I was honored to serve at the Mojave National Preserve Artist in Residence from March-April 2017. During my month long residency, I visited remote sites throughout the Preserve, hiking to seeps, springs, and vernal pools. I was privileged to witness record rainfall and the beginnings of California’s amazing superbloom.
I was housed at Zzyzx, CA at the Desert Studies Center for the month of February. Using maps, historical data, and lots of research, I visited reliably flowing springs in the preserve and due to the rainfall, lucked into several ephemeral pools and snow melt areas.
I collected samples from these water sources and then created painted both from live observation and recorded images and videos of the microorganisms I found. The Mojave’s water features some of the most diverse microscopic life I have ever examined.
The Mojave has a long history of habitation from the first peoples to present day mining sites. I took inspiration from the Mojave hieroglyphs and many historic structures and artifacts in the area to form my painted motifs.
My exhibition Cell Portrait, Mojave National Preserve was featured as a solo show March-April 2017 at the Desert Light Gallery in the Mojave National Preserve’s headquarters at the historic Kelso Depot site.
Excerpt from Desert Light Newsletter
In what is destined to be the Desert Light Gallery’s most unique exhibit to date, Seattle artist Shelly Smith’s Cell Portrait, Mojave National Preserve uses carefully collected water and soil samples, an electron microscope and gouache watercolor technique to showcase the desert’s microscopic denizens. With her joyful illustrations of this unseen aspect of the Mojave, she gives us a deeper understanding of the grandeur found in the tiniest components of this fragile and precious landscape.
Shelly’s Cell Portraits combine traditional scientific botanical illustration with abstract painting. They are designed to be representational and identifiable, but not literal translations. Shelly describes her thinking about the Mojave Cell Portraits, “We use many senses to identify a place in our minds, and these Portraits seek to visually combine ideas of pink sunsets, black soil crust, and brackish yellow water.”
Each piece is painstakingly crafted. The first step is to identify a site and collect a small sample of water, soil, or other material to examine. In a place as large and diverse as the Mojave, just the act of making a choice can seem formidable. But Shelly’s talent for careful and close observation, her unquenchable enthusiasm and her relentless curiosity honed a clear artistic vision. However, the foundation of her enthusiasm and curiosity is an abiding respect for the natural world and samples were collected with great care. “Because the desert is an incredibly sensitive environment prone to disruption, these samples would amount to what would be expected to collect on tires, shoes, and clothes. Showing how much life is in even a tiny sample size highlights the importance of how much human interaction impacts the Mojave’s habitat.”