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February 21, 2012

I am in Lake County, Oregon at the Playa Artist’s Residency. I arrived Monday the 13th after driving across the US. I am here for two months of creativity, reflection and exploration. Over the years I have been all over the US, having at least put a toe in all of the lower 48 and this area is one the most amazing I have seen. It is as remote as it gets, full of dramatic scenic contrast and relatively unspoiled. They call this the Oregon Out Back and there is a local sense of pride in the ability to survive isolated from the mainstream. The mercantile resources we rely on back east are few and far between, emergency services are non existent and you pretty much on your own when comes to the basic necessities of life- except for what Fed Ex and UPS will deliver.

Unlike the rest of the western mountains, from the Rockies to the Sierras, this area is mostly volcanic in origin. There are ancient lava flows, remnants of volcanoes, still active volcanoes and most importantly, hot springs. Playa occupies a former Bed and Breakfast Inn and sits in the shadow of the western rim of an immense rift valley. The eastern edge of this giant basin, called the Abert Rim, is the largest uplifted cliff in the US. In the middle lies Summer lake, a shallow pool of water that conceals a broad mud flat. Depending on the season, the lake will be more mud and less water. It is so shallow that one could walk all the way across its 5 mile width, provided the mud didn’t grab hold of you and plant you in the middle. Forays onto the mudflats seem to have become a daily ritual here for most of us. In the early morning they are a frozen expanse to run across, as the sun rises the mud warms to a sticky paste that attempts to steal the rubber boots off of your feet.

I am one of 7 artists and writers here, each with our own cabin and workspace. The central lodge building has been wonderfully refurbished with an airy timber framed interior embellished by fine hand crafted details and materials that reflect the environment: pine, stone, tile in soft red blues and greens. All of the doors here are heavy hand hewn doors with whimsical rustic hardware. Even the broom closet has a stained glass door that defies it’s proletariat function. There is a modern commercial kitchen for us to use at any time and refrigerators and a pantry stocked with fine organic food. The place has a feeling of an exclusive resort but with the staff on leave so we, the guest, have free reign. For two months this is my home. It is more comfortable than any place I have ever lived.

I drove here from Upstate NY in my twelve year old Volkswagen Golf, taking a leisurely week to get here. I have driven across the States 8 or 9 times, if you count going to Colorado. Some of you have joined me on these trips. For the most part I was interested in making a straight shot across, so I stuck to the interstate until the last day. My preference is take the blue highways- those lesser traveled roads that didn’t get swallowed up by the Interstate Highway System, but the Interstates do save precious time and gas. Out west the posted speed limit is 75 miles per hour, which I had trouble even doing in my little car-out of a respect for sanity.

I really made it here without incident, not even a moment of sleepy inattentiveness. Even with twelve hour driving days the ever changing landscape unfolding before me was such an entrancing live action movie that I never got bored. Not once. I usually didn’t even listen to music. The one afternoon I was mindlessly plugged into my I Pod I almost ran out of gas on a desolate stretch of the flatlands of eastern Colorado. In my desperate search for gas I pulled into a near ghost town east of Limon where a once functioning gas station had tumble weeds latched onto the derelict gas pumps like some scene out of the movie Paris, Texas. Better to ride in silence and pay attention than to become a sad character in a movie about western existentialism.

There was one two hour stretch of white knuckle winter storm driving just east of the Continental Divide in Wyoming (the western Continental Divide- it actually splits in two, leaving a high basin that drains to nowhere in the middle). At first the road was becoming black ice because all the big trucks were compacting a thin veneer of snow into ice, then the snow started falling so fast, all one could do was to follow the truck in front of you and hope he knew where the road was. Trucks chained up at the one of the many chaining-up pull offs that served as constant reminders to what I might be getting myself into if this were not the mildest winter on record. My 2,000 lb car never felt so small surrounded by 80,000 lb rigs, yet at the same time I felt a certain safety in traveling with truckers. My years of hitch hiking gave me a certain respect for them- I believe that most would help you if you were in trouble. I make sure to let them in front of me with a flash of my lights and give them the room they need it. On this trip I often wished I could be back up there in the air cushioned cab where the view from the is much better and the ride more like an Imax movie. The horizon stretches out just that much further from 8 feet up.

For me this trip is all about the expanding horizon- both in the literal and the metaphoric sense. The experience of space out west is mind boggling compared to what we consider space back east. 50 mile vistas without any obstructions are common place. As much as there are mountains there are wide basins as flat as a pool of water. Roads cut a beeline from one range to the next. As if in mockery of the white board drawings I would employ for lessons on perspective, the telephone poles and the road they parallel recede to a single, perfect vanishing point. The details the eye picks out in the distance are so fine that capturing them with a camera is impossible- especially when one is trying to click the shutter at 75 miles an hour.  The cravings of the human eye to focus on distant objects are completely satisfied here. The element of constant motion adds to the comprehension of space. Roadside objects whizz by while distant cell towers remain motionless. These thoughts will feed my ideas and form the basis of some of the work I do here

Gone is the unfettered landscape of those first road trips I made- the earliest being when I was ten years old in the back of the family station wagon, on our way to see all of America’s great natural wonders in 6 weeks. Back then it was really miles and miles of emptiness. Now, the view is punctuated by cell towers, power lines, distant power plants, and the detritus of the extractive industries: oil,  gas and mining. Most recently, wind farms have been exploding on the Kansas prairie  As I reach for my cell phone to make another connection to home, I know I am not innocent in this plunder of the western landscape and it submission to 21st century technology and consumption. Only when I got the to Nevada- Oregon border area was there a feeling of redemption. The final 200 mile stretch of road with absolutely no civilization left me breathless but feeling small and truly alone.

The work I do here will be a rumination on the western landscape. The literal horizon, the drawing devices we use to create the feeling of space, the emptiness and industrialization of the west. My tools here are limited to what I could bring in my little car, my methodology will be challenged with, hopefully, positive outcomes. I will aim for productivity but will be happy with transformation. Getting the stuff I make home be another problem.

This an isolated place- in part the mission behind this artist’s residency- in part a limit that must be dealt with. Internet and access and wireless phone access are very limited but I will try to stay as connected as I can.


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  1. chris permalink

    great imagery. looking forward to the product of your experience.

  2. a beautiful picture you draw with your words, Rob…sounds like an expansive experience already. wish I could come visit you there, one place I’ve wanted to spend some time in since being out here. Space. And reflection. And birds. Soak it up, as much as the wonderful hot springs…

  3. Beautiful post Rob. Would really love to come down there during your break. I’ll give a call soon. How are the stars? Do they have a sauna?

  4. have still to read text – but what a warm palette to ease my weary mind. thank you dear friend!

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