October 20, 2020

Bougainvillea Pink

Citrus Yellow, Bougainvillea Pink, Deb’s Park Green, Succulent Blues.

The day after we moved into our apartment on the Northeast side of Los Angeles, I woke up with vertigo. I had no idea what was happening in my body, but my eyes wouldn’t focus and my head was spinning. I couldn’t walk straight; nauseous, I sank to the floor. My husband drove me to the emergency room in Pasadena, the well-manicured suburbs — not unlike Beaumont, TX, from where we had just moved.

What is it to move so many times in my life that after thirty-four years my head no longer knows where it is.

Dry, yellow grasses. The sounds of crunching under your feet and between your teeth. Overexposed under a too-bright sun: This was my first sense of LA. We had driven through some of the hottest states in the country in the middle of August to get from Texas to southern California. Why did we move here?

During our first LA winter, the rains came down harder and more frequently than we had heard was possible in the region. Yellow gave way to green. Not in the way Beaumont is lush green — heavy and thick — but more of a take-a-deep-breath green, full of myriad shades and depths. I felt a life in the land that I previously hadn’t. And, as I drove over a hill full of desert succulents and palm trees in my neighborhood, I saw snow-topped mountains in the distance. Here lies the magic of this place; so many fragments, all coexisting.

White, Red, Pale Yellow, Mustard Yellow.

Part of my studio is inside our windowless, one-car garage; the other is outside, next to the garden, open to natural light.

I started a garden in the backyard as soon as I could. It was the first time I have planted a Mandan-Hidatsa garden with heirloom seeds of Hidatsa corn, Mandan beans, Hidatsa squash, and Hidatsa sunflowers — it felt like the most instinctive thing to do. I work on my large, artificial AstroTurf pieces outside on the north facing wall of the house, while also tending to the raised beds (our natural soil is like clay here, and it often shows cracks from the constant movement of the earth). Back and forth between the garden and the art, noticing something to do here and there; adding colors, shapes, materials, adding water, pulling a weed, waiting.

My fourth great grandmother, Owl Woman, preparing land to plant. Source: State Historical Society of North Dakota.

My fourth great grandmother, Owl Woman, preparing land to plant.

I order willow branches from a grower in Ohio and learn how to weave from a how-to book by an English weaver named Jonathan Ridgeon. Willows were once important architectural elements of my Mandan-Hidatsa tribe’s villages, used to build the roof and walls of our earth lodges, and to weave our baskets, which hauled produce from our vast gardens along the upper Missouri River. The women were in charge of building our dwellings, making our baskets, growing our gardens.

My work hasn’t always included a lot of literal structure behind it — not even stretcher bars. I usually rely on the physical qualities of the materials to provide their own structures when displayed. As I soak the willow in my bathtub to soften it enough to bend, shape, and weave it, I think more about the material, more about what purpose this material serves me now.

The artificial grass hangs on a wall, and the willows weave up from the ground.

All I ever truly want out of my work is for it to be even a tiny bit like nature; like hundreds of red ice plant blooms weaving among a sea of green along the Northern California coast, the clumpy shapes of sunburnt yellow weeds popping up in between the brown mulch in the backyard, the dusting of a light snowfall in eastern Montana turning everything white at the tips, or the image that particularly sticks in my mind — a bright fuchsia bougainvillea vine climbing up a redwood tree in my friend’s backyard, covering it and creating the most beautiful, solid-colored, dome shape.

Raspberry Red, Green Apples, Green Cucumbers, North Dakota Blues.

I’ve been thinking so much about my grandmas Cora Young Bird Baker and Mary Ann Bickler, and my mother, Mary Kay Baker — strong women able to grow incredible gardens, bake loaves of bread for a village, can all of their vegetables in preparation for hardy Montana and North Dakota winters, and sew their own quilts. The list really goes on and on.

I know how to garden because of my mother, who was raised by farmers not far from the Red River Valley, a fertile stretch of land between Canada and North Dakota. Some of my favorite childhood memories were spent at my grandparents’ — so quiet, so flat, home to raspberry bushes, green apples, cucumbers; it was here I shucked corn, split peas, and watched huge thunderstorms roll across the plains in the afternoon. It was a life of constant work for them, growing in the summers to prepare for the winters, but for me, as a child and visitor, it was idyllic. 

Flame Vine.

The mountains, the Pacific Ocean, the deserts, it’s all here. There are unpleasant parts to traverse, miles and miles of concrete freeways and heavy traffic. But there is magic in these pockets of land, of neighborhoods, of people. Having settled in — the only way to truly know this place — I understand why it has the pull that it does.

I think about Felli, my eighty-year-old neighbor who once gave me oranges while she was up in a tree with a machete. She refused to let me help her. She grew up in the Philippines, part of a family of rice farmers; she showed me her hands as proof of her life as a worker.

I think about Manuel across the street, retired and always out excessively pruning his fruit trees into spherical shapes, or just cutting them down. He leaves a bag of grapefruits for me outside our door, and another for my mother, which I ship to her in Montana.

I leave produce from my garden in bags on their doorsteps. There is such abundance in this land.

My life now revolves around my home more than it ever has. My studio is here, my garden, my house, my husband, my dog — it all fits into one tiny, quiet universe. A universe with views of lemon trees, shrubs, rose bushes, endless succulents, Debs Park, palm trees, the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine in the spring. There are of course murmurs of traffic from the 110 freeway and sometimes helicopters circling overhead, the loud squawking of our wild flock of parrots, the masses of starlings, the cooing of doves, the busy hummingbirds flying over our house. I live in a busy place, but it is nevertheless stillness that shapes it.


Teresa’s previous contribution to the Open Space magazine, “Sego Lily,” was commissioned for the publication’s tenth issue, Microclimates.

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