One of my preoccupations in painting inhabited space is to see how people perceive and decorate their surrounds. In cities, it seems to me, conformity sometimes rules — or perhaps there’s too much unconformity to make sense of a singular type of decorative decorum. Whatever the case, I find that peering at small towns and villages gives me a certain kind of data; both individually and collectively, people seem to want to dress up, decorate, make order of what lies around them. And in places with few people, it’s possible to suss out what that decorative impulse consists of.

A particular caution that I remind myself of — looking at what people do to dress up their trailer houses requires a disciplined mind. My goal is to neither romanticize nor to satirize. I allow myself no irony about individual choices, although lots of irony can abound when examining communal structures (like bridges and mine tailings). What I want is to see what’s there without indulging in judgment.

So what is the predominate beautification element of Beatty Nevada ( 220 miles south of Reno, 110 miles north of Las Vegas, population 1200, where the Amargosa River surfaces, just for a minute, before being swallowed by the Amargosa desert [a subset of the Mojave desert])?

Well, mostly it consists of rocks.

The city stockpiles them in the multiplicity of vacant lots around town.

The post office shows them off.

The best soup and sandwich shop in town (as well as the only one) uses them as grass would be used elsewhere.

True there is at least one person in town who loves a variety of decorative elements (and perhaps indulges in a bit of irony of his own.)

But even the owner of the Beatty Club (above and below) on Main Street, formerly a place to buy food and drink and now a warehouse for “stuff,”¬† has some of his creations sitting on rocks.

The Bank of America (here the irony makes itself) makes use of the local home decor.

And someone with lots of energy and a strong back built a stone garage.

It makes sense, of course. Rock here is all around — millions of years of flash floods have pushed boulders out onto the desert floor, beautiful rocks, rosy, green, metallic, gold. Not much vegetation, too sparse for cows, but tons of magnificent rocks. And people here see and appreciate the qualities of rock, just as I have, in making a growing rock circle/maze from my days at the isolated Red Barn Residency.

The housing stock in Beatty is 90% trailers. One might think that’s because of the average income level, but in other small, economically poor towns, Basin, Montana, for example, there were far more conventional wooden and brick houses. The reasons for the ubiquitous trailer is obvious: no wood, except creosote bushes and mesquite and soft cottonwood, exists naturally for miles and miles. There’s no clay to make bricks. And building stone houses now requires rebar, experienced stone layers, and structural devices that drive up the price. Stone houses tend to be inflexible, small, dark, sometimes inconvenient for utilities. So trailers abound, ranging from converted school buses to double wides that have been stuccoed to look like traditional adobe dwellings. They have air conditioning, heating, carpeting, running water, all mod cons, and can be transported along Highway 95 quite easily. Almost certainly, if Jer and I were to live permanently in Beatty, we’d be in a double-wide with a heavy-duty chain link fence, perhaps disguised by creosote and greasewood bushes. We’d have a rock-laden yard, with a rock strip between the sidewalk and the street, and we’d hire someone with a stong back (or a big machine) to lay some gorgeous rocks along the walkways, just for sheer pleasure of seeing them every day.

So painters go to Tuscany to paint the villas or to Peru to paint the markets. In 2000 years people may come to Beatty to discover how the indigenous peoples lived. They will photograph the remains of the structures, and note the use of rock as an important, yet not very utilitarian, element.They will come to paint the remains of the civilization, imagining what it must have been like, back in 2010.

So, what observations have you made about the common use of decorative elements in your neighborhood. What do the natives do to their external surrounds to make them attractive or rational? What native materials do they make use of? What native materials do you make use of?