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‘The longer I live out in the Mojave Desert, the more I learn about the nuances of living there. It helps me grow.'
Gems in this
When Aaron Glasson jumps on for this interview, he is in a hotel room in Italy, having just spent a few months in Portugal. This life in the sky is commonplace for the artist, who followed his self-confessed sense of ‘FOMO’ from his native New Zealand to Japan as a young adult, before hopping across to Sri Lanka, and then around the US.
Though his artworks range in style — from paintings and sculptures to murals and interactive installations — the themes of interconnection, community and ecology consistently play out across his work. Currently based in Landers, a small desert town in the Mojave, we spoke to Aaron about cities he returns to, a lucky coincidence in Estonia, extraterrestrial encounters, and where to experience the spellbinding creativity of the High Desert in his Mojave Desert Travel Playbook.
On your passion for art
I remember drawing so much when I was a kid, and also having a very strong interest in building things. So it has always been a big part of my personality. When I was in school, it was the only thing I was interested in — I kind of failed every other subject.
On lives lived across the globe
I grew up south of Auckland in Karaka, a little rural farming community. From a young age, I remember wanting to leave New Zealand. New Zealand is so wonderful, but the geographical, and even cultural, isolation of living there really made me want to go out and explore. As soon as I was old enough to go, I moved to Japan. I was working other jobs to pay the bills, but I was still making art in my spare time. Then I moved to Thailand and Sri Lanka. It wasn't until I moved from Sri Lanka to the States that I pursued art full time.
On finding a home in the Mojave Desert
I was working in the art department for a music festival called Desert Daze. I started to spend some time there for the festival, and then with friends. In early 2020, a cabin came on the market that my friend Prescott McCarthy had seen. So he and I ended up buying this cabin together. The last two years or so we've been renovating it, and I just moved in.
On creativity in the desert
It's really incredible. I didn't really realize how strong the art scene was until I moved. There are so many artists living up there and there have been more in the past 10 years or so. A lot of artists make the move partly because it’s cheap, but partly because there’s so much freedom. Noah Purifoy, an incredible assemblage artist and one of the founders of the desert art scene, moved there in the late 80s or early 90s. And then you've got Andrea Zittel, one of my favorite living artists. There's this organization, High Desert Test Sites, that's always putting on amazing art events, whether it be art shows or performances or workshops.
On your ideal day in the region
I would probably wake up early and go to a diner. There's a few cool old diners in the area, like Morongo Cafe or C&S Coffeehouse. I would definitely go to Noah Purifoy’s art museum [Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Art], which is basically this giant outdoor art museum. There are sculptures that he made out of found materials, but it's really interesting because a lot of it comments on racism and segregation in the US, so it's an important place for the area. Obviously Joshua Tree National Park is incredible and you can't go wrong; it's full of amazing hikes. On Saturdays, the swap meet in Yucca Valley is always a good one: lots of treasures, and cool local characters hang out there.
‘Where I live, Landers, was actually the UFO-viewing place in the 1950s, before Area 51 and Roswell. So there's this strong alien culture, which is really funny and cool.’
On exploring Palm Springs
Go down to Palm Springs; it’s very close. The Palm Springs Art Museum is really incredible. It's a beautiful building. They have a nice little permanent collection and a pretty solid temporary collection. Towards the end of the day, there's a cable car that takes you from the low desert up into pine tree-covered mountains in like 15 minutes, so I’d probably go up that.
On where to eat in the area
One of my favorite spots is a place called The Palms in Wonder Valley. It's a little dive bar in the middle of nowhere. I would definitely go there for drinks or for dinner. I would even go to the supermarket and get a picnic, and go into the park for the sunset. There are a lot of pull-offs and little picnic areas in Joshua Tree National Park. One spot for dinner is a friend's place called Giant Rock Meeting Room. It's kind of out there in Flamingo Heights, but it's a good spot for pizza and drinks.
On your relationship with the Mojave Desert
I would say it is evolving. The longer I live out there, the more I learn about the nuances of living there. It is challenging at times, but it helps me grow. My circle of friends is expanding, which is really nice, and it's helping my work evolve in many ways. It feels like home.
On close encounters of the third kind
Where I live, Landers, was actually the UFO-viewing place in the 1950s, before Area 51 and Roswell. There are still remnants of that — a lot of locals claim to have had experiences with aliens. In certain places, you can see where there were viewing platforms or UFO-watching get-togethers. There's a famous place called The Integratron, where people go now for sound baths, but was actually built by a guy who says he got the plan for it from aliens. So there's this strong alien culture, which is really funny and cool. I have a friend who was staying at my house and saw some giant, glowing things moving around on top of this little mountain close by — but there's nothing up there; there aren't even roads to get up there.
On a song that reminds you of the Mojave Desert
‘Spud Infinity’ by Big Thief — whenever I listen to that song, it makes me think about the desert.
On the Mojave Desert in one word
Surprising. I'm constantly surprised by all these things and people and places that I'm discovering the longer that I'm there. There's so much beauty that you might overlook — suddenly the sky turns this brilliant red-orange-pink, or you're driving down a dirt road and you stumble across an incredible rock formation. It's constantly surprising me.
‘When you travel you realize that, though we're all fundamentally similar, we're also very different in how we were raised.’
On a memorable project in Estonia
A memorable project was in Tallinn, Estonia, with PangeaSeed and an organization from Mexico. The idea of the festival was to use murals to connect people. They suggested I paint a famous but elusive folk singer called Kihnu Virve, who’s from this native Estonian tribe in the Baltic Sea. She's a legend. It was the day before the festival, but we didn’t have her permission to paint her. By pure coincidence, a car pulled in, and Kihnu, who lives on an island like 500 kilometers away, got out of the car to walk into this building. So I got to paint her, and after the festival, I went to her house and hung out. That was really special.
On what travel has taught you
I seem to not be able to stay in one place for too long. I'm grateful that I have the ability to see beauty or find things that I like almost everywhere. I often feel like, ‘What would happen to my art if I tried residing in that place?’ We all see the world in different ways.
On a window or an aisle seat
Aisle, because I have a really small bladder.