ALBUQUERQUE — The pandemic, while not quite over, has forced us all to change not only our daily habits and routines but how we project our lives beyond the current conditions. At this point it’s almost science fiction to imagine the future. But as the author Ray Bradbury once wrote, “If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” Ryan Quinney, Liz MacKenzie, and Becki Jones are three New Mexico art entrepreneurs who reached the edge of the cliff and took that leap. High Desert Debris, Howdy Cakes, and MoonGrrl are flourishing Albuquerque-based creative businesses, connected thanks to the city’s tight-knit DIY arts community, born in the wake of the pandemic.
High Desert Debris is a bootlegger t-shirt business launched by Ryan Quinney. Relatively new to New Mexico, from Gainesville, Florida, Quinney soon learned that things must grow tough in the desert to thrive. When he lost his job in March of 2020, he knew he needed to act fast to keep going. “So, I was laid off very early on [in the pandemic] in March of 2020,” Qunniey said. “I kind of expected to go back to work at this family-owned print shop, but I wanted to develop a plan in case that didn’t happen.”
Going back to work didn’t happen. The months dragged on, and COVID cases keep skyrocketing in New Mexico. Quinney decided to use the payout from his severance package to start his own printing business. High Desert Debris was born in his converted garage in the North Valley home he shares with wife, Emily and their dog, Pork Chop. “It was sort of just a weird coincidence, the layoff and the world at the time,” Quinney said. “I had just gone through these major life shifts … we were determined to change our lives anyway.”
Quinney taught himself to draw, design, and print. Through High Desert Debris, with its cut and paste-style collaged layouts and deep color saturations, he produces the kind of vintage-style t-shirts you could spend your whole life searching for in “hidden gem” thrift stores but will never find. In his home studio, Quinney, who gets inspiration from his punk days as a musician, creates “B-side” style visual designs that look like pages from zines, if you could wear one. “It’s like a zine on fabric,” he said. “[It’s like being] a 15 year-old, making a zine about the Ramones in 1979. I hope it’s like the same thing.”
While Quinney cranks out shirts that feature recognizable artists, he loves the obscure connections as well. And having a print studio at home means he can easily experiment with new design ideas and forms. For fans of the blues, there’s a shirt that features the song “Blood Thirsty Blues” recorded by Victoria Spivey in 1926. It might take you a minute to put two and two together when you see someone wearing the “Julee Cruise, The Voice of Love” t-shirt, but fans of Twin Peaks will practically hear the American dream pop artist’s devastating ballad “Falling.” “Sometimes ideas come to you, you know, and like, I just want that shirt,” Quinney said.
High Desert Debris can often be found at local art market pops-ups alongside the resin art jewelry company MoonGrrl founded by Becki Jones. In addition to being a jewelry artist, Jones is a sex educator, a Diné full-spectrum doula, Marxist/Proletariat feminist, co-creator of the revolutionary feminist podcast Probably Cancelled, and lead guitarist and singer of the Diné punk band Weedrat. Clearly, Jones’s plate is full. Their DIY approach comes from a place of restorative craft justice, creating jewelry with plants and flowers native to New Mexico and primarily selling to POC, Diné people, and other Indigenous peoples across the country.
“MoonGrrl started with me just being fascinated with resin jewelry,” Jones said, explaining that it took a bit of practice to arrive at work they could be proud of. “You know, it’s like when you make music, you’re not really proud of your earlier stuff,” Jones said. “So, it’s like any craft, practicing definitely helps. I have my own style now.”
There are lots of people creating resin art these days, but MoonGrrl is unique because of the plant medicine embedded in the jewelry. Jones uses lavender, cedar, rosemary, and other plants in New Mexico to infuse the resin with healing properties. “I was thinking about how I could transfer things like cedar to other people,” Jones said. “Cedar is pretty powerful stuff for us in the Southwest — it’s medicine for us that we use for things like prayers.” Jones explained that they reached out to elders to gain permission to use certain herbs in the jewelry, although other forms of medicine are off limits.
MoonGrrl generates funds to help support Indigenous communities. Jones often hosts fundraisers through the MoonGrrl Instagram account, selling only to Indigenous people to benefit Mutual Aid, to combat food insecurity, and in support of the anti-Imperialist group Red Ant Collective. Closer to home, Jones used the tide pull of MoonGrrl to retrieve a piece of art once thought lost to capitalism.
Jones said that their partner Greg Yazzie, while searching for limited release records, found a decades-old rug that his grandmother made for sale in a “digital bordertown” art sale, and wanted it back. “My partner Greg has been buying a lot of Native records … reclaiming Native records from people in, like, Germany, people in England, and all these weird white people who are hoarding and collecting Native records.” Yazzie recognized the distinct signature of his family’s design.
The two contacted the owner of the rug, based in Sedona, Arizona. All Jones could think of was, “Get that rug!” So they organized a MoonGrrl sale and within hours the money was raised. The couple retrieved the rug and placed it back in the hands of Yazzie’s grandmother.
Jones used to be in a band called Nizhoni Girls with Liz MacKenzie, who also performs as a solo act under the name Liz Howdy. In 2020, MacKenzie launched her own baking company, Howdy Cakes, after someone commissioned a cake topper. “A friend commissioned me to make a Baby Yoda cake topper for her partner,” MacKenzie said. “She remembered that long ago I used to bake cakes. Then everything started flooding back to me.”
MacKenzie is a second-generation baker who attended Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale. She started working in her aunt and uncle’s bakery, honing her skills, and by August of 2020 she launched her food business. Howdy Cakes are whimsical and sometimes ironic, portraying pop culture icons, cartoon characters, as well as conventional decorations of fruits and flowers. The cakes can also be customized for birthdays, holidays, and other special occasions. Despite the popularity, MacKenzie found it hard to see a path forward.
In the beginning, Howdy Cakes was a home business. MacKenzie explained, “I was doing a lot of cheap cakes for people pretty much at cost … But I really wanted to make sure that I could do it, just prove to myself with every single one.”
In 2021, she invested in her business and started renting space to make her culinary delights, but she soon found out she’d need to diversify her offerings. “I mean, I knew that just custom cakes weren’t sustainable,” she said. “So that’s when I was thinking about how to fill in the spaces.” For the holidays, Howdy Cakes offers honey snaps and ginger snaps. And MacKenzie, who is Diné, has also added traditional foods to her cake menu. “I think it’s just me trying to tap into two different parts of my brain that triggers a memory,” she said. “I want to share a sense of home, like where my grandma lives.” For example, Howdy Cakes now offers blue corn cake pops and saguaro-shaped sugar cookies with red chile, and MacKenzie is trying to introduce people to sumac.
Howdy Cakes will be a vendor at the Railyards Market in Barelas this summer alongside other local artisans and artists. And MacKenzie will collaborate with founders of the New Mexico Prickly Pear Festival to produce an artisan summer elixir of prickly pear and lemon, combining invigorating citrus with what once was an Indigenous staple. Things grow tough in the desert. They can also be sweet.