Five years ago, artists Astrid Larsen and her husband Richard Johnson were on a road trip to central Nevada to check out a land claim where they might find semi-precious jasper stones for their metalsmithing work. They had planned to carry on driving through the Southwest, but along the way, they found themselves called to stop in the small town of Goldfield. They never left.
Larsen and Johnson left their long-time home of Seattle, where they had worked as artists and psychologists, to set up new lives in the semi-deserted former mining boom town about 30 miles south of Tonopah. Among the Joshua trees, mineral deposits, and abandoned structures, the pair found a fascinating community of around 200 people who valued freedom, solitude, and (perhaps unexpectedly) art.
Last year, Larsen and Johnson launched the Esmeralda High Desert Institute, a non-profit to organize and grow the arts community in Goldfield and wider central Nevada by providing classes, workshops, symposiums, and artist residencies. EHDI solicits participation from artists and scientists alike, often pairing them together for talks and exhibits in Goldfield to juxtapose the connection between the environment and art.
One such event, dubbed “Earth and Sky,” will happen this week. Geologist Eric Seedorff will give a talk about the mineral composition and geological history of Esmeralda County on the night of June 23, followed by a talk on the afternoon of June 24 by astral photographer Katrina Brown, who shoots night sky images.
Double Scoop sat down with Larsen to discuss her life in Goldfield, the mission of the Esmeralda High Desert Institute, and the challenges facing the arts community in rural areas of Nevada. (This interview has been edited for length.)
Hi Astrid, can you tell me a little about your background and how you came to end up in Goldfield?
We came down to go through Goldfield about five years ago with no plans to be living in Goldfield at all. We are one of many people in Goldfield who just happened to pass through, got out of our vehicles, started walking around meeting really, really interesting, very eccentric people, and decided we need to check this out. So we spent the summer here in Goldfield, and that was it. We knew we needed to find a place here. So we got a place, a kind of rundown adobe in the front, and a double garage which we’ve made into our living studio for 11,000 bucks. … So we moved in and my husband refurbished the double garage into a beautiful live-in studio, which is where we are now. And we sat down and decided, ‘Well, what do we want to do with this place?’ So, we decided to create an artists’ hub, with the idea of attraction versus promotion, meaning that if people were interested, and if they were attracted to the place, then they would come. And we would basically serve as a hub for interesting people who are curious about what’s going on. So that’s happened. And it’s been pretty amazing.
Our longtime background is both in art and psychology. We were urban artists, with careers in Seattle for many, many years. And then when we moved out into first rural Washington, and now in rural Nevada. To our surprise, we’ve become rural art activists. And that’s been a really interesting role to take on. It has become really apparent, just with interaction with the arts organizations, and I’ll just be blunt about that, in Reno and Vegas, that there’s a very patronizing attitude from the cities towards what’s going on in the rural areas in Nevada. And I had long conversations about this with folks that are connected to some of the arts organizations. And I think that because they stopped by, met us, and are now connected to us and interested in what we’re doing there, they’re getting it. They’re understanding that there’s a whole art scene that’s happening out here that is very different from the city.
What was it that drew you to the actual town of Goldfield and the people you met there?
Well, you know, people talk a lot about freedom. And I will say that Goldfield for us is unbelievable freedom—freedom to create, freedom to be exactly who we are. And that’s something that really struck us when we first came in: we were, how can I say, we were perceived for exactly who we were, which was very different from an urban setting where people come in and they’re very flashy and they want to impress people. And these are just people who are just gonna take you as you are—good or bad. And it’s a can-do place. A lot of people are using materials that are already here. Tonopah is 30 miles from us, there’s no gas station, and there’s no grocery store here. There’s no garage. So people are finding ways to make do. And a lot of art that’s happening here is made out of repurposed materials. Outside of town, there are acres of old dumps from the early 1900s, which are filled with amazing stuff. And people here have one common thread, and that is they don’t like to be told what to do.
There are people here in Goldfield that are from every demographic that you can imagine. And that’s another misconception that comes from, you know, Vegas and Reno. They have this idea that rural areas are a particular demographic, right? Usually, it’s like, conservative, white. And although there definitely are a lot of white people here, there are also representatives of almost every demographic that you can imagine. As long as someone’s going to help you pull your truck out of the mud, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, what your orientation is, or who you voted for. It’s like if you are there, then you’re part of the community.
When did you start Esmeralda High Desert Institute, and how does the organization function?
It’s probably been about a year, maybe last spring. The way that it operates is that Richard and I are basically the spearheads—it’s our vision. Everything that we’re doing is basically what we’re coming up with. And then we have a really great board. … We are already thinking to ourselves, like, what’s the five-year plan? What’s the three-year plan? This has been the early days, and we’re starting to slow because we want to build a good foundation and then we’ll just see what happens. A lot of the people that we make contact with are just people who we’ve met who have come to our studio, who stop at our shop because we have a little shop as well. And they come in and we have these fantastic conversations. … So when we meet interesting people, we say, hey, you know, would you be interested in coming back and giving a talk? So we usually provide lodging, and then also a small honorarium for the people that come to give talks.
And eventually, we’ll have our space next door, and we’ll be able to do residencies, which will be different. Instead of saying, ‘Hey everybody, we’re going to show you some art,’ we’re going to say, ‘No, we’re going to bring an artist in and embed them in the community.’ You know, they’ll be here for three weeks, they’ll be around town, they’ll be meeting people. And that’s a whole different deal. So the main focus for the organization is the landscape—direct interaction with the landscape, like, whatever that means. Eventually, we’re going to have some classes. We’re looking for a brick and mortar space that’s a little bit bigger. But those are days ahead.
Earth and Sky is coming up on June 23 and 24, where you’ll be pairing an artist and a scientist to give different talks to the community. What is the importance of art and science to EHDI, and why pair them together as you’ve done?
So Nevada, as you know, has a long history of mining. And we’ve learned a lot about geology and mining since we’ve been down here. We both have backgrounds and degrees in psychology, And we also have degrees and practice as artists, so we’re just curious people who want to know how things work. And I have artists, contacts, and friends, who have this wonderful mixture of art and science. So for instance, Jeff Greinke who now is down in Arizona, he’s sort of described as the father of dark ambient music. He has a degree in meteorology, and one in music, so his music has a lot to do with meteorology—all his albums are named for weather. He’s an experimental composer, so a lot of his compositions are sort of weather inspired. That’s the perfect combination of art and science.
The only way I can think of explaining it is to provide a kind of crucible for conversations to happen about art and science. They’re not that far apart. You know, scientists do experiments and so do artists. Scientists are looking at the natural world and trying to figure it out, and so are artists. What we’ve found, though, is that when we have someone who sort of specifically identifies as an artist, and we talk to them about science, they get very excited. … So yeah, trying to get conversations together to imagine collaborations and what they might look like, you know, and to provide a place for that. Our symposium is going to be offering chances for the public to come and listen to like, artists’ presentations, or whatever, but the focus of it is going to be time for people to just ponder. Time for people to talk.
Going forward, what are the biggest challenges facing your vision for EHDI and the central Nevada arts community? What kind of resources do you feel you need to accomplish your mission?
What’s interesting about your question is that it raises a double-edged sword, which is attracting the public to Goldfield. So, again, we would really want people who come who are interested, but we don’t want Goldfield to become Bombay Beach. And that’s, you know, that’s a fear. Because probably, as you know, as soon as the artists move into these spaces, and make them really exciting, and really cool, then everybody else shows up. And the artists are then pushed out. …
[We don’t want to] shove our agenda down anyone’s throat. So when our speakers have come, we said, ‘Listen, don’t equate the number of people who show up for your talk with success.’ This town is 200 people. So you know, for the last two events, we’ve had 20 people show up. That’s huge. I mean, if you do the percentages, that’s big. And then the people who are there really want to be there. They’re very interested. It’s just it’s a different way of looking at things. And it may be different because it’s rural. I don’t know. But I know that folks who are working in the urban areas have a different sensibility about ‘Oh, we gotta get the money, we got to do this, we got to make it flashy, we got to stand out,’ and here we’re just saying, ‘We’re doing interesting stuff here. Why don’t you just check it out?’
The Esmerelda High Desert Institute is located in Goldfield, approximately four hours by car from Reno or three hours from Las Vegas. The next event is “Earth and Sky” at 7 pm June 23 and 1 pm June 24, featuring Geologist Eric Seedorff and astral photographer Katrina Brown. Admission is free.
Photos courtesy Astrid Larsen