Desert artist explores life of Black homesteaders in the Mojave – San Bernardino Sun

As an artist who lives in Palm Springs, Barbara Gothard was curious to know if there were other Black women like her who had made art in the Mojave Desert. She got on the internet, and her search led her to an unexpected place.

She found a history piece from this very news organization about pioneering Black homesteaders in the Mojave in the early 20th century. Its illustration was a 1910 advertisement seeking men to mine and farm near Nevada with this eye-catching heading: “An Appeal to Colored Men.”

Gothard, fascinated, began researching the topic. It was not in her wheelhouse. In fact, she describes herself as a surrealist inspired by Georgia O’Keefe, Hieronymus Bosch and Rene Magritte. And yet she had been looking for a new subject and a new direction, and it turned out this little-known aspect of Black history was it.

The result is “Contradictions — Bringing the Past Forward,” an exhibition at the San Bernardino County Museum of Gothard’s work.

The exhibit is devoted to the 23 Black homesteaders out of 83 homesteaders who formed a small mixed-race community in Lanfair Valley, in the desert near the Nevada state line and the hamlet of Goffs. Lanfair was established in 1910 and was nearly defunct by the early 1930s. Today all that’s left are building foundations.

I met Gothard at the museum in Redlands on Wednesday morning, curious to see the work and hear how it came about.

Because there are few if any photos of Lanfair and its residents, and Gothard is not a figurative painter, she said she had to ask herself: “How can I as an artist interpret their stories?”

Each homesteader is the subject of a display card with known biographical facts in a timeline. Next to that is a piece of art by Gothard, printed on linen and hanging from the wall like a scroll.

The art depicts the state flower from the resident’s home state and pinpoints the number on the Lanfair tract map of the resident’s property. These are lined up along the wall of circular exhibit room.

The floor is also part of the art. Gothard laid out the tract map with gym tape, red for the Black residents, blue for the rest. That adds context to the individual displays. “The red boxes are sort of clustered,” she noted.

It’s an imaginative use of bureaucratic records. I’m imagining that the show’s audience might include art lovers from the county Assessor’s Office.

A display case includes a few Lanfair items dug up by archaeologists in the Mojave National Preserve: a brooch, a flask, a fork, a cast iron pot. A lid from a can of vegetarian cooking oil is telling. Several families were Seventh-day Adventists, and thus ate little meat.

Gothard did her art and much of the research during the pandemic, some while in an artist residency at BoxoPROJECTS in Joshua Tree, where she was able to work without distraction.

She made her art on an iPad, using the ProCreate program, and chose linen as the material because its color and feel seemed to reflect the desert.

How would the pieces be hung if they weren’t framed? Gothard bought a sewing machine to make the hems, and then dowel rods and cords from Joann’s Fabrics. The effect is antique, almost biblical.

The exhibit, which opened Feb. 8 when the museum reopened to the public, is on view through April 21. A chance to meet Gothard takes place March 5 during an open house for the exhibit from 1-4 p.m., with a talk and walkthrough at 2 p.m. After its run at the museum, the show will travel to the Victor Valley Museum in Apple Valley.

The homesteaders largely relocated from Los Angeles County for the chance to own property, if they could establish their rights by three years of residency, and to escape prejudice. The price they paid was a hard life in the desert extremes, attempting to farm in a place with little rainfall.

“As rain dried up and drought came, it became almost impossible to live there and be self-sustaining,” Gothard said. Most of the homesteaders drifted away.

A native of Springfield, Illinois, Gothard said her ancestors on both sides of the family farmed there, where everything grows, a stark contrast to farming in the Mojave.

“It must have required a lot of perseverance and resiliency,” Gothard said. She’s especially intrigued by the seven women who braved the desert to live there independently.

Gothard, who has lived in such disparate places as San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., and South Africa, has been a Palm Springs resident since 2012.

“The desert to me is freedom,” Gothard said, eyes bright. “I think it’s the expansiveness of the desert and the stability of the mountains. That is what they represent to me. The mountains are hard. The desert can seem soft with the sands. It’s like a constant light show.”

That’s where the “contradictions” of the exhibit title come into play: the difference between her life and the lives of the homesteaders. “These people lived in 1910 and here we are in 2022, creating artworks on an iPad,” Gothard said with a smile.

The original article that piqued her interest was a history column in 2017 by this news organization’s very own Joe Blackstock, headlined “The untold story: African-American homesteaders once farmed the Mojave Desert.”

Joe, who loves exploring, told me the other day that he had got hold of a Friends of the Mojave Road guidebook, saw a reference to a Black settlement in Lanfair Valley and, curious, started researching.

That included driving to Goffs, home to a history center founded by Dennis Casebier, and reading an oral history by a man who was a child when his family moved to Lanfair.

Gothard corresponded with Casebier before his February 2021 death and hasn’t yet been to Goffs. She expects to continue her research and to follow the research of others into Lanfair, either for another project or simply out of curiosity.

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