In Greater Palm Springs, the entire region is like an al fresco exhibit of public art and I seem to find creativity wherever I look. At Tahquitz Way and Indian Canyon Drive, “Agua Caliente Women” is a beautiful reminder of the tribe’s still-strong presence. In Sunrise Park I see a gorgeously undulating monument called “Wave Rhythms.” Right on Palm Canyon Drive, a bronze fountain depicts a young Sonny Bono (he was mayor here for four years). As I walk from my car to dinner one night, my eye is taken by the rounded yellow forms of a sculpture called “Squeeze.” In Palm Desert, there are even more: the median of main drag El Paseo is filled with ever-changing displays created by artists in a city-funded public art project that makes this as much an outdoor museum as upscale shopping street (though in galleries such as Coda, you’ll certainly find an enviable selection of contemporary art). As I walk down El Paseo admiring the sculptures, my eye is caught by a splash of color just off the corner, and sure enough it’s another piece of public art: a utility box turned into an artwork entitled “Suncatcher.” I head to the local mall and end up on the outdoor top level of the garage, only to discover more art, as this entire parking area has been turned over to mural artists, their vibrant creations the perfect foreground to the stunning mountain backdrop. I find out later that monthly events are held here, at which you’ll see things like a car-painting or a mural going up on what little wall space is left. Suddenly, an hour has passed. I never do get to go shopping! By the way, if you want to be just steps from all this, I’d suggest a stay at Palm Desert’s new boutique lodging, Hotel Paseo, where the rooms are clean-lined and elegant, the service top-notch, and Palm Desert’s attractions practically at your doorstep.
Case in point: The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. While I’m not sure I’d call it “art,” it’s certainly a cultural must, with several habitats based around different deserts of the world, from North America to Africa. I pause before the cheetah, looking regal in repose, watch as a porcupine unfurls its quills, see a zebra prancing across an open field, and spend what seems like hours watching the giraffes. All the while, those awe-inspiring San Jacintos Mountains loom above at every step. It’s a great lesson in the richness and beauty of the desert, and that’s art of its own kind, right?
Inspired, I head up Highway 74 into the mountains, and it makes me think of the words of a Palm Desert friend, “There’s something about being out in the desert that allows you to be reflective. Sitting around the pool only gets you so far.” As I stand among the amazing scenery, there’s a sculpture greeting me at the entrance to the mountains as if to say “even up here in the middle of nowhere, there’s art.”
In IW Coffeehouse, just over the border from Palm Desert into Indian Wells, as I sit over avocado toast, drizzled with this amazing chipotle aioli, I look up and the guy across the table from me has a set of watercolors and is working on a painting while he eats his breakfast bagel. In Rancho Mirage’s Sunnylands, I look out at the Great Lawn and wildflower trails, noticing a thin figure standing at the window seeming to gaze out at the perfectly manicured landscape in front of him. His elongated bronze form immediately says “Giacometti,” and sure enough it’s an original work by the great sculptor. Not enough? A few feet away is Rodin’s “Eternal Spring,” an aptly named piece of art for a place so green.You just can’t get away from art anywhere in this Valley!
Into a different cultural world, I head across Rancho Mirage to Tolerance Education Center, an important cultural project, designed to present to students the stories of people who have suffered from intolerance, from Holocaust survivors to representatives of immigrant and LGBTQ communities. The fascinating exhibits in the small museum space include permanent displays, primarily of Holocaust-related items: an album from Dachau, World War II–related political cartoons by Dr. Seuss, a piece of barbed wire from Auschwitz, a concentration camp uniform donated by a survivor’s widow. There’s also one changing exhibit, and when I visit, they’re preparing for “We Are One: A Photographic Celebration of Diversity inAmerica,” photographer Russel Hiles’gorgeous images of the many cultures that make up America. One photo in particular of a smiling group of children of various races and ethnicities is a perfect emblem of hope in a world where hope seems to be disappearing fast.
After the thought-provoking exhibits, I’m ready for a total escape into nature. On the edge of Palm Springs, I hop on the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, and I’m soon ascending past desert and mountain scenery, the cities of the valley growing smaller and smaller as we climb to 8,516 feet. Departing the tram, I set out on the Desert View Loop Trail through the wooded terrain that somehow combines forest and desert, bleak and lush, sheltered and wide-open. It’s an incredible hike past Jefferson Pines with red barks and vanilla/butterscotch scent (yeah, I smell them, the sign tells me to). I walk across rocky trails past overturned trees in an almost unimaginable variety of formations, large white-pitted boulders, overhanging branches with a deep green that’s startling against the clear blue sky. Everywhere I look is a different color, or shape, or combination of colors and shapes, and I can see where painters and sculptors have drawn their inspiration. Better yet, I can feel myself in the studio of Mother Nature, that most eminent artist of all. This is art that needs no museum, no gallery placard. I walk back, the waning sun casts patterns of light across the trees that an artist could only hope to capture, the ridges of pines dark green, fading almost into black, while one little row of trees picks up the light and scatters like gold across the ridge. Pure magic.
Am I getting overly poetic and sentimental? As you know, that’s not my style. Take a few hours, though, among this landscape, among these forms, underneath this sky, and see if you don’t feel the same way, see if you don’t understand why this area isfull of artists and why, with such a backdrop, the Valley just can’t help but be an artistic incubator.
I arrive back in town just in time for happy hour. I know we’re supposed to be exploring arts and culture, but sometimes a guy’s just gotta stop for a drink. On Arenas Road, where the bars beckon you, you’ll find Quadz, a video bar with screens acrossthe walls, revolving lights, and nice shaded patio; Chill, which draws a mostly male, mostly middle-aged crowd to its spacious room with large bar at the center; Blackbook, packed with a diverse crowd under the violet-hued walls and pink-lit shelves of drinks; Hunters Nightclub, with its big couches on the patio and classy interior, video screens, pool tables, male crowd, and sign proclaiming “Spirits Elevated”; Streetbar, the first on the block and a retro wonder of aqua stools, large mirror, rainbow lights, large chandelier, and a middle-aged, male crowd; and Stacy’s @ Palm Springs, all brocade-y wallpaper and where an older-tilting crowd gathers to listen to piano music.