Sketching in the Desert

There is no better antidote to the busy streets and crowded subways in Manhattan than a few days in the American Southwest desert. Last weekend I flew to Phoenix, rented a car, and drove to Wickenberg – a cowboy town replete with Saguaro cacti and blazing sunsets. Living in New York City makes a horizon-to-horizon view in complete silence with nobody around an amazing treat.

I recently rediscovered my drawing tools in storage for over two decades and we needed to get reacquainted. My plan was to find time with no distractions, fresh air, and sunshine to explore the desert and see what my sketchbooks can capture. So I left my motel room before dawn and headed off the highway down a long dirt road. My fingers almost froze as the sun came up, but I was thrilled to see an abandoned gold mine in the distance as the skies brightened. It turned out I was on the outskirts of a ghost town called Vulture City.

I didn’t see any ghosts but there was lots of cactus and snow capped mountains off in the distance. As the sun rose the desert glowed with green and ochre hues, and deep umber shadows painted the hills. Over the two days I stayed in Wickenberg I tried several locations, testing my pens and watercolors. In town there was a rodeo that was part of the Gold Rush Days celebration. I went there and did some sketches but really preferred the solitude of the desert.

Standing on a lonely hill surrounded by thorny plants, I recalled a book I had read years before entitled The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda. It described the journey of a man who apprenticed with a Yaqui Indian sorcerer, and his path to enlightenment in the desert. When I got back I took that book from the shelf and found passages that resonated with my experiences in Arizona:

Then slowly the world became clear and in focus. My field of vision became again very round and ample, and with it came an ordinary conscious act, which was to turn around and look for that marvelous being. At that point I encountered the most difficult transition. The passage from my normal state had taken place almost without my realizing it: I was aware; my thoughts and feelings were a corollary of that awareness; and the passing was smooth and clear.”

After Wickenberg I drove two hours deeper into the desert to a town called Quartzite which is the Snowbird capital of the Southwest – the subject of a future post, so stay tuned!

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 Related posts:

Venice Beach Sketchbook
Sketching on the Left Bank

Medical School Memories

The Corpus Callosum, Buddha’s Enlightenment, and the Neurologic Basis for Creativity



  • February 19, 2013, 10:20 am  Reply

    Hi Jeff….your text and pix gave me much pleasure….haven’t been out there for a few years. Some years back I was a consultant for an Indian junior college near Window Rock…went to Canyon de Chelly, etc. Amazing territory. I like the tonal range of your watercolors. Best, Howard

  • Ron Becker
    February 19, 2013, 10:01 am  Reply

    You do a great job of capturing the moment in color and form. Love the action in #14 and solitude of #27. I love the quiet and expansiveness of the desert. Thanks for taking me out of my office for a few minutes. Ron

  • John Grana
    February 19, 2013, 9:35 am  Reply

    Congratulations on rediscovering your talents in drawing and painting, and thanks for sharing them with us. Many of my childhood vacations were spent camping in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, so these images (and those of Santa Fe) contain a great deal of emotional content for me. I also read “The Teachings of Don Juan” when I was 20, but that will have to be a discussion for another day!

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Dr. Jeffrey M. Levine has authored numerous articles on topics related to healthcare of the elderly. These include medical history, prevention and treatment of chronic wounds such as pressure ulcers, elder neglect and abuse, and physical restraints. He has also edited a book on legal and regulatory aspects of nursing homes.