Art exhibit at Joshua Tree National Park explores growth, loss and new life of iconic trees – San Bernardino Sun

No one can accuse Dani Dodge of not putting her feelings into her art.

The Los Angeles-based artist captured hearts with discarded mattresses that she spray-painted with messages of love as a way to process the death of her husband. During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, she floated paper boats hanging from parkway trees in her neighborhood, delighting children who would watch them sway in the breeze.

“I am much more an artist who feels what is happening and tries to translate it. That becomes my art,” Dodge said Wednesday, March 30.

In her latest exhibit, “Embracing the Incarnate,” she’s filled the Black Rock Art Gallery at Joshua Tree National Park with 18 surreal, distorted, framed images of the famous, odd-shaped trees, often mingled with blurred images of family members goofing their gnarled branches with outstretched arms and angled feet.

Dani Dodge stands in front of the sign at her latest exhibit at the Black Rocks Art Gallery in Joshua Tree National Park. (Courtesy of Genie Davis)

The exhibit tells the story of the artist-in-residence at Mojave National Preserve from 2018 to 2021, where she took joyous videos of her family with the trees, then after the August 2020 Dome fire burned nearly 1 million Joshua trees, her images turned to their destruction and finally, with replanting underway, toward reflections on survival and hope.

“We have seen such devastation, not only in these Joshua trees but in COVID and now in another war,” Dodge said from her Los Angeles studio on Thursday, March 31. “There’s got to be hope for the Joshua trees and there’s got to be hope for humanity.”

Learning from the trees

Dodge’s exhibit says more about her than the iconic trees. She personifies them, seeing them as friends locked in a struggle for survival just like humans.

“To me, they are souls. They are gods. They are nature incarnate and I grasp onto their struggle to survive deeply within my soul as though it were my own,” she wrote in a description of the exhibit.

The images are photographs printed on transparencies, with different aspects painted with 24 karat gold leaf. “They are slightly off kilter and surreal. It is really more about how you feel than what you see,” she said.

An image from Dani Dodge’s exhibit,, “Embracing the Incarnate,” is seen. (Courtesy of Dani Dodge)

In the first two years, before the fire, some images feature her niece and sister mimicking the shape of a Joshua tree. In late 2020, one image shows a darkened bark and charred branches against a gold backdrop.  Another is of a lone tree, bending down, dying, scraping the scorched earth.

In the images from 2021, there’s more shimmer, like the image of star-shaped leaves painted gold but centered in blackness. “The gold spikes depicts the hope, the hope that they could come back,” she said.

Eight tree saplings hang from the gallery’s ceiling. These inspired a replanting effort that literally took root March 4 to 13 during a volunteer planting day at the Mojave preserve, which actually has more Joshua trees than the nearby national park.

A 2021 image from the exhibit by artist Dani Dodge, “Embracing the Incarnate,” is seen. (Courtesy of Dani Dodge)


In the preserve and the national park, the Joshua tree is a marvel of nature. At a maximum height of 40 feet tall, they only live in limited elevations. Without nectar, they rely on the tiny yucca moth for pollination. Their fragility lends botanists to believe that climate change could wipe out 90% of its natural range in California by the year 2100.

“The journey of the Joshua tree parallels my journey in a way, from tragedy to recovery and hope,” Dodge said.

Art imitating life

Dodge lost her husband of 20 years in 2019. Mark Dodge Medlin died of brain cancer. She took time off from the residency and the exhibit eventually opened Feb. 27 and was extended through April 29.

During her grieving, Dodge created “Eavesdropping” by putting 30 messages on trashed mattresses. Ten posts from dating sites,10 made-up love lines from movies and 10 quotes from her late husband. The last mattress was the couple’s. She took pictures of the installation and displayed them at Golden West College in Huntington Beach and at the Galerie Pom Pom in Sydney Australia.

“People have fallen in love on those mattresses. People have slept on those mattresses, lived their lives and often died on those mattresses,” she began. But what does it mean?

“You have strange lives, then love drops away. Or does love continue but life doesn’t?” she offered, leaving it open for interpretation. But she was sure of one thing: “It was me dealing with loss.”

An image from the exhibit/art installation “Eavesdropping” by LA artist Dani Dodge is seen. (Courtesy of Dani Dodge)

In 2015, her installation/performance art “CONFESS” at the Los Angeles Gay Pride event enabled people to confess their worst sins to her, who typed them up and hung them on the wall.

Artist Dani Dodge’s art/installation called “CONFESS” is seen in 2015. (Courtesy of Dani Dodge)

“People were validated because people were listened to. I was able to lift their burdens,” she said. In 2017 in New York, she used paint, lipstick and markers to plaster the message #justthewayyouare, an affirming phrase to women feeling shamed by the news about presidential candidate Donald Trump who bragged to a TV host he could grab women by their private parts.

“I wanted to say ‘just the way you are’ you are OK,” Dodge explained.

Telling stories

Why did she turn to nature for material during the past three years?

Mostly to get away from reminders of daily life, the anxiety of the global pandemic and the bombardment of media messages. She spent 19 years as a member of the media, reporting for the Ventura County Star, including a stint embedded with troops during the Iraq War. She later was part of a team with the San Diego Union Tribune and shared a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering illegal activity involving Rep. Duke Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to accepting at least $2.3 million in bribes.

“I turned to art because it had more of an abstract nature. Maybe I thought I could reach people’s souls, well, reach them in a different way,” she said.

Dodge grew up in the Bay Area and has lived in San Diego and Los Angeles until recently moving to Pasadena. She likes the Inland Empire, where the art world is “just sort of finding its own.”

She became an artist-in-residence to reflect the world of nature. She was chosen in part because her artwork would showcase the Mojave Desert, Gabriel Thorburn, a volunteer with the Mojave National Artists Foundation, said Thursday.

After seeing the exhibit, he said the National Parks Service made the right choice. Dodge was one of 10 artists chosen.

“With her exhibit in particular, it gives the viewer a way to think about how fragile our environment is, especially these magnificent Joshua trees, which have been around for thousands of years,” he said.

Looking into the solitude

When in the Mojave Preserve, Dodge would bring her sketchbook, pens, iPhone and a camera. “I just find a rock that I can sit on and I sit there. I just am,” she described.

Like many who hike or camp, melding with nature brings mental health benefits. “So much of our lives we are rushing from one thing to another. We don’t have time to have moments with everything around us at peace. I need moments like that,” she said.

At first, it was hard to see life in the Mojave Desert. When she focused her lens or pointed her pencil at the Joshua trees, these inelegant freaks of nature that look unapproachable became something special to her.

“You realize how incredibly beautiful they are. And their survival is the lesson I learned. They live in a restricted environment, a narrow band of elevation. Yet they keep on. They continue, despite everything.”


What: “Embracing the Incarnate,” by artist Dani Dodge

Where: Black Rock Art Gallery, Joshua Tree National Park, in the Black Rock Nature Center, 9800 Black Rock Canyon Road, Yucca Valley

Hours: Seven days a week, 8 a.m. to  4 p.m.

Details: The exhibit runs through April 29

Information: 760-367-3001

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