On a recent trip to southern California I had a morning open in my schedule and one goal in mind: seeing the Yucca Valley Material Lab in person. I'd heard rumors about its sun-bleached beauty and seen pictures on social media, but none of that had prepared me for experiencing the remarkable setting that Heidi Schwegler has been developing on a two acre site that sits halfway down a dirt road in the desert. I only had a few hours to spend there, but what I saw was a residency and teaching facility that encourages both rigor and experimentation as well as an artist that is learning how to start over while remaining dedicated to her own artistic process.
Below is an exchange between Schwegler and myself as well as photos of her work and the residency that she runs.
Schwegler's work on the grounds of the YVML.
The artist with one of her many muses.
The Semi-Finalist: Your decision to leave Portland after 20-odd years and to reinvent yourself in the desert is both bold and inspiring. Talk about committing to doing something new and what the early days of the Yucca Valley Material Lab were like.
Heidi Schwegler: Immediately following graduate school in 1998, I was fortunate to receive the studio manager position in the Metalsmithing Department at Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC), along with a few adjunct classes. I dedicated myself to OCAC, said yes to every opportunity and what began as a piece-meal job over time turned into a full-time teaching position in several departments. When the MFA in Applied Craft + Design (AC+D) was launched in 2009 (a joint graduate program between OCAC and Pacific Northwest College of Art), I began mentoring and teaching classes there. By 2013 I was promoted to Associate Chair of AC+D and ultimately Chair in 2015, where I remained until leaving Portland in 2018.
Originally "...a two-acre junkyard on the Mesa in Yucca Valley," the YVML is now an oasis for artists, rabbits, and more than a couple of Joshua trees.
I loved every minute of my multifarious career at OCAC, mostly because my position continually evolved. In a way, I remained a student, as it was important to me that I constantly discover and learn through my job and studio practice. In the AC+D program, having administrative experience was surprisingly inspiring. However, after 3 years I began to crave something new -- I no longer wanted to have the answers, I wanted to be a beginner again. It was around 2017 that I began to think about what this could mean. I admit there have been moments in my life in which I have made impulsive choices. During an overnight stay in Joshua Tree, CA in 2018, my husband and I suddenly put an offer on a house. This was not a planned event by any means. The sale fell through (thankfully), however three days later we found the house that is now our home. A two-acre junkyard on the Mesa in Yucca Valley. It needed work but it was a mid-century cinder block ranch with tons of potential, surrounded by Joshua Trees, creosote, cholla and home to jackrabbits, coyotes, road runners, lizards and rattlesnakes. A complete 180 from the Pacific Northwest. As soon as our offer was accepted, I began writing the business plan for what is now called Yucca Valley Material Lab, an artist residency and public workshop program based in the hi-desert.
The view from the water tower.
To give you a little bit more context, during my time at OCAC I was also dedicated to maintaining a full-time studio practice. Because of this, I attended residencies at MacDowell, Yaddo, 18th St Arts Center (Santa Monica), Red Gate in Beijing, Anderson Ranch Art Center and Nes (Iceland). In 2016 I was awarded a Bullseye Glass residency in Portland, which gave me a month of full-time access to their facilities, technical support and a $1500 material stipend. Glass was absolutely new for me and my success rate was about 30%. When I got over the shame of failure, I began to realize that this humbling experience had completely ignited my practice. Especially when I began to realize that the accidents were much more poetic that my original intentions! I tell you this because it has laid the foundation for YVML. This is a technical residency much like Bullseye, in that I invite artists, writers, composers and performers who are interested in learning something new for 2 – 3 weeks. And I am incredibly proud that we are now partners with Bullseye as they generously give the artists in residence material discounts and stipends.
Outdoor studio spaces and the glass grinder.
S-F: What can a resident or student expect when they come here?
HS: Artists in residence and students of the workshops can expect to be a part of a supportive community that encourages curiosity and material exploration in a Quonset facility surrounded by the desert landscape. Students are mostly local while others drive in from Palm Springs and LA (with more and more travelling in from other states). All of the workshops are geared towards the beginner, though we also cater to those with more experience. I have four campers on the property, so if they need lodging and if one is available, it’s always an affordable option for them. But being so close to Joshua Tree National Park, there are tons of Airbnb’s in the area. The artists in residence get priority over the campers: a 1977 Wilderness camper and a 2001 Nomad with private kitchenettes, showers and toilets, and a 1971 31’ Airstream and vintage Terry camper with private kitchenettes and toilets and a shared outdoor shower. Sometimes it seems it’s harder for the artist to say goodbye to their camper than the studio! Each residency lasts 1 – 3 weeks and the artists receive three hours of instruction. This gives them ample time for exploration in the studio and the surrounding region and plenty of solitude.
A resident residence- the tricked out 1971, 31' Airstream.
S-F: You mentioned wanting to offer the opportunity to work with diverse materials to a diverse group of people. How is YVML meeting this goal? And how do you plan to build on what you're already doing?
HS: In the beginning I was curious about inviting not only visual artists but those from other creative disciplines such as writers, composers and performers. I strongly believe that learning something new, and using your hands to directly explore material, image and form will allow you to reconsider habitual approaches in the creative process. Whether the resident continues with what they discover in their time at YVML isn’t a concern. I’m more interested in providing a platform through which they can take a few chances and “dent” their practice per se. If you have an opportunity to throw your process off kilter, this experience can garner inspiration and fresh insight.
As attention is being drawn to social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #metoo, and as we become more aware of the prevalence of deep political strife, I realize that YVML must be actively responsive as a young non-profit and community-based platform. Rather than rush the process, however, I feel that it is important that our response is genuine and thoughtful in order to have a sustainable and positive affect within the community. This has motivated me to begin to investigate the diversity already inherent within the region. Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been reaching out to organizations and educational institutions that may have not yet heard of YVML or whose constituents don’t have the financial means to engage with the program. Currently I am in conversation with Copper Mountain College and Los Angeles Valley College to set up several scholarships for their students. There is a relatively large Marine Corp Base in 29 Palms, a neighboring town. Because of this I have been working with Mil-Tree, a local non-profit, whose mission is “to bring veterans, active duty and civilians together through arts and dialogue to help transform the wounds of war”. I would like to have the means to offer a fully funded workshop for veterans by the end of 2021, and I will be kickstarting a fundraiser in the next month to make this and the college-based scholarships a reality.
Please keep your eyes out for our Instagram blasts on this endeavor, I’d love your support!
Schwegler's work on the grounds of the residency: "...I acknowledge that objects, whether art objects or otherwise, have been issued a conceptual death sentence the moment they enter the world."
S-F: Your own work is often about combining an appreciation for the fragility of life with materials and processes that are meant to withstand the test of time. Can you talk about your impulse to make sense of these seemingly opposite concepts?
HS: Most of my work addresses the potential for aesthetic pleasure and conceptual content found in the discards of our everyday landscape. Surveying the ignored, the abandoned, and the ruined, I acknowledge that objects, whether art objects or otherwise, have been issued a conceptual death sentence the moment they enter the world. However well-made or well-intentioned, the stuff of the world is inexorably marred by this finality. At its grandest, my work seeks to create new ways of thinking about ordinary objects and their inevitable fragmentation.
As mentioned above, I travel for residencies, and through these experiences I learned a few things about myself. As a tourist, I find that I am not interested in the designated ruin that is forever maintained and held in suspension of time. Instead, I am drawn to the peripheral ruin; the detritus that delineates the fringe of the attraction. I compulsively take note of the stuff caught in the chain link, shoved between buildings, rolling down the street and slumped in the gutter. A crushed paper cup, a single green flip flop, a twig in a hairbrush, a flattened mayonnaise packet; scattered across the sidewalk, dirtied and damaged, they play a part in this new narrative as they now float together in a living death. We recognize them for what they once were. They no longer do what they once did, and yet, they are still here; they haven’t been hauled to the dump.
Ironically, as the artificial object slides towards its organic state, I often feel that this is when it truly becomes one of a kind. The fragment, bearing its cumulative damage, can appear more loaded with meaning than when it was intact and a part of the whole. In 2002, at the Metropolitan Museum, a five-hundred year old marble sculpture of Adam fell from its unstable pedestal to the floor, shattering into hundreds of fragments. The museum was faced with a choice: either leave it broken or commit to a restoration, as if the event had never occurred. In the former case, suspending the shattered parts with an elaborate scaffolding system would render the accident as its defining moment. Instead, the museum’s conservationists and forensic specialists spent the next ten years painstakingly repairing the artwork, returning it to its near-original state. Things break. They no longer do what they were designed to do. Surface damage and wear and tear are visual cues of a thing’s history, its former life of use and purpose. My work amends broken things by recasting and embellishing their materiality. I am reproducing their original ordinariness and reorienting their presence in terms of aesthetic value.
" I seek to synthesize my own experience with the classical paradox that humans are both a part of and apart from nature."
S-F: I was really moved by your sculptures that are installed on the YVML property. The relative sparseness of the desert functions in a way that is similar to a clean, well lit gallery. By that I mean that there's a contrast that exists and it allows the work to be seen on it's own terms. In that setting, however, it's also impossible not to think about how the sculptures relate to their surroundings. Their humor and banality are front and center, with more than a hint of the apocalyptic lurking right behind them.
So...this is just a long-winded way for me to ask you how your new surroundings are affecting your process and ideas. Talk about that.
HS: Shortly after moving here, I quickly developed a connection to the numerous and varied creatures of an alien and difficult landscape: black ravens, cactus wrens, cotton- tail rabbits, coyote, green Mojave rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, great horned owls, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, lizards, owls, pigeons, quail, roadrunners, squirrels. This experience and the impact of the surrounding desert has inspired my current work under the title Zoonosis, which addresses my relationship with the wild animals living and dying on our two-acre compound.
Zoonosis is the process by which infectious diseases are passed from animals to humans through vectors that carry pathogens. Notable zoonotic diseases include anthrax, cat scratch fever, dengue fever, human immunodeficiency virus, malaria, and swine flu. Though there is little chance of contracting a zoonotic illness from our desert neighbors, I have testified to a kind of emotional zoonosis through these encounters. I seek to synthesize my own experience with the classical paradox that humans are both a part of and apart from nature: killing an animal is when we become most animal; witnessing the death of an animal is when we become most human.
Along with Zoonosis, I have been pulling older pieces out of storage in order to install them among the chollas, Joshua Trees and creosote. It’s been incredibly refreshing to see this older work in a new context that is very different from the expected white walled institution and market.
"It’s been incredibly refreshing to see this older work in a new context that is very different from the expected white walled institution and market."
S-F: What's next for both you and the residency?
HS: As if building up a compound and starting a non-profit were not enough, I have recently started a 64 square foot micro-project space on the property called Lazy Eye Gallery. I had lazy eye in both eyes as a child, and I love the seemingly oppositional relationship of the visual arts and a wandering eye. The gallery will be based in the original water tower which has been updated with a hand cast glass skylight, interior lighting and a new roof. The roof of the building is now a watch tower with incredible views.
Because of the pandemic, our workshops have nearly come to a standstill, but the residency program has exploded. We are in a rural area with low numbers in terms of the virus, and with only a handful of people on the property at a time, YVML is perceived as a safe place for artists to set their roots for a few weeks. We are now booked up until May 2021!
As for me and my studio practice, I never stop making and exploring. I am currently working on a relatively large cast concrete water feature in the shape of a crushed kiddie pool, in which distorted glass squirrels squirt water at each other from various and unexpected orifices.
The Lazy Eye Gallery will be housed in the original water tower on the YVML propery.
Below are some professional shots of Heidi Schwegler's work and the residency grounds.
You can also find Heidi...
on Instagram @heidi_schwegler and @yuccavalleymaterial;
on her website: www.heidischwegler.com;
in an online exhibit with Mark Moore Fine Art: https://bit.ly/2IJnHfX;
on the YVML website: https://www.yuccavalleymaterial.org/residencies