Impatience has no place in ceramics. The process from forming to firing can take weeks, Lowe says, “so for someone who’s impatient, it’s very healthy.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NATE ABBOTT
There’s little wonder the earliest desert settlers were artists. Where there is desolation, there is room to create. It takes a person with a certain tenacity and internal sense of wonder to brave the elements and transform the blank canvas of their surroundings into art. These days, the hot Santa Anas may be subdued by modernist architecture and well-manicured golf resorts, but the call of our sandy wilds has not been silenced. On the contrary, ideas bloom here. We asked five local makers about their process and the personal journey that led them to realize their craft in this landscape.
Paul Lowe Ceramics, Palm Springs
One vacation in Palm Springs, and Paul Lowe was hooked. “It can’t get any more exotic, you know what I mean?” he says. “Palm trees and the desert and the colors and the cactus — it’s magical.”
So, three years ago, despite plans to be snowbirds, Lowe and his husband moved here and became full-time residents.
Lowe discovered ceramics about five years ago in much the same, fortuitous way.
Originally from Oslo, Norway, the food stylist turned independent magazine publisher had been living in New York for a decade. While developing a story for his magazine, Sweet Paul, he envisioned a plate with a particular shape that he wanted to use for the photo shoot. But he couldn’t find one. Committed to the idea, he signed up for a ceramics course and decided to make it himself. “It was that moment when you’re like, ‘Oh, my God! I think I’m supposed to do this,’” Lowe says. “I absolutely fell in love with it.”
His style as a ceramicist is minimal with an earthen color palette and clear Scandinavian influences — a quiet aesthetic, perhaps reflective of Lowe’s view that art is a form of meditation. “It’s good for your psyche and your mental health,” he says, “and it gives you a connection to the past. Especially with ceramics, because it’s such an old art form. It keeps you grounded.” paulloweceramics.com
Milu Handcrafted, Coachella
“It’s colorful, it’s bright, it’s happy, it’s energetic,” Isabel Espriu says of her macramé art. It also reflects her disposition. The Coachella Valley native left her retail job two years ago to stay home with her “gremlins” (now ages 2 and 4). Between snack time and naptime, she felt a yearning to create.
“I started playing with knots,” Espriu says, explaining that she learned by watching YouTube videos. “I was making wall hangings for myself and gifts here and there.” When her friend’s father developed health problems, she macraméd keychains to raise money for his medical bills. They were a hit, and that’s when the custom orders began to roll in.
Selling primarily through Instagram and Etsy (although Tru Self Care Boutique in Coachella has also stocked her products), Espriu makes wall hangings in various sizes along with plant holders and other decorative objects. “It’s all freehand,” she beams. “They’re all one of a kind.”
Espriu uses eco-friendly rope, free of synthetic fillers. “You can really see the difference. You can feel the softness, and when you fringe it or brush it out, you can see the fluffiness. Not all rope does that. I’m all about those little details.”
She’s all about color, too, a nod to her Mexican heritage and the vibrant culture of Coachella, which in recent years has seen a surge in local arts. “All the murals, the boutiques popping up, there’s a lot of new small businesses that are related to the Mexican community,” Espriu says. “That’s given me the confidence to be myself. I like to incorporate that culture into my work.” instagram.com/milu.handcrafted
Bruce Hearn Designs,
“It’s almost a lost art,” Bruce Hearn says, referring to Native American beadwork and crafts. “When the government came in and shut everybody down, the beadwork, the language, the culture failed because everybody was scared and everything was suppressed.”
Hearn is Chippewa, born in Alaska to a father who worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and raised in New Jersey and Connecticut. Before relocating to the Southern California desert, he lived on the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota.
“I’m half titanium,” the former trucker points out. An injury under his shoulder and post-traumatic arthritis led to major surgery on his right arm in 2006. Metal body parts don’t fare well in the freezing Midwest winters, so he sought out a warmer locale.
“I did beadwork to keep my mind off my pain.”
He learned the art of beading as a child, along with Native flute and dancing.
“My dad made sure that he had one Indian out of five boys, and he picked me. He knew I had spirit I dreamed funny.” Hearn has since passed these traditions to his own daughter. (“She’s a hell of an artist.”)
Hearn fashions bags, moccasins, bracelets, and other items the old-school way, using a porcupine quill and a loom. He sells the items at open-air markets in the High Desert and occasionally at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Desert Hot Springs. “Art speaks volumes,” he intones. “It tells stories. It needs to be out there, and it can’t be a lost art any more. I won’t let it.” fb.com/bruce.hearn.39
When Bruce Hearn was a child, his father taught him to craft a traditional porcupine hair roach (or headdress) using a makeshift loom formed from an old straw broom.
All Roads Design Studio,
“I like things that look handmade,” says Janelle Pietrzak, a textile artist and one half of All Roads Design Studio. “It adds warmth to people’s lives, and maybe you can imagine the hands that made it.”
Having studied fashion design in college, Pietrzak sourced fabric and forecasted sartorial trends for such brands as Anthropologie and BCBG Max Azaria before breaking from the corporate world to open All Roads with her partner, metal fabricator Robert Dougherty. The couple met at a motorcycle garage in Philadelphia and moved to Los Angeles before settling in Yucca Valley. “The first time we came through the desert was when we were moving across country to L.A.,” she recalls, “and I was just entranced by it.”
Deliberately homespun aesthetic aside, Pietrzak leaves zero room for guesswork in her creation process. “Every move is planned,” she says, whether producing wall art or functional décor like pillows and throws. “I have a color palette. I pull yarns in those colors. I create a CAD [drawing] — a sketch — and then I weave it. Weaving is a grid setup, so I have to do things in a certain order, and I can’t really change it.”
Her work ethic and thoughtfully textured constructions have landed big clients, including Ace Hotel & Swim Club in Palm Springs, where her custom weavings hang in the spa. Pietrzak also licenses a collection of home goods through Anthropologie and has collaborated with fashion houses such as Suno and Clare V. All Roads accepts custom orders, and products are available in Palm Springs at Mojave Flea Trading Post. allroadsdesign.com
“I’ve been way more inspired by color since moving here. The desert landscape, at first, is seemingly so tonal that when you do get those pops of bright colors, the wildflower blooms, it stands out.”
Maxson Art, Rancho Mirage
When Greg Maxson and his wife, Linda, embark on their annual getaway to Hawaii, sandy beaches and cerulean waves are not the sights Maxson looks most forward to see. This woodworker wants to hit the lumberyard. “They have these shapes and textures like nothing you get here,” he says, yet the material mimics the roughness of the desert mountains. To listen to Maxson wax on about wood is akin to a conversation about tennis with a professional player, evident of deep-rooted knowledge.
But Maxson has only a few years in the game. His background in engineering equipped him with the tools to efficiently and expediently master the craft. “Working in chemical engineering, where practically anything can kill you, you have to know what you’re doing.” So when he approached woodworking, he did as much research as he could on the subject before making a single move. “That foundation allows me to not be afraid to do crazy things with crazy wood.”
Maxson is quick to point out that Linda — whom he met in Michigan while they were working at Dow Chemical — is the trained artist and the reason the pair opened a gallery. “Art kind of snuck up on me,” he says. “When we opened our gallery in 2016, I built everything: her tables, the display systems, the little pedestals.”
Tiny white figurines make an appearance in many of Maxson’s wood sculptures. They’re a throwback to the old railroad set he played with as a kid.
Noticing a knack for fabrication, he made it a goal to hone his skills. This exploration led to an infatuation with the material in its natural form. Today, Maxson’s collection of live-edge tables and benches, Zen drums, and small sculptures made from lumber scraps are on view alongside Linda’s artwork at their namesake Rancho Mirage gallery. maxsonart.com