LAS VEGAS — Here in the desert, I am a “settler.” During my 20 years as an artist in Las Vegas, I’ve seen an incredible amount of creative practices move through our neon valley. The nature of Las Vegas, and perhaps the desert itself, is one of transience. Things come and go, as do people, jostled out of place by strong, hot winds.
Wendy Kveck (a grande dame of art in Nevada, if ever there was one) is a settler too. She is an MFA graduate of the University of Las Vegas (UNLV), where she is currently a professor and recipient of the 2018 Soaring Gardens Artist Retreat fellowship. Her multidisciplinary practice generates powerful observations about the depiction of women in popular media, through a feminist lens. Her paintings, collages, and performances shine phantasmagorical light on the male gaze radiant with exuberant menace. In praxis, she is even more intense.
Kveck observed the ebb and flow of artistic migration through Las Vegas, a place often perceived as a cultural wasteland, and began a sort of anthropological study. In 2015, she created the art journal/catalogue/calendar/experiment Settlers + Nomads (S+N) as a format for engaging southern Nevada’s transitory creative life.
She says, “At the time, there was a lack of infrastructure for the arts in Las Vegas and a lack of connectivity between local artists and audiences/artist communities outside of Las Vegas. I was trying to present a segment of the Las Vegas arts community that hadn’t had much of an online presence, or at least not in any sort of organized, cohesive, or meaningful sense.”
Kveck’s unique sense of digital cohesion began simply as a curatorial effort. “This group was initially conceived of as a smaller group of colleagues, but it ultimately grew to include many other artists I’ve worked with or known in different capacities over the years,” she says. By year three, the site had become a “kind of archive of contemporary art in Las Vegas.”
With portfolios and analysis from resident artists like Dk Sol, Mikayla Whitmore, and Justin Favela, the site also hosted profiles and interviews featuring “Nomads,” artists whose work and methodologies had contributed to the artistic identity of Las Vegas after their term of stay had ceased. Nomads include Catherine Borg, Erin Stellmon, Eri King, David Sanchez Burr, and Yo Fukui, all at one point or another criterion of Las Vegas art.
Las Vegas is unique as a city in how it presents community, identity, and place. Elvis Presley did not come from here or live here longer than two years, but he remains a persona of the city due to his influence on its cultural identity. I find it appropriate that Kveck maintained this rationale in her determination of who can be deemed a “Las Vegas artist.” It’s a beautiful way to circumvent the inevitable talent drain that occurs in a city lacking the cultural vigor to maintain a robust fine arts class.
“I’ve always described the Las Vegas arts community as small (in relation to other cities) but mighty,” she says. “Without a broad and diverse selection of art museums, galleries, local grant and exhibition opportunities, and other support, Las Vegas artists have created community and culture through artist-run spaces and online projects, working as arts educators, administrators, curators, entrepreneurs, and advocates. But Las Vegas needs more institutional support, funding, and city planning policies that will better support the creation and sustainability of a thriving arts scene. I’ve always thought of S+N as an arts advocacy project.”
As the project grew, so did its collaborators, weaving greater connective tissue in and out of the city. The site and Kveck began to serve as both archive and incubator. “In 2018, thanks to Aurora Tang, who had just curated an exhibition at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art (the only fine arts museum in Las Vegas), Settlers + Nomads partnered with the museum, UNLV, and Common Field to host an Art Meet-Up, a gathering of arts leaders from artist-run spaces and arts organizations to discuss strengths and challenges within our community,” explains Kveck. “Looking back, there were exciting projects percolating and meaningful connections that were made such as Goldwell’s Bullfrog Biennial and the Mystery Ranch.”
The Bullfrog Biennial is a weekend-long desert art exhibition (full disclosure, I co-curated the 2021 Biennial) event that takes place in Beatty, Nevada, created by the Goldwell Open Air Museum, and The Mystery Ranch is an artist residency in Searchlight, Nevada; both began gaining traction in Las Vegas at the Common Field meeting and have gone on to become meaningful cultural aspects catalogued by Settlers + Nomads.
Other notable works involving Settlers + Nomads in recent years include Kveck’s 2020 curatorial project New Monuments for a Future Las Vegas, produced for the Nevada humanities program, in which she “invited artists to collaborate in pairs or groups, to consider the place and purpose of monuments, and to imagine futures together through this collective work.” Settlers + Nomads also documented work during the pandemic through The Art We Needed 2021, a “new year Instagram project led by Lyn Hinojosa who asked artists to share artworks that especially inspired or fortified them during these trying times.”
Settlers + Nomads has become an essential source for understanding Southern Nevada’s artistic modality not simply as advocacy or observation but as cultural infrastructure. It has led to some engaging new projects for the city and Kveck. “Because of my work with S+N, Las Vegas-based artist Justin Favela invited me to collaborate with him on Live in America, an exciting upcoming project (years in the making) with Fusebox and The Momentary,” she says. “The festival celebrates the performance, installation, and community-based work of under-the-radar art communities in the US and its territories and Mexico.”
Kveck has grown increasingly aware of what the word “settler” implies when living and working on land stolen from the Southern Paiute people. “Reconsidering the terms ‘settlers’ and ‘nomads’ in the context of the American West, I’ve been contemplating a name change,” she says. I am certain that Settlers + Nomads and Kveck will be watering this desert and cataloging what flowers grow.
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