Desert intervention


Dear Artist,

Peter and I threw a couple of small bags into the Wrangler and headed for the back road. We skirted Joshua Tree and peeled off onto one of the dirt tracks behind Wonder Valley, passing through a spotty outbreak of settler’s shacks, some now re-inhabited by those not wanting to be found. The track, navigable by an outsider only by the grace of Google, cuts through Route 66 and its trading posts: Bagdad, Siberia, Klondike and Cadiz. An extra large homemade sign reading “TRUMP PENCE” flanks a 5-acre parcel of early Toyota chassis. Once inside the Mojave National Preserve, we slipped into a lush and enormous forest of Yucca floating like a carpet above the scrubland, skylined by a moonscape of distant dunes.


“Seven Magic Mountains”
by Ugo Rondinone, 2016

We exited the Preserve on the north side and joined up with Interstate 15 and its rash of Vegas-bound Angelenos. After cresting a small elevation near the dry lake bed at Jean, Nevada, a row of neon totems — first seen as tiny, then monolithic on approach — cut into the desert sky like a set of skewered, day-glow marshmallows. I recognized the stacks from their online persona; deliciously photogenic colourblocks set against a cobalt dome. Standing in a location already pedigreed with previous, historic land-art moments, the anomaly beckoned with a spiritual whimsy as we pulled up, our dust-cloud settling in the makeshift parking lot.


Sara gathers a little birthday perspective, May 27, 2018

“Seven Magic Mountains” by New York-based Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, with the help of The Art Production Fund and The Nevada Museum of Art, found its beginnings inspired by Hoodoos — those phenomenal natural rock spires that rise from the drainage basins of canyons in the American West. Rondinone’s pillars — limestone boulders cut from a local quarry, stacked to 35 feet high and painted to be disguised as artifice — stand like aliens on the outskirts of Las Vegas. According to Rondinone, his magic mountains function as a link between the unapologetic wildness of the desert and the proud drag of Vegas.


Boulder being painted for Seven Magic Mountains desert sculpture
photo by Max William Allen



PS: “You don’t have to understand art, but you have to feel it.” (Ugo Rondinone)

Esoterica: Ugo Rondinone was born in 1963 to Italian parents in the Swiss resort town of Brunnen on Lake Lucerne. After studying and working in Zurich, he moved to New York in 1998 and eventually set up a studio in Harlem, fine-tuning an interest in what he calls a “mental trinity” of the natural world, romanticism and existentialism with colourfield op art, sculpture and conceptual installation. After five years of planning, “Seven Magic Mountains” was finally realized when Rondinone’s totems were moved, intact, from their nearby quarry to their current site near the Jean dry lake. Having originally planned a more humble set of piles, Rondinone admitted that he needed to amp up the installation’s impact when he arrived at the lakebed. “Size doesn’t mean anything out here,” he said. “The scale makes everything look small. That’s what you quickly figure out in the desert.”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Stacking stones is such a universal impulse, an activity that has gone on around the world as long as humans have been here.” (Ugo Rondinone)




  1. Absolute love this – like your art. Supposedly simple colours in a monumental yet methodical expression involving something greater than ourselves and as spirit filled as a desert retreat. Glad your birthday “Rocked”.

  2. Wow, Sara, I always resonate with something in each letter from you and your Dad, but this time it felt like the Doppler Effect as you zoomed past me, bypassed me , skirted me, (as well you should) on your way to Ugo Rondinone’s sandbox. I’ve lived out here in the “great space” (loose translation of Mojave) for 40 years. I took a class of seventh graders from Joshua Tree out to the Mitchell Caverns in the Mojave Preserve after we had read Tom Sawyer together. Nail biting scenes of high risk cat and mouse with ‘Injun Joe’ were fresh in our minds as we rolled through the vast desolation. The Caverns also take on gigantic proportions and dazzle after you get there. Anyway, thanks for the great description. It triggered many good memories. If I get to Jean, I’ll check out the totem poles.

  3. Even if I didn’t enjoy the content of your letters as much as I do, I would still read them for the beauty of your writing, Sara. Hats off, and…a belated happy birthday.

  4. Thank you Sara!

    I too love your writing, in this letter you share such a multifaceted range of feelings. Thank you for taking us along on your visit to experience some amazing art!
    Happy Birthday! Sending wishes for a year that delights :)

  5. Shirley Hasenyager on

    Originally from the southwest, have been in the Mojave many times. Love your descriptions. Question……how are the totem rocks connected so they could be transported intact?

  6. Happy Birthday. Your letter brings back memories of visiting improbably art sculptures in Arizona, Utah and Califonia in previous visits. We plan to be in Joshua Tree in December so will check out these too. Thank you for the interesting letter.

  7. Melvin Martin on

    Simplicity is the essence of design. Add color and what more could one ask for? Beautiful.

    Bye the Bye Sara, a belated happy birthday

  8. As a geologist and artist, but most importantly, someone who believes that the natural world produces the world’s greatest art, I find these “magic mountains” to be truly a “desert intervention” but one that subtracts not adds to the beauty of the desert. If they are indeed meant to “function as a link between the unapologetic wildness of the desert and the proud drag of Vegas”, perhaps they might have best been erected and left in equally garish-coloured Vegas, since there is little in the latter that links it with the natural beauty of any desert.

  9. David Westerfield on

    Pollution, visual pollution. These monoliths belong in a shopping mall somewhere not “intervening” on that beautiful landscape.

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