Death Valley Landscapes & Ghazal: Art Show



Death Valley, An Unfinished Landscape 1, 2016
charcoal and graphite; 16″ h x 20″ w


Death Valley, An Unfinished Landscape 2, 2016
charcoal and graphite; 16″ h x 20″ w

A Visitor in Death Valley

The earth is alive here, tossing and heaving in an unfinished landscape, in Death Valley.
I am a passerby, glimpsing an instant in a long slow act of creation, in Death Valley.

Look! Waves are swishing on the shore of a vanished ocean, a million years ago!
I am a time traveller unversed in the mathematics of time, in Death Valley.

You say the dunes sing in harmonies immeasurably slow and deep.
Why do I hear only the monotonous silence of my own brief refrain, in Death Valley?

I wonder: if these canyon walls whispered their stories, would I understand?
In the logic of their language, there are no words for time, in Death Valley.

I am a stranger here, in this lonely land of tilting layers and slanting light.
I am Hawking’s space traveller, returned, looking for a past, in Death Valley.

Are Ruth’s musings just romantic nonsense about ordinary geological processes?
Is Earth just an ordinary thing? When is a landscape finished, in Death Valley?

The Evolution of the Drawings


Death Valley is located in eastern California about a two-hour drive west of Las Vegas. When I visited in 1994 and 5 I saw very few other tourists in this 8,000-square-kilometre desert of dunes, salt pans, canyons, mountains, dry river beds and badlands. The Valley, at 86 metres below sea level, is the lowest, hottest and driest place in North America. Clearly visible from Death Valley is the highest point in the contiguous States, the snow-covered peak of Mount Whitney, 136 kilometres south east. Death Valley is the officially recognized ancestral home of the Timbisha Shoshone, who have lived in the valley and the mountains for at least a thousand years. A remnant of that nation still lives at Furnace Creek. The English name, Death Valley, was given in 1849 during the California gold rush, after a group of thirteen prospectors perished as they attempted to cross the valley.  Some sources say they were rescued in the nick of time, but the name stuck. I was no more familiar with the extremes of this environment than those unlucky (or lucky) prospectors, so I took seriously the warnings about heat, flash floods and dehydration, and did not venture far from the safety of my rented car. The floor of Death Valley is a trough formed by tectonic shift. Earth movements, volcanic activity and erosion have left two-billion-year-old cliffs rising above more recent formations, and geological layers exposed, sometimes tipped at bizarre angles. The most recent event to alter the landscape of the Valley occurred a mere 300 years ago when underground movements of magma and steam caused a large crater to appear.

On my two trips to this stark and stunning region I started some drawings. The first drawing pictured above, Death Valley, An Unfinished Landscape 1, an interpretation of a mudstone-and-clay hill showing the typical vertical grooves caused by erosion, was finished twenty years ago, the second, Death Valley, An Unfinished Landscape 2, started then and finished a week before the show, is an evocation of shadows. When I began to write poetry a dozen years ago, I jotted down “loose lines” inspired by my memories of Death Valley. Because I am always intrigued by the possibilities of linking word and pictorial images, I returned to these musings to see if they might complement the drawings. As I worked with them they evolved into couplets. Perhaps the series is a ghazal, a poem consisting of independent, non-narrative, two-line stanzas, sort of mini-poems within a poem. I adopted two of the conventions of traditional Persian and Urdu ghazals: the refrain, and my name in the final couplet as a kind of signature. The song-like repetitions and self-reflexivity appealed to this visitor in Death Valley. I have now written couplets into the first two drawings. Other drawings, and couplets, may still be evolving. Only time will tell. I continue to revise, like the gods who also dither, eternally revising and re-revising what they have made.


The poem, A Visitor in Death Valley, and Evolution of the Drawings served are the artist’s statement.


I was one of twelve artists exhibiting in the group show called TWELVE, at Jest Arts in Durham, Ontario, Canada, May 19 to June 5, 2016.

UPDATE JULY 22, 2016

Death Valley Landscape 1 has been awarded first place in the works-on-paper category at the 30th Annual Juried Art Show at the Bruce County Library, Walkerton Branch. Show runs until August 6.

©Ruth Mittelholtz  2016