¡Artistas Afuera! ¡Artistas Animados! ¡Artistas Avanzandos!

By Jacqueline Guevara

¡Artistas Afuera! translates to Artists Outside, or more accurately, Artists Outdoors. This exciting new arts program is a monthly Latinx expression of art, culture, and identity presented by Joshua Tree National Park Association, the primary non-profit partner of Joshua Tree National Park. Located at the stunning Cottonwood Amphitheater inside the park, it is funded by a generous grant from Inland Empire Creative Corps and the Inland Empire Community Foundation (IECF), in partnership with esteemed organizations such as the California Arts Council, Arts Connection – The Arts Council of San Bernardino County, Riverside Arts Council, and the California Desert Arts Council.

¡Artistas Afuera! features 5 Latinx artists over a 5-month period, presenting interactive workshops that are free of charge and open to residents of desert communities surrounding Joshua Tree National Park – communities like Coachella, Mecca, Desert Hot Springs, and the entirety of the Morongo Basin. An extension of the park’s beloved Artists Tea, ¡Artistas Afuera! aims to reach members of those communities who may never have visited the park – despite its proximity – or may not have felt welcome or comfortable visiting. Situated at the Cottonwood Campground Amphitheater on the south side of the park, the program also serves to highlight the lesser-known Cottonwood entrance, which is typically not as congested as the park entrances in Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms.

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Another goal of ¡Artistas Afuera! is to employ local talent to run the show. Curator Dez Ramirez is a Mexican-American/Chicana writer, poet and artist
based in Yucca Valley. She’s had a long career as a writer, DJ, activist, community organizer, environmental leader, and creator. Videographer Alexis Penunuri is from Palm Springs and has over 7 years of experience in filming and editing video content for broadcast, web, and social media. Graphic Artist Perla Garcia Nash is a first- generation Mexican-American who is driven by the quest for knowledge and understanding of those who came before her. Her art practice revolves around her passions like collage, prose, mysticism, nature, and the human experience.

According to Ramirez, whose past work includes a decade in Portland, OR building a diverse and rich body of creative work that touched social justice, environmental causes, race, identity, advocacy, and story, “Engaging diverse communities to recreate and visit our National Park is lifelong, ongoing work. This program is a vehicle that allows organizations like JTNPA to create more inroads for our diverse desert communities to have easier access, more education, and cultural programming that they can feel connected to while experiencing our National Park. Creating art that tells a story about where you’ve been and what you care about is a special gift that can be connective for so many people. When you figure out ways for people to connect on this level out on the land, that’s a really special thing. Creating people-forward projects like this gives communities a breath of fresh air in a really tough world and can inspire at the tiniest level.”

JTNPA’s Director of Education, Dr. Justin Lenzi, oversees the program. He had this to share – “Our educational programming at Joshua Tree National Park Association works to articulate and animate the rich resources of not only the national park but also the surrounding community of people that make our park unique and diverse. ¡Artistas Afuera! aligns with our efforts to ensure everyone knows this park belongs to them, and more importantly, that local communities of color feel they have a seat at the table, to create, to inspire, to educate, to advocate, to lead, and to help Joshua Tree National Park thrive for years to come.

Community engagement, dialogue, and increasing awareness around conservation is crucial; the arts are one of the best ways to evoke powerful connections to land, life, and restoration. When we involve diverse communities, many of whom have been historically underrepresented in parks programming or conservation leadership, they may feel a stronger sense of belonging in public lands. This kind of engagement and empowerment could help people find careers in conservation or the sciences or become more involved in taking actions toward sustainable tourism or diversifying our public lands. ¡Artistas Afuera! is one small way we can invite artists and community members to engage in thinking critically about the future of Joshua Tree National Park.”

Dr. Lenzi continues, “the ¡Artistas Afuera! event series is an opportunity for Latinx artists to share their histories, lived experience, and art in an incredibly beautiful location. Joshua Tree National Park provides space for us to heal, share, recreate, and learn together. In our efforts to help sustain this place, we need creative stakeholders to guide our growth.” That’s where the participating artists, and the attendees from local communities, come in.

As March artist Nancy Ocegueda says, “What I found so exciting about this program…is that we want to engage and bring in more residents.” Artist Cecelia Romero said in her address to the audience at the inaugural event of the series in February, “I am so honored to influence and uplift our beautiful desert community… with the healing magic of music, color, and creation.”

And it’s working! At each event, the audience is asked if they have ever visited Joshua Tree National Park. Invariably, only one or two hands go up. Of those folks, none so far have been to Cottonwood, which is the closest vehicle-accessible entrance to the Coachella Valley. Each of our participants is seeing a part of the world, of their public lands, that they have never had the chance to experience before. The program is making an even broader impact than introducing people to the park. Fifteen-year-old Jennavecia Hernandez, who attended both the February and March events, shared that her experiences cemented her decision to pursue art as a vocation. “I’m already an artist,” she stated. “But now, I have decided that’s how I want to make my living and make a difference. I can use art to bring awareness to issues and to impact others.” She plans to attend the remaining 3 sessions and has shared the events with friends and family members as well – and will also be taking advantage of the free Joshua Tree park pass she received as a participant of the program for the year to come!

While Jennavecia is aware of the impact this program has had on her personally, what she and her fellow attendees may not know is that art and the national parks have been intertwined since the very beginning of what would become the National Park Service (NPS). The paintings that artists like Frederick Dellenbaugh and Howard Russell Butler made of places such as Zion Canyon and the Colorado Plateau in the early 1900s, and Thomas Moran’s paintings and sketches of what would become Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone during the same period, carried the grandeur of these spaces to folks in the Eastern US. Some of these artworks were presented to Congress as evidence of the need to preserve these special lands and assisted in the creation of the NPS! And, artists continue to be inspired by parklands, and to inspire others to visit and care for them, today, through programs like ¡Artistas Afuera! and many others.

Interested in joining in on these celebrations of culture, art, and nature? Learn more at joshuatree.org/artistasafuera. Free shuttles are provided to each event, with pick up locations in Coachella and the Morongo Basin. And, to join us at some of the other JTNPA-supported art programs in and around the park, go to joshuatree.org/the-arts and joshuatree.org/youre-invited. Ven afuera con ¡Artistas Afuera!

If you missed a session, don’t worry! You can still visit the artists on their social media pages and/or websites.

Photos courtesy of Joshua Tree National Park Association

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