Joshua Tree National Park is an environment like no other on Earth. People either love it or hate it, there is no in between. With that in mind, consider traveling there to see the newest installation at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center and Museum. Ojai artist Dianne Bennett has produced a body of work currently on exhibit there that reflects the quirkiness and beauty residing within the park, with a powerful environmental message.

Bennett was selected by the National Park system and the Riverside Art Museum to be a 2009 “artist in residence” in Joshua Tree National Park. For three weeks she lived and worked alone in a remote wilderness cabin, deep in the desert among boulders and Joshua trees. The inspiring results of what the artist calls “a life changing experience” are on view at the Joshua Tree Visitors Center through January 1, 2011.

“My art work is always inspired by a love of the natural world,” said Bennett. She worked in her Ojai studio to complete the pieces, made with found objects and salvaged metal, creating retablos in the Latin American tradition of religious icons. “I’ve done a series of these retablos as a way of promoting my belief in the sanctity of the wilderness and the species that inhabit it.”

Bennett said she came away with an even deeper environmental commitment.

“I had an especially personal experience with the desert tortoise,” said Bennett, adding that finding one to paint was an adventure in itself. “A ranger took me to find one they were monitoring. Using special equipment, she and I rock scrambled looking for a tortoise until we found one in his little cave they tunnel under the rock. I was so moved when we talked about the growing threats, obviously the habitat loss, but also that often even well-meaning people do environmental damage, unknowingly.”

Bennett said the tortoise has been harmed by most severely by people releasing pet tortoises into the wild.

“These animals carry a virus that is deadly to a tortoise in the wild, “said Bennett. “Also, the ravens have increased tremendously in that area since the 60’s, from a handful to thousands. All the debris from humans has attracted them. They are especially dangerous to the young tortoise. When they are young the ravens can punch holes in the baby turtle’s shell, which is very soft. Another huge threat is the helium balloons people have at birthday parties, many of which end up as bits of colored rubber in the desert. The desert tortoise is attracted by their color, thinking they’re flowers. They ingest them and die. They have a huge basket filled with bits of balloons in the ranger’s office. The desert tortoise has also been in the news lately because of the threat that proposed solar panels in the Mojave Desert pose to their habitat.”

Bennett, who has camped and hiked in the boulder-piled vistas of Joshua Tree since the 1980s, says the residency gave her an even greater “love and respect for the stunning beauty and stillness of it’s geometric landscape.”

The solitude of Joshua Tree National Monument was the artist’s dream, come true. It allowed her to become immersed in the creative process in a way that every day life doesn’t allow, and resulted in the 12 works that make up her color-filled whimsically enchanting exhibit with a message.

“The artist’s residence at Lost Horse offered me panoramic views of the desert,” said Bennett, “with a perfect vantage point from the front porch of the cabin to paint. Whole days would go by with my only visitors being the coyotes, jackrabbits, and assorted birds that would visit the water spigot outside my door.”

Bennett said the silent stillness of night was “deafening” and filled her “whole being with awe and respect.” She would end everyday with the sun going down across the desert, watching as shadows crept up the rocks. Instead of the distractions of human contact and electronics, Bennett worked at her table, journaling, drawing, and working with images from trash, “paper throwaways,” she had found.

Bennett’s unique and artistic interpretation of the environment is a reflection of the often austere but irreplaceable, endangered landscape that is Joshua Tree. Grateful for the opportunity of her artist in residency, Bennett hopes the “series communicates something of my experience.”

The exhibit runs until Jan. 1 at Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center, 6554 Park Blvd., Joshua Tree, just south of Highway 62, open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. To learn more about the artist, go to or look for her online interview.


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