Gila Bend / by Meg Saligman

You go out to the desert and it seems like nothingness... but you just have to look. This is what one community member had to say about his town of Gila Bend, AZ. Here, people already see like artists, finding beauty in things that may otherwise be overlooked or taken for granted: the sunset, the feeling after it rains and the clarity of the night sky.           

Two of our studio members, Lizzie Kripke and Sofia Seidel, packed their bags and headed out West in preparation for an upcoming collaboration with the community. We talked with Sofia about her experience, from rattlesnakes to senior centers, and the meaning of desert beauty

The water tower site MLS Studio is reimagining in collaboration with the town of Gila Bend.

The water tower site MLS Studio is reimagining in collaboration with the town of Gila Bend.

MLS: What can you say about the project happening in Gila Bend?

SS: A major road runs right through Gila Bend and about 60-70,000 cars pass through every day. The town is interested in creating some sort of destination that would attract these passers-through to become visitors, to stop and spend time in the town, as a way to generate revenue. They want to use public art to create such a destination, and that’s where we come in. Mike, the town manager, saw Common Threads which made him interested in us and then fell in love with our studio’s community-based practice.

What was the purpose of your visit last week?

Our purpose last week was to meet with some community leaders and members to get a sense of what they might want in an art installation or mural that not only represents their town but would be a kind of art destination- something that outsiders would want to stop at. That’s what we’re balancing right now: something that tourists would want to stop and observe but something that is also true to the spirit of Gila Bend. It’s very important to talk to community members. For example, we went to a senior center and talked to a bunch of residents there eating lunch about what they might want in a project. We were also trying to establish connections so that in the future we can get larger groups of people to meet and do workshops with. Our goal is that, in this town of 2,000 residents, we have 100% participation for this project.

How would you describe the town of Gila Bend?

It’s hard to even try to make a succinct description of Gila since I was only there for a week, but a lot of the people described it as “quiet”. I would also say "colorful" in its palette like of sunset hues and colors in the desert, which turns out to be a lot- when I’m recalling my memories from the trip there are so many different colors in there.

What was your first impression?

My first impression of Gila was that it was really small. We drove through and there weren’t that many buildings. But after spending just a week there and talking to a bunch of people, I can see that there is quite an intricacy in the stories that are happening even in this seemingly small part of Arizona.

What was the best part?

My favorite part about the trip was hearing all the stories from the locals about their impressions and memories of Gila Bend. Some of them had the most incredible stories. One man talked about how, when he was younger, he and his friends used to climb up on the water tower that’s going to be the basis of our public art installation. As a kid, he would just run out and climb it or get up to all kinds of shenanigans in the desert. He told us that one day he was gonna catch Sasquatch and we would see him on the TV and say, “we knew him back when in Gila Bend.”

Also, the rattlesnake catching- that was really fun. We went out with the owner of the KOA campsite and one of his employees who both have their herpetology/snake-handling licenses and they caught a Diamondback Rattlesnake right as the sun had set and the sky was all deeply saturated with purple and the fluorescent lights of our ATV were shining in the desert- so it was this great clash of natural and artificial color and this snake fight happening right in the middle.  

Ryan the rattlesnake wrangler

Ryan the rattlesnake wrangler

What was the most rewarding thing?

For me, the most rewarding thing was talking to the seniors. There was a real deliberacy to the stories they told and I always just feel in awe of people older than myself and especially of  people in their 70s and 80s- they just have a lot of stories and have seen a lot of things. So it was really rewarding to have the chance to sit down and talk to them. A couple of women, who only spoke Spanish, I felt really glad that I was able to communicate with them and I hope that skill will continue to be important as we continue to work with this largely bilingual town.

What did you take away?

My takeaway is that there is still a lot to learn about this place and a lot of things to consider as we continue on this endeavor to understand this community that we’re not from. I think it’s going to  be a great challenge creating a world-class piece of art that is also aligned with what’s appropriate for this town and make people in this town feel heard. I’m really excited for that challenge and I’m looking forward to learning more about this place.

Will you approach this project differently now, since having been to the site?

Yes, definitely. There’s probably a bunch of little things that I absorbed that I’m not thinking about right now that will offer themselves as answers to future design questions or workshop questions. That makes me feel more equipped to move ahead with this project- that I have a working image of the town and, at least a handful, of it’s residents. Having spoken to people there, and hopefully more next time, that definitely changes my perception of what kind of thing they might want.  

Are there other things you’d like to add?

I want to say that I absolutely loved Gila Bend. I felt so welcomed by the people that we met there and the desert landscape was really beautiful. While you might have impressions about the desert (that there’s not a lot there, that you can assume what you’re gonna see) there’s so much intricacy and so many details that make it rich and full of life.