Life in the back country is challenging, but for these artists the solitude is worth the struggle
From Elko, in the northeast corner of the state, start with a full tank of gas and take Mountain City Highway north 26 miles, turn left at Lone Mountain Station onto Highway 225, drive 19 miles, then turn left just past the Taylor Canyon Club. If you’re hungry, stop for a burger and a Budweiser. It’s the only food near town.
If this is your first visit to Tuscarora, you’ll marvel as the town, visible for almost the whole seven miles you’re crossing the Independence Valley on a gravel road, appears as a shiny dot in the foothills of the Tuscarora Mountains, then becomes two dots, and grows larger and larger until it’s the size of a … a … a town so small it’s hard to believe it’s still on the map.
It takes about two minutes to walk the length of Tuscarora from north to south and maybe one minute from east to west. State Archivist Guy Rocha reports that Tuscarora’s population peaked in 1876 at about 3,000. Now 13 full-time residents, mostly artists, call the place home. A few unpaved streets, a few trailers and a handful of original buildings remain from the boomtown days, in various states of repair. Some have fallen into piles of splintered timber and rusty, corrugated-tin roofs; others are creatively renovated by the hands of artists.
Outside town, you can see for miles and roam for days on trails and old fire roads that wind up, down and around sage-covered hills, through federal land and cattle ranches. Though the place feels empty, it’s difficult to run out of things to look at. If your eye ever finishes absorbing the landscape, the thousands of rustic architectural details and the infinite sky—dark blue and bone-dry in summer, crisp and icy in winter, often changing and vaster than vast—there’s always the artwork.
In 1966, Southern California potter Dennis Parks and his family moved to Tuscarora to establish a ceramics school. In the almost 40 years since, artists have passed through for a week or for a while, to work and study.
Dennis and his wife, Julie, still live there. He’s enjoying retirement, and she’s the town’s postmaster. The Tuscarora Retreat and Summer Pottery School is still in session. And a second generation of artists has established roots in the town while their careers flourish nationally.
Tuscarora attracts a steady stream of visitors. During my three-year stint as a resident, I shared the post of “unofficial ambassador” with most of my neighbors. Locals are approached frequently by late-model sedans piloted by suburban wanderers, who almost always ask the same question: “How can you live here?”
People in Tuscarora enjoy a life of clean air, affordable housing and, above all, quiet. But the question remains: How do they live there, 52 miles from the nearest grocery store?
For some artists, the rural, amenity-poor lifestyle is its own reward. Ben Parks—Dennis’s son and the current director of the pottery school—says a key benefit of being an artist in a rural place is the isolation.
“You are not being influenced by the latest fashions or trends, so you have potentially a cleaner atmosphere in which to discover your own voice,” he says.
Elaine Parks, a sculptor and Los Angeles native who moved to Tuscarora in 1999, finds another advantage. Although her résumé details an active arts career over the last couple decades, Elaine reports: “Probably at this point I’m getting more done than ever before. It seems counterintuitive that [living here] would increase the pace of ideas, but you do have a lot of them here.”
Most find the lack of urban distractions conducive to maintaining the discipline and work habits required of a professional artist. Gail Rappa, a jewelry artist who moved to Tuscarora in 1997 from Santa Fe, N.M., says, “It’s easier to have more commitment to your work here. You can’t blow off your work in the studio for an afternoon and go see a movie or get a latte or something.”
And the drawbacks? First, there’s maintaining an old house, contending with fickle winter conditions (the 5,067-foot elevation allows for seemingly limitless snowfall and bitter spring winds) and managing the budget on an artist’s income.
It’s challenging to maintain a balance between having a quiet place to work and being too distant from the outside art world. Ben Parks, who prefers not being influenced by the current art trends, points out the benefit is a two-edged sword: “You may find yourself bobbing around in a fairly unfruitful backwater eddy of the dustbin of art history.”
But any recent list of Nevada Arts Council awards winners shows that Tuscaroran artists have found a way to keep the isolation from getting the best of them. Rappa has received the commission to design the Governor’s Arts Awards, and Ben’s efforts to avoid art history obscurity have paid off: He’s received the Nevada Arts Council’s prestigious Visual Arts Fellowship. Elaine Parks has won both of those awards, and Sidne Teske, an artist who makes pastel landscape drawings, has also won the Governor’s Arts Awards commission. Dennis Parks, the founder of the pottery school, has won numerous awards and fellowships throughout his tenure in Tuscarora.
In addition to piling up the official accolades, the artists in Tuscarora maintain active exhibition schedules out of town and also display their work in town for visitors. Ben Parks, Dennis Parks and Tuscarora’s newest resident Laura Moore exhibit their pottery in the pottery school showrooms, in a beige, two-story house with dark red trim. The building is just inside the front gate of the school, a small complex on a shady, grassy lawn. Elaine Parks and Sidne Teske open their studios to the public (see column note for details), and occasionally in the springtime, the town holds a well attended open studios day.
Many visitors leave with something new for their art collections, and almost everyone takes pictures, but for the few who remain in Tuscarora, it’s the intangible benefits that keep them. Elaine sums up the consensus of Tuscarora’s residents: "I like life here. A lot of my time is my own. That’s about the best thing in the world."