Work Retreat Reflections 1: Noah Purifoy, Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum
In March I took a few days to go on a work retreat of sorts. Eight friends and colleagues of mine - all working in vastly different arenas of museums and informal education - gathered in Southern California for a long weekend. We met during graduate school in the University of Washington in the Museology program. Together the nine of us make up about 1/3 of our academic cohort. In the five years since we have created a bit of a peer mentorship group. We often spend time talking about ideas we're pursuing, challenges we're facing, and work which inspires us. Because we have advanced degrees in museums it is unsurprising that we also take time to enjoy a cultural spaces. Such was the case when we visited Joshua Tree National Park.
When it comes to places for informal learnin' we are not a picky group. Again, there are nine of us. We have vastly different interests, but all of us are always interested. We all have this insatiable appetite to know more about the worlds we exist in. Across our four days in Joshua Tree we toured three visitor centers, did five different hikes in three different desert zones, and attended two outdoors art spaces (okay, one was just a fancy fountain outside of an arts center...). Today I want to focus on one of these spaces: Noah Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. A future post will focus on one of the visitor spaces and the park.
The Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum features various vignettes of art installations across a large plot of land. There is no prescribed path. Aside from a brochure with vignette titles there isn't any interpretative information. Purifoy spent most of his creative life working in Joshua Tree and Los Angeles. His work is created using found objects, and most often junk objects. The site is responsive to the elements with moderate maintenance. Purifoy passed in 2004 and these site-specific installations remain. They have been severely impacted by the elements and tourism; evidence of natural decay and human interference is prominent. And yet each vignette remains its own fully captivating piece of art.
To be honest, I had no clue who Noah Purifoy is prior to this excursion. My friend Amanda, who works at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was really the only one of us who knew what was happening. It was her idea to check it out. Let me tell you something, it was fun getting to tour something and have no context or awareness. Instead, I got to lean into moments of discovery and questioning. The nine of us quickly branched out into smaller groups, calling out questions, voicing observations, and posing theories from across the acres of art. Some groups focused on political tones of works. Others looked at how the composition of vignettes responded to the natural world. My friend Julia, who works at Bellevue Arts Museum, and I spent time analyzing materials. One piece in particular was a starburst of silver lines. It boldly stood out in the afternoon sun and against the desert sky. We're pretty sure it was made of easel remnants and pen holders detached from whiteboards. Another sculpture we loved was comprised completely of ceramic toilets. Piled high on top of one another these toilets created two arches to frame the scenery and any visitor passing by. It added pristine elegance to an otherwise deteriorating environment.
One of the most fun things about exploring Puriofy's outdoor museum together was that it allowed the nine of us to do a bit of professional role play. Asking Amanda to share more about Purifoy was fun in part because she's not an educator. Far from it - she manages collections databases. However, she has a deep appreciation for the arts and was excited to share it with us. And, because we are always interested, we were eager to know more. The educators among us started analyzing things structurally - identifying with work more aligned with exhibit preparators or designers. We have a few registrars and collections people. They were the ones I heard asking questions about content, history, and drawing comparisons to other artists. I spent far too much time thinking about maintenance and how this site continues to function.