Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Tucson Desert Art Museum

27 November 2018

I went to the Tucson Desert Art Museum, which really is WAY more fascinating than it sounds. 

Their tag line (or maybe motto is a better word) is "Visualize history through art."  

Because art people understand that humans record their history through their art, in all its forms - visual art, architecture, music, drama, the written word, the spoken word.  And most of what we know about cultures and civilizations that may not have written their history comes to us in the ARTifacts left behind - the art, the architecture, the visual manifestations of that civilization and their culture and beliefs.

So the history of this region is portrayed through Native American art forms, and American paintings.  

In the first exhibit, there were what I took as cautionary words by Edward S. Curtis, best known for his photographs documenting Native American traditional life and culture in the late 1800 to the early to mid 1900s.  He wrote this caution to the presumed viewers of his photographs:

"As an alien race, we should hardly presume to judge them [the Native Americans] wholly by our standard and not give them credit for their own customs and codes.  They on their part consider some of our customs highly objectionable and immoral."

Gives one pause, doesn't it?  A reminder to not judge what we see and read by our standards.  To keep an open mind and open heart, and to accept what we see and learn as someone else's reality.

So keeping that in mind, I want to describe some of the more interesting aspects of the exhibits I saw.

The main permanent exhibit focused on the weavings of the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo people.  In these cultures, Spider Woman was the patron goddess of weaving.  Spider Woman taught weaving to the people, who handed down the traditions and the guidelines to each subsequent generation.

Weaving in the Southwest Native American nations dates back to about 800 Common Era.  While men built the looms representing Heaven and Earth, women in these nations did the actual weaving.  Certain colors were traditional: red for the female Earth; white for the male Sky; and black for the rain.  The woven cloth was used as clothing, cloaks, blankets, saddle blankets (after the Spanish brought horses to the "New World").

Spider Woman taught that the natural world is not perfect and is not symmetrical.  Therefore, designs needed to be balanced but not perfect.  So the weavings have three major elements where the weavers focused on major or minor changes to ensure perfection was not achieved: transitions or variations in color, texture, and pattern.  

One of the more interesting traditions is that the weaver would continue a line out to the edge of the woven object, rather than having only an inner design and a border.  That line leading to the outer edge released the creative spirit and energy of the weaver, so that the artist weaver could then create another weaving.  If this line was not included, it was believed that the creative spirit/energy of the artist would be trapped.  I think most artists feel much this way about each piece they create, that part of their self, or their soul, is captured in each piece they create!

Foreign objects were often added to weavings - animal hair, feathers, even pollen.  These objects were used to imbue the user with certain protections and attributes such as speed, strength, cunning, etc.  Sounds rather naive, but think about our modern sports teams - most have names of strong and fast animals, presuming that the teams will somehow act like those animals and help the teams win.  Right?  In that light, including an eagle feather or a bit of wolf fur makes perfect sense.  (And this is exactly what Edward S. Curtis was talking about.)

Weaving changed over time, and the history of the Native American people was irrevocably changed by the conquistadors.  This part of Arizona was home to one of the oldest inhabited areas in the US, dating back to about 700-1200 Common Era.  The various indigenous nations, including the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, Apache, and Tohono O'odham peoples, united to fight the conquistadors and the US military.  Treaties were made, treaties were broken, and eventually the military decided to capture and deport the people who had lived in this part of Arizona and New Mexico (around 1863).  This basically amounted to attempted genocide, because the people were rounded up and forced to march some 370 miles to an internment camp in eastern New Mexico.  In Navajo history, this event is referred to as The Long March.   

The people were imprisoned for several years.  The armies and the remaining Spanish conquistadors burned the native populations crops and sheep - the same sheep whose wool was used for those beautiful weavings.  The same plants used for dyes as well as food.  It was a total scorched earth policy.

So when these people were finally released and allowed to return home, there was nothing there.  No animals.  No crops.  Not even the homes they had left behind.

But people are resilient, and the combined nations of Arizona rebuilt their homes, planted new crops, and continued weaving.  At this point in time, just after the Civil War, other fibers and synthetic dyes were imported and "donated" to the Navajo and other nations.  So the colors in the woven objects changed.  The fibers changed.  And as more settlers came to the region, the Native American weavings became more valuable for use as blankets, wall hangings, rugs, and yes, saddle blankets.  Trading posts were established, and merchants encouraged the Native American weavers to incorporate more European designs in the woven items.

So color changed, texture changed, patterns changed.  Just as Spider Woman had taught.

In the 1920s, both the Navajo and Hopi people began to weave images from sand paintings, which previously were considered sacred and spiritual, not images to be made permanent in woven items nor used in household items.  The change was made by a medicine man who was also a weaver, and thus he broke the taboo.  

One of the parts of the exhibit that I found most fascinating - as in many cultures around the world, the swastika was used as a symbol of eternal life, the cycle of life, well being.  When this symbol was co-opted by the Nazis, the united tribes of the Navajo, Hopi, Apache, and Tohono O'odham wrote and signed a proclamation renouncing the use of the swastika and making an oath to never use that design element again.  As a Jewish person, I was just so moved by that decision by these people who were willing to relinquish a part of their culture and heritage once they learned that it was used as an emblem of hatred and prejudice.  What a generosity of spirit!  (And what a lesson for our modern times, as well.)

The museum doesn't allow photography in their exhibits, so these photos are from various websites.  And if you want to see larger versions on the images, just click on each photo and it'll enlarge for you.

Okay, enough about the textiles.  

The "American art" portion of the museum's collection featured the amazing photographs of Edward S. Curtis.  If you haven't seen his photos of Native Americans, they really are incredible.  The images celebrate the beauty and the culture of the people photographed.  

And then there are the paintings.  Wonderful paintings by well-known American landscape artists such as Cole, Moran, Bierstadt.  Even a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.  But, well, these paintings were used to justify the concept of Manifest Destiny, which is just one more part of the colonization of the US by white settlers.  And after reading about the Long March, I wasn't feeling sympathetic to the settlers.

The penultimate exhibit was called Desert Hollywood, and was all about the use of the desert and canyon regions of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Utah used in movies and later television shows.  Posters, film clips, actors' comments, more film clips - it really was a fun exhibit.  This region was used as far back as 1930, in the movie "Morocco."  Other movies include "Gunga Din" (yes, with Cary Grant!), "The Garden of Allah" (with Marlene Dietrich), more modern movies like "The Lone Ranger," and several sci fi movies like "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi."  Oh, and Charlton Heston first in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and later on in "Planet of the Apes."  Yup, the Sonoran Desert is almost like a character in all of these movies!

Final exhibit - the Sawmill Fire.  There was a huge fire that consumed over 450,000 acres of grasses, cacti (including saguaros), and other succulents, and desert trees like mesquite and ironwood.  Joseph Labate, the photographer, wanted to document the destruction and rejuvenation of the desert in his photographs.  Fortunately monsoon rains followed soon after the fire, and it was amazing to see how quickly the plants and earth sprang back to live after the devastation.  

Whew!  That was a LOT packed in one afternoon!  I stayed until closing.  Really.

This museum definitely is worth a visit!  I joined as a member, and hope to get to their jazz concert next weekend.

Here's the link to the museum's website:  https://www.tucsondart.org/

And their Facebook page (which includes some photos) is:  https://b-www.facebook.com/pg/tucsondart/posts/?ref=page_internal

Friday, November 16, 2018


17 November 2018
On Sunday, we drove out to the Saguaro National Park.  Well, the west part of the park.  There's also an east part of the park.  The two parts of the park are on each side of the city of Tucson.  The park's website is www.nps.gov/sagu/index.htm

Anyway, we drove out to the park.  Saguaro is pronounced sah-WAH-roe - the G is silent.  The saguaro cactus is native to this part of the Sonoran Desert, and grows only in this region of Arizona, Mexico to the south, and a few parts of California just to the west.

The hills and mountains in this part of Arizona are really part of a huge volcanic caldera or crater, with the ridges rising up in a vaguely circular shape.  The saguaros grow up the slopes of these ridges, looking like a giant cactus farm.  Really, scrubby desert growing up the mountains with extra tall green telephone poles climbing up the mountains!!!

Saguaros are pretty amazing cactus - they can live as long as 150-175 years or so, and grow to be 40 to 45 feet tall!  (That's 12.2 to 14 meters!)  We're talking roughly as tall as a four storey building!  (The tallest saguaro ever measured is said to have been a single saguaro without arms, found near Cave Creek, Arizona.  It was measured at a whopping 78 feet tall (nearly 24 meters) in height!  Unfortunately, this saguaro was blown over in a windstorm in 1986.)  These are the tallest cactus species in the US, and the second tallest cactus in the world!

Saguaros survive the desert conditions by absorbing moisture into their bodies and storing it there, so they can live through times of drought.  During rainy season, a single fully hydrated saguaro can weigh as much as 3,200-4,800 lbs!  (That's something like 1,500-2,200 kg!) 

Yes, these are the cacti we've seen in cartoons and movies, where someone cuts into the cactus and drinks the water.  And yes, it is possible to do so.

During the spring rains, saguaros bloom with flowers making almost crowns on the top of each trunk and the branches or arms.  Later in the spring, the saguaro fruit appears, a red fruit full of seeds and very flavorful.  Because of all the spines, the fruit cannot be picked by hand - instead, a long pole made of saguaro rib is used to pick the fruit.  The indigenous groups in this region, the O'odham tribes have a long history of eating the saguaro fruit as well as making a fermented beverage from this prized fruit.  (There are several tribes that make up the O'odham nation, including the Pima O'odham and the Tohono O'odham.)

An interesting fact - birds nest in the saguaro.  The large birds build nests in the branches, but smaller birds actually peck holes into the huge cacti and hollow out part of the pulp to create their nests.  The birds also drill holes into the cacti to drink the water held within.

The saguaros grow branches, though they are often referred to as arms.  The arms begin growing when the saguaro is about 15 feet tall (roughly 5 meters), and the plant is about 75 years old.  There's no limit to the number of arms a saguaro might grow, and some of the very old cacti might have as many as 50 arms!

The saguaro branches really do look more like arms than the usual thin branches we see on trees.  As we drove around, I realized that the arms often reach up toward the sky, as if the saguaro is reaching up to catch the rain.  Or maybe the sun.

Actually, sometimes the saguaros look like they are reaching out to welcome the people visiting the park.  Yes, saguaros look like they want hugs!  I realize it would not be a good idea to hug a saguaro, but they definitely look like they want to hug us.  In fact, some saguaros grow next to another one, and their arms begin to grow around each other so that yes, they ARE hugging each other!

There's something very human-like about the saguaro shape, something very anthropomorphic.  I could easily see the indigenous people having all sorts of legends about these cacti - maybe the saguaro being the first ancestors or something along the lines of a creation story.  (Turns out that the stories are more like humans being turned into saguaros.)

We drove around the park, visited the information center, and drove along one of the loop roads.  Drive, park, climb out of the car and walk around a bit taking photos.  Enjoy the sun and the views, look at all the saguaros, look for animals, photograph the colorful desert flowers.  I especially enjoyed the donors' mosaic at the info center, featuring the plants and animals of the desert.  (The mosaic was made by the Santa Teresa Tile Works of Tucson.)  Photos of the mosaic are at the very end of the blog.

By late afternoon, we thought it was about time to head back to our hotel.  And then the adventure really began.

We recognized the name of a road as being one of the cross streets near our hotel.  So, we turned onto it, figuring we'd drive a few miles, hit the main road, and we'd be back at our hotel.  BAD decision.  This road immediately turned into a dirt road that never ended.  There were spots that were more like soft sand, other areas that were churned up dried out mud, and others that were barely wide enough for our small Toyota to get through.  

But we drove on, because there wasn't anywhere to turn around.  We drove on, deeper and deeper into the middle of, well, the desert.  After maybe half an hour of driving on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, we finally saw a woman walking a horse along the narrow road.  We asked if this road would take us to Oracle Road (Highway 77), and she was surprised that that was our destination.  Turns out we were about 10 miles from there, and the road would likely get worse before it got better.  She recommended turning around, taking a series of left turns, and we'd hit paved roads again.  Took a while, but we managed to hit civilization again.  One last turn, and we were back in the park!!!

But at least there were signs so we could head back and not disappear forever.

As we drove along, sun beginning to head toward the horizon, shadows lengthening, I saw a coyote peeking out from behind a cactus, to see if it was safe to step out on the road!  He darted back, but after we passed I could see him in the rear-view mirror, trotting down the road!!!  How exciting!!!

It was an amazing adventure!  Someone told me that the desert is transformative - I'm not sure if it is, but there is definitely a fascination with the world of the desert, a pull or magnetism there.

We'll keep exploring.  And reporting.

Monday, November 12, 2018

On the Way to Tucson, Arizona

12 November 2018

Before I blog about being in Tucson, I thought I should finish our travels.  It'll be short, I promise!

Day 18 - We drove from Los Angeles to Palm Springs.  It was interesting to drive through all a chunk of the Mojave Desert, and then all of a sudden we're in this lush green oasis!  I can only imagine what the first people in this part of the region thought when they encountered water and vegetation flourishing in the grey and beige desert!

It was fun, though we didn't do anything exceptional.  Hung out, walked around a bit, and enjoyed the music from the Palm Springs Pride weekend.  We missed the parade, but our hotel  seemed to be right near the center of activities!

We debated staying an extra day, but thought we really needed to get to Arizona, so we moved on.

Day 19 - We left Palm Springs, and drove through more desert.  Hills, mountains, lots of flat dry land inbetween.  Dry scrubby bushes, and not much else.

So we left the Mojave Desert, and drove into the Sonoran Desert.  However, just to confuse the issue, part of this area is referred to as the Colorado Desert Landform.  The Colorado Desert is one of three desert provinces in California, and each is slightly different both in land form and vegetation.  

According to the information:
"The Great Basin occupies a narrow strip of Northern and Central California east of the Sierra Nevada.  The province extends eastward across Nevada and into parts of Utah, Idaho, and Oregon.  Most of the Great Basin lies above 4,000 feet and is very cold during the winter.  For this reason, it is often called the "high desert" or the "cold desert."  Cold temperatures and a short growing season are the major factors limiting plant growth.

"The Mojave Desert's climate and elevations fall between those of the Great Basin and the Colorado Desert.  Lying above 2,000 feet in elevation, most of the Mojave Desert receives slightly more rainfall than the Colorado Desert.  The Mojave also has cooler winters than the "low desert," though not nearly so cold as those of the Great Basin.  For these reasons, many ecologists view the Mojave as the "transitional desert" between the Great Basin of the north and the Colorado Desert of the south.

California's Colorado Desert is actually an extension of the Sonoran Desert of Mexico and Arizona.  Because much of this desert is at or below sea level, it is often called the "low desert."  The low desert is one of the hottest and driest places in North America.  Many parts of this desert receive less than four inches of rain per year.  Temperatures often reach 120 degrees F (49 degrees C) during the summer."
We drove across the bridge over the Colorado River - and there was a sign, welcoming us to Arizona!!!  We cheered - it had been a long nearly three weeks!

By this time it was late afternoon - we found the small town of Quartzsite, and drove around looking for a hotel or motel.  There were two options - the motel where you rent a trailer, or the motel that was newly renovated.  Yeah, the newly renovated place turned out to be very comfortable.  It was named The Stagecoach Motel, which struck me as very funny.  Can't you just picture Miss Kitty serving drinks at the Stagecoach Motel?  With the Marshall or Sheriff breaking up fights there?  (It actually was quite comfortable.)

If you ever find yourself in Quartzsite, have dinner at Silly Al's - good food, and friendly people!

Day 20 - It was a long drive from Quartzsite, through Phoenix, to Tucson.  This was probably our longest day of driving.  But we were so close, it seemed reasonable to just drive on through.  

Then we hit the Sonoran Desert, and I saw my first saguaro cactus!!!  Amazing cactus - but I'll hold off on describing them in the next blog!

The maps at the end show our route through California, then Arizona.  And then our whole route, from Bellingham WA to Tucson AZ.  We drove 1920 miles in 20 days.  I know, the google map says we can make it in 34 hours.  Yeah, they don't know that the journey is part of the trip.  We travelled slowly, with side trips and time in the various stops.  Lots of small towns with gorgeous scenery and friendly people.

It's been quite a trip!