gerald clarke agua caliente mural

With His Audience in Mind

Cahuilla artist Gerald Clarke created a mural at the Agua Caliente Casino Rancho Mirage to bring the visual and the message to his own people.

JIM POWERS Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

gerald clarke agua caliente mural

Gerald Clarke stands by "Cahuilla Realms", a mural he created recently at the Agua Caliente Casino Rancho Mirage by The Steakhouse.

Gerald Clarke will tell you he’s not a decorative artist. His art speaks to its audience in a more declarative manner.

“I have something to say. I'm not just decorating a room,” says Clarke, a Cahuilla artist in Anza whose work often confronts the Native American identity and its interaction with mainstream culture and politics.

However, Clarke has to admit that the mural he recently completed inside the Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa in Rancho Mirage is “attractive.” The mural can be seen along the walkway leading to the the pool complex, adjacent to The Steakhouse, the casino’s top-flight restaurant.

But what pleases Clarke the most and why he accepted the invitation from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians to create “Cahuilla Realms” was the audience it would reach every day.

“One of the things I've always said in my 30-year career as a Native artist is — the hardest thing for Native artists is you can get shows in Santa Fe or whatever — but the hardest thing is to show your work where your own community can appreciate it in a professional setting,” Clarke says.

“And so even though I had a lot of other projects going on at the time the Tribe approached me to do this, I jumped at the chance because the Cahuilla people are my No. 1 audience,” he says, “and anytime I can show where they can see it, I want to do it.”

Clarke speaks further with Palm Springs Life about the mural’s inspiration, what his daughter Lily’s participation meant, and what he learned from the experience.

The diamond pattern is representative of the numerous petroglyphs that were painted or carved onto the rocks of the surrounding mountain ranges. The sculptural elements represent the importance of the plant and animal world to the Cahuilla people’s beliefs, and the configuration of bird singing rattles represent their traditional cultural practices.

What was outcome you wanted from creating this mural?

Everything in the mural is symbolic of some aspect of our traditional culture, and that's what was most important to me. In all my work I'm trying to convey meaning. I don't believe in art for art's sake or whatever. I think it's communication, and basically I want people to see my work, and I want them to think about it. And this is going to sound funny, but I don't even care if they don't consider what I do art. My goal is really, the people that come and see that at the Agua Caliente resort, if they get home and around the kitchen table and they say, "I saw something interesting today," and it spawns a conversation. "Well, why did it look that way?" Or, "Why were those things included?" Then I feel like my job is done, to just get people to think about things beyond the surface.

What process did you use to create the mural?

And I've never been interested in playing it safe, and so I often, constantly try new things. Every time I get comfortable in the studio, I quit doing whatever it is I'm doing, and I do something new. There is a part of that mural that is like a petroglyph that I was inspired by from a petroglyph I had seen up in the mountains. And I made something similar on the computer using Photoshop and had it printed actually out of vinyl, and I've never really done that in an artwork before. But it's just a constant experimentation and trying something new. And then once I stuck it to the wall, then I came back with paint, and I enhanced it, so I like that idea, too.

The mural has a layered look to it.

I do work in layers, and it's not just physical layers. It's also, like with this mural, I see that as layers of history and layers of understanding. So the yucca is playing homage to the plant life that has contributed to our survival for thousands of years. The hummingbird, about the animal life in the area that's part of our cosmology. The rattles talk about our traditional culture. But I said in one interview, the foundation of the whole piece is that background painting of just the land, because of course everything starts with the land — our relationship with the land.

Artist Gerald Clarke (center) is flanked by Tribal Chariman Reid Milanovich and bird singer and Tribal council member John R. Preckwinkle III.

The mural is 89 inches by 114 inches to create a finite space to work in versus the whole side of a building. Did that create challenges?

I just approached it less like you're saying, like a whole building mural, and I approached it more as just a large canvas.

Your daughter Lily contributed to the mural. Have you worked together before?

I have two daughters. My oldest daughter is a poet. But my younger daughter (Lily) has shown a lot of aptitude in the visual arts, so I've been getting her involved more.

And I think too, I turned 55 this year, and I'm starting to feel, more and more as I get older, I’m starting to feel more and more responsibility about mentoring and modeling behavior and sharing my understanding of art and how to make it with younger people. So my daughter helped me out with that project, and then I have another one that's pending. But I have my daughter and another young person, tribal person, that's going to be helping me with that.

I appreciate the help certainly. Do I need the help? Not really, but it's this idea... It's again, this idea of mentoring and paving a path, giving a leg up to that generation behind me who may want to do something similar.

Did you ask her some questions while creating the mural to get her perspective, or did she offer like, "Hey Dad, I saw this, and I thought this might be cool to add," or just, "I like that color, and here's why”

Oh, totally. And really a lot of it, people don't understand how much walking is involved and looking is involved with larger work. So we were getting back into the coffee shop doorway and looking at it as far as placement of the different elements within the mural. And of course I asked her, I said, "Well, what do you think about that spacing?" Or, "Do you think it's too far or too close?" And we did a lot of that. And then I'll tell you too, casinos aren't, other than the twinkling lights and stuff, they're not really well lit.

And me getting older. There were a lot of times I couldn't hardly see what I was doing, and I relied on her a huge amount to help me see the lines and stuff. And she did a lot of the detail painting, particularly on the rattles that are included there. It's not all figured out from the very beginning. And you get something up there, and you react and interact, and that's what's exciting about art making, just going into the unknown, not just coming up with a sketch and then just doing it. I think that would be very boring.

So what did you learn about yourself during this project? Anything you took away that may help you?

Yeah, some of it was real practical, like I was pouring resin on wooden elements.The hummingbird, they are cut out of wood, painted, and then I poured a mixture of resin and glitter onto it, and I've never done that before. So part of it was just physical learning. Oh, this is how this does, and this is cool. And then part of it was just learning to interact, like the thing with my daughter, and ask for help when I thought I needed it, like not being able to see. I think I started feeling my age quite a bit.

• READ NEXT: We Are The Cahuilla.