High Desert Alchemy
If you live in Tuscarora, chances are good that you are an introvert and fairly good that you are an artist. Gail Rappa and Elaine Parks are each both.
Located 50 miles northwest of Elko, the remote outpost is listed as a ghost town despite having 14 permanent residents. It is home to the Tuscarora Summer Pottery School, which—when it is in session—nearly doubles the town’s population.
“It’s a very isolated place,” explained Rappa. “We’re kind of set up on the side of a hill that overlooks a valley, surrounded by about five large ranches.”
“I’d say it’s definitely not for everybody,” said Parks. She splits her time between Tuscarora and Los Angeles, making mixed-media work that is inspired by the kinds of things you can only find in the middle of nowhere—blazing stars, piles of bones, ancient artifacts, stuff like that.
Rappa’s art is also inspired by northeastern Nevada. She often incorporates images of mountains, skies and wildlife into her jewelry pieces.
Though they work with different materials, there is a definitive straight-from-the-source quality to both artists’ work. Perhaps that is why curator Megan Kay asked the two to show together for High Desert Alchemy, the latest exhibit at OXS Gallery. Side by side, the artists’ pieces give the viewer a backcountry take on alchemy, the transformation of ordinary matter into precious objects. Parks and Rappa use earthy materials to conjure meaning from their landscapes and personal histories.
After her mother’s death from a rare lung disease in 2014, Rappa transformed her grief into different iterations of tiny lungs—all inlaid with various metals, images of birds and delicate bones. These gem-looking pieces hang on black wooden backgrounds and adorn the gallery walls like jewelry window displays or mounted medical drawings.
Across the gallery, Parks displays circular arrangements of bones, constellations drawn onto what appear to be animal skins, and several round discs that depict images of deep space.
At first glance, the work seems to trade in bigger themes—the birth of the universe, the rituals of burial, and how we connect the dots in the night sky. But if you ask Parks what form of alchemy her work takes, she will tell you that the transformation is “more in the material realm.” Like the ancient cultures she references—and like any sculptor who doesn’t outsource their work or hate their life—Parks is preoccupied with the manipulation of material. Her parents’ old blanket becomes an animal hide. Bones from a walk are recast in clay and decorated with pearls that remind the artist of her mother and of the stars. The discs that appear to be clay are actually wood and tar.
“I like mixing it up,” said Parks. “I don’t mind people knowing what [the sculpture] is made of, but I like that materials sometimes look like something else. Often, they do.” That’s not to say Parks is so focused on her work that she doesn’t look up every now and then.
“We have amazing night skies [in Tuscarora], and they’ve really just seeped into my life completely,” she said. “I think about these skies all the time.”
Rappa has a word for this magic too. She calls it “Tuscaphoria.” Apparently, it’s good for your art career.