Monday, April 30, 2012

Belgian artist breathes ghosts into ghost town

 A town goes boom to bust.  Belgian artists move in. The wacky, wily Charles M. Schwab is featured, along with an Australian saloon keeper who builds a house of bottles. Read on.

During the gold rush in 1905, Rhyolite, Nevada sprang up out of nowhere.  Gold and silver mining, much of it from the nearby Montgomery-Shoshone mine, drove the town's economy. At its peak, Rhyolite's population of 6,000 - 8,000 could find entertainment, alcohol and each other at any of 50 saloons. They could hob nob at the symphony, take in a show at the opera house, and stroll home on streets lit by electric lamps. Sunday morning, those who could get up were able to attend services at one of two churches. Visitors arriving at the train depot could find lodgings at one of three hotels that offered rooms with private baths. Rhyolite was a prosperous town, well-situated in a protected valley.

Rhyolite in 1909, photo courtesy of Terry E. Kurfess, Beatty, NV

Even back then, desert climate, geography and personality tapped a vein of three-dimensional expression. In 1905, Tom Kelly, an Australian saloon keeper, built a house using bottles he collected from his own establishment, and those he gathered from others; in all, he used about 30,000 bottles and completed the structure in less than six months. 

Tom Kelly's house made of 30,000 bottles, courtesy, Coppermine photo gallery
Rhyolite was a bustling boom town built on a bubble. In 1906, Charles M. Schwab purchased the mine. The son of German Catholic immigrants, Schwab was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He embarked on an career in engineering at Andrew Carnegie's Steelworks and moved to Bethlehem Steel where where he became known for union busting, the formation of a successful professional soccer team, and the transformation of Bethelhem into the second largest steel manufacturer in the world. Schwab's interest in a gold and silver mine in Nevada was the beginning of a long career of outrageous risks and escapades in his personal and professional life. 

Schwab invested heavily, building a railway, electric works and sewer system. But the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 followed by the financial crash of 1907 spurred capitalists to more closely inspect their holdings. When a study revealed that the mine would not yield profits, Schwab and the investors decided to cut their losses and shut it down. Within six years, the town had gone from boom to bust.

Then, in 1984, Polish born Belgian artist Albert Szukalski came to the desert seeking to create an "art situation."  Szukalksi created "The Last Supper" based on the work by Leonardo da Vinci, using local people to pose as models. The same year, he completed "Ghost Rider."

Ghost Rider, Albert Szukalski, 1984 photo Maria O'Meara

Other Belgian artists followed. Here, Tim Bransfield stands in front of "Pioneer and Penguin," created in 1994 by Belgian painter Fred Bervoets.

Tim Bransfield, Pioneer and Penguin,  Fred Bervoets, photo Maria O'Meara

An artist-in-residency program attracted installation artists from around the world. German artist Sofie Siegmann created "Sit Here!" with Indian motifs and desert patterns in mosaic tiles.

Sit Here! Sofie Siegmann, photo Maria O'Meara
Albert Szukalski died in 2000 at the age of 54. For years, artists like Bervoets and Siegmann came to create pieces that are unique to the landscape. In these economic times, the Goldwell Open Air Museum works hard to raise money to preserve its artistic heritage. Last fall, they hosted a Luau Night, a befittingly surreal event. If you're in the area, which can mean 200 miles away when you're in the Mojave, be sure to stop by!

1 comment:

  1. That was informative and pretty surreal. How did Tim become so tall ?