Noah Purifoy

The Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum, in North Joshua Tree, is a priceless treasure.

Purifoy fascinates me because of his background in social work. He was both a major artist and a significant figure in community programs and education. He was also a sophisticated, erudite artist who, according to everything I’ve learned about him, did not get caught up in the politics and materialism of the art world.

He is my favorite American artist. I am not an art historian, but I am an enthusiastic amateur admirer of art, and until recently I had three favorite artists: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Van Gogh. I now have four.

The Outdoor Museum rewards repeat visits as a great book rewards multiple readings. This time when we arrived, a woman introduced herself as the caretaker, Pat. She handed us new brochures and welcomed us to the site.

We started with “Carousel,” one of my favorite pieces – a round “building” decorated inside with a collection of 1980s-era computer parts. Near “Carousel” is my very favorite piece at the museum: “Ode to Frank Gehry,” at right below.


I read this piece as both homage and critique. Yes, Purifoy pays tribute to the “starchitect,” but he also seems to chip away a bit at Gehry’s mystique – I can do that, too, Purifoy seems to be telling us.

This was the piece that made me a Purifoy admirer when we first visited the Outdoor Museum a few years ago.

The eastern end of the Outdoor Museum has two pieces that especially resonate with me: “Adrian’s Little Theater” (left) and “Gallows.”

“Adrian’s Little Theater” is one of two theater-themed assemblages at the Outdoor Museum. (The other is next to Carousel.) The presence of two such pieces on the property suggests how important the one-time Watts Art Center director believed such public performance spaces were.

“Gallows,” on the other hand, is chilling in its perfection. It is furthest east of the pieces; of all the pieces at the Outdoor Museum, it appears to me to be the most sturdily-constructed. I am not sure if it was constructed from cast-off items, as the rest of Purifoy’s pieces here are, but it appears as though it could have been constructed by a contractor sourcing his items from the local hardware store. That the artist who was born under Jim Crow in Alabama placed this symbol of state-sponsored violence in his desert wonderland seems significant to me. It is as though he wants to tell us that hatred and violence are, like the gallows, sturdily constructed; it seems to be a warning that evil can follow us wherever we go.

“Shelter” is another piece that challenges me. All of Purifoy’s work is constructed of cast-off items, but here the trash feels like trash.

Irene Rible writes that this piece was “made from the charred remnants of a neighbor’s burnt down house and filled with all the manifestations of poverty that Purifoy knew so intimately from his time as a social worker.” I think this sense of the “manifestations of poverty” is what I find so unsettling about this piece. A sign that reads “Kids World,” strategically placed as a sort of welcome mat at one opening reminds that this is the world of many children–bare shelter and little else. Though I don’t especially enjoy looking at this piece, I think I need to spend time with it: when a work of art bothers me this much, it’s a sign that I need to pay attention to it.

On a happier note, the witty “Library of Congress” ends my post. The reading room may not be the most up-to-date, but as you can see from the photo at bottom right, the view is hard to beat!




Spring Break

After a challenging March, it was a joy to get out of town and unwind.

Big Bear

Marlene’s boss very generously offered us his cabin for free for the weekend, so we drove up on Friday and stayed till Monday.

Big Bear 2
Manzanitas outside the cabin

I spent part of the time finishing my work while Marlene read and watched “Arrested Development”; the other part we spent exploring the area. We had good beer at Big Bear Brewing Company, good Sichuan food at Dynasty, and good Indian/Nepalese takeout from Himalayan. We also went down to the lake and watched ducks for a bit.

On Monday, as we were getting ready to leave, the winds picked up. We finished our packing, drained the water pipes, and stopped at the Vons before heading down the mountain.  Marlene got this picture of the snow on the hillside as we were leaving the Vons parking lot.


Black Rock Campground

The winds remained strong as we moved from mountain to high desert along Routes 18 & 247, and kept on as we somehow set up camp and pitched our tent between two Joshua trees. Not sure if we could build a fire or even light the propane stove, we had a simple dinner of sandwiches and bunked down early. We did get a peek at the gorgeous night sky when we left our tent to use the bathrooms just after nightfall.

The wind howled through the night; the weather report posted outside the ranger station said that gusts of up to 55 mph were expected, and I believe it. I slept in my hooded sweatshirt, hood on, and could feel the cold from the wind blasts on the parts of my head and face that weren’t covered by cotton or beard.

Tuesday morning, however, though not windless, was much calmer, with wispy clouds. We woke up at about 6:30, after dawn, when the sun had not yet risen behind the ridge to our east, and the campground was bathed with understated early light.

We had breakfast and coffee, then went over to the Nature Center, where we bought a water bottle for Marlene and a copy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire for me.  We went for a short hike along the High View Nature Trail and then spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and reading.

Around 5, we realized that our single bundle of firewood wouldn’t be enough to keep a fire going, so I drove into Yucca Valley for more.  Unfortunately, almost as soon as I got back, it started to rain!  It rained for an hour, but we (mostly Marlene) managed to keep the fire going.  After the sun went down, it was still cloudy, but the quarter or so of sky that was clear was brilliant with stars.

We broke camp on Wednesday morning and headed to Desert Christ Park.