Cathy Allen: Desert S and Sunvale Village
Written by Genie Davis
Oh, what a small world we weave, when first we practice to deceive – with imagination.
Cathy Allen is highly skilled at small-world-building. She is, after all, the creator and caretaker of Sunvale Village, which she describes as a community for the small in which five little artists “pose urgent questions about politics, society, and culture regarding the past and possible future.”
The catalyst for the creation of Desert S, a recent outgrowth of the Sunvale Village concept, was unsurprisingly Desert X, which Allen notes is “a real and current big art exhibition in the land of the ‘large.’ Desert S contrasts with Desert X by exhibiting only five small installations by little, unknown artists and was of short duration.”
According to Allen, the exhibition was inspired by her “smalls.” She notes “I am an artist that uses mixed media such as scavenged desert junk, photography, and linguistics in assemblage processes. My preference to express a perspective on serious matters of the world is through play, humor, satire, and silliness. Personal experiences, politics, current events, and popular culture inspire the concepts.”
Desert S is part physically real, part virtual, and part pretend, Allen asserts. There are creations such as “‘Ground Squirrely Cabin’…a reminder that the stark solitary romanticism of land and sky that existed with the original human homesteader is gone, though current Airbnb developers are selling this nostalgia at high cost.” There are no set run dates.
The putative creators of the exhibition are residents or guests of Sunvale Village, an actual existing installation that covers about five acres of raw desert land. “It is a community made of found desert toys who have taken on new personalities, and whose homes are constructed out of collected desert junk. There are community meeting structures, a performance stage, a museum, a restaurant, and a music recording studio, all with connecting pathways and signage. All is reinvented and recycled. At the last 2020 census, there were eighty-six toys (they call themselves ‘smalls’) living in the village,” Allen says. “One can take a stroll with a printed map and bios to view and meet the assorted smalls in their homes. You can find the Sunvale Village location through Atlas Obscura.com. A Sunvale Village Facebook page begun in 2017, has an ongoing illustrated narrative of the community and their adventures.”
The small community has its own manifesto, and stands “united against the over-inflated, the bombastic, the supersized, and situations that are unfair in disproportional largeness.” Residents, who are also the putative creators of Dessert S, include Small Dog, Dogu, Mr. Geo, Roni Rontos, Ms. Blackhorse, Spidey M, Pepe the Pink Pig, Benjamin Boyz, Joseph Boyz, Bionica Troll, Metal Jack, Wodeen Woods, Woody Woods, Ms. Piggy, Little Mad Mac, Sandy Worm, Scarface Jr., Lil Bear.
Allen points out that the work of Desert S and Sunvale Village are just one facet of her art. “I make assemblage sculpture, site-specific installations, and altered books, as well as spoken word and performance art. All my work is created from scavenged and upcycled items. I am fascinated by what people throw away. Seeing the careless dumping of refuse in rural areas is appalling, but at the same time, these dumping places have become delightful resources for sculptural materials.”
Working in recycled materials for over 30 years, she cites Coleen Sterritt, Noah Purifoy, and John Outterbridge as her mentors.
Working in miniature is relatively new for Allen, who plans to continue the ongoing story of Sunvale Village. “The smalls keep me very busy!” she enthuses.
The smalls have contributed some of “their” work in the form of a “Miniature Council Station” to Mojaveland, the recently opened miniature golf course created by artist Anna Stump and a group of desert-area artists.
“Desert S may happen again, if Desert X continues and I see another opportunity to apply satirical, humorous commentary for the sake of expression.,” Allen states. “Meanwhile, there is much inspiration derived from the daily news and other absurdities of life to play with.”
Living in the desert inhabits all of Allen’s work. “Living in a rural environment of the Mojave Desert, with lots of space and big sky affects my sense of existence. One can feel humbled by the vastness and depth of the night sky here.” She explains “I’m certainly not the first human to ponder my own significance within the universe while gazing at the stars. I think that if humans displayed humility about their existence on this earth, then it would be a better place. The environment particularly would be in better shape to sustain living things.” And her work with miniatures and the story of Sunvale Village is an intrinsic part of this.
It’s a small world after all.