Ruth and Steve Rieman
view of workshop and courtyard between main house
Tell us about where you are from and how you ended up here in the Desert
RR & SR :How the Riemans came to be here………
We purchased the first five of our ten acres in 1977 and intended to use it as a retreat from our home in Costa Mesa, CA. Soon we were consumed with building a small habitable structure. This move into a shelter did provide the intended creature comforts but it also separated us from the naked landscape we’d become so familiar with while camping. Our love for the area continued to grow and talk of making it our home turned into action. March 1979 we made our move into what was then a shell of a cabin at the edge of Pipes Canyon wash, now our second bedroom and guest cabin. We’ve since learned that our wash is one of nature’s truest highways as we’ve experienced its diversity of life and geologic activity for going on four decades.
It wasn’t long before we were dedicated to the notion of using passive solar heating for the next two buildings on the property. We employed the principles of the trombé-wall. This meant that the orientation of the buildings was all-important and the south wall would be masonry on the interior and dual glass on the exterior. To allow for unimpeded distribution of the warm air created by the trombé-wall, the floor plan would necessarily have to be open. In January 2015 we installed 18 photovoltaic panels that generate 4950 watts of electricity. These panels produce 98% of the electricity that this all-electric compound uses.
During the original design phase we further constrained our choices by setting the following guidelines and calling our design “nature’s modern”.
Sweat equity. We would fully participate in the building process.
Low maintenance. We would finish to the degree we were willing to maintain.
Use materials honestly. Let function play the heavy role in the design, the nuts and bolts would show if it served no purpose to cover them.
Age gracefully. Surfaces and spaces should get better with time.
Steve had taken seriously what one of his instructors at Art Center had said, “A good designer can design anything.”, and we set about doing business as “Projects Unlimited”. Ruth left behind a job as an auto insurance underwriter for State Farm Insurance and wasn’t sure how this had prepared her for what was ahead. Today, 37 years later, our business is limited to Steve’s sculpture and special design projects that we can see through from start to finish.
What was is like to transition into the desert?
It turned out to be a time of luxury for a couple of 30 something year olds. Opening a door of incredible discovery of the place and ourselves we figured out how to live work and play 24/7 together. Today we say “Steve makes things and Ruth makes things happen”.
For the first two years Steve was consumed with finishing the cabin we were living in and building our home and studio. Oh, yes and he did some drafting and design work for the local contractors and continued a design build furniture relationship with some OC clients. All the while he had it in his head to interpret his feeling and responses to this new place in watercolors. Which he sold in Laguna Beach at the Watercolor Gallery for a few years.
Always a builder of things that moved, including cars, he was not physically and mentally consumed entirely with his two dimensional work. But, it did give him the jumping off point to discover what it was that was important for him to express in his work. He was infatuated with pealing back time and telling time as seen from our unobstructed east facing windows with the observance of the Sun and Moon as the ancients must have. In the evening he would lie on his back and wait for the first glimpse of the north-star as darkness took over. The Exon Valdez oil spill helped him sort through and discover what he thought about contemporary human impacts on the environment. While he refused to let his work take on a harsh cynical tone, he began a series of paintings of which one was titled “Isn’t It Pretty”. If you looked close you could discover some not so pretty things beneath the water’s surface. In some of these early works he spread local sand on his water color paper and recorded the winds movement /disturbance over time of the sand. One article titled “Nature as Subject and Medium” appeared in American Artist, 1993. (See resume for more titles referencing the natural world.)
So from the beginning creating movement while maintaining a delicate balance became the driving force in his sculpture and remains so today. “My work attempts to ask questions about the balance between advancing technology and the preservation of the natural environment. I find myself caught up in the incredible possibilities of a high tech world, yet recognizing the real possibility of destroying the natural world along the way making the technological advances meaningless and without value.” (His early furniture designs in the 1970s were rocking chairs.)
What are some of the most impactful experiences you have had here in the desert? Has this changed or effected the art work?
The place provided the space and time for my personal discovery of what I was to become since I had rejected a career as an industrial designer--almost upon graduating with a BS in 1974. The isolation and my new teacher, the desert, were just what I needed. It was the beginning of my real work that still propels me. The discovery of the two unseen forces of gravity and wind to make visual, mesmerizing movement keeps me always searching for my own personal next level.
How do you think the landscape here plays in to your body of work?
It’s my teacher!
Can you tell us about your influences, your conceptual framework, and the context in which your work fits in to a larger sculpture dialogue today?
One of the watercolor artists that I met early on was Robert Hiram Meltzer (1921–1987) in one of his workshops. He told me I had all the technique I needed and to get on with a discovery through literature of what it was I had to say with my art. I took him seriously and began cultivating book lists from those I respected. Beginning in 1997 with my first public art project, I decided that I would do all the labor myself and that I could listen to books on tape during the labor that required hands only and not mind. I still maintain a solo workshop except on the rare occasion when I find a mentoring opportunity that works for both of us. As of today I’ve listened to well over 600 books of which I’ve kept a log.
It seems ever more evident that the questions that I’m asking in my work are making it to center stage as the world accepts that humans are influencing Climate Change. If as I recall reading that Stephen Crane said artists tell the sign of their time then it seems inevitable that the artist will deal with nature vs. manimal in this age/time??
What do you have coming up for projects or shows?
I’m currently completing a public project for the city of Menifee, scheduled to be installed the first week of May 2016, at Haun Rd & Newport Rd. The working title of this kinetic sculpture is “Menifee Mazurka”.
I will again have a sculpture in the Maloof Sculpture in the Garden Exhibition, Apr 10-Oct 29, 2016.
I’m so fascinated and excited about your stories and history here in the desert, you both have been in the area for sometime, you have seen the change happening over time. What are your thought on the influx of people?
One of the most incredible things happening for us personally is the opportunity to be board members of the Joshua Tree Highlands Artist in Residency Program. Currently the board is reviewing 155 artists’ proposals from around the world for this summer’s residency that will bring 4 to 5 artists here for 7 weeks. They will be introduced to the local community on several occasion culminating with a group show on July 9 & 10, 2016.
The people we’re hanging out with all seem to have the right attitude about the desert and understand that it’s important to keep it the way they find it. It’s encouraging to see the influx of young artists finding large studio spaces they can afford 2 hours from LA.
It seems to us that this place not far from LA and just up the hill to a cooler place than Palms Springs is also a second home opportunity for those close to retirement and testing to see if it’s a permanent fit for them in their retirement. They bring big $$ from the sale of properties in LA and OC and buy a piece of heaven here.
We’re a bit concerned about all the short term-rentals popping up and what that can mean for the quiet we’ve experienced all these years. In JT highlands our friends say not all visitors respect the quiet luxury that we so love.
Do you have any advice for other desert dwellers or those who hope to come here some day?
Camp first and let the place change you. Understand your own foot-print and take responsibility for it.