The ruins of the once-bustling mining town Rhyolite aren’t a surprise to travelers in Nevada—the state is dotted with the remains of minings boom and bust—but those strange figures in the foreground, just down the slope from the shell of the bank building and the abandoned train depot, are a different story: a pink-and-blond cinderblock bombshell beauty; a big-hipped wooden figure with arms thrown wide to the sky; the iron silhouette of a miner and his, uh, giant penguin; a convocation of hooded white ghosts whose arrangement eerily recalls the composition of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” These incongruous sculptures at the foot of a ghost town make up the core of one of Nevada’s most vibrant arts institutions: the Goldwell Open Air Museum.
Just outside Beatty, “the Gateway to Death Valley,” about 115 miles north of Las Vegas, the Goldwell Open Air Museum began with those plaster ghosts. Belgian sculptor Charles Albert Szukalski created “The Last Supper” in 1984; the eerie white shrouded figures almost glow supernaturally against the dark mountains. Szukalski was later joined by European artists who wanted to create site-specific works in the desert. Dr. Hugo Heyrman created that pink bombshell (“Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada,” 1992), Dre Peeters contributed a female version of the Icarus myth (“Icara,” 1992), and Fred Bervoets is responsible for that miner and his penguin (“Tribute to Shorty Harris,” 1994), which supposedly represented Bervoets’ feelings of alienation.
Szukalski and his fellow Europeans (plus one American, David Spicer) loved the backdrop of Rhyolite and the Amargosa Valley, finding it a perfect setting for evocative, large-scale sculptures. Szukalski later added two more sculptures: “Ghost Rider” (a shrouded plaster ghost contemplating a bicycle) and “Desert Flower” (an explosive assemblage of found metals and car parts that blooms upward like a yucca plant). The pell-mell development of Goldwell means the site doesn’t feel like a traditional sculpture park; rather, it feels as if the works are relics of the ghost town that forms their backdrop.
For several years, however, Goldwell was only a setting for an admittedly eclectic group of pieces; chances were high that the sculptures, exposed to the constants of sun and wind, would suffer the same slow decay as the ghost town behind them.
It took the interest and dedication of two Las Vegas artists, Charles Morgan and Suzanne Hackett-Morgan, to transform an aesthetic oddity into a full-fledged arts center. Both had loved the site since the mid-’90s, when they curated a show about Goldwell at the Contemporary Arts Collective Gallery (inside the Arts Factory) and set up a website devoted to it; when Szukalski died in 2000, his partner donated the site to the nonprofit organization the Morgans created to preserve it.
Beyond preservation, they sought to establish a studio and residency program for artists to work in and be inspired by the Amargosa desert in the same way it inspired Szukalski. “Before Albert died, he said to me, ‘Keep it going,’” Hackett-Morgan says. “He loved it out there and wanted others to experience the creative energy of the place, which is inexplicably present. Everything we’ve done out there over the past 10 years has been based on that generous idea.”
Incorporating an existing structure on the property into their vision, they created the Red Barn Art Center, a facility for artist residencies, workshops and exhibitions. Starting in 2007-08, Goldwell hosted its first three residencies: Phoebe Brush, Maria Arango and Eames Demetrios (whose “Rhyolite District of Shadows” plaque is part of an ongoing, large-scale conceptual piece titled “Kymerica.”). The following year, it hosted nine artists in multiple disciplines from around the country. The most recent residencies included a fascinating light installation by mixed-media artist Paul Catanese and “Ghost Music,” a sound installation and performance by Matt Sargent and Chris Kallmyer.
“We have been very fortunate to have had incredible, top-flight contemporary artists as part of our program,” Hackett-Morgan says. “They’ve been a nice blend of established professionals, like Andrea Polli and Chuck Varga (the ‘it’ arts couple of the moment), and emerging talent. Giving Nevadans an opportunity to see what is going on in other places and to see their familiar landscape interpreted through another’s experience and approach is really an important part of what Goldwell does.” In addition to the supported residency program, the experience Goldwell offers is available to the public through both workspace residencies and its new Goldwell Gatherings series: workshops and art/design symposia featuring prominent national and regional talent. The first will be the “Gathering of Desert Photographers,” a three-day event on Oct. 14-17 bringing together photographers, curators and writers with an interest in the desert as an artspace.
What distinguishes nonprofit groups such as the Goldwell Open Air Museum from the merely out-of-the-way art oddities that dot the West is its dedication to an ongoing dialogue between artists and the landscape. More than merely preserving Szukalski’s vision, Goldwell extends it, giving artists from across the spectrum the chance to experience the Nevada landscape and incorporate it into their own art, turning the seed of Szukalski’s “Last Supper” into an everlasting feast of artistic possibility.
For more information, call 497-6816, or visit goldwellmuseum.org.