Joshua Tree has changed a lot since I first visited—and spent a month there—in 2009.
Artists had already discovered it by then, but they were more of the "folk artist" variety. Hippies. I used to joke that I was going to move there permanently and make pottery to sell there.
Of course, the tide had already started to shift back then, with High Desert Test Sites making an art project out of the desert landscape.
Now the hipsters have moved in, unable to afford LA rents and the LA lifestyle and smitten with the desert after camping out at a music festival or two and catching big-time headliners at small-town saloons.
And so that brings us to A-Z West, a live/work space of artist Andrea Zittel.
She took a rather nondescript 1940s homesteader house just outside of Joshua Tree National Park and made it her own—to say the least.
The swimming pool is now a sunken sandbox.
The front sitting room is a gallery of Zittel's furniture prototypes, which you're invited to sit on and give feedback about...
...as well as some of her sculptures made of recycled materials....
...which you likely could contribute to...
...just by having a cup of tea.
She also designed all of the lighting fixtures throughout the house...
...though she's taken every available opportunity to let natural light come in as well.
She designed the kitchen tile (produced by Arena, Arte Contemporáneo, in Guadalajara, Mexico) in a way that would be less likely to show dirt. She'd rather not spend all of her time cleaning and not be able to see how dirty it is.
You won't find any plates in the kitchen. Andrea eats and drinks everything out of bowls.
You will find more of her furniture designs...
...as well as objects of interests (like this mummified tennis ball) displayed on Andrea's "Aggregated Stacks"—which are shelving units made of repurposed cardboard boxes.
As interesting as Andrea has made the inside of her home, she's also focused quite a bit on the outdoor spaces.
After all, she's not our here in the high desert all alone.
She shares the house with her son...
...and she shares the entirety of her 50 acres with a merry band of students, interns, apprentices, and artists-in-residence.
Some of them sleep in shipping containers that once functioned as Andrea's studio...
...until she outgrew them.
Now, this somewhat off-the-grid, industrial chic "Container Compound" is both a living space and a chicken coop...
...where Andrea can show off the results of some of her fancy bird breeding.
Indeed, everything is an art project.
Out of necessity, Andrea moved her studio up the hill to a larger facility...
...given the large scale of some of her work and the growing number of young people who come to work with her.
This is where, together, they experiment with "designs for living."
That could mean the clothes that Andrea wears...
....which is basically a "uniform" consisting of multiple copies of the same thing to be worn day after day).
Or, it could be any number of other textiles created in the Weaving Studio...
...upon looms that very few people know how to operate in modern times.
But people come here to learn...
...and weave something that may end up on a wall, on the floor, slung across a piece of foam furniture, or draped on a body.
Although practically anything could be created here—particularly out of recycled materials...
...at its core, the output consists mostly of woven goods and ceramics (not surprisingly, bowls).
The most, shall we say, experimental part of A-Z West is its "Encampment"...
...where Andrea's single occupancy "pods" were dropped into the middle of the desert, some even nestled among the boulders.
Andrea calls them "wagon stations"...
...and they're occupied by artists-in-residence in either the fall or spring semesters.
They're really just for sleeping—or maybe stargazing—and they're not terribly protective. Most of them leak in the rain.
If you want to do more than just sleep out there, you can go to the library to read.
In order to camp in one of the wagons, you've got to fill out an application and explain why you'd want to. You don't have to be working on a specific reject, but you do have to seem like a candidate who'd benefit from—and be inspired by—some remote time in the desert.
It is not a place to party, because there are daily chores to do.
It is not a place to show off, because the "A.Z." herself of "A-Z West" is far cooler than any of you (or any of us) could possibly be.
It's just a place to live in the desert, to contemplate life in the desert, and to create art that supports living.
And that's it.
It's a lot like that first month I spent in Joshua Tree. I wish I could return for a week or two just to get some of that spirit back.
And I wish I could bring my cat.
Is It Art, Or Is It the Desert?
Photo Essay: Noah's Art