Images Into Action

Water and social justice 
permeate 30 years of 
Sant Khalsa’s art and activism.

Shana Dambrot Arts & Entertainment


In the 1992 group exhibition Smog: A Matter of Life and Breath, curated by Edward Earle and Kim Abeles for the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside, artists were paired with faculty from the university’s Air Pollution Research Center. Sant Khalsa recalls meeting her standard-issue scientist partner and asking, “What is the best thing I can do to positively impact air quality in the Inland Empire?” Plant trees, he told her. So she did, for weeks on end in Holcomb Valley.

Twenty-four years passed before Khalsa returned to the site and found a healthy forest of 30- to 40-foot ponderosa pines. “It was a very emotional moment for me standing in a forest I had planted,” she says of the time she encountered people and wildlife exploring the beautiful scene. The site stores enough carbon to offset Khalsa’s entire lifetime footprint. To mark the 25th anniversary, she envisions her latest undertaking, Growing Air, as an interdisciplinary hybrid of residency, performance, meditation, photography, and video. The mediums marry in a suitably adventurous and intimate display exemplary of her visionary purposes.

Khalsa’s work exists as political actions for environmental and social justice, as well as personal, spiritual artifacts. No single project more ideally, engagingly, and magically embodies the many facets of her practice as does Growing Air.

“Sant Khalsa has immersed herself in the desert landscape as much as any fictional gold miner,” says the artist’s longtime Los Angeles gallerist, Paul Kopeikin. “With a camera instead of a burro, she sleeps, eats, and breathes the desert as if her life depended on it.” Whether working in black-and-white or color photography, interdisciplinary research projects, or sculptural and installation art, Kopeikin says, Khalsa’s ideas grow from a “passionate inquiry into the nature of place.”

Sant Khalsa’s Western Waters photographs grew out of her research into the bottled water industry and address the commodification of nature, water as consumer product, and human desire. To produce the series, she visited almost 200 water sites across the Southwest from 2000 to 2002.

“My approach was influenced by the work of several artists and photographers including Walker Evans, Ed Ruscha, and Bernd and Hilla Becher,” she says. “This straightforward approach emphasizes the sites — the store names and other signage, architectural elements, and the mostly generic strip mall settings.”

Water, figuratively speaking, runs through all of her work. For more than 30 years she has photographed, mapped, evoked, and investigated the physical and metaphysical aspects of humanity’s relationship to it. “Many say that I am obsessed with water,” she says. “I say, ‘How can I not be? I live in the desert.’ ”

A New York City native, Khalsa moved to San Bernardino in 1975 and is a professor emerita of art at CSU San Bernardino and a dedicated resident of Joshua Tree (full time since 2010). Her politics, environmentalism, spirituality, and artistry all seem to manifest as one. Though she was once an abstract painter and continues to produce sculpture and installation art with incursions into performance and video, Khalsa is best known for her work as a photographer. Her landscape-based practice started in earnest in 1980. Living in Joshua Tree provides fresh aesthetic, emotional, physical, and psychological parameters for her art.

Until recently, Khalsa shot all of her photographs in black and white — including the 2000-2002 Western Waters series depicting the facades of retail water stores throughout the Southwest and her ongoing, three-decades-long project Paving Paradise, which follows the course and development of the Santa Ana River. But, coinciding with the transformative relocation, she began Separate Real(i)ty, an investigation of salt mining near Amboy and the geothermal fields and power plants near the Salton Sea, executed in color. “Landscape work is easily read as documentary, but in fact is very subjective and personal,” she says. “I realized the land and sky needed color” to more fully express the qualities of the place where she now works. Color introduces emotion and poetry, expanding her gentle polemic and retaining her political urgency while opening visceral, esoteric entry points into the experiences she hopes to share.

Khalsa uses art as a tool for raising consciousness, individually and globally, about climate change, resource scarcity, and women’s empowerment. She’ll show an example from February through April as part of the Joshua Treenial exhibition of art, a “parallel program” of the Coachella Valley’s Desert X event. The work, Pray for Rain (2015), is a sculptural installation evoking the Tibetan prayer wheel. It’s a blown-glass cylinder embossed with Morse code for “rain” and filled halfway with water. Clear glass bottles float inside, containing words such as “snow,” “ice,” “drop,” and “cloud” on fortune-cookie-like strips of paper. A blue glass sphere representing the planet caps the wheel, spinning continuously with a motor as the reflected projection creates a pattern of rippling waves. As far as being an effective meteorological instrument, Khalsa says, “It’s worked every time it’s been shown.”

At press time, Sant Khalsa was planning a springtime solo exhibition at the Marks Arts Center at College of the Desert. Visit her website,, for upcoming speaking and exhibition dates.

These photographs in the series 
A Separate Real(i)ty represent Sant Khalsa’s reflections on time and place, nature and culture, and self and community, as well as our collective consumption of natural resources. “These images are from the areas in the California desert that I am currently researching, exploring, and photographing,” she says. “Salt mining near Amboy and the geothermal fields and power plants in the area of the Salton Sea are among the subjects.”