The Desert

Linocuts, letterpress, paper, mesquite
2012 - 2014



The Desert Display

The Sonoran Desert is many things to many people.

A first-time visitor from a more temperate climate might understandably describe it as hot, dry and desolate. A botanist or biologist would more likely describe it as wildly diverse and brimming with life. That is the amazing thing about the Sonoran Desert; it is full of apparent contradictions: barren yet bountiful, uninviting yet comforting, immense yet intimate. These wildly diverse perspectives served as my starting point for this book arts project. Instead of imposing my own personal narrative on the viewer, I wanted the work to be able to allow the viewer to write his or her own story. “This is what the desert is to me.”

Rincon Peak
The visual framework of this project is based on 40 linocuts of places I visited in the Sonoran Desert over a two-year period. With few exceptions all locations were reached on foot, both on established hiking trails and bushwhacking. My journey took me to the pine-covered peaks of the Chiricahua, Pinaleno, Santa Rita, Santa Catalina and Rincon Mountains...

Baboquivari Mtns
to the dark and tortured canyons of the Baboquivaris, Dragoons, Galiuros and Santa Teresas...

Galiuro Mtns
and deep into desertscrub, desert grasslands and riparian areas.

Van Dyke's The Desert
The 40 linocuts are accompanied by 40 "found phrases" from the 1903 Southwestern classic The Desert, authored by art critic and university professor John C. Van Dyke. In 1898 Van Dyke began his three-year journey through the deserts of Arizona, California and Mexico. The resulting book could almost be described as a prose poem, well suited for my purposes. The found phrases were diverse enough that viewers could find text that captured their perception of the desert. For instance "Gardens of Paradise" evokes an image that is quite different from "given over to loneliness."

matching text to the linocuts
This next phase involved matching up my found phrases with my linocuts. (In the photograph the phrases, on pink post-its, are placed on the numbered linocuts.) I had many more phrases than images so the vetting process was quite involved.

matching text to the linocuts
I decided to make individual envelopes for each of the 40 linocuts using a die (see following photograph); a small circular cutout on each envelope allows part of the linocut to be seen. My found phrases were printed on each envelope using hand-set lead type and printed on a 1913 Golding tabletop platen press.

matching text to the linocuts
This photograph shows the "locked-up" die in my 1921 C&P press; the die-cut envelope can be see in the foreground. A separate die was used to cut out the circles. (For more on my linocut and letterpress process go here.)
completed envelope with linocut
This is one of the 40 completed envelopes; it rests in a hand-made mesquite base. The found text reads: "spirits of the desert"

the linocut
The linocut.

the envelope
The envelope. Text in the cutout reads: "Alamo Springs Trail, Tortolita Mountains," the location where I came across this delicate, enchanting saguaro skeleton.

a box for the project
The 40 envelopes/linocuts, 10 mesquite stands and narrative notecards (described below) fit into a hand-made box. Six sets were made, with three different box styles (below). Both manufactured and hand-made paper were used for the boxes.

three different boxes

a sample narrative
The concept is for anyone to be able to take a box and create his or her own desert narrative. (Each box contains blank narrative cards for this purpose.) This narrative could take any number of forms. As an example, I wrote a narrative called "Wandering." Incorporated into my narrative are three found phrases and their associated linocuts. The phrases are: rears itself aginst the sky, admirably fitted to endure, and quiet dignity. My "Wandering" narrative is reproduced below

"Wandering"

I lace my boots, put on my hat and pack and begin the day. It's early and a coolness can still be felt as I wander up a desert wash. To my right the last vestiges of an ancient mesquite rears itself against the sky. What stories it could tell!

The desert seems such a harsh place yet I remind myself that it is paradise to its native flora and fauna; they are all admirably fitted to endure, to call this place home.

As the sun rises in the eastern sky the earlier symphony of bird songs and calls gives way to stillness and silence. Majestic saguaros rise up giving a quiet dignity to the landscape that surronds me."


Here is the displayed "Wandering" narrative...

Wander narrative displayed

a desert haiku
Here is another narrative; it takes the form of a haiku. The poem uses three found phrases which conform to the 5-7-5 syllable haiku structure:

Great masses of form,
honey-combed by rain and sand.
All to dust again.

Here is what the haiku looks like with the associated linocuts, envelopes and notecard...

Desert Haiku displayed

What amazed me about this project was how words written by a university professor over 100 years ago still resonate today. I believe that speaks to the timelessness of wild places.

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