Desert Artist Explores Black Settler Life in the Mojave – Press Enterprise
As an artist living in Palm Springs, Barbara Gothard was curious if there were other black women like her who had made art in the Mojave Desert. She went online and her search took her to an unexpected place.
She found a history article from that same news organization about pioneering black settlers in the Mojave in the early 20th century. His illustration was a 1910 advertisement looking for men to farm and farm near Nevada with the catchy title: “An Appeal to Colored Men.”
Gothard, fascinated, undertook research on the subject. It wasn’t in his wheelhouse. In fact, she describes herself as a surrealist inspired by Georgia O’Keefe, Hieronymus Bosch and Rene Magritte. And yet, she was looking for a new subject and a new direction, and it turned out to be this little-known aspect of black history.
The result is “Contradictions – Moving the Past Forward”, an exhibit at the San Bernardino County Museum on Gotthard’s work.
The exhibit is dedicated to the 23 out of 83 black homesteaders who formed a small mixed-race community in the Lanfair Valley, in the desert near the Nevada border and the hamlet of Goffs. Lanfair was established in 1910 and was almost gone by the early 1930s. Today, all that remains is to lay the foundations.
I met Gothard at the Redlands Museum on Wednesday morning, curious to see the work and hear how it came about.
Because there are few or no photos of Lanfair and its people, and Gothard is not a figurative painter, she said she had to ask herself, “How can I, as an artist , interpret their stories?
Each homesteader is the subject of a poster card with known biographical facts in a timeline. Next to it is a Gotthard artwork, printed on linen and hanging on the wall like a scroll.
The art depicts the state flower of the resident’s home state and indicates the number on the Lanfair lane map of the resident’s property. These are lined up along the wall of the circular showroom.
The floor is also part of the art. Gothard mapped out the lanes with tape, red for black residents, blue for others. This adds context to individual displays. “The red boxes are sort of clustered together,” she noted.
It’s an imaginative use of bureaucratic records. I imagine the audience for the show might include art enthusiasts from the county assessor’s office.
A showcase includes some Lanfair objects unearthed by archaeologists in the Mojave National Preserve: a spit, a flask, a fork, a cast iron pot. A lid from a can of vegetarian cooking oil is telling. Several families were Seventh-day Adventists and therefore ate little meat.
Gothard has done her art and much of the research during the pandemic, some during an artist residency at BoxoPROJECTS in Joshua Tree, where she was able to work without distraction.
She made her art on an iPad, using the ProCreate program, and chose linen as the material because its color and feel seemed to reflect the desert.
How would the pieces hang if they weren’t framed? Gothard bought a sewing machine to do the hemming, then some dowels and cords from Joann’s Fabrics. The effect is ancient, almost biblical.
The exhibit, which opened Feb. 8 when the museum reopened to the public, is on view until April 21. A chance to meet Gothard takes place on March 5 during an open day for the exhibition from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., with a talk and a guided tour. at 2 p.m. After its museum run, the show will travel to the Victor Valley Museum in Apple Valley.
Homesteaders largely moved from Los Angeles County for the chance to own property, if they could establish their rights after three years of residency, and to escape prejudice. The price they paid was a hard life in the extremes of the desert, trying to farm in a place with little rainfall.
“As the rain dried up and the drought arrived, it became almost impossible to live there and be self-sufficient,” Gothard said. Most homesteaders have walked away.
A native of Springfield, Illinois, Gothard said his ancestors on both sides of the family farmed there, where everything grows, a stark contrast to farming in the Mojave.
“It must have taken a lot of perseverance and resilience,” Gothard said. She is particularly intrigued by the seven women who braved the desert to live there independently.
Gothard, who has lived in places as disparate as San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, DC and South Africa, has been a resident of Palm Springs since 2012.
“The desert for me is freedom,” Gothard said, his eyes shining. “I think it’s the expanse of the desert and the stability of the mountains. That’s what they mean to me. The mountains are harsh. The desert can seem soft with the sands. It’s like a constant light show.
This is where the “contradictions” of the title of the exhibition come in: the difference between his life and that of the homesteaders. “These people lived in 1910 and here we are in 2022, creating artwork on an iPad,” Gothard said with a smile.
The original article that piqued his interest was a 2017 history column by Joe Blackstock of this news agency, titled “The Untold Story: African-American Farmers Once Farmed the Mojave Desert.”
Joe, who likes to explore, told me the other day that he got his hands on a Friends of the Mojave Road guidebook, saw a reference to a black settlement in the Lanfair Valley and, curious, started his research.
This included driving to Goffs, home to a history center founded by Dennis Casebier, and reading an oral history by a man who was a child when his family moved to Lanfair.
Gothard corresponded with Casebier before his death in February 2021 and has not yet been to Goffs. She plans to continue her research and follow others’ research on Lanfair, either for another project or just out of curiosity.
“As for the end of the journey, I’m not sure it will ever end,” Gotthard mused. “I think it will always be part of my life.”
Pomona College senior Lauren Rodriguez entered the “Jeopardy! National College Championship,” reached the semifinals and placed second, walking away with $20,000. Her advice to potential candidates: “Instead of studying, just try to be a sponge,” she told The Student Life newspaper. “Just try to always learn.”
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, a schedule that will probably never be a “Jeopardy!” question. Email [email protected], call 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.