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In the Desert

     I love deserts — which is a good thing, considering that where I live is rapidly becoming one. The world’s best deserts, the ones that haven’t been defiled and defaced by over-development and tourist debris, are stark, uncluttered, and magical. They speak to us from primordial places, from the swirl of wind and sea and rock; they point to our beginnings, and maybe foreshadow our ends. From dust to dust…

     I have been fortunate to travel a great deal in my life, as of now to five continents and over 40 countries, but only a few places have moved me to tears. The Sahara in Egypt was one of them. The vast beauty, the metaphysical power, and the historical importance of this area of the Fertile Crescent,  simply overwhelmed me. The first day we arrived in Cairo, however, the sands of the Sahara literally overwhelmed me. The atmosphere was so hazy and full of dust that you could barely breathe, much less see the pyramids (which are usually visible from almost anywhere in the City). I asked our driver if Cairo always suffered from such air pollution. “Oh, this is not pollution,” he assured me. “This is the end of the Khamaseen. It’s been like this for about five days now, but it should be clear tomorrow.” And so it was. When I woke up the next morning, I beheld a stunning view of the pyramids right outside my hotel window!

     The Khamaseen is a desert cyclone that sends sporadic plumes of dust up off the Sahara during a fifty-day period in the late spring. (Khama is the Arabic word for fifty, hence the name.) The winds eventually move over other parts of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, then on to Europe and across the Atlantic into the Caribbean, and sometimes as far as the coastal areas of the southern US. As if we needed any help from the Sahara to intensify the oppressive heat and drought generated by consecutive days of 100+ degree heat, the Khamaseen arrived in San Antonio this year on July 18 and stayed around for a couple days, bigger and hazier than ever. The good news, though, is that throughout the summer, the dust sits in a layer over the cooler, more humid air above the Atlantic Ocean, and that cap of Saharan dust actually helps to suppress hurricane formation in the Caribbean.  After the trauma and destruction of Harvey last year, from which many of us have yet to recover, it’s about time South Texas gets a break!

     At 3.6 million square miles, the Sahara is the largest, best-known desert in the world, but there are many others each with a unique character and appearance. (Note: sahara means desert in Arabic.)  Not all deserts are alike. Sands are composed of loose, granular particles made from minerals, organic material and rock; the composition of the sands accounts for color variations from white, to beige, to gray, to pink, to red —  often even within the same desert. Sand particle size can range from almost microscopic (very fine) up to 2 millimeters (coarse).  Atmospheric conditions, shifting winds, and constant saltation cause variations in the height of the dunes and ripples and create the beautiful, constantly-changing patterns on the sand surface. From the White Sands in New Mexico to the Wadi Rum in Jordan to the “singing sands” of the Gobi to the red rocks of the Mojave, each desert has its own unique mystery and magic, its own quiet story to tell about the earth and the people who have managed to survive there.

     My love of deserts notwithstanding, you might still reasonably wonder why I seem more than a little obsessed with such detailed information about them. The answer is that I am basically living in one —thinking about it, dreaming about it, studying it, drawing it, analyzing it, and fretting over how to bring it to life — in fabric. I mentioned in my last post that I had  begun to design a new art quilt for entry into a juried global exhibit this fall. The theme of the show is “Forced to Flee,” to represent a flight for survival from natural disaster, oppression, war or some other peril. The moment the call for entries went out, I knew had the perfect entry idea.

     Several years ago I was in Jordan just when the Palestinian crisis had ended and an early trickle of Syrian refugees had begun. I took a photo of some young men carrying their belongings with them, walking away from me toward some buildings on the horizon in the vast northern desert. The scene is very stark, but very beautiful, one of those accidental “perfect compositions” that all amateur photographers hope for, but rarely achieve. So, there was no question that this picture would be the inspiration for my entry. I gathered supplies, made the basic pattern, and started auditioning fabrics. And then I hit a roadblock, several actually, in trying to capture the desert, with its many color variations and topical patterns, all of which have to be quilted in, along with considerations for wind direction, sun angles, and light reflections. Thus, a composition that seems fairly “simple” in overall design becomes infinitely complicated to execute once you get started.

     Nevertheless, I did get started, then started again, and now have “deconstructed” the basic foundation of the whole thing and essentially started over. With the constant interruptions and demands in my daily life that afford me little uninterrupted studio time, with a welcome trip, but a two-week absence, planned for next month, and with that October competition deadline looming large and coming fast, “the sands of time” have me in more of a haze and daze than the Khamaseen. 

     Pablo Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” To that end, I have become obsessed with deserts.

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