“Has Joe Doe checked out yet?? An artist checks in…”
This essay apeared in the ’06 winter edition of “Road Notes News,” a publication of the Society for Commercial Architecture.
Welcome to Arizona! Now, go home – just kidding.
The Arizona desert is an artist’s paradise of just plain strange: a mesmerizing deposit of natural and cultural extremes. Stark naked layers of rock bake in brutal clarity. Agave and cacti will stab the unwary with little provocation. Violent flash floods with storms of howling grit punctuate long dry spells. What’s not to like? This is where the storied Western Frontier meets the Weirdness Frontier: the OK Corral of Vortex Loonies looking for the next “Indian” Casino via Route 66. Here, urban street canyons of commercial architecture mirror stresses that define the surrounding desert: periodic flash floods of development funds scour and reshape the streets, (Think: “built to be bulldozed.”) leaving isolated old motels standing long enough to erode a bit and develop a patina of graffiti before they’re washed away. These remaining motels, inhabited by very prickly forms of human life, are the lodestones of my artwork.
An artists life is a calling analogous to that of a desert hermit in search of spiritual clarity. To borrow a bit of wisdom from the Desert Fathers: “being a hermit is like building a fire. At first it smokes and your eyes water, but later, the smoke disperses and you get the light and heat.” The Arizona motel is my desert monastic cell (Actually they chose me, but more on that later.) where I struggle with my artist’s tools to disperse the smoke.
When I first laid eyes on the The Home on the Range Motel in Bowie, it had everything: extensive (broken) neon, vivid pseudo “Indian” decorative tilework, painted office/gift shop, pool, (reduced way down to a trashy brown sauce) a few dried out totem poles, (Out of the original 44! In the Southwest??) a kindly but eccentric grizzled elderly caretaker, and hideous big red ants everywhere underfoot. Someone had given up trying to renovate it in midbrick. It had that forlorn, garbage and bullet riddled look that only squatters can bestow, and it was love at first sight. Naturally, by the time a motel reaches this state, its neighbors just want to call dead animal pickup to get rid of it ASAP. Seen with an artist’s vision, these things have a compelling beauty that attracts and repels with equal force.
Artists often have “inappropriate” emotional responses to things; part of our minds is permanently hardwired to continually analyze everything for aesthetic potential. A painter may complicate a personally painful moment by noting the subtle color shifts in the skin of a dying loved one. Flashes of this kind often give us a visitor’s detachment from our own lives. The motel as a concept resonates powerfully with that type of perception, but doesn’t explain my passion for pilgrimages throughout Arizona to gather images of over 600 Arizona motels. Even the ghostly traces of the deadsters in old Sandborn maps glow with possibilities in my eyes. The garbage, gangs, illegal aliens, crime, and drug zombies infesting motels like the Home on the Range speak eloquently of accelerating decay on the edges of Western civilization; and by implication, within. It goes beyond the mere changing of traveller’s tastes for classier overnight digs. It’s just a matter of scale: I’m observing the subtle shift of colors across the skin of motels built by a culture brave enough to put a man on the moon in a ship with a computer that didn’t have the memory capacity to handle my current email signature, as it decays into one that’s afraid to label a terrorist a terrorist. Somebody poisoned the water hole. Finding beauty and meaning in the decay is much, much scarier than the giant red ants.
Initially it was the shapes that hooked me; they sparkled with personality. Each motel with it’s turquoise pool: a bright string of oases across a dull maze of strip malls. Each big sign a Googie Monument Valley spire with a *T*H*E*M*E* (ersatz Polynesian to Native American to Mom’s Apple Pie to Atomic Space Age Modern.) And then of course the names, the cultural history, the structural variety, the little light bulbs, the sinuous neon, the cheeky color palette outside, (and inside) the glitter popcorn ceilings, the pictorial wallpaper…this is so embarrassing …. the cheesy all-night office/cafe/gift shops of candy, smokes and soda pop, copper doodads and phony “Indian” tschokes – all of this gradually crept into my attention by stealth. I didn’t even notice it happening until I caught myself tearing my hair out trying to fit an Arizona Motel into a painting that had nothing to do with them. It was time to join the Tempe Wigwam Memorial Chorus for a hearty rendition of “History ain’t worth a Plumb Nickel.”
Facing up to the depth of my Arizona motel passion was as awkward as Joe Doe trying to find excuses for dating an ugly chick. Then the Hard Work started: the reordering of perception through the lens of that motel focus, the evolution of awareness/analysis of their physical and aesthetic features, along with the evolution and impact of these things in determining media most appropriate for expressing their metaphoric potential within in context of the mythic and real Southwestern frontier. Driven to work with my hands means figuring this out organically, by making things, with no AAA approved road map for getting from tawdry to timeless. All I did know, was that if I did my job well enough, I might eventually produce something crystallizing an accidental meeting of place, time, materials and individual perception that would capture something intrinsically true enough to each one of these things to transcend them all.
Maybe on black velvet….
Time out for a confession: when I enter an art exhibition, (mine included) I’m looking for something, anything, compelling enough to survive the first post-mortem garage sale coming after Joe Doe the art owner dies. And the next sale.
And the one after that.
A whimsical artwork can have the same survival potential as a serious one. (Think: “built to be bulldozed.”) Motel survival rates sometimes reflect this dynamic. One motel owner/manager who purchased a “classic period” motel in Globe told of receiving an unexpected visit from the motel’s architect who literally *cried * when he saw that the place was still standing and well cared for. Do the ghosts of the things we build end up with the missing left socks somewhere??
Just in case the ghosts have to pass through the zombie stage first, I “built” some myself. It was a labor of love. Muscle by muscle, over 120 Phoenix area motel signs were form fitted into a three dimensional anatomical puzzle purely on faith that this “construction” might become something more than an elaborate exercise in human anatomy and color balancing. Four distinct personalities eventually emerged: Florian, Barbara, Del Rio and Angela. I never know what to expect from these culture ghosts or when they’ll next “appear” in a vision for an artwork, or how they’ll want me to depict them. That’s all part of the creative risk: if I can’t be surprised while I’m working, then I’m not working hard enough. Predictable art is just smoke in the eyes.
Further creative risks were lurking in the motel gift shop: the “harmless” tourist tschokes. These, specifically the fake “Indian” beadwork variety, haunted my subconscious and now manifest themselves in my work. The tedious beading hours are a struggle with the equivalent of that annoying kid in the back seat of my mind periodically yelling “Are we there yet??” Within the crucible of concentration required for beadwork a new meditative window opened up on the shapes that initially made the motels themselves so attractive. It felt like coming home again, with a new paradox in the aesthetic relationship between the inherent transience of the subject (there are multiple facets to that) and the large time investment required to create the art. It’s almost funny, given that the attention span of today’s average art viewer is currently rated at around five seconds. Just ask your nearest web designer. . .
Sadly, the Sun Villa Motel in Phoenix will be checking out soon. The lot has been scalped down to bare dirt, leaving the sign and motel office. Am hoping to get a quick photograph of what’s left without getting shot at again before it’s completely gone. It will live on, for a little while longer, in its new “permanent” location at Teres Major and Infraspinatus. Hopefully, Joe Doe won’t throw the painting away just yet.
Thanks for checking in.