By VICTOR SLEDGE, August 2021
Sitting in Joshua Tree, CA are a few stark white trailers that bounce off of the terracotta-colored backdrop of the desert. Along with these trailers are objects, also stark white, preserved in plaster and epoxy, removed from their once natural environment.
These things belong to Patricia Vernhes, a multidisciplinary artist with decades of work spanning across music, painting, sculptures, and more. Her series, Other One, is an object-oriented exploration of how we think about some vast, metaphysical ideas like memory, the feeling of missing something or someone and even existence.
“The objects hold value,” she explains. “A rock that chipped off of a mountain has that moment encased in it. Its shape is informed by that event, and I’m connecting with that moment by taking it,encasing it in plaster, and placing it against a white wall.”
Although the series is inspired by object-oriented ontology, which is a philosophy that recognizes the life of an inanimate object as being as valuable as something organic, Other One treats these objects as a vehicle for contemplation around these mass, metaphysical concepts that humans have faced forever.
“I just waited for these ideas to come, and eventually the land started to speak to me, and the ideas started to come.”
Ironically, moving to Joshua Tree and going through what she describes as a period of “radical isolation” helped her make art surrounding these ideas that connected with people, even though it was object-oriented.
“I have not moved out to the desert to run away from anything at all,” she says. “I thought there was a potential of space into which I can download my observations and manifest them into physical shapes.”
For example, her piece, Lungs, was made out of black lava rocks from the Black Lava Butte veins that are coursing through the Joshua Tree area. But after a closer look, she realized they were more resonant than she could’ve ever imagined.
“On one hand, it became a really beautiful object to me,” which she takes no personal credit for, instead crediting its natural state. “It’s made of black lava, like the blood of the mountain. But I looked at it in plaster, and my eyes welled up.”
The oblong, paired rocks reminded Vernhes of human lungs. And as she calcified and solidified them in plaster and epoxy, Vernhes was reminded of how relevant that process has been throughout the pandemic and in particular the vulnerability of our lungs.
“This is so much. It’s so charged,” she says.
The beautiful process that used the archaic blood of the land now brought feelings of grief and mortality to its viewers. What was preserving two objects forever also meant the end of two others. In literal and figurative ways like these, Vernhes' work with these items in nature often has uncanny connections to us as humans.
That’s a hallmark of her work. She uses our thoughts about objects to inform our thoughts about ourselves.
“My being here is for people. The more space I get from human relations, the better I feel I'm able to process and understand them,” she says. “There’s only nature around me, so I’m able to purge and be in dialogue with my surroundings so that my reflection on society can be encased.”
And it’s that philosophical exploration that adds to the impact of her work.
Another piece, The Naked Woman, is her take on a sculpture of a woman figure. The bare, wooden sculpture speaks to a vulnerability and transparency she wanted to convey in women. At the same time, there is a resolute, rigid element to it as well.
When she made the sculpture, she explained, it became an exercise in being vulnerable enough with herself as an artist to know when something is done.
“I'm trying to see at which point the art brings me to tears,” she says. “When you're in the process of creating something you are as naked and as real with that piece in front of you as possible ”
She says the wood, an element that has been used for generations to build houses and other strong, protective structures, was originally going to be covered in other materials. However, she reached a point with the exposed wood where she realized it was saying exactly what it needed to say.
Now, the most exposed, raw, vulnerable piece in the series is also one she hopes creates the biggest sense of power, and her vulnerable creative process mimics the value of that piece, speaking again to how her work alludes to our humanity.
As her work starts to be viewed in more structured, enclosed environments, Vernhes expects the element of humanity in her work to be even more powerful.
Vernhes allows the objects she encases in white casts to speak to not just where those objects come from or what they are when a viewer sees them, but also where and what they have been. It questions how we think about removal, displacement, change, and recollection in a way that makes art of the objects, the person viewing them and the environment the objects are taken from.
Presently, a part of the viewing experience of Other One is seeing the work on her property and studio in Joshua Tree. Viewing her work there adds a sense of connection that speaks to the environmental themes in her work. It’s easier to think of the objects in relation to the environment they come from, and even to think about how the environment may be missing them.
However, she says, “I actually want those pieces to leave here and live on in a more controlled environment.” Seeing Other One in a gallery or exhibit will be almost poetic. In fact, it’s exactly what she intended for the work.
Viewing the objects removed from their environment means that there’s a much more extensive degree of memory that’s not only within the object from its journey, but also that’s placed on the object from people who have experienced it since beginning that journey.
“The objects will have the memory of the world where it was made,” she explains, “but they will also be inspired by where that current person is coming from.”
And thus, the gears of her artistic vision will be in motion. The objects, who at that point would have lived many lives, will take on a sort of infinite amount of lives as more people have the privilege of interacting with them, imprinting on them whatever they will. More viewers, more thoughts, more associations—the collection’s existence in another place is art in itself.
It’s a beautiful process that Vernhes knows and accepts will never be complete.
“It's the most respectful way to share this environment and everything it’s taught and given me,” she says. “I can’t imagine anything more caring than wrapping things in plaster and borrowing them from the environment so that they can be shared elsewhere.”
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.