The last artists’ haven in Los Angeles

It’s a Saturday afternoon in early October and a group of twentysomethings has gathered for a party in the middle of the desert. Two artists pass out beers from behind a handmade wooden bar outfitted with a bamboo roof and white Christmas lights while the sounds of psych rock blare from a pair of speakers nearby. There are conversations—many of them in Spanish, British, and French accents—about art and music and literature, but they almost always come back to the scenery itself: The otherworldly rock formations, the Joshua trees, the mountains that seem to stretch for miles with nothing else in sight except for the tiny twinkles of towns in the distance

As the sun dips behind the hills, turning the sky slowly from tangerine to dark violet, a DJ starts spinning ambient electronic music and people assemble on benches made of two-by-fours and concrete posts to watch Westerns projected onto a freestanding screen. A giant illuminated wooden sign in the distance reads: “5 Acres,” simultaneously the name of the property and a declaration of its size. The place could easily be mistaken for a Burning Man camp, with its well-constructed yet temporary setup, but it’s nowhere near the Black Rock Desert. And while the landscape resembles Joshua Tree, this remote hideaway is on the opposite side of the Mojave, in a region that’s much closer to Los Angeles, but that few Angelenos would ever consider visiting.

 Francois Pied, at the bar at 5 Acres.

Francois Pied, at the bar at 5 Acres.

Here, off a two-lane highway, in a dusty, barren stretch of unincorporated Palmdale, a group of Venice, California-based artists is celebrating the launch of 5 Acres, an art cooperative and outdoor workspace they bill as a “creative backyard” in what they see as LA’s own backyard. The project is the brainchild of 29-year-old Francois Pied, a French-born photographer and designer who moved to Los Angeles from London two years ago expecting to find the sprawling city he’d seen in American movies as a kid: big, green lawns and driveways, massive backyards to play in. What he found instead was a densely populated metropolis in the midst of a crippling housing crisis.

The small bungalow Pied rents in Venice has a backyard not nearly large enough to host friends for a barbecue—let alone to pursue the woodworking and sculpture projects he builds outside his day job as a project manager at an advertising firm. If he was going to find open space to work and play outdoors, he realized, he’d have to look outside the city. “My first reaction was like, ‘Well, there is this backyard in LA, which is the desert, and it’s only an hour away,’” he says. “People are just ignoring what’s there because it’s Palmdale and in their minds it’s not pretty enough … It’s just totally underrated.”

5 Acres, built on five acres Pied purchased for just over $4,000, is the kind of project that can only exist in a place where the land is as cheap and as plentiful as it is in rural Antelope Valley, a suburban desert community whose largest cities are Palmdale and Lancaster. Located in the far northeast corner of Los Angeles County and known for its conservative values, tract homes, and nearby Air Force base, it’s not exactly the kind of environment that usually attracts creative young people. But that’s changing, with 5 Acres adding to a small but growing community of artists determined not only to spark interest in the Antelope Valley, but also to reshape the way people think about the oft-forgotten, easily disparaged enclave roughly 80 miles north of Downtown Los Angeles. As skyrocketing rents in Los Angeles continue to squeeze renters farther into the outskirts of the city, the Antelope Valley is positioned to become a new frontier for emerging artists—if they can get over its terrible reputation.

The Antelope Valley lacks the prestige of Los Angeles and the eccentricity of Joshua Tree—where rehabbed airstream trailers now book for well over $100 a night, months in advance, on Airbnb—but its appeal as a haven for experimental artists and political outsiders is nothing new. Frustrated and disillusioned after having narrowly lost his bid to become the first socialist mayor of Los Angeles in 1911, Job Harriman packed up and moved to the Antelope Valley three years later to found his own socialist colony, called Llano del Rio. The rural cooperative lured hundreds of farmers, laborers, and machinists—many of whom had struggled to find work in the city—with the promise of a guaranteed daily wage and the opportunity to become an equal shareholder in a new kind of sustainable society that didn’t rely on cutthroat capitalism.

 The ruins at Llano del Rio.

The ruins at Llano del Rio.

 The ruins at Llano del Rio.

The ruins at Llano del Rio.

Llano del Rio was successfully self-sufficient for several years, supported by its orchards, gardens, farms, and dairy operations, and it even housed Southern California’s first Montessori school, according to City of Quartz, by the historian Mike Davis. But by 1917, the colonists had been all but forced out following a lawsuit that resulted in the loss of its water rights. The remains of its cobblestone structures, which still stand today off Pearblossom Highway, about a 15-minute drive from 5 Acres, have served as a source of intrigue for generations of artists and writers since. The science fiction novelist Aldous Huxley lived in a former Llano del Rio ranch house in the 1940s while researching a novel, and later coauthored the 1972 book A Double Look at Utopia: The Llano del Rio Colony.

In 1986, David Hockney, the English artist known for his colorful paintings of Southern California, produced “Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986,” a photo collage that captures the namesake highway in Palmdale—or what Davis describes as “the deadliest stretch of two-lane blacktop in California”—using dozens of images depicting Joshua trees, road signs, and assorted trash in the sand. The print, now owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum, is still the most widely known piece of art to emerge from this region.

More recently, the LA artist Robby Herbst revived interest in the Llano Del Rio collective by launching a contemporary arts group of the same name. The collective, which hosts lectures and performances throughout Los Angeles, also publishes maps and guidebooks exploring the intersection of politics, geography, and power in Los Angeles.

Today, with its collection of Western film locations and sets including the adobe-style chapel from Kill Bill and the 1950s motel and diner from House of 1000 Corpses, among other movies, it’s easy to mistake Palmdale and Lancaster for tiny towns. But the Antelope Valley boasts a population more than three times the size of the city of Santa Monica and a square mileage more than double the size of the city of Los Angeles.

Its creative output has been largely overlooked so far, but the Antelope Valley has the potential to reinvent itself as a creative hub, if only because so many artists are getting priced out of the city of Los Angeles, says Kim Stringfellow, a Joshua Tree-based artist and curator who directs the documentary series The Mojave Project. “Artists always seem to colonize places because of financial issues,” she says. “We’re always the first layer of gentrification.” Stringfellow would know: She spent a decade in the Bay Area before being priced out in the 1990s, attending grad school in Chicago, then moving back to Los Angeles in the 2000s, only to find that she couldn’t afford to buy a home anywhere in the city and she couldn’t stand commuting across it.

The combination of affordability and familiarity is what motivated filmmaker Karyn Ben Singer to move back to her hometown of Antelope Valley from New York City three years ago. “I realized it would be cheaper to move back across the country here than to find a new place in Brooklyn,” she says. “So I thought, ‘Well, I can pack up and move back to the desert [into a place] that’s three times the size for what I’m paying [in New York].’” She says the change of scenery—and the wide expanse of open land—has also gotten her out of a creative rut. She’s in production on what she describes as an LGBT sci-fi web series called Desolation, inspired by the creepiness of the Mojave Desert and the Edwards Air Force Base.

 Left: A mural by Yoskay Yamamoto. Right: Robert Benitez, a curator at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History

Left: A mural by Yoskay Yamamoto. Right: Robert Benitez, a curator at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History

 A mural by Andrew Schoultz.

A mural by Andrew Schoultz.

Robert Benitez, a curator at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, says it’s not difficult to understand why artists would be attracted to the Antelope Valley: “They can actually afford to have a studio space, buy materials to work.” He cites the museum’s recent exhibition of murals and street art by international artists and its ongoing collaboration with LA’s Thinkspace Gallery as evidence that the Antelope Valley’s art scene is finally starting to earn credibility. “The response I think was largely, a majority of it was positive, but some of the people that have lived there for a really long time are not as responsive to change,” he says. “But I think slowly but surely they’re realizing that art is important to the Antelope Valley in a way that it hasn’t been [before].”

The region’s remote geographic location and hour-plus driving distance from the city isn’t the only thing standing in the way of its legitimacy. Pied, like many transplants, had never heard of Palmdale when he first moved to LA, and didn’t know about its history of crime. When some acquaintances described it as “ghetto,” it only piqued his curiosity more. “It has a little bit of a shock factor,” he says. “[With] the French people, and Europeans in general, there is this fascination for the very, like almost redneck, remote places in America, like countryside America.”

The Antelope Valley’s decades-old reputation as LA County’s estranged backcountry stepchild stems from a history of gang violence, racism, and hate crimes, which were rampant throughout the 1990s. By the end of the decade, a string of hate crimes committed by white supremacists—including one in which a black high school student was stabbed to death on his way to class in 1995—led to national attention and the involvement of the FBI. The Antelope Valley developed a human relations task force in an effort to curb the attacks, but it still consistently has one of the highest rates of hate crimes of any region in the county, according to LA County’s annual hate crime reports.

Violent crime in the area is down overall since the 1990s, but it is also still disproportionately high for the county. Northeast Antelope Valley, where 5 Acres is located, claims more crime per capita than areas like Downtown LA, Echo Park, and North Hollywood, but is still safer than Venice, West Adams, and Hollywood, according to the LA Times’s violent crime mapping project.

 A real estate sign in the middle of a vast stretch of land.

A real estate sign in the middle of a vast stretch of land.

 Left: Two Pines Chapel, also known as the  Kill Bill  Church. Right: A sign for Lake Los Angeles, in Antelope Valley.

Left: Two Pines Chapel, also known as the Kill Bill Church. Right: A sign for Lake Los Angeles, in Antelope Valley.

Those figures might help explain why the Antelope Valley is still the most affordable place to live in a county with the nation’s least affordable housing market. The numbers tell the story: The median sales price in Palmdale during the month of October was less than $150,000. Seventy percent of Antelope Valley residents own a home, compared to roughly 20 percent in Central LA, even though that area has nearly double the proportion of residents with a four-year degree, according to the Times.

Owing to a surplus of land and a slow recovery from the 2008 recession, the Antelope Valley is not just an inexpensive market for homeowners, it has also become an unlikely vacation destination for tourists—only instead of renting a hotel or an Airbnb for the week, visitors are purchasing entire plots of land to set up a camp, ride motorcycles and quads, or just take in the Mojave scenery without the burden of a checkout time. “Mainly what they’re doing is turning them into vacation havens to visit—their own piece of paradise in the middle of the desert [where] nobody can tell them what they can and can’t do because it’s their property,” says Greg Galli, a real estate agent and a former president of the Greater Antelope Valley Association of Realtors.

“I’ve been in this business for 27 years, selling land, and up until the last few years I’ve never had anybody do this,” he says, adding that he’s even begun marketing some of his listings—including the five acres he sold to Pied—specifically as recreation areas or campsites, though they still make up just a small fraction of his overall business. “I mean, it’s ridiculously cheap to get a stake in desert land out there: 2.5 acres is going for approximately $3,000,” he says, an especially low price in part because there are no utilities, water, or power, which can rack up tens of thousands of dollars in service fees.

It may seem extreme to buy an entire property just to visit a couple times a year, but the Antelope Valley is a place defined by its extremes. “If it’s hot in LA, it’s hotter here. If it’s cold in LA, it’s colder here,” says Galli. “If the market is good in LA, it’s better here. If the market’s worse in LA, it’s worse here. Everything gets magnified.”

While Pied and his friends are working to convince their fellow Westsiders to come experience the space they’ve created in Palmdale, the local artists who live and work in the Antelope Valley are still struggling to gain the respect and attention of their art world peers in greater Los Angeles. Larissa Nickel, an artist and educator based in Palmdale, is one of the region’s most vocal advocates. Through Hinterculture, the arts collaboration she cofounded with funding and support from LA County, she uses social media to document and promote creative projects throughout the Mojave Desert, and particularly in the Antelope Valley. The month-long event she organized in August as part of the countywide arts initiative Maiden LA had one simple yet challenging goal: getting people to drive out to Palmdale to experience “expansive land and sky, phone lines, a sign, a gate, and a dirt road to nowhere,” she wrote on the exhibition website.

“I think when you’re here, there’s a lot of positivity, there’s a lot of interest, there’s a lot of desire [and] optimism,” says Nickel. “It’s unfortunate that people don’t really see this area for all the weird, interesting things that are here.” Commuting multiple times a week from her home in Palmdale to museums and galleries throughout the county, she considers herself as much a resident of Los Angeles as anyone else—but others don’t exactly see it that way. “We’re treated like, ‘Oh, you don’t really know what’s going on in the real world, you’re out there in the desert,’” she says. “It’s very strange kind of the way that it’s situated in between LA and the desert, and you know, I find all of that very fascinating, because I do have a heart for the discarded and overlooked stories, and that’s what this place is all about.”

Nickel’s family moved from Los Angeles to Palmdale when she was in junior high, and like the filmmaker Ben Singer and many others who grew up there, she never dreamed of returning to her hometown as an adult. But after graduating from UC Santa Barbara around the same time as the economy dipped following 9/11, her degree in studio art left her few employment options. So she moved back to Palmdale, earned a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University’s online program, landed a job at the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, and later began teaching art courses at Antelope Valley College, in between her own studio practice. She says LA County has only recently begun to start considering the region for competitive arts grants and programming opportunities.

 The Lancaster Museum of Art and History.

The Lancaster Museum of Art and History.

Last year, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission greenlit Antelope Valley Art Outpost, a project aimed at researching and creating social, economic, and creative opportunities in the region. A partnership between Otis College of Art and Design’s MFA Public Practice Program and the Lancaster Museum of Art and History, among other organizations, the Outpost also includes an artist-in-residence program that appointed the choreographer Heidi Duckler to teach dance in the unincorporated area of Sun Village, and the filmmaker Robin Rosenthal to found the Real93543 Film Festival, dedicated to films that document daily life in unincorporated Little Rock.

Nickel says the Art Outpost project initially got a lot of pushback from longtime residents who questioned the artists’ motives and felt they were creating art about the valley without knowing much about its residents or its history. “This area is known for NIMBYS [and] it’s really steeped in history, and so I think the fear is that—and I’ve experienced this too—is that when you invite artists from outside the area, they don’t necessarily respect the history of it,” she says. “There’s this feeling that people from LA come up here and just try to erase everything, and ignore what’s important to the people here.”

Nickel’s suspicions about outside artists flocking to cheap land and available resources in the Antelope Valley aren’t totally unwarranted. Pied, for one, says he hasn’t met any locals yet—the land he purchased is so remote that there aren’t any neighbors for miles—but that he’s open to building relationships within the community, and has no intention of ignoring its history, or even determining its future. Instead, he’s fascinated by the abandoned airports, intrigued by the old movie sets, and even somewhat charmed by the collection of abandoned couches and rotting desert junk that sits just outside the windy, nearly inaccessible dirt road leading up to his property. If anything, he says, he wants to show Angelenos that Palmdale is more than its bad reputation—that it’s not “all redneck and dangerous people.”

He hasn’t planned much outside of the launch party for 5 Acres, and because he now owns the property, he’s in no rush to decide exactly how the space should be used. For now, he hopes the friends and artists who come to visit will be so inspired by the surrounding desert that they’ll propose their own temporary projects to build on the site, using the space as a kind of outdoor workshop, incubator, and exhibition space. Eventually, he wants to review and accept proposals from artists all over the world who need a little bit of space, a lot of desert, and plenty of isolation. But first, he’s got to convince some more friends and collaborators to drive out to Palmdale.

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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Chris Alexakispatronage, art