Endless inspiration, if you can take the heat.
Before moving to New Mexico, my only reference to Albuquerque was in Bugs Bunny cartoons as the destination arrived at only when lost. Over the past decade, I’ve lived and explored a good chunk of the Southwest—everywhere from Abiquiu to Marfa to T or C to Sasabe. And now I live in Tucson and like Bugs, I arrived in Arizona unintentionally, and fell in love.
For an artist, the Sonoran desert is beyond beautiful and infinitely inspirational.
When you are a transplant to any new place, you tend to gravitate towards other transplants. For locals, exploring is old hat. To them old haunts are uninteresting and patinated with history.
The desert southwest is everywhere and nowhere.
Then there are the intentional Southwestern transplants, those who actually wanted to move to the Southwest from New York to Los Angeles. They flock to the desert like members of a cult. You sit with them and begin to hear the fabled tales that motivated their move to the desert; the O’Keefeeian light, the Taos hum, the Sedona vortex, the Santa Fe energies all beckoning to them.
“New Mexico is very BIG in New York. It’s a thing,” a NYC transplant once told me.
For Los Angeleno transplants, the slight eastward migration is best explained a bit more practically. It’s the cost of living that can’t be beat. As an artist, you can live anywhere in the Southwest, make your art and make your rent. Arizona has everything SoCal, minus the beach (unless you count the 4 hour drive to Mexico.) Plus, it is only a quick hop on the plane back to LA, I mean civilization.
It’s true, the light is amazing. Not only is there no smog, there are also no buildings over 10 floors tall to clutter the landscape. In fact, the desert’s almost nonexistent humidity brightens the sky to a turquoise blue that Los Angelenos lust after.
Before you go renting a U-Haul in a fog of cactus infatuation, this is what you need to know about SWern lyfe.
If you have a family history of skin cancer this may not be the best place to take up plein air painting. Also, true locals WILL be annoyed by you and won’t care about your art. Do bring your art connections when you move, you’ll need them. Yes, the Southwest is a Mecca for artists, but come visit before you move, and visit in midsummer.
Remember no place is NYC except for NYC. No one wants to hear about how you can’t get a good bowl of ramen in Albuquerque. Get over it and embrace the green chile, and know that low-carb in the SW means not eating the flour tortilla on your breakfast burrito.
A great example of “Big City” culture clash with the Southwest is on the website for the Roswell Artist-In-Residence Program in Roswell, New Mexico. This residency is one of the rare family friendly residencies in the nation. The FAQs section on the site includes the question of educational options for artist spawn in the area, which is answered with: “Yes, but no fancy type schools. Just the old-fashioned public schools and a few preschools. There are a few church type schools.”
How many times do you think they had to answer that question before they had to put it on the website?
Ever heard the saying “The First World falls in love with the Third World”? Well, I feel like this exact phenomenon happens with artists and the mythical Southwest. But there is so much more than Navajo fiber arts, turquoise jewelry, and gay rodeo cowboys to entice artists to the Wild West.
And forget about the damn the light; it’s the smell that’s intoxicating. Winter in the SW is typified by the smoke of piñon wood and magical fucking candles in paper bags. And the summer’s monsoon (rainy) season is just as fragrant with the scent of the creosote bush which basically smells like rain on the concrete without having to be honked at in the city.
Ok, the light here is incredible, except when it’s not, like when the apocalyptic dust storms called haboobs engulf everything. And you better watch out because a flash flood can take out both you and your land art! New York may have rats and cockroaches but the Southwest has black widows, palo verde beetles, scorpions AND rattlesnakes. Oh, and they ALL will be in your studio.
Sure the Southwest is picturesque and endlessly inspiring for artists, but the idea of the Southwest can be starkly different from the reality.
New Mexicans playfully call the “Land of Enchantment” the “Land of Entrapment.” And rightfully so! If you are born here in relative isolation, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to leave. I heard an interview with Santa Fe-resident and actress Shirley MacLaine in which she said if New Mexico loves you here it will hold you here, but if it doesn’t love you, it will kick your ass!
For me the desert southwest is everywhere and nowhere.
It’s the only place I’ve lived where I’ve experienced both a deeply spiritual solitude and an invigorating cultural community. It’s definitely NOT for everyone. And it’s definatly not the landscape in the background of the Looney Tunes cartoon. It’s absolutely lunar and otherworldly and it won’t stroke your ego or kiss your ass. There is nothing between you and the prick of a cactus.
Plus, it’s hard to wear black here all the time, but you can try.