Art for Art’s Sake

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If you would have asked my 5-year-old self what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a writer and an artist. 

By second grade, I wrote a little picture book about a guy named Joe, if I remember correctly, who drove a Chevy Nova. I was the lead in the little play my class gave to the school about the importance of dental health (I was the “Foolish Molar,” it was not a tragedy). I treasured most a few stuffed animals and my carousel of crayons, with which I doodled on the green shag carpet in my bedroom. I was always a creative type. 

The arts were always a part of my life in one way or another, although writing certainly took center stage. As a high school senior, I was the editor of the creative literacy journal (and lead in the school play, ceramics maker, captain of the field hockey team, and an honors student with a part-time job who sure enjoyed a good party, but I digress). I loved writing and reading poetry. 

But let’s face it: How many poets do you know who can afford to eat? So, I went into journalism. Maybe it was that I felt a social and personal obligation to make some money while I could, but I don’t regret it at all. It paved my way to working for a newspaper, then communications work for nonprofits, government and eventually plenty of small- and medium-sized businesses. I built a professional career that affords me the opportunity to travel wherever I want.

I had fun with some art as a hobby over the last 20 years, creating costumes for music festivals, holiday ornaments for friends, brainstorming creative outreach activities and events, and making music. I picked up the djembe and percussion instruments, and later the ukulele. I love to sing. 

I also appreciate art, filling the Shanti Shack, my RV, slowly but surely with the talents of my friends. So, when I happened to be rolling through Southern California after celebrating my birthday at Joshua Tree National Park, I was excited to discover a place called East Jesus.

A fellow nomad told me to check out Slab City, to go to the Slab City Library and also East Jesus. I rolled into the Slabs, as they’re called, about 10 days ago. I was pretty dirty, having not had a shower in a few days, cough cough, and I researched that there was a natural hot spring nearby.  

Welcome to the Slabs

The first night in the Slabs, I parked near the hot springs. I took a bath alone at dusk, poured myself a cocktail and relaxed for an early night. It was good I slept early, as locals and degenerate types investigated my rig throughout the night, driving in circles with Beastie Boys blasting from radios. I figured they were trying to scare the “Karens” and other retired types who are usually the ones driving around in a 23-foot RV. I found it hilarious! 

By the way, I have an Aunt Karen, and she’s lovely. 

After doing some writing assignments the next morning, I packed up to check out Slab City. First stop from the hot springs was Salvation Mountain. This well-maintained piece of art was made by a Jesus freak and his friends who painted a big hillside with a message encouraging people to say, “Jesus, I am a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart.”

I checked it out while other tourists were boasting somewhat loudly and stupidly about how they came here before and talked to the keeper of the property, and isn’t it really cool, I mean, I’m sorry like it’s a long, long drive and everything, but I think this is really, really cool. You know what I’m sayin, guys? Hey let’s snap a selfie! 

Hopping back in Shanti, I drove on to the Slab City Library. Previously, I had finished “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Wanting to donate the book, I realized I could also offer a big bag of stuff I no longer wanted. I packed up some random food people gave me that I was never going to eat, my old boots that were about to give out but had some life left in them, and a few hand-me-down clothing that didn’t make the cut. 

As I rolled up to the library, there was a big sign that read, “CLOSED: Deliveries Only.” Not one to listen to signage, I knew I had a delivery anyway so I drove right up. Maybe they knew where I could sleep that night, since I wasn’t quite ready to drive on down the road.

Some dude covered in tattoos came out to meet me and asked if I knew Cornelius. 

“Not yet,” I replied. “I have a delivery.” They pointed me down the way, and another guy came up to my car. I offered him the stuff, and then I asked him if he had a recommendation where I could park that evening. He told me to talk to Cornelius.

Corn comes out of the library. They’re on crutches, missing a leg, and holding a shotgun. They start shooting as two stray dogs haul ass, as they say, off their property. I’m a little shocked but use those old acting skills to play it cool. I introduce myself, and they tell me I can park on the dirt lot over by the edge of their property. I say, “That’s awesome. Thanks sister.”

“I’m a sibling,” Cornelius said, “not a sister.”

My brain rattling with information about firearms, dangerous feral animals, and gender identity, I thank them somewhat clumsily and got back in my rig. Instead of going straight to the parking spot, I carried on to East Jesus. I haven’t left.

East Jesus

Suffice to say, I remain overwhelmed and impressed with this art project. Let me simply write again what I crafted for a self-guided tour you can take when you arrive at this museum, just like I did:

Welcome to East Jesus!

Cared for by volunteers with the non-profit Chasterus Foundation, East Jesus is an experimental, habitable artwork-in-progress and a halfway house for wayward art. This dynamic, interactive museum is a member of the California Museum Association and is the vision of the late Charles Stephen Russell.

East Jesus is a community of artists, musicians, writers and dreamers who love art for art’s sake. With 7,000 watts of solar power and compostable toilets, it’s an off-the-grid lifestyle where we reuse it, repurpose it, recycle it or set it on fire. Your donations help keep everything going, so thanks!

On these 30 privately owned acres, nothing ever happens until it happens. More than 1,000 people have contributed their time and talent to making your experience happen. You get to decide if the random piles of garbage are artistic statements that transcend the impermanence of humanity’s excess or just a bunch of junk.

Whatever the value, all artwork is protected by copyright of the Chasterus Foundation. You must gain permission before you make images for moneymaking purposes. Holler over the wall. We’re a friendly sort.

And sure enough, that’s what I found after I spent a couple hours wandering around the fascinating and fun exhibits, which made me laugh and think and feel and engage in ways that reminded me of art galleries in Tokyo. I loved it. 

I remembered that I had some old pieces of shiny reflective material, leftover from creating my sunshield, and a big fishing net another friend gave me as a netting that just didn’t really work in my rig. I thought maybe these crazy artists would like it. I brought it over to the gift shop, and Paul came over.

He accepted my donation and offered to show me what’s going on inside, which, it turns out, is a community of artists creating and caring for the art garden and living in the middle of the desert. I stayed for dinner and welcomed the arrival of the new caretaker for the season. They had run out of coffee, so I offered to share the artisanal beans I treated myself to from a café on my birthday. 

The next day, after coffee, I pitched in to help … as I always do wherever I am. I did some dishes and sold a t-shirt. I felt right at home, and the caretaker, Steve, asked me to stay. 

It hasn’t quite been to two weeks, and I already dove deep into art. I’ve already made progress on my next book and created a self-guided tour for the art garden with a map that shows the name and location of most of the artwork and information about the project. I constructed a “Help Your Self Desk” that makes me anxious with all that technology I screwed down in it, but luckily, I also screwed on a toilet paper roll and a holder for a spear and a water faucet. 

I’m almost finished crafting a bunch of flower crowns, and I rehabbed and enhanced the previously blown-down-and-busted memorial for the founder, Charlie. I cleaned up the entrance area, dumped a bucket of shit into the compost area (living on a sailboat prepared me for this life), and created a marketing plan for upgrading their website. 

At the same time, I’ve been able to keep up with my work, eat well, make new friends and plan out a couple more art projects. Finally, I can get my zine together, which I’ve honestly been planning since I lived in Australia. I’m also doing some interesting artwork with wire, karate belts and a Styrofoam head I found out in “the boneyard,” which is a huge, somewhat-sorted pile of refuge like what I donated. 

Back in July, I included the word, “ART” on this year’s vision board that I made for myself, but I didn’t realize how wonderfully central that word would be. It’s a blessing to have the freedom to create as I wish. I’m able to dip into my experiences, such as celebrating El Dia de los Muertos with giant kites in Sumpango, Guatemala. That’s what those flower crowns are for. 

I’m able to be myself, just as my 5-year-old self imagined me to be.