SEARCHLIGHT, NV — Typically in the item action list for most practicing artists, you will find a broad swath of activities: keep studio hours; generate new work; engage community members; curate an exhibition; and keep chugging along for that solo show or group exhibition. I feel comfortable asserting that a far less often checked box in the eclectic laundry list of creative endeavors is to make a substantial contribution to the establishment of a new national monument. But that is what Kim Garrison Mean, Sergio “Checko” Salgado, and Mikayla Whitmore have managed to do, and organize an exhibition about it.
Avi Kwa Ame (Spirit Mountain, if you must have an English translation) is a mountain range sacred to the Yuman-speaking people of the Mojave Desert, just west of Southern Nevada’s original boomtown Searchlight, settled between the Lake Mead National Recreation area and the Mojave National Preserve.
The Avi Kwa Ame mountain range and the region surrounding it have been the site of a proposed 30,000-acre wind farm since 2013. Not only would the construction of the farm be devastating to one of the most pristine and biodiverse sections of the Mojave, and blight the landscape, but it would also be positioned directly in the heart of sacred land. This land is what activists, environmentalists, the Fort Mojave tribal council, residents of Searchlight, and artists want to designate as a national monument.
On the east side of Searchlight is Mystery Ranch, a residency program and creative incubator run by United Catalysts long-term collaborators and University of Las Vegas (UNLV) alums Kim Garrison Mean and Steven Radosevich. As their collaborative title implies, they are prime movers in creating necessary change. In 2020, at the big wooden table in the cabin at Mystery Ranch tucked into a majestic corner of desert (experiencing a sunset in this area is transformative), Mean began to form a plan. Spirit of the Land, an exhibition at the UNLV Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, would be the final result, but first, there was a national monument to help create.
Community was the initial concern for Mean. “I want to stress that it was so important to know that this was good for the community. And the only way for me to know it was good with the community was to work heavily with them,” she says. “The conservation groups and the campaign were looking for somebody to interface with the town, and I was able to play that role for Searchlight because of my family background there. But to feel correct in that, it was like I was doing the role for both parties, making sure that Searchlight had all of its questions answered, that this was going to be good for the land and good for the town, and that we could trust the people who were running this conservation campaign.”
After surveying the people of Searchlight and Laughlin, Mean began to reach out to the arts community to help raise awareness. Salgado was an essential addition to the project. In 2015, he assisted in the creation of the Basin and Range National Monument (a monument that just so happens to preserve Michael Heizer’s long-anticipated “City”) while curating an exhibition of Southern Nevada artists around the same theme. Whitmore acted as a bridge. She had recently begun the process of establishing her homestead near Searchlight and doubled down on her commitment to the region by connecting and joining Salgado and Mean in curation.
“As soon as I acquired the land, within that week Checko called me and was like, ‘Hey, this monument project is happening. Can I get connected to Kim?’ And then I was like, ‘Yes, you can. But by the way, I’m out here.’ And then from there, we hit the ground running, so to speak,” says Whitmore. “With Kim’s long time history and knowledge within the area and arts and then Checko’s background within the monument projects, and my network as well, it came down to making sure that all the different communities involved on the ground were informed and then able to make their own decisions.”
Though artist-as-intersectional-avatar is not an unusual circumstance, the curators’ efforts go above and beyond what typically occurs in an arts and activism role. I asked Salgado where the historical context of a project like this falls. “Although painters like Thomas Moran or photographers such as Carleton Watkins were influential in preserving Yosemite and Yellowstone, I take my cue from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, which worked alongside the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s,” he says. “Their union helped bring the spotlight to our national parks and bring awareness to keeping them preserved. I have applied this type of focus with some very talented artists that feel the same way about our public lands and the fact that Nevada is not a wasteland.”
“Not a wasteland” is something of a theme both in and outside of Spirit of the Land. The perception that Las Vegas and its surrounding regions are barren both biologically and culturally, and subsequently available for use without careful consideration, is disturbingly prevalent. A brief tour of the wilds around Avi Kwa Ame or a step through the doors of the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art would terminate such a notion.
Contained within the exhibition is a panoply of narratives. Some highlights include Paula Jacoby-Garrett’s “55%” (2022), a sculptural work capturing the screw bean mesquite and its decline in regional population; Fawn Douglas’s “Gifts From the Land” (2022), a work about her connection to the Avi Kwa Ame region as a Moapa Paiute tribal member; Quindo Miller’s clever tumbleweed in a box, “A Wind in the Stillness” (2022), delivers a take harvesting gales; and “Land of Knowing” (2022) serves as a distillation of the region through a delicate collage triptych by Adriana Chavez. The exhibition series includes work by 46 participating artists, and satellite exhibitions at the Laughlin Library and Searchlight Community Center, making Spirit of the Land a complete regional arts activation.
Still, works by the curators themselves stand out as essential statements. For example, Whitmore’s photo diptych “Sunrise/Sunset” (2022) grapples with colonial history, presenting a juniper tree on Christmas Tree Pass through the Avi Kwa Ame mountain range decorated in the style of a Christmas tree; in the second image of that tree, the decorations are removed.
“Since the ’80s, a more westernized history of decorating the trees, or kind of vandalizing littering them with objects in the name of tradition, has occurred. In the late ’90s, they tried to crack down on it. But the tradition continues. You see those little tinsel shreds flying off into the wind — there’s nothing worse than watching birds try to eat them or seeing them get stuck in cactuses,” she says. “So I just really wanted to make an honest representation of what this would look like if you went out and visited the area. Then I got that photo, I cleaned up the tree and removed all the litter. I went back about a month later and photographed it and followed up to see the progress and health of the tree, and to give my regards to it. And in the gallery, we paired both of those photos with a piece of garland that came from the tree.”
This observation of the misuse of desert wilderness lies at the heart of the exhibition along with Salgado’s “Not a wasteland” statement, which becomes encapsulated in United Catalysts’s “Proof of Existence” (2022), a video work cataloging the visitors to a pond built at Mystery Ranch during our region’s years-long drought to provide much-needed water to local fauna. Mean says, “It’s been painful to watch the desert go through this megadrought. Seeing the footage on those cams is proof that those animals still exist in the landscape and that our actions help or harm them.”
The conservatory essence of Spirit of the Land and its curators is beautifully punctuated by “Proof of Existence,” and the exhibition is a fascinating dive into regional history, land use, and culture that has profound implications on the power that artists can muster to generate change. As Salgado says, “May our efforts help influence other artists to do the same for their communities.”