Sterling Wells: Field Notes



Field Notes

I made a lot of watercolours outside in 2020. The cleared schedule and unemployment insurance resultant from the pandemic created an endless stretch of unstructured days that allowed me to do a lot of painting. I have mixed feelings about using the term plein air painting. Plein air is an artistic genre that describes paintings that are made outside conventionally in one sitting, with the primary intention of capturing light and colour. My works do not fit these conventions because I work on each watercolour for many days in a row, and my primary intention is not to capture a specific time of day. I have had to develop ways of working that take into account the fact that what I am looking at is constantly changing: each day I return to a site, objects have moved, things are different.

A piece of paper records traces over time. It accumulates marks. It is a temporal record. In watercolour, there is no erasure. The paper’s surface is pristine, and when you rub colour out to return to white, the surface becomes rough and scuffed. Every mark that touches the surface soaks into the paper and cannot be removed. I always begin my soaking the paper at a site in the Arroyo Seco near my apartment, where I have worked extensively over the past five years. I also use water from this site or the Los Angeles River when painting, filling up gallon jugs and taking them with me. The unpredictable nature of painting outside brings speed and energy. It invigorates the works with an element of chance and randomness that is very important to me.

Traditional landscape painting looks off into the distance. This is the coloniser’s gaze. I want to depict the ground. Often, I dig a hole to stand or sit in, so that my eye level is closer to the ground. Sitting in a tripod camping stool, and working in a vertical format, I can paint the words on the wrapper of a piece of litter in the foreground, as well as massive infrastructure in the distance.


La Brea

In April 2019, I went with my friend to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve to make watercolours of the poppies. It is a breathtaking natural phenomenon of orange blooms blanketing orange hills as far as the eye can see. I told myself that the next year, it would be fun to paint the poppies growing by the side of the road. In May 2020, I found what I was looking for in a small, undeveloped triangular parcel of Caltrans (California Department of Transportation)-owned land, bordered by an on-ramp, an off-ramp, and South La Brea Ave.

The site seemed to encapsulate all of the dynamic forces that have constructed Los Angeles: the California Poppies (the state flower of California) representing the allure of dramatic natural splendour; the highway system that destroyed minority neighbourhoods in order to connect the city while simultaneously balkanising it; the hand-stencilled Trust Jesus and Be Saved sign standing in for a version of the story of American colonisation as one of radical Protestant sects moving Westward from England to California; the gas station, billboards and hand-painted sign of a mechanic shop that make up the visual landscape of a city designed for cars; the litter; the accumulation of objects collected and deposited there by unhoused persons; the tents. The flowers were an alibi so I would have an excuse to paint what was surrounding them. An alibi for my presence at the site, and also an alibi for the work itself.

La Brea means tar in Spanish, synonymous with oil, the substance that created the conditions for Los Angeles to exist. The oil was here first. The water came second. A city that should not exist, an artificial oasis in the desert, is made possible by pumping billions of gallons of water from distant mountains to flood these desert valleys, which is first made possible by pumping the compressed remains of ancient organisms to the surface of the Earth’s crust to burn. La Brea y el Agua. It sounds like a story about two characters, the interconnected and oppositional forces that make up the ecology of Los Angeles, making life possible here.

Unhoused people camp on land next to freeways owned by Caltrans because these spaces are largely immune from complaints from neighbours and businesses that often push unhoused people away from residential and commercial spaces towards the city’s margins.

My first day painting at the site, a woman asked if she could ‘utilise’ my car for the day. Later, she told me she had stopped someone from peeling my registration sticker off my license plate and asked if I could buy her some food.

At first, the one-legged man who lived in a tent across from the site told me to paint flowers somewhere else. When I got out my camera, he thought I was taking pictures of him. After getting used to me being there, he and his companion became friendly. One day, he was hopping on the ground setting up a new tent, and I crossed the onramp to help him.

A steady stream of people, a few per hour, visit TJ’s tent. When his tent isn’t there, I watch with amusement as people approach from the sidewalk, turn the corner, and turn around when they notice its absence.

A man came up to the pile of clothes, asked if they were mine, and then dug through the pile and took something.

Twice, bro-ey documentarians approached me and took photos and video of me. One of them asked ‘Are you homeless right now?’, which seemed like an absurd question, not warranted by my ‘dirty clothes’. A fellow plein-air painter friend waiting at the red light noticed me and waved. Another friend said they saw me from their car. Many people honked and yelled things, mostly indecipherable. One woman yelled ‘I love you.’ I caught whiffs of marijuana smoke. A shy teenager and her mom stopped to check out what I was doing, since the girl was into art. One woman asked if I sold my paintings and gave me her contact info. Two homeless men came up to me and gave me a dollar bill, fifty-one cents, and three long brown cigarettes because they were into what I was doing. A man who lived in the apartment building on the street where I always park asked me if I painted people, and how much it would be to make a painting of him, his daughter, and his girl.

I thought that my time painting the poppies would end in the summer, when it got too hot and the poppies lose their petals. But the poppies continued to bloom all through June and July, and I kept painting. I jokingly told people that I was racing against the ‘poppy clock’, but this wasn’t what I should have been worrying about. This series of paintings ended when I went to the site one day in early August, and everything that I had been painting was gone and the ground was just bare dirt marked with only bulldozer tracks. Across the onramp, TJ’s tent was gone. The trees had been ripped out, a lock put on the fence, and the piles and piles of stuff had disappeared. The old man who collects cans said that Caltrans had been working on the area in the wee hours of the morning, starting at 4am. The man in the wheelchair told me that ‘they cleaned it up’ and that the maintenance was ‘overdue’. He moved his tent somewhere else, and TJ moved his tent into one of the droplet-shaped leaflets of the clover-leaf interchange.


Cowboy’s Estate

Robert Heitman is a South Pasadena local who prefers to be called ‘Cowboy’ because he’s from Texas. He has lived under the San Pascual Street Bridge for at least fifteen years. I have been observing him for the past five years, when I started frequenting a site just down the path from his estate.

I used to cross this bridge every day on my way to school. It’s very close to where I live. The bridge crosses the Arroyo Seco (Dry Stream), a channelised urban waterway that flows from the San Gabriel Mountains and intersects with the Los Angeles River just north of Elysian Park. The stream was channelised in the 1930s to control flooding. Now, most of the runoff from the San Gabriel Mountains that would have become the Arroyo Seco is diverted to settling ponds at the base of the mountains, where it seeps into the Pasadena aquifer. Water management organisations in California divert as much water as possible to save it before it enters the channelised part of the river. All the water that flows to the ocean is wasted.

Cowboy’s Estate is adjacent to a path for walkers, hikers, and horses that hugs the Arroyo Seco. An offshoot of the path leads into an area of urban wilderness that Cowboy calls ‘The Swamp’. Here, a trickle of water creates a natural stream that flows for about 250 meters until it meets back up with the channelised Arroyo. This is where I soak my paper, and where I collect water.

Cowboy knew who I was even though I had never spoken to him, and when I approached him, he exclaimed ‘Da Vinci is here!’ He was pleased that I wanted to depict his creation for posterity. He kept asking me to paint his portrait, but his creation is more compelling to me than his likeness. Over the years, because he is unsteady on his feet, Cowboy has terraced the land into perfectly flat paths bordered by boards held in place with rebar and connected by steps. He has lived there for about fifteen years, and is a beloved member of the community, greeting the joggers who pass daily. He is concerned about to whom he will pass on his estate when no longer lives there. One visitor spoke about the hope of him someday owning the land under the Homesteading Act because he has lived there so long and made improvements to the land. As you can see in the painting, he has planted the area beautifully with succulents and grass seed, decorated the estate with potted plants, garden ornaments, and solar powered lights that illuminate at night. The top of the picture contextualises the estate, depicting the architecture of the bridge, street signs, streetlights, telephone poles, houses, and mountains in the distance. He has a public sense of humour, posing various toys, signs, and decorations for the amusement of passers-by, his audience.


Elysian Hills

The housing crisis is the most visible and pressing social issue in Los Angeles. It is the primary concern in debates surrounding the planned 2028 Summer Olympics, and I just heard on the radio that it would be the primary issue in the next mayoral race. The unhoused crisis worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, and became more visible, as the city suspended rules requiring unhoused residents to take down their tents during the day.

This site is located at the fringes of Elysian Park, on a massif originally known as the Stone Quarry Hills. Three ravines cut through the massif. The westernmost ravine is Chavez Ravine, infamous for the Mexican American community that was bought out and destroyed in the 1950s so that Dodger Stadium could be built. The middle ravine is Solano Canyon, a historic neighbourhood, and the third ravine is a reservoir. These hills were dedicated as Elysian Park in 1886, making it the city’s oldest park. In 1940, the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened, connecting Los Angeles and Pasadena. This was America’s first freeway and remains largely unchanged from when it was built. The Arroyo Seco Parkway cuts through Elysian Park through four tunnels. From the freeway, you can see encampments on the strips of land above the tunnels.

In the case of Elysian Hills Capri Sun (2021), the encampment I was looking at is barely visible. You can just make out a red cloth, a bicycle, and something happening around the tree to the right of the tunnel. From my perch above the freeway, there was an encampment directly to my right. A man visiting friends there told me: ‘They are always watching you. Even if you can’t see them, they are watching you.’ I tried to keep this in mind while I was at this site: that even though I felt alone, I was being watched.

This was the most emotionally difficult work, and where I felt most unsafe. When I am in these spaces, people often think I am also unhoused. This is unethical. I leave my easel, perspective frame, stool, and water at the site. I know people look through it when I’m not there for things of value. One day I arrived at the site, and the area around it had burned, and the stuff I was painting was covered in ash. Another day, I could not access the site because the road was blocked off by fire trucks. Other times, water would be flowing down the road from the parking lot.

I chose this site because it included objects collected by unhoused people in the foreground; an encampment in the distance; plants and nature; and recognisable elements of Los Angeles infrastructure in the distance: the 110 Freeway, the sign that reads ‘Chinatown’, the art deco architecture of the tunnel, the ornamental streetlamps, and the elegant sweep of the Figueroa Street viaduct in the distance with the word ‘ADZE’ written on it in blue paint. I titled the painting Elysian Hills Capri Sun after the object in the centre bottom of the picture. This is a crumpled metallic juice pouch with a yellow straw protruding from the top called a ‘Capri Sun’. I drank a lot of these as a kid and enjoyed painting its rainbow gradient of printed colour. I wanted the title to emphasise the paradisiacal connotations of the words ‘Elysian’ and ‘Capri’, in contrast with the fraught social and ecological realities of the actual subject. This connects to a larger theme of all the works, which is the ethical tension of the fact that I am taking pleasure in depicting trash; making something beautiful from desperation and crisis.


Los Angeles River Shopping Carts

The site for this work is located in the Los Angeles River in Long Beach near its confluence with Compton Creek, about ten kilometres north of the ocean. I chose this site because I had read a newspaper article about an unhoused community in the area and from looking at a map, that part of Compton Creek had an earthen bottom, and there was a wetlands park next to the LA River. After exploring the area, I decided to paint these two shopping carts in the middle of the river. Shopping carts are used ubiquitously by unhoused people to transport belongings. I liked the pair of carts, one vertical and one horizontal, creating a relationship. I also liked the relationship between the river and the transmission towers, these two conduits of current, the circulatory systems of the metropolis, flowing in opposite directions: the river bringing water from the mountains to the ocean, and the power lines bringing electricity to the city from power stations on the coast.

I wanted to use the water that I was depicting as also the medium for the painting. I dip my brushes in the water to clean them. In this case, because the current was so fast, I only had to dunk my palettes for the excess paint on them to be quickly washed away. The water level decreases throughout the day, so the flat expanses beside the channel are submerged in the morning, and in the afternoon become an expanse of stinking algae. There were lots of seagulls and I could smell salt in the air. Tangled masses of green algae were continuously flowing down the river and would become caught on the shopping carts and whip back and forth in the current like matted locks of green hair. I surrounded my collapsible camping chair with rocks to hold it in place and attached a milk crate to the arm with a bungee cord to hold my supplies. I hung my backpack and camera bag from the back of the chair. My easel was held in place against my body, and the rear tripod leg kept buckling from the pressure of the masses of algae pressing against it and pulled by the current. I couldn’t move my boots because they were caught in the algae being pulled under me. I only got up once, at 5pm to take photographs. I started early and made this painting in one day, because I knew I would not be able to reposition myself in this precariously balanced situation.

My first visitor was a man who slid out on his bicycle in front of me. There was a siren and he said ‘someone called an ambulance because they think I’m hurt.’ Not true. He washed his road rash with river water. He asked if the water was safe. I said probably not. There are signs along the bike path that read ‘Contact with water prohibited.’ He asked what I was doing. I showed him my picture. He couldn’t tell what it was. He asked if he could have a paper towel which he called a ‘napkin’, from the roll on the shore. I said sure. I also offered him a jug of water, but he didn’t use it. He pulled handlebars from the river with gusto like pulling a gem from the loose rock that surrounds it. He rode away. Another man came down to ask what I was doing. I showed him the painting. He said he loved what I was doing, and said it was wonderful, ‘god bless you’. From the bike path on the bridge, someone was looking down at us with binoculars.