Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tony and Bobette Milici

As a Joshua Tree gallery owner and a longtime attendee of the Art Tours, I’m familiar with many, if not most, of the participants.  When I volunteered to interview artists for this blog, I thought it would be fun to visit some folks whose work I’d never seen.  That’s why I recently found myself driving through the mystical landscape of Burns Canyon to meet Bobette and Tony Milici.  With no preconceptions about their work, I turned off Ox Yoke Pass and immediately knew that no matter what I might find inside, the house is art.  The graceful, arched  two-story steel structure soars like a wing from the desert floor, surrounded by Tony’s ceramic/concrete sculptures, steel outbuildings, a funky travel trailer and Bobette’s amazing greenhouse.

The house, which incorporates an airy, double height studio, was designed by Tony.  It is completely off the grid and utilizes both solar and wind power.  Despite the blast furnace July heat, it was pleasantly cool inside without air conditioning or swamp cooler, thanks to the extensive use of Structurally Integrated Panels (SIPS) and spray-on insulation on the outside of the steel structure.  The interior makes use of many green finishes, such as  cork flooring, recycled glass tile and sustainable Belizean hardwoods.

Prior to moving to the Pioneertown area, the Milicis were long-time residents of the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles.  They had originally planned to retire in Belize where they owned 200 feet of beautiful oceanfront property, but changed course after the birth of grandchildren and the over-development of the once-idyllic Central American hideaway.

Tony received his MFA in Clay Art from Claremont College and enjoyed a fulfilling career teaching ceramics, photography, painting and drawing in Los Angeles public schools, including Fremont High.  His personal definition of art, which he passed along to his students, is that art should be novel and idiosyncratic.  His own work reflects this dictum, and spans a wide variety of media including assemblage, photography, ceramics and painting.  He is currently working on a series of talismanic assemblages which were inspired by the practice of voodoo which he encountered during his time in Belize.  Visitors will also be able to see his painterly photographs of Belizean and Guatemalan walls, a lifetime’s work of ceramic objects, and just maybe, something incorporating a box of naked Barbie dolls.

Bobette is a self-taught stained glass artist who, when not busy creating art, is likely to be found working in the garden, sewing or cooking up a gourmet meal in the second-floor kitchen.  Her work has been sold at the Purple Agave Gallery and Route 62 Antiques, and she also sells through her website:  She is equally adept at delicate, jewel-toned jewelry boxes and large stained glass windows.  However, the real standouts of her collection are the intricate Tiffany-style lamps, which often incorporate salvaged and refinished antique lampstands.

This will be the Milici’s second year in the Art Tours.  Visit them on October 30th and 31st and enjoy viewing art inside a work of art.
written by Bonnie Kopp

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Michael Bedilion and Helen Matoush

The best part about writing this blog is that getting to meet new artists every week.  This week took us to 29 Palms to visit two artists, Mike Bedilion and Helen Matoush.

First stop:  the home of photographer Mike Bedilion.  Mike and his wife, Teri, have been part time residents of the high desert for the past four years.  Before they bought their house here, they would come out from Orange County to spend time in the desert, specifically Joshua Tree National Park.   They would camp and hike, sometimes staying at the 29 Palms Inn or the Homestead House.  There finally came a point at which they felt they needed to spend more time out in the desert.   When they are not in 29 Palms, they live in Westminster, California.
Mike Bedilion

Mike has been interested in photography for nearly all his life.  In high school, he had a choice between taking a yearbook class or taking machine shop, and he chose yearbook class.   That decision turned out to be a good one.  Bedilion has worked as a professional photographer since 1980.  He worked for the Department of Education in Orange County, shooting school board photos and still photos to be included in a video for helping children learn to spell.  He worked as a public relations photographer for Disneyland Hotel part time, where he got to meet the Lone Ranger and the Wrathers, who owned the Disneyland Hotel.  He even worked as a photographer for Sororities along the West Coast and Arizona, shooting portraits.  Bedilion has also worked as a producer for various professional photographers.

The photography that Bedilion does for himself varies in subject matter, but his most recent interest has been with Urban Landscape.  He has an interest in local history, and he will actually drive up and down alleys, looking for urban scenes that capture his attention.  He likes "funky stuff."  Bedilion does not really consider himself a documentary photographer.  His work is about seeing things change.  He will photograph something like Al's Swinger in 29 Palms, which was first a church and then it became the black marine bar.  Oftentimes, when things like this change, the changes are forgotten.  Having a photograph of the original state of things will remind us of what was before.  Bedilion's photography is centralized around observation.
In addition to his photography, Bedilion also plays bass for a surf band called the Goofy Foots, is a woodworker, and has even begun making lamp shades with images from his photography and scenes of the desert.  Like many creative individuals, Bedilion doesn't know where his imagination will take him next.   One thing is for certain, wherever his muse takes him, we will be waiting to see the outcome.  Bedilion will have postcards, photographic prints, both framed and unframed, magnets and pins for sale during the Art Tours this year.  He is also hoping to have more lamp shades. 
One of Bedilion's photographs, made into a lampshade.

Our next visit today was to the home studio of basket weaver and gourd artist Helen Matoush.  This year will be her third year on the Art Tours.  She and her husband Joe have been in 29 Palms for 20 years.  They first came here when he was a Navy Chaplain and was stationed in 29 Palms.  Matoush is originally from Queens, NY.  She lived in North Carolina for 20 years with her first husband before coming to the high desert.  When they first moved to the desert, she didn't like Southwest Art.  After living in the Southwest, her feelings about it have changed considerably.  She loves the colors and the tribute to the Native Americans that is found in Southwest Art.  Many of her gourds are created in the Southwest style, and she executes it beautifully.
A finished gourd with waxed linen weaving.
A finished gourd with horsetail on top.

Helen Matoush has sewn her whole life.  Crafting comes naturally for her.  Matoush began basket weaving first, while living in North Carolina.  She learned the Appalachian style of basketry, which is utilitarian rather than decorative.  She has since branched out from the Appalachian style.  The baskets are woven using processed rattan vine.  The rattan vine comes in a variety of sizes, and Matoush may use as many as 5 different sizes of rattan vine in one basket.  All the rattan she buys in a natural color, and if she wants colored rattan, she dyes it herself.   Upon asking how long it takes to weave a basket, Matoush told me that speed comes with practice. When a student first tries weaving a basket, it could take 5 or 6 hours to complete one basket, but after years of weaving, Matoush finds that she can finish a smaller basket in an hour or two.    Helen has begun teaching basket weaving again, after taking a bit of time off from it.

A gourd spirit doll with woven waxed linen.

Helen has been working with gourds for about 7 years.  She only works on gourds part time, while working on other crafts in between.  She sews, makes Christmas ornaments, jewelry (from gourds) and even grows a beautiful organic garden.  Matoush loves to pull from the bounty of nature in the creation of her gourds, incorporating pine needles, seed pods, horsehair, and other natural materials.  She also combines her weaving skill with her gourds, weaving open sections of the gourds with waxed linen or finishing the tops of them with woven pine needles.   Helen told me that the gourds have to speak to her.  Sometimes she may have an idea for how she wants the gourd to look upon completion, but the gourd has other ideas.  Matoush uses permanent ink dyes to color most of her gourds because they are resistant to fading in sunlight, although she will sometimes use leather dyes, acrylic paint and gold leaf.  Matoush will be participating in the first annual gourd festival in Yucca Valley this September, but you won't get to see her studio unless you add her to your list of venues to visit on the Art Tours in October. 
Gourds waiting to be worked on.
Helen Matoush.

You will be busy this year, with so many talented artists to visit on the Hwy 62 Art Tours!  Both Bedilion and Matoush will be showing on the first weekend this year, October 23rd and 24th.  Be sure to include them in your tour.

written by Karine Swenson

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pepper Wagner and Rik Livingston

It was a hot, unusually humid desert day when I made my way out to Pepper Wagner's "Tile Art and Design Works."  You will find her place about 12 miles north of Yucca Valley on Old Woman Springs Road.  Wagner is a tile mosaic artist who has been in Landers since July of 2008.  She and her partner Ron moved here from Desert Hot Springs where she had a gallery for three years.  Wagner has been doing tile mosaic since 1998 or 1999.  She had worked professionally as a tile cutter and setter in Ohio, where she is from.  One day, she was doing a job for a jewelry store, and there was a section where she had to do an unusual cut to fit the space.  The tile she cut ended up looking like the logo for the jewelry store, which was diamond-shaped.  This moment was an epiphany for Wagner, when she realized she could use a wet saw to cut different shapes in tile.  That was what started her on her first piece of tile mosaic art.  That first piece came with her to California.
In addition to her own original designs, Wagner also does commission work.  She enjoys doing both, but what she loves about commission work are the challenges presented by creating a piece specifically for one person.  There are times when people will bring their own materials (special rocks or pebbles) for her to use in the commission piece.  Pepper started doing murals because she wanted to create a peaceful setting - one of her favorites is a piece called "Beach House" that she did because she desperately wanted to go to the beach.  Once she had created it, she hung it on her wall and could "go to the beach" whenever she wanted.  (Unfortunately, I did not get a photo of that piece.)  Wagner has a strong design sense, but what really struck me about her work was the dimensional qualities it has.  Many of her pieces resemble bas-reliefs, with the rocks she includes protruding out from the surface of the piece.  She will also use pebbles, stained glass, and stones in addition to the tile to create the finished pieces.  Wagner's partner Ron is also a tile setter, and he helps her with the logistics of her art: building frames, arranging shipping and hanging for each piece.  Wagner shows her work at Bob Williams Nursery in Indio and Cabot's Museum in Desert Hot Springs.  You will also see a great deal of her tile work if you ever visit The Pepper Tree Inn, located in Palm Springs.  Of course, putting this venue on your agenda for the October Hwy. 62 Art Tours will be the best way to see this talented artist's work, and meet her for yourself.  Pepper Wagner will be showing on the second weekend of the art tours this year.

My next visit brought me a bit closer to downtown Joshua Tree, to Zono Art Productions.  Livingston and his wife, Cat Livingston, share their charming home with two cats, Mysterio and Rocket.    Livingston and his wife have lived in the desert since 2006.  At first, they were part-time residents, spending the other part of their time in San Francisco.  In 2008, the recession propelled them into becoming full time residents of Joshua Tree.  Livingston has always been an artist, despite coming from a mid-western family with no other artists to influence him and no real connection to the art world.  Art was just an innate part of him.  He earned a BFA from Wichita State University and an MFA from the Art Institute in San Francisco.  He was able to get scholarships to help him pay for most of his art education, but he also worked as a picture framer to help pay the bills.  Despite having a family who didn't really understand his drive to pursue art, he continued to follow the path of a true artist.
Livingston applies the "Vulcan Neck Pinch to Rocket.  (Rocket loves it.)
Southwestern Surrealism by Livingston  "Desert Angel."

Livingston has made a career as an artist by not only selling paintings and fine art, but also by doing graphic design and graphic art.  He also taught art for a while.  While living in San Francisco, Livingston became involved in Whitney Young, Inc., which is an organization promoting child development for young children in San Francisco.   He ran a 5,000 square foot art gallery as part of his involvement in Whitney Young, Inc. for three years.  The gallery had nearly a hundred artists involved, and Livingston was the Art Director.  Livingston found that the responsibilities of the gallery left him little time and energy to devote to his own work, and moving to the desert provided him with the change he needed to pursue art full time once more.
A wall of collectibles and memorabilia in Livingston's studio.

Livingston is inspired by comics and advertisement, and considers his work to have a strong retro flair.  Color and humor are both important to him.  In times past, it seemed like people had a strong focus on the future - it held hope and the potential of space travel and other exciting innovations.  This element is strong in his Zono art.  His distinctive and light-hearted style does go through changes without losing its overall character and feeling.  Seeing so much of his art hanging throughout their home does give a person the feeling of being transported, and anyone who enjoys a humorous take on life will enjoy Livingston's art.  Livingston shows his paintings and assemblage at Woods in the Desert Gallery, The Art Queen, and Hwy 62 Art and Antiques.  To meet this visionary artist in person, however, your best bet will be to make this a stop on your Hwy 62 Art Tours this year.   Livingston is planning to offer a line of cards, books and refrigerator magnets in addition to his paintings and assemblage this year for the Art Tours.  Don't miss it!

written by Karine Swenson

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mike Smiley

Mike Smiley is a familiar face on the Hwy. 62 Art Tours.  He has been on the tours every year except the first year, when it was only artists from 29 Palms who participated.  Smiley is a many-faceted artist who works in metal, stone, and makes jewelry.   He and his wife Betty have been residents of the high desert for 12 years, and have lived in the area for almost 20 years.  (They lived in the Coachella Valley prior to coming to Joshua Tree.)
Smiley came to art later in life than many artists.  He was working as a policeman, visiting San Francisco, when he was visiting an art gallery with a friend.  He happened to see carved stone whales in the gallery and thought "I could do that."  He went home, got a book about carving stone, and the next thing he knew he was making art.  He feels his desire to be an artist was innate. His father dabbled in jewelry and painting, and he had an uncle who was a poet, but neither of them were able to pursue art full time.

Smiley's father, a machinist, was a strong influence in Smiley's life as an artist.  Smiley watched his father make jewelry and explore lapidary when he was young, and Smiley made jewelry in high school.  However, Smiley didn't return to jewelry making until he and his wife moved to the desert in 1990.   When his father passed away, he left Mike a welder.  It was the inheritance of this welder, and Smiley's friendship with Steve Rieman, that prompted Smiley to look at metal as another outlet for his creative urges.

Smiley is inspired by his love of nature, and the beauty he sees in nature.  He believes the world is full of treasure, and it is this treasure he collects and utilizes in his art - everything from beautiful stones to a rusted piece of metal.  As a life-long amateur naturalist, his knowledge and love of the natural world is evident in all of his work.  A visit to his studio and the sculpture garden surrounding the house he shares with Betty is a stop well worth making.   Smiley's Joshua Tree studio will be open both weekends of the art tours this year, making it easy to fit it into your exploration of all the creativity our desert communities have to offer.