Capturing the Mojave Desert

Painters, Photographers, Poets, and More Invited to Artist-in-Residence Program

A spring scene from the Mojave National Preserve

Matt Kettmann

A spring scene from the Mojave National Preserve

There are plenty of acute instances of beauty and wonder to be found in the Mojave National Preserve: obscure, Seussian flowers emerging from lonely, hardscrabble succulents; chaotic rock art surrounding mysteriously deep watering holes; abandoned mines littered with forgotten tools and shiny tailings; sharp mountains jutting violently from the subtly rolling flatlands; columns of sunlight piercing through the crusted earth to illuminate the circular walls of an underground lava tube. But the overall impression that this desert expanse just west of the California-Nevada border gives is of a collective vastness: From proper vantage points, the landscape simply goes on forever, making one feel materially insignificant and yet cosmically connected at the same time.

How to convey as much in art, photography, and poetry is the charge of the Mojave National Preserve Artists Foundation, which hosts work by the latest artist every 60 days in the Desert Light Gallery inside the Kelso Depot visitor center. The selected artists stay in the adjacent town of Baker, but by later this summer, the foundation hopes to have rooms at the centrally located Ox Ranch ready for use.

“The major advantage is that it’s in the middle of the preserve, so they don’t waste a lot of windshield time driving from Baker to wherever they are going to photograph or paint,” said Foundation President Bob Killen. “If you’re staying at the Ox, you are about 20 miles from anything you’ll want to do.”

Artists typically stay in the Mojave Preserve — which is the National Park Service’s newest preserve, and the third largest Service property in the lower 48 — for two to four weeks and then have about a year to complete their project. Once ready, it hangs in the gallery, where pieces are sold (there as well as online) with a 50-50 split to the artist and foundation.

The foundation has hosted numerous photographers, painters, and poets, as well as the occasional sculptor and even basket weavers. “We primarily focus on the art that’s going to create an educational link with the public and the preserve,” said Killen. “We want people to be able to see and interpret the desert in a much higher order through the eyes of the artist.”

Himself an accomplished photographer, Killen also owns National Park Photography Expeditions, which runs five-day masterclasses to the Mojave and seven other national parks/preserves for aspiring photographers. “They stay in the field with me for five days learning advanced landscape photography,” said Killen, who usually takes six to eight students and donates some proceeds to help support the artist-in-residence program.

Bob Killen will discuss both the National Park Service’s artist-in-residence program (1-1:45pm) and his National Park Photography Expeditions (2-3pm) at Samy’s Photo School (530 State St.) on Sunday, May 21. See nppemasterclass.com and mojaveair.org.

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