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Angel Chen

Tell us about where you are from and how you ended up here in the desert?

My parents emigrated from Taiwan to Los Angeles, via the Virgin Islands, Miami and New York, finally settling in LA when I was very young. I've always loved Joshua Tree. In grade school the Outward Bound program brought us camping along the Colorado River and canoeing from the Grand Canyon to Joshua Tree. Surviving on what we could carry in our backpacks, we were taught adages like, “Leave only footprints, take only memories.” These were formative experiences that taught self-sufficiency, work ethic, and environmental stewardship and sensitivity, principles that have stayed with me to this day. 

After finishing my undergraduate degree at UCLA, and before my graduate program at CalArts, I attended Skowhegan artist residency in Maine.  At Skowhegan I fell in love with rural life and could see myself moving out to a natural environment one day. But there were many detours from then til now.  Grad school at Calarts was an exciting adventure in multiple art forms with a wildly creative peer group.  I worked as an art director, interior designer, art teacher, I worked in galleries, I showed in galleries.  I lived in New York, Europe, Asia, and finally came back to LA.  I had beautiful studios in Downtown LA, Venice Beach, Altadena, but I was ready to buy. Looking for a larger painting and ceramic studio in LA led me to buying out here instead.  

Joshua Tree had everything I was looking for, natural beauty, wide open expansive space for a huge art studio, convenient 2.5 hour drive from LA, and it was still extremely affordable.   I was ready to leave the concrete, traffic, and pollution of the city in favor of a cleaner simpler life.  I don’t know if I planned to move out here, it just sort of happened.  Once I finished building my dream house and beautiful studio, I kept spending more time out here.  I thought I'd work in studio Monday through Friday and go back to LA for weekends.  But now there’s increasingly more cultural engagement out here and people you would have gone back to see, now want to come out to visit. So instead of driving back to LA every weekend, I’m building more guest housing for friends to visit Joshua Tree, the 16 ft glamping tent is extremely popular as are the two Spartan Mansion trailers.

What has the transition here been like for you?

The dome really was “love at first sight”. Walking in the dome’s interior is like floating in a giant bubble with white floors, curved white walls and white domed ceilings amongst trapezoids and triangles.  It’s NASA modern space fantasy mixed with 70’s lunar desert landscape.  People who don’t know Joshua Tree ask if it’s like Palm Springs.  I say it’s more like Mars. The transition has been otherworldly. There's something terrifically psychically charged about the air here. Scientifically, the ground here in the desert absorbs as much CO2 as the rain forest. That's one of the reasons people experience such an overall feeling of wellness here. People are a reflection of their surroundings and environment, open, wild, natural, and free. 

A friend showed me the property online and I knew immediately it was meant to be the home and permanent studio that I was seeking.  We started demo the day I got the keys, and to be honest it was a lot more hard work that I ever imagined. Remodeling was an uphill learning curve and there were times when I thought, “oh no what have I done!” Living in a construction site for the first few months with intermittent electricity in below freezing weather is something I hope to never have to repeat.  Coming downstairs with drywall and sawdust everywhere, and jacking up the entire second floor loft while installing new beams where we removed the 3rdbedroom was a pretty intense moment.  You definitely want your stairs and bedroom loft well-built in earthquake country… the dome rehab consisted of an entire gut and remodel: kitchen, bath, studio, outdooor landscape.  It was an intense past 18 months. Coming projects that I'm looking forward to include large and small pool, 2 solar powered trailers, outdoor kitchen, shower, bathtub. Luckily, I have a design background and love the creative problem-solving aspects of remodeling. 

Every aspect of the remodel was designed in harmony with natural laws respecting existing terrain, legendary desert winds, and most of all the desert sun. I planted an organic grape vine arbor on the southwest side to soak up the life-giving sun while providing shade. It is perfectly placed right outside the french doors leading to the kitchen, where they perk up from nitrogen-rich coffee ground compost added to their soil every morning. Research in the beginning pays off in ease-of-use and longevity; thoughtful design and long-term investments produce multiple gains with minimal sustained effort. The dome is now the house of my dreams and I’m thrilled with the results.

You have a desert dome, tell us about your experience with purchasing a dome house and what this adventure has been like for you?

I always wanted to live in a round house, as a young girl I drew pictures of round houses, and my parents thought I wanted an igloo! Later on in school I learned about Buckminster Fuller and geodesic domes. Naturally curved dome walls create a soothing and nurturing environment that is calming, rejuvenating, and nourishing to the soul. Omission of straight lines and right angles create an architectural and environmental impact employed in Waldorf education permitting environmental space to guide thought and experience, one's mind is expanded and encouraged to open. The space is intentionally designed for lucid dreaming, spiritual expansion, visioning and manifestation. People experience a sense of deep peace and natural creativity. 

My first year was inundated with timely projects that were necessary protection from the elements. The wood stove had to be in place for warmth as winter was coming, there were cold nights I couldn't wait to get a roaring fire going! Not only is there winterizing, there is also summerizing. The venting skylight was a priority to install just as spring warmed up. Next, the ceiling fan pushed hot air up and out as we moved into early summer. By mid-summer a small window unit air conditioner was installed, which has kept us cool even in summer heat. The climate cycles are the natural calendars.

Concepts of permaculture and natural architecture always interested me. Now having acreage on open land I have an opportunity to put these concepts into practice. Super exciting to put down roots here! Having planted a dozen 10 ft Palo Verde and Mesquite trees in the ground, succulent garden and privacy landscaping, I feel deeply committed to this land and dedicated to creating a model eco-home and permaculture garden, that is comfortable in the summer through natural eco-building. I had bought a real fixer upper with a formica kitchen from the 80’s, cracked fiberglass shower, and a 5-ton HVAC with propane furnace.  I removed all of it. Instead of expensive systems and electricity bills, the roofs are treated with elastomeric paint and silicone that reflects heat in the summer and contains interior heat in the winter. The overarching goal is maximum long-term enjoyment of the land with minimal cost. Next, researching a natural pool that is in harmony with riparian and vernal systems as well as local flora to clean and filter the pool.  Another option would be an above-ground pool which doesn’t need a permit and warms in the sun, with silver filtration systems. NASA first designed an ionization system for their Apollo flights, using copper silver electrodes to purify their water. We are using the same technique to kill bacteria and algae in our swimming pools.

What are your plans for your property? You mentioned a possible artist residency, outdoor viewing spaces, and obviously your studio, can you elaborate on these projects?

The Joshua Tree Society for Art and Living is a fiscally sponsored project whose mission is to encourage and nurture creativity through the philosophy of permaculture: natural, organic, and sustainable. The plan is to grow on time and right size. Not too fast, and not too big. There is a sweet spot for every organization and beyond that it can lose connection to its purpose. I enjoy being hands on, but do need help. We are inviting artists, designers, writers and permaculturists to come help, learn, participate. Los Angeles based artist Paul Gellman was our first artist-in-residence. We had a wonderful time together, he produced an amazing body of work, and went on to have a successful solo show at Erica Redling Gallery. The experience is very enjoyable and low-key. It is an opportunity for artists to come out to the desert, to commune with nature in what I fondly refer to as “the middle of nowhere”. In exchange we ask for a work-trade contribution based on current projects, and artists donate a work made while at the residency. We each have our unique talents and skills, and volunteer on the land or in the studio accordingly. People want to come out to Joshua Tree and need a place to stay and are willing to pitch in, it's a perfectly symbiotic work/trade relationship. We are also accepting tax-deductible donations to support the artist residency and continue building and developing the community. 

Our two Spartan Mansions look like trains traveling into the mountains in the distance. It's a great metaphor for all the productive activity we have going on here. I feel good about what we are doing, and what we can offer in work-trade. It's educational, community-building, and generally positive for both local and extended community connecting to LA, NY, and beyond. Organic dinners and sharing are at the core of these events, along with experiential learning, creating a positive environment, and providing pleasing location for community to gather. 

Much of your work deals with the body, nature, fashion, landscape and sometimes nudges the poetic, if that’s a fair observation, have you seen or felt a change or shift in the work since moving to Joshua Tree?

Yes, that's a great observation, and they are all valid references. For me, art is a spiritual experience. Our creation that we are bringing forth into the world did not exist before, thus we are responsible for its impact on others, the experience that others have looking at, or being in the presence of this object or experience, is our gift to the world. Here in Joshua Tree I am constantly working with the land, which changes you. It's so grounding to walk barefoot on the earth. While a student at UCLA I discovered 5 ft x 7 ft is the largest painting size that I could comfortably move in a van, elevator or stair well, and I continue to work in this size today. In fact, it was Henry Hopkins, Chair of the Art Department who remarked, “this format really suits you”. It references the portrait or standing body, vertical, upright and human proportioned.  As one stands before the painting, it effaces you but is not much larger or outside the viewer's periphery, and it's not smaller. It feels like a conversation, a psychic communication between the painting and the viewer. 

In the city there are so many bright lights and constant activity, that I felt the need to Zen out and create work that is peaceful and calming. Here I am continually aware of a broad feeling of time and space expansion and that is a different platform to work from. Personally, I also feel more electrically charged and full of energy.  Living simply, we have a lot more free time to watch the wind blow through the trees. In the deep silence of the desert I feel an incredible level of freedom in creative practice and in life. The work that I make as a result of this state is increasingly imaginative and free. There is also clarity of mind and focus without distractions.  I actually believe that I make my best work when I'm happy and I'm very happy here.

Moving out to Joshua Tree has absolutely affected my work first in the form of scale. As studio space expands, so do ideas. Having space to create large-scale paintings and sculptures was the impetus to build a studio in the desert.  Now having built the studio, and purchased the land next door, so many new possibilities arise.  Land art has always been an ultimate goal and ambition. I am currently in research and development phase of a new underground art piece. It is designed as an overnight art experience in the ground. This was first inspired by a land art pilgrimage on a solo journey over a decade ago. This epic road trip was before cell phones had GPS and I was driving by myself for weeks with a Thomas guide and a stack of AAA maps in the car, covering distances of hundreds of miles until the next landmark.  It was an incredible journey that I remember vividly. The flight from overdevelopment in the 70's caused artists to seek out isolation, romanticizing rural land and space to be alone. I feel that our generation faces different challenges. Even amidst throngs of people, we are increasingly isolated with technological devices putting layers of distance between us. We are iPhone continents away from one another in the same room. So, this land art work, addresses direct real time and shared space together in person. The Stargazing Chamber is designed for two, bringing into play connection to another person, personal interactivity and intimacy. I can't wait to invite you to experience it when it is completed.

What are some exciting things you are excited about in this community out here?

I have been so thrilled to meet people who are seeking elevating experiences through creativity, building community, and respecting each other and our precious natural resources and environment. It's impossible to take anything for granted out here, from food and water to shelter. These are the guiding principles of outdoor education. The laws of nature are very simple. The desert is wide open: epic, endless, expansive, it brings about questions of the meaning of life and what it's all about. Visually and metaphorically it is not dense like a rain forest, it appears to be simpler, however there is an intricate, delicate ecosystem. The type of person who moves out here, is likely someone who seeks solitude and enjoys silence, not the type who is seeking distraction and things to do, places to go, people to see. 

There is a depth of solitude and then there is a need for community. People out here seem naturally suited to being alone and tend to have a DIY ethos resulting in some very cool and pioneering projects by self-starters taking initiative. I've been meeting awesome people to collaborate with as well. I'm excited about community dinners as social practice and possibly an occasional supper club here at the dome. There is the feeling of participating in a sharing economy. You may loan tools or dig someone out of soft sand and hope that one day someone will do the same for you. 

Do you have anything coming up that you are working on?

In the studio I am currently in process on a big blue ocean wave sculpture for Angel Art, 2017 - a contemporary art auction benefitting Project Angel Food, they raise money to feed the terminally ill. It's a feel good project and a cause I really believe in. The wave image and sculpture is iconic to Southern California, and also Asian heritage, calling in the power of the ocean, gentle curves and arcs of the water rising and cresting. The wave is a visual manifestation of our tidal pulls by the moon. It's the perfect symbol on a personal and artistic level.

Now making waves in the desert takes on new meaning and adds a new dimension. Much of my work looks like underwater life forms, and this area in North Joshua Tree, by the dry lake bed, was once underwater. This history has ancient and psychic levels of meaning as if some mythological Atlantis past life is subconsciously rising through these intuitive yet symbolic sculptural forms. As one very astute artist friend once said, they resemble “stacked oyster shells, past remembrance of an ancient dynasty.”  I’m currently working on a show called “Making Waves” and looking forward to upcoming residencies in Europe and New York.

Can you tell us about your influences, your conceptual framework and the context in which your work fits in to a larger dialogue today? 

I'm influenced by Buckminster Fuller's designs and philosophy, and inspired by land art including: Walter de Maria's Lightning Field, Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. Yoko Ono’s poetic, conceptual, wild woman persona made an early impact, as well as Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeouis, all powerful women icons who pioneered and created a feminized art world. Ruth Asawa's incredible floating world of wire hanging sculptures, Yayoi Kusama's “Fireflies on the Water”, and Olafur Eliason's “Weather Project”, all stand out as well as Joan Mitchell's and Cy Twombly's frenetic lyrical paintings. Anselm Kiefer and Lee Bontecou, artists who hybridized painting and sculpture.  Paying homage to a great contemporary artist here in Joshua Tree that pioneered the high desert as an art site, Andrea Zittel, an artist whose work I relate to on a deeper level now that I am here.  

It is a delicate transition taking work out of the sanctuary of the private studio into a gallery space and introducing this private language to the public. But here, our minds shift taking the work out of the studio and into the landscape. Many artists who I respect who are working today have moved in the direction toward environmental consciousness and awareness of living with and in nature. Artists today are the canaries in the coal mines, often the first to detect and sing about important issues. To sense social and environmental issues, communicate, innovate and problem-solve... is where the artist/activist has taken on an important role today. I’m interested in methods of creating objects, environments, and experiences with a philosophy of permaculture and enlightenment. One's conceptual framework changes radically in a rural environment, much like Joan Mitchell's paintings when she moved her studio from the city to the garden. As artists, we are centered in our own personal home and studio, our inner circle of trusted friends and community, and an outer circle of our art world, as I believe there are many art worlds.

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