wanted it to be the inspiration for my last painting.

We got back to the cabin and Seth began cooking Thanksgiving dinner. He loves to cook (and I really don't) so he usually prepares all the delicious meals we consume together. I began the last painting and used my sketches as reference. Pressure was built up REALLY high for this one because it was last and needed to fit in / be perfect. Alas, halfway through, I started to doubt my abilities and wondered if I'd have to gesso over the whole thing.

Luckily it was dinner time and Seth prepared a little feast just for us! Seriously, look!

This is just part of the feast. TWO types of mashed potatoes, by golly!

After dinner, I finished the painting but it was rough all the way until the end. I painted over several things and kept changing my mind until finally, I felt it was done. It's hard to paint something based on an experience you've had. For me, I was trying to make this painting super accurate to the valley we were sitting in and that's hard to do with abstract art! I had to relax and insert a little of my imagination into it.

"The Valley", 11x14 acrylic on canvas

Now that the series was done, you'd think I'd take a chill pill. Nope, not just yet. I spent a bit of time hunting for frames online. You see, my friend Sal (known as Chava Mancera in the arts world) had asked me to be in a holiday show earlier in the week. I knew I wanted to submit my desert series and with installation looming in a few short days, I needed frames ASAP. Luckily, Michael's had some good frames in stock, so I secured them for pickup as soon as I was back in Chicago.

The rest of the evening flew by. Glasses of wine, games of checkers, snacks and episodes of Little Women Atlanta made my Thanksgiving extra special. In the morning, we got up at 5:30am for one final sunrise.

We got home Friday night, I grabbed the frames Saturday and the show was up by Sunday. Whew. I've never painted 6 works in 3 days but it felt like the right thing to do. The desert has a very strong pull on my psyche and making work there was truly rewarding. You can see it in the work I produced – authentically Ponnopozz. It's work I'm proud of and it wouldn't have happened without this trip. Sometimes getting away is all you need.

The final installation. From L to R: Backyard Yuccas, High Noon, The Valley, The Front Porch, Dawn in the Desert and Starry Night.

Each framed piece from my Desert Series is $250 with tax included.

If you'd like to see the final series in person, visit Cup & Spoon during business hours. The show will be up until December 31, 2018 and there are four other amazing artists on display as well. Visit:

Cup & Spoon

2415 W North Ave | Chicago

Open 6:30am - 4pm weekdays

Open 8:00am - 4pm weekends

* All of my Desert Series pieces are available as art prints in my store. Sizes 8x10, 12,x16, 16x20 and 18x24 are available, ranging from $25 - $85.

*All photos courtesy of Seth Thomas

*Special thanks to Chava Mancera for including me in the show! Check out his work here:

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