Ralph Bacerra’s Exquisite Beauty

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This summer the art news in LA has been about a giant, private collection housed in a sparkly new downtown gallery: The Broad. In the same time frame hundreds, no probably more like thousands, of smaller shows opened across the city and region, befitting the powerhouse that is the LA environs art scene.

I found myself drawn to 2 new exhibits celebrating ceramic history in Los Angeles. A history told through the prism and influence of Master Ceramicist and Teacher, Ralph Bacerra.

Primary is Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty at the Ben Maltz Gallery, on the West LA Otis campus, a retrospective of 90 pieces showcasing the career of the Garden Grove born artist and teacher.

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A faculty member at the Chouinard Art Institute from 1963-71, he headed the ceramics department at Otis College of Art and Design from 1983-96, in a career that spanned 5 decades.

Enrolling at Chouinard in 1957, he studied graphic design, with a view to pursuing a career in Commercial Art. However, one elective seminar with pioneering studio potter, Vivika Heino changed everything and a new pathway emerged.

“I started to get more serious working with the wheel and the clay and the glazes. I said ‘this is for me’.This is where I want to be and I dropped everything and switched my major to Ceramics.”

With his mentors move to the Rhode Island School of Design, Bacerra became head of the Ceramics program.

A lifelong exploration of historic asian ceramics, textile and print designs and finely honed technical expertise became the beautiful vessels and sculptures that comprise the exhibit.

His work represents pursuit of beauty for beauty’s sake. Expressed in all forms, organic, geometric, traditional or sculptural and always a surface replete with pattern, color, composition and design.

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Not for Bacerra the prevailing exploration of the “humble pot”, the creamy earth toned stoneware with brushstroke calligraphy in a nod to Japanese folk art:much approved of in the 50’s and 60’s! Moving forward with glaze technology and drawing upon his earlier background in commercial art, he experimented with raised clay designs on his stoneware and then shifted to porcelain and white ware, where his increasingly complex and overglazed decoration could shine.

“China Painting” as it was referred to, had become the province of Women’s Art Clubs and hobbyists, ironic given the historic gravitas and tradition of similar techniques. A growing movement celebrating color and embellishment and drawing upon these derided techniques influenced and encouraged Bacerra.

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This retrospective shows the move from simple green & white or blue & white graphics to dizzyingly complicated patterns:patterns and techniques drawn from Asian ceramics, persian painting, middle eastern textiles and MC Escher’ designs. Kandinsky, Klee and Klimt all on display at the Pasadena Art Museum were particular favorites.


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He perfected increasingly difficult firing schedules to accommodate  the complex and multilayered combinations of glazes.Curator and Author of Ralph Bacerra Exquisite Beauty, Jo Lauria notes:

“As many as 14 firings were required for a single object and the labor intensive process was fraught with potential for breakages and flaws in the kiln.”  ..a 50% loss rate apparently.

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His tenure at Chouinard and Otis mentored an impressive number of students who follow in his footsteps.

The second exhibit celebrating Los Angeles’s storied clay history is Crossroads in Clay at Chouinard and Otis: The Ralph Bacerra Years, a group exhibition featuring more than thirty former students of the artist.

This exhibit, concurrent with the Ben Maltz show is at the Vincent Price Art Gallery, on the East LA  College campus.

It is an historic review, connecting the skills of the teacher (Bacerra) to the ceramic art of the students he mentored and a rare opportunity to see works created by these heirs of Bacerra’s tutelage. Many are now prominent artists in the field.

He challenged students to critically evaluate and recreate historic glazes and forms as part of their education and believed strongly in technical mastery and craftsmanship.

The show includes more than fifty artworks that demonstrate differing approaches, aesthetics and practice.Some retain a direct relationship to Bacerra and others are headed in alternate and innovative directions.

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A beautiful full-color catalogue, written by Jo Lauria and produced by the Ben Maltz Gallery accompanies Exquisite Beauty. And Crossroads in Clay curator, Christy Johnson has contributed an original essay discussing the lasting impact Bacerra had on his students.

Otis has also produced 2 “rolling clay” tours ( October and November) which travel to many of the ceramic artist’s studios featured in the Crossroads exhibit. 

A joy to explore Bacerra’s beauty for beauty’s sake .

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The Prairie Skyscraper

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In the soft and green rolling hills of Osage County, described by TV’s Pioneer Woman as the ‘middle of nowhere’ is Bartlesville, Oklahoma: the oil capitol, headquarters of Phillips 66 and the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s only skyscraper.

Price Tower, named for pipeline company owner Harold Price, is one of only 2 vertically oriented structures Wright built in a lifetime of low slung, horizontal buildings

A road trip detour, after I’d read about the Prairie project sent me to explore Osage County and check out Price Tower.

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It’s situated a little out of the original downtown. Not too close to other tall buildings and in a funky office neighborhood with company headquarters, old shopfronts and a noisy restaurant or two.

To see these lovely older buildings in Bartlesville, is to understand the power of the oil and gas industry in Northern Oklahoma. In 1904, just 7 years after the first well was dug, there were 150 oil companies with an office in Bartlesville!

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Price originally envisioned a one to four story structure, possibly designed by Cliff May who had already built a home for the family. His sons, however, were influenced by local architect Bruce Goff to get the absolute ‘best architect….Get Frank Lloyd Wright’.

After a phone consultation, and in the thrall of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” the family traveled to Taliesin West in Phoenix where Harold was impressed to note that the house Wright had built was 35 years older but similarly modern to the family’s May home! FLW convinced them that a tower would cost no more per square foot than a small boxy office building, and pitched a multi use concept with rental office suites and apartments along with the corporate headquarters. Brilliant salesmanship.

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By late August 1952 with the site secured, Wright began work on the plans. It grew to a 19 story tower rising from green parklands and tree lined streets.The metaphor of “a tree that escaped the forest” was consistent with his use of green copper vertical shutters, and a tall slender structure. 

At the International Petroleum exposition in Tulsa, Wright unveiled a model and announced the project. The May 1953 event drew 250,000 visitors, many oil executives, fellow oil producers and Price’s clients. Lots of buzz.

Construction, with the inevitable cost overruns, was completed and the building opened to the public in February 1956.

It was the most famous new building in America, with visitors coming from around the world to see Wright’s Prairie skyscraper. Although tall buildings were nothing new, multi-use high rise offices and apartments, particularly outside  the major cities, were unusual.

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Visiting now, the coolest thing about Price Tower is that it contains a hotel, operated by the non profit that runs the building and adjoining art center (designed by Zaha Hadid). Not luxurious but a singular Oklahomey Frank Lloyd Wright experience with a ‘behind the scenes’ docent tour as part of the deal.

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So you stay in one of the corner suites, travel in one of the 4 minuscule triangular elevators ( 2 people and a small suitcase max!) and then hang out in the Copper Bar and cocktail as the sun sets over the prairie. The crowd is eclectic…lots of young IT professionals who work for Phillips 66, design aficionados who drive to Bartlesville specifically to stay in and photograph the building and itinerant academics and workers who are tired of the hotel chains. 

Over Manhattans we met a Navajo linguist who gave us a list of out of the way sites to explore, visitors from Tulsa celebrating an anniversary and sharing lots of Osage legend: like where George Clooney liked to eat during the filming of “Osage County” ( Frank and Lola’s), what the Pioneer Woman is REALLY like, how the Tom Mix museum is the most fun museum in the county and be sure not to miss the Bison Preserves.

So much good stuff!

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http://www.pricetower.org

Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers

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I was asked why I decided to spend 6 weeks hiking from France to Spain along the famous Camino de Santiago, and was amazed to hear the words ” I’ve never done a big thing and I really wanted to” come out of my mouth.

When I read that Simon Rodia had said much the same when asked about his Watts Towers I recognized the sentiment.

“I wanted to do a big thing and so I did it.”

I first glimpsed the Towers from the Blue Line enroute to downtown LA from Long Beach, but the neighborhood, post 1992 riots  seemed scary. The newspaper photographs from the 1965 unrest flashed through my mind and slowed me from exiting the train. Poetic images of the Towers would appear in magazines, cameos in movies and video games would nudge me to visit, but it took a decade before I finally drove down the tiny streets in Watts to explore.

A big thing in Roddia’s life but almost lost in the suburban megacity that is Los Angeles.

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The triangle block is surrounded by small single story homes, an abandoned trolley line runs close by, there’s a small park and remnants of historic 20’s architecture when Watts was a solidly middle class suburb. A suburb growing because of railway lines and jobs and proximity to downtown LA.

Construction worker and immigrant Rodia moved into Watts and built his unique structures from rebar, his own concrete mixture, railway detritus and broken soda bottles and ceramic seconds. Neighborhood kids earned money by “sourcing” the decorative elements.

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He built in the evenings, after a days work and often walked 20 miles to Wilmington, along the tracks to find materials. He used no electricity or cranes, but constructed each component by hand.

The towers climb 100 feet into the air. And the project took 33 years in all.

I’m drawn to experience these solitary artistic endeavors.The innate sadness versus the fantastical and exuberant, and the physical scale and decades of labor tug like no other art.

I’m reminded of other outsider art constructions: Hermit’s Cave in Griffith, NSW , Forestiere Underground Garden in Fresno and Salvation Mountain near the Salton Sea.

And I think of artists who’s work I love, totally different mediums but very often huge scale and for me, strong emotional impact like James Turrell, Michael Heizer and Christo.

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Rodia left Los Angeles in 1955 never to return. He “quit” the site, apparently exhausted by City threats and permit issues, and after a fire destroyed his bungalow, plans were underway to demolish the towers.

In a serendipitous and magical encounter, an actor and a film editor, having seen the towers and knowing of their abandonment and impending destruction, bought the site from the neighbor and set in process the saving of Rodia’s life work.

To quote Wikipedia : The Watts Towers or “Nuestro Pueblo” are considered one of Southern California’s most culturally significant public artworks.They are one of nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The towers were also designated a California Historical Landmark in 1990.

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The towers are surrounded by a 10ft chain link fence. There is need for continuing restoration but they are not crumbling or in a state of devastation. In fact, on a clear spring day the crazy Gaudiesque towers, ceramic walls, ships and fountain shapes sparkle with seashells and colorful broken china.

Parking and seeing from the street is free but supporting the small Art Center and taking the $7 guided tour is a good thing. Unless you live totally behind gates or in a secluded, perfect and remote place , the neighborhood is fine. A little scruffy in places, but also cheery and cute around the Towers and along the street. Neighbors have decorated in honor and admiration of the art piece they live next to.

This brilliant and unique folk art is visited by 45,000 visitors a year, mostly overseas tourists and school groups.The Watts Towers may be the finest example of LA outsider art AND an international icon but the least visited by people who live locally.

Los Angeles is an art, design and architecture magnet. Full of singular, iconic buildings and neighborhoods and cool places to explore.

Another really big thing to do!

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ps: My personal nudge to revisit, Australian school friend, photographer and fellow Hermit’s Cave devotee. Thanks Cilla.

the Northern Rivers

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We moved around a lot when I was a kid.

Every couple of years it was a new school, new landscapes and new friends.

There was a constant however…. returning each summer holiday to the green and lush northern rivers, home to my mum’s extended family and the place where my dad met my mum.

Otherworldly and slow paced, it’s big rivers, sugarcane farms, little old towns full of verandahed wooden cottages seemed magical to us.

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Flowers and vines grew in profusion, colorful rosellas swooped above our heads, frog and cicada choirs accompanied our dinner and everything was different. Houses had sleep outs, screened and covered porches, where we slept on the hot humid nights, wriggling, tossing and turning on squeaky old iron beds.

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Even the furniture was different. Small cane chairs and tables, ornate wooden dressing tables, picture frames with sea shells and crocheted doilies on every surface, and especially over the milk jug to keep pesky flies and bugs out.

Electric storms would rattle the house.We’d watch lightning strikes and count for the thunderclap, measuring the miles between us and it. Tropical rain would pound the tin roof for hours and we would squeal in fear and excitement.

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The main highway was still 2 lanes, and instead of bridges there were punts, big river ferries that carried cars and trucks across. The punt operators would signal cars on, and then switch on to pull us across the river on submerged iron ropes. At the same time another punt would leave from the other river bank and pass by on its parallel run.It was a 24/7 operation but at Christmas the cars would line up for miles, and us kids would run to count how many were waiting and to tell those at the end of the line just how many were ahead of them! 115 cars one time.

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Now big bridges cross the rivers and there is only one little punt left, on the back road to Grafton, moving traffic from one river island to another. I take my Californian family that way whenever I can, so they can experience the slow down, wait your turn silent crossing ( chanting a soft prayer “please don’t build a bridge, please don’t build a bridge”.)

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The Clarence is the biggest river on the East Coast, and it’s islands are big enough for hamlets and farms. Fishermen plie the entrance for the famous Yamba prawns, everyone tries for flat head and mullet from their tinnys and some pubs have docks. Sunset over the big expanse of river is glorious. north17

Further north is Byron Bay, hipper and quicker and home to new age celebrities and movie stars. A whole industry devoted to beauty and awareness and creativity, and real estate prices to match.Hatted restaurants and music festivals and flights to Sydney and Melbourne several times a day.

Our stretch of coastline is about 100 miles of empty, golden beaches, punctuated by bushy headlands and rivers. The towns at the rivers mouth grow slowly, settled mostly by retirees, always a bowling club and a lot of unattractive brick veneer homes w a boat or caravan and man shed in the back. National parks rule so development is limited.Investors from the city want views, preferably from modern multi story complexes so even cool architecture is in short supply!

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Our town, Iluka is completely surrounded by National Park and a listed rainforest, so the beaches are snug against forest and sometimes we see kangaroos on the beach, once an emu!

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Within the 100 mile swath of Northern Rivers area are big rivers which meander across rich farmland, sugarcane farms near the coast, cattle farms inland and timber getting up in the mountains. Everything grows like crazy, and there is a whole category of country bush foods that everyone grows, cooks and eats: macadamia nuts, finger limes, grammas and chokos, pumpkins and potkins,passion fruits,pawpaws and mangos, lilly pillies and rosellas. Oysters,oysters,oysters .

Retro,hip and artisan all at once!

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Tourists drive through en route to the cities, lots of surfers and backpackers seek out the empty beaches and the little towns swell at weekends with Queenslanders, escaping high rise, overdeveloped coastline and looking to recreate their childhood seaside holidays….walking miles on the beach, bodysurfing and swimming, fishing from an old aluminum tinny in the river and eating fish and chips from the fisherman’s co-op.

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I’m so happy that the northern rivers are once again a constant in my life.

 

Gateway Arch….really big public art.

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As soon as I knew I was going to a conference in Milwaukee, I pulled out the road maps and started dreaming.

Too many things on my “to do list of life” list located in the Mid West, so it was hard to decide what I could fit in and where I could go.

Images of the Arch, and the Mississippi,  and an old Nelly interview floated thru my mind…

I decided to fly in to Chicago, get a rental car and do a driving pilgrimage to St Louis .

 

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I didn’t know what I would find and as I drove down the interstate towards St Louis, in grey skies and drizzly rain I wondered, would I see it as I drove in?

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Yes!

There it was.Gleaming and soaring above a subdued downtown, emerging from a parkland forest of trees and on the west bank of the Mississippi River, the site of the founding of St Louis.

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A sculpture and symbol of all that I love about America. The dynamism and optimism that propelled settlers across the continent. 630′ of soaring, stainless steel symbolizing Westward expansion.

Remarkable in so many ways, not the least the fantastic decision to create a huge, dramatic piece of public art.

Where else? Mt Rushmore?

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Designed by Eero Sarrinen, Finnish-American architect and industrial designer, and Hannskarl Bandarl, a German-American engineer.

Saarinen, now famous for his futuristic structural curves and precise simplicity in buildings,  monuments and furniture, won the design prize after competing with his father.His first win!

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Work commenced in 1963 and it opened to the public in 1967. It cost $13 million dollars ….around $175 million today, 50 years later.

More than 4 million people a year visit the site , many taking the claustrophobic tram inside to the top.Not me …just a visit to the museum and a lazy hour wandering the parkland and gazing up.

No surprise that St Louis is home to other smaller sculpture and public art spaces ( the Serra Scupture park and Citygarden).

The timeless innovative design and simple beauty of Gateway Arch , “reflective in sunshine,soft and pewterish in mist,crisp as a line drawing one minute, chimerical the next” exceeded any and all my expectations and creates marvel and awe in everyone who visits.

 

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Georgia territory

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Abiquiu in Northern New Mexico is the place where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted.

“When I got to New Mexico, that was mine.As soon as I saw it , that was my country”

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The stunning, stark beauty of the high desert landscape had been her inspiration since her first visit in 1929.For 20 years she travelled from New York to Abiquiu each summer, often staying for six months in solitude, to paint the skies and desert, colored rock formations, distant mountains and Chama  river valley.

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Smaller found objects like bleached bones and rocks, exotic cactus flowers and the wood and adobe structures also found their way onto her canvases. Three years after her husband’s death she moved permanently to New Mexico and eventually owned two homes .

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The first in Ghost Ranch, was high and secluded. Nestled beneath 700-foot cliffs it looked over to the flat-topped Pedernal. “Pedernal is my private mountain” she said frequently.”God told me if I painted it enough I could have it.”

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The second, initially used as her winter residence, was in the small town of Abiquiu at an elevation  of 6400′ and overlooked the Chama River with its  green trees and fields.

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Both locations surrounded her with a wealth of imagery for her paintings.

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Visiting Abiquiu over Christmas I was struck at each turn of the road  how recognizable the landscape is because of our familiarity with O’Keeffe’s work.

Driving north towards Ghost Ranch we knew we were getting close when Chimney Rocks came into sight.

Photographs taken quickly (with the phone!) out the window of the car amazed us with their color and clarity. Georgia O’Keeffe was quoted as saying that most of her art was done in New Mexico before she put her brushes to the canvas.

There is almost no tourist infrastructure in Abiquiu. An Inn with a small but good restaurant. A road house /gas station famous for breakfast burritos. Georgia’s home in town is only open for tours in the warmer months and her home at Ghost Ranch can only be toured via enquiries at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Ghost Ranch, now owned by the Presbyterian Church is a retreat, conference center,geology museum and place of learning.Each year there are hundreds of classes to take, many residential.

What is there and intensely accessible, are breathtaking vistas that shock. Skies that amaze with crystalline blue beauty, the whitest clouds and nearly every night billions of sparkly stars.Every road takes you somewhere you want to explore:cliff dwellings, pueblos, monasteries and churches, rocks and petroglyphs and tiny adobe hamlets.

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We rented a little stone house and pinched ourselves every morning when we looked out the windows, across Georgia’s valley.

State of Enchantment , as marked on the car number plates…not really a cliche!

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http://www.okeeffemuseum.org

http://www.GhostRanch.org

http://www.abiquiuinn.com

Salvation Mountain

 

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2 hours south of Palm Springs, on the desolate eastern shore of Salton Sea, there’s remnants of a WW2 facility called Slab City.

Home to snowbirds and squatters, families on hard times and eccentrics,
it’s now famous as the home of Salvation Mountain, one man’s 30 year celebration of faith.

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Desert detritus, (adobe, house paint, rocks, sticks and straw) fashioned to his greater good, Salvation Mountain attracts visitors from across the globe and casts a spell on all who visit.

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Created by Leonard Knight , the installation is 3 stories high and 100′ wide…a swath of technicolor love.Cameoed in ‘Into the Wild” Leonard shares his belief in God and Love and tells the story of his conversion, his place in the world and his love for this remote, rundown location.  

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Described by Barbara Boxer, California’s Congresswoman as ” a unique and visionary sculpture. A national treasure, profoundly strange and beautifully accessible”.

It’s open from dawn till dusk everyday.

Not so far from Los Angeles….but a kindred surreal experience given the history of Salton Sea, the brilliant and disconcerting mash up of present day Palm Springs and the harsh Coachella landscape, and the lovely poignancy of this outsider artist and his legacy of love.

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http://www.salvationmountain.org