Community and Practice: Reflections on Joshua Tree

Illustration by Gavi Welbel

It was a strange experience, arriving at a house that I would be quarantined in for the next couple of months, filled with a mixture of friendly faces but mainly new ones. Unlike arriving at school or a new job where you are kept busy and structured, we were to live here and fill our days beginning with getting to know each other. 

Our Airbnb, split between twelve people all connected through college, mutual friends, and childhoods, was positioned among a grove of Joshua trees and was just a short drive from the main entrance to the park. The building itself was a hodgepodge of rooms and furniture with an absence of hallways. We developed an inventive way of turning almost every room into a bedroom, including a closet.

Although we went into these plans with the intention of having an art collective—or a residency of sorts—we soon found out that we had all come to this rumored town for very different reasons, but mainly as a relief from where we were caught during the onslaught of the pandemic, to meet people and find our creativity again. 

The town met and exceeded all of the expectations and reputation people had created before arriving: the inventive building techniques, the gorgeous and almost prehistoric views and sites, and people who had settled here for their own interesting reasons. Having grown up in Santa Fe, a different kind of desert but with its own silence and solitude similar to Joshua Tree, I had some preparation for this kind of landscape. But my counterparts, many of whom had never been to the West Coast, were met with a very new and stark way of life compared to busy cities or suburban neighborhoods. The ever-present sun and the clear, starry sky was something to behold, and we all began to neglect the nighttime to get up early for the sunrise. We were met with a lot of generosity from our neighbors, including one who was rarely seen wearing clothes and we later discovered had a key to our house. 

Everyone had different schedules during the day. Whether it was working on-site in town, remotely from the house, taking online classes, or trying to produce artwork, we all seemed to find sources of productivity as well as its challenges. 

It was my first time having allocated time to make work that was not structured by an institution or timelines. It was all me and my motivation. I put lots of pressure on myself, almost like it was a test for the rest of my life as an artist, but although I finally found a kind of peace that I hadn’t been able to achieve in a long time, even before the pandemic, it was still hard to find inspiration or even meaning in painting in this moment of crisis or to be able to enjoy the peace without feeling guilt and shame for my opportunity.

I found myself planning, collecting, and thinking a lot more. But when everyone began to find their groove and comfort with each other in this new scenery, projects and discussions began to pop up all over and things began to feel meaningful and exciting. No one was wildly productive, meaning we didn’t come out of it with a full portfolio or a series ready to hang in a New York City art gallery, far from it. Instead there were lots of unfinished projects and ideas in the works, and largely a feeling of meaning that didn’t coincide with finished products or even tangible things at all. What was so powerful was the community—being surrounded by others who saw that what you were doing did mean something, that productivity didn’t mean being successful or making money, but instead just being surrounded by people and feeling heard, something so rare today. 

Art can feel so vacuous at times, especially when made in solitude or for a grade or applause. But what made the experience so special and something I want to pursue in my life, was the community: not feeling alone in this scary discipline and producing work, not just for yourself, elevation in society, or fame, but in order to feel like you’re giving and receiving from people. Listening and sharing. 

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