08.01.09 jrhs_ADMIN

The Desert Sun: Artists embrace harsh desert

Artists embrace harsh desert in creating their own wide open gallery spaces

By Judith Salkin | The Desert Sun

It’s hard not to hear the Eagles’ “Hotel California” in your head as you drive through Wonder Valley seeing the remains of the Jackrabbit Homesteads.

The homesteads, the result of the Small Tract Act of 1938, are a part of desert history that reminds us of the pioneering spirit of the post-World War II years when Americans yearned for the open spaces and freedoms of the Old West.

And the government yearned to populate the vast stretches of open land.

After completing a project on the quirky structures of the Salton Sea, photographer Kim Stringfellow began exploring the stories behind the tiny desert buildings.

In September, the Center for American Places will publish Stringfellow’s Jackrabbit Homestead: Tracing the Small Tract in the Southern California Landscape a slim (144-page) history of the homestead structures.

“I got interested in the hinterland fringe communities a long time ago,” she said by phone from Los Angeles. “They are so close to major cities, but they’re worlds apart from civilization.”

Stringfellow’s explorations brought her back to the Small Tract Homestead Act of 1938, an idea from the Bureau of Land Management that sold 21/2

Many used the cabins as weekend retreats from the metropolis of Los Angeles. “They wanted someplace where they could breathe,” Stringfellow said.

In addition to the book, she has a Web site, jackrabbithomestead.com, that includes audio tracks on the homestead history, a downloadable audio tour and driving map of the area.

She became so enamored of the region during her research, Stringfellow has decided to move to the high desert in the fall. “I’m waiting for it to cool off a bit,” she said.

A Homestead Of Her Own

Today, some of the surviving homestead cabins are inhabited by artists like Chris Carraher, who see the openness of the high desert not as desolation, but as a place that encourages self-sufficiency and creativity.

“People here allow themselves to exercise their own unique creativity,” said Carraher. “On one level, they live a life of reduced resources, but that also allows them to come up with inventive solutions.”

Carraher purchased the five-acre property from the heirs of its original owner for $7,000 in 1999.

The property features the original 192-square-foot cabin built in the mid-1950s, a separate 850-square-foot bedroom unit installed in 1963 and a working well.

Many of the furnishings in the house are “obtainium,” objects found in the desert and repurposed, like the former ammo boxes that make up her bookcase and office shelving.

“You need to be resourceful to live here,” she said.

Carraher has also made a few changes. To capture more of the 360-degree view, she replaced windows with sliding glass doors. “That took a little getting used to,” she said.

As more people move into the Morongo Basin, Carraher sees civilization encroaching on the land of the Jackrabbit Homesteads and eventually changing the very character of the open desert she calls home. “Paradise,” she lamented, “is never permanent.”

© 2009 The Desert Sun