Reimagining the Desert

By Evan Senn

Posted December 12, 2013 in Feature Story
(WEB)coverLucid Stead

Imagine for a moment, a serene destination encased in and exuding light from every surface; a house that blends into the landscape seamlessly. The visuals of the house transform  with the changing light of day and night, and this place seems to grow and modify with every new breath of air, with every new phase of the sun and moon. The quiet desert winds are the only soundtrack to this otherworldy experience . . . this is not just a place in your imagination, a getaway for your psyche, this is real, this is here in our beloved Inland Empire. This is Lucid Stead.

Artist Phillip K. Smith III is a desert native who hails from the Palm Springs area and still resides there today. However, with Lucid Stead’s nine-year journey into existence, Smith has been maintaining a residence just down the road and over the hill from Lucid Stead in Joshua Tree, to manage a hub for it, as well as spend as much close time with the project as possible. Phillip K. Smith III received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, a notorious and highly regarded institution. He often draws inspiration from the California’s Light and Space movement, as well as minimalist design and deconstructivism. Smith’s innovation and exploration  of new technologies keeps these ideologies current. He was honored as the 2010 Artist in Residence at the Palm Springs Art Museum and was included in the exhibition, “Smooth Operations: Substance and Surface in Southern California Art,” alongside Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, DeWain Valentine and Craig Kauffman at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, where he will have a solo show in January 2014.

Lucid Stead is truly a collaboration with the desert, and with the history of the area. Smith lives and breathes the desert, and that sense is truly felt in this contemporary, experimental homestead-art-piece. Driving around the Joshua Tree area, it’s not uncommon to stumble upon the sights of these tiny little abandoned shacks known as Jackrabbit Homesteads, strewn across the quiet landscape. Many artists find solace and inspiration in these homesteads, including Smith. After nine years of sitting with this land and this one shack of a house, Smith let the land and house speak to him and dictate the creativity of the property.

When people drive up to the house, the first thing they notice—that changes the whole experience—is the silence. The land out in Joshua Tree just has a different pulse than other places. It operates on a different timeline and a different world view. Out here at Lucid Stead, light and shadows interact with the sun. The house has become a part of the desert, a part of the land as it interacts with the light, the reflection, the landscape.

“A lot of my work is about merging these highly precise developments,” Smith says, “like these rectangles, next to something that’s highly organic, you know, something that falls through the fingers of your hands, you can’t necessarily hold onto it. So I love that there’s these very crisp visions pushed right up against the dry wood. The whole shack is an existing homestead shack, it’s been here for probably 70 years.”

The house exists as it always had, the same wood, the same door frame, window frames and rooftop. Smith did not replace anything in the project, he only pulled away material and added light and reflection. It is covered in panels of mirror—in the daylight, the house seems to merge into the land, both reflecting itself and the desert it so generously adores. At night, though, it’s a whole different experience.

“At night, it’s about projected light. The four windows and the doorway turn into fields of color,” Smith explains. “White light emanates from the inside out . . . and ultimately that last element was change. You know, this desert up here moves at an entirely different pace of change.”

The nighttime lighting is almost like a psychedelic experience to say the least, a kind of performance. The moon and stars light up the ground, they’re so bright in this unpolluted sky, while the homestead performs its own little ritualistic celebratory dance of light. The colors move and shift around the house in a cyclical manner, but at a slow and steady pace that’s hard to even notice. It’s beautiful and peacefully satisfying to stand in its presence. With the quiet surrounding of Joshua Tree’s outer limits, with the peaceful slow-moving colors of Lucid Stead, night becomes the time for Lucid Stead to sing it’s quiet light song, far away from the hustle and bustle of the city, but extremely vocal in its own way. “The more time you spend with it, the more things reveal themselves,” Smith says.

Smith’s past work touches on similar styles, concepts and issues. His intense perfectionism is a gorgeous gift in his art practice. Giant, bright and mind-melding installations and sculptural experiences transform spaces, collections, whole buildings even. His love for the Light and Space movement is very apparent, but he takes that style to another level. Often working with light and experience, it seems his real passion is the pure experience—no words, no figures, no suggestions. Abstraction and creation based on the momentary whole body experience of art is a clear achievement for Smith’s work—truly masterful.

Though his work says nothing of his desert upbringing, there is something inherent in the experience of many of his installations and sculptures that resonates with the isolation and peace and quiet that the desert embodies.

The very different experiences of Lucid Stead in the daylight and Lucid Stead at night have one similar effect for the visitor—the contemporary art experience. The sleek lines and seamless finish, even with its old and worn down wood beams, fragile structure and delicate surface, make this house an art object, any way you look at it. Even with the way the house is powered. You cannot go inside the house, but the light was designed to be solar powered, to aid in the quiet, uninterrupted experience of this place and this landscape, but they also use a generator on occasion to aid in the long life of the light.

“Great care has been taken to ensure the experience is pure. As you’re walking around it, you don’t see any screws, you don’t see any attachments, you don’t see anything that sort of pulls you away from the experience, anything that will pull you away from the pure view—and it’s like ‘oh, I get it.’ It’s one of those moments. Providing power for the shack was part of that aesthetic.”

Saks Fifth Avenue stumbled upon the stead online, thanks to LA Curbed, and was so taken with Smith’s project that they knew it was the perfect fit for a new fashion shoot. High art and high fashion. Saks was shooting the newest Chanel line when we were visiting the stead.

“Composed of mirror, LED lighting, custom built electronic equipment and Arduino programming amalgamated with a preexisting structure, this architectural intervention, at first, seems alien in context to the bleak landscape,” Royale Projects Owner and Director, Rick Royale stated. “Upon further viewing, Lucid Stead imposes a delirious, almost spiritual experience.”

Drawing upon the visual appealing projected and reflected light, Smith has created a series of sculptures for Royale Projects in Palm Desert as well, that find inspiration in minimalism and the optical relationship of the natural landscape and the unnatural creations of man.

Many other artists are often inspired by the desert and these abandoned homesteads—they can be seen everywhere. They seem to invoke an interest in local history as well as a sadness or empathetic glance at our failure as a society, as they were abandoned so long ago. But, it is rare when an artist transforms one of them, let alone brings contemporary art and installation into the picture. The sad and deserted home is revitalized and reintroduced into our contemporary lives in a new way, making us not only consider what was lost, but also what was found in its place.

Joshua Tree is a gem of a place for visitors, with delicious restaurants around every corner, great culture and community and one of the best un-polluted night skies in the whole of California, Lucid Stead adds some great cultural weight to the experience of the area. Though the drive may be extended, and the dirt road leading to the piece of art is a little disconcerting at first, the experience of this unique creation is well worth the trip to the Lucid Stead.

Lucid Stead, 66-621 Daisy Ln., Joshua Tree, (760) 742-5182;

For directions sent to your phone text “royale” to 42828.


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