The Joshua Tree Lifecycle: Many Years Growing

JUST BEFORE THE RAINS CAME this late October, I found myself completing a series of paintings I have been occupied with creating during the past three years. Joshua Tree 5, the life-size, 3-dimensional painting of a Yucca Brevifolia at its peak maturity, was completed on October 27, 2016, outside my studio in Ojai, California. This completion marks the end of a pursuit to artistically interpret and depict the growth cycle of the Joshua Tree, a unique and now threatened species native to the California desert. The painting’s completion occurred just in time to bring its 8′ x 6′ frame indoors (now crammed in the corner of the living room behind my pearlescent Gretsch drumset)–for as I write this, drought-stressed Southern California is receiving much needed rain from the heavens.

Joshua Tree 5 / 2016 / mixed media on canvas / 96" x 72"
Joshua Tree 5 / 2016 / pencil, elastic patching compound, and oil on raw canvas / 96″ x 72″

The California desert landscape is inevitably a part of my experiential DNA. From traversing its expanse via the 395 for my pilgrimage to the Eastern Sierras nearly every year of my life, it has been irrevocably integrated into my nervous system and genetic (un)conscious awareness. Through the window of a moving vehicle I would watch them come and go, their home a vast stage upon which a centuries-long dance has been choreographed, unfolding in slow-moving time. During my first visit to Joshua Tree, California on October 12 of 2013 for a High Desert Test Sites event, I was once again enamored with the plant, entranced by each individual’s charisma dancing in the slowest of movements, snowflakes taking decades to melt. Within my wanderings that day in October, I centered in on this specific individual, which formed the basic reference for Joshua Tree 5:

The catalyzing individual for the series and muse for Joshua Tree 5. Photo taken October 2013 in Joshua Tree, CA

After returning from that brief journey into Joshua Tree turf, I devised the first rough schematics for the series in November of 2013:




In mid April of 2014, I returned to Joshua Tree, my blue 1990 Volvo packed with art supplies and a blank 6′ x ~4′ canvas. I then haphazardly drove down tributaries of random dirt (sand) roads, seeking the perfect Joshua Tree to enlist as my subject for the first of 8 painting endeavors. Somewhere, rooted out in the middle of nowhere, off the driven path somewhere near but out of sight of the Integratron, I found the one. I set up my station, and began capturing it. After hours of absorbing hot unforgiving sun, canvas absorbing paint, me absorbing Joshua Tree spirit via nervous system, I had enough absorbed to return to the studio and complete the painting.

Beginning stages of Joshua Tree 3 in April 2014, the first painting of the series to be created
Beginning stage of Joshua Tree 4 in Joshua Tree, CA, April 2014. This was the first painting to be created, though it is no. 4 in the series
Joshua Tree 4 / 2014 / acrylic on canvas / 72" x 43"
Joshua Tree 4 / 2014 / acrylic on canvas / 72″ x 43″

It wasn’t until Spring of the subsequent year (after having moved back to Ojai after living in a strange, outsider place outside of Santa Clarita) that I was able to continue developing the series, on March 1st 2015 devising these schematics and estimates:


At some point soon after I amassed the materials necessary, and, with the gracious help and knowledge of my father, constructed 7 canvases in the raw with redwood 1″x2″s (a wood which could, like the Joshua Tree itself, become rarer as climate change continues), yards and yards of raw cotton canvas, a gallon of gesso, and dozens of staples. Indeed, making art from scratch is an alchemical process of transmuting base materials into higher forms of existence and awareness.

Blank canvases, ranging from 8′ x 6′ to 8″x8″

Then on March 17th 2015, traveling in the family’s Lance c(r)amper with my father and 6 of the 7 blank canvases of varying but specific sizes (leaving behind the largest, for practical reasons), a large easel and the necessary art tools, I returned to the desert–this time to a closer and more familiar location: Red Rock Canyon State Park. I was pleased to find many a fine Joshua Tree specimens there to inform the rest of the series.

Brainstorming schematics post-plein air, in the sketchbook, to be used in the studio
The Muse and the Work
The Muse and the Work at Red Rock Canyon
The intermediary at work/play (photo Charles Evans)
Joshua Tree 3 / 2016 / oil on canvas / 48″ x 20″
(The decline) Joshua Tree 6 in progress
Joshua Tree 6 in progress
Joshua Tree 6 / 2015 / oil on canvas / 40″ x 40″
Joshua Tree 7 in progress
Joshua Tree 7 / 2015 / acrylic, india ink, enamel on canvas / 30″ x 73″

Although 3 years may seem like a stretched-out time-expanse within which to complete 8 paintings (granted, within that time span I worked on and completed many other works and several series, including the major Big Bugs), this amount of time constitutes perhaps  0.02% of the average lifespan of a Joshua Tree. According to the National Park Service, the average lifespan is estimated to be 150 years–but there are certainly individuals who are much older, reaching upwards of 300 years!

So (alas) I am but a short-lived small-fry in the shadow of this magnificent species, individuals of which were born before me and will (hopefully) continue after I am gone!

Well, perhaps my smallness isn’t that sad–but what is unnerving is the growing fragility of these natives within their habitat, Yucca Brevifolia now being classified as a threatened species (U.S. Forest Service). This is due to factors ranging from deliberate human destruction (i.e. the removal of over 200,000 trees in the 1980’s for ‘development’), to unavoidable climate change (currently the drought being the most significant offender). According to recent investigations into their well-being, “Many Joshua trees in the region have not reproduced in decades. If warmer, drier conditions continue, scientific modeling suggests the symbols of California’s deserts will lose 90% of their range in the 800,000-acre park and surrounding terrain by the end of the century”  (Los Angeles Times). As with many other desert creatures, their specific environmental needs, slow growing patterns, and particular lifecylce inhibit their ability to adapt quickly to change. Though it has existed since the era when gigantic sloths roamed the earth (Wikipedia), its continuation as a species on Earth is currently at stake given the current circumstances. I wonder if the Prophet Joshua, whom the pioneering Mormons named the plant after (Desert USA), could have prophesied this fate, its home a Promised Land of its own.

Red Rock Canyon, in full bloom after mild spring rains, March 2015

Three years ago, when the initial spark of inspiration was ignited and I began The Joshua Tree Lifecycle, I was not aware–nor was it within the awareness of the general public–that the fate of Yucca Brevifolia is at stake. At the time, I sensed the Joshua Tree to be an iconic, completely unique and unrepeatable entity, the beauty of which merits attention, appreciation, awareness, and ultimately conservation. It has been just within the past year, during the bulk of my work on the series, that the Joshua Tree was brought under the umbrella of the Endangered Species Act. I hope my artistic efforts will be a vehicle for increased awareness and appreciation of their enigmatic beauty as an irreplaceable icon of the Southern California desert.

Joshua Tree 2 / 2015 / acrylic on canvas / 24″ x 20″

Before and after it all, there is the inevitable reality of timelessness: of fractal movements which spiral up and out but which always double back on themselves, as demonstrated by this Polaroid, taken at an indefinable time:

A blast from the…..present?!? #doeslinearhistoryexist?

The Lifecycle, start to finish

See the complete series on my website here

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