Lynda Keeler had been trying out different styles—figurative painting, hard edge—but nothing felt authentic. Contemplating her bedrock truths, she came up with this:
The artist walks miles each day through every neighborhood she’s ever lived in, and she instinctively looks for changes: New cobblestones here, backhoes over there.
The obvious next step for her was to make maps. She’s now produced dozens of abstract cartographies of neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Laguna Beach and the desert. The maps appeal to me because of my own perpetual search for home and the meaning of home. The way to make a place your own is to map it–in stories, pictures or scratches on a rock wall.
Maps speak to anyone “seeking location and experiencing dislocation,” wrote Katharine Harmon in The Map as Art. Keeler’s maps are on display through February, 28, 2021, in an online exhibition at Asher Grey Gallery. You can also see them in person at Mojave Flea Trading Post, a new shop/gallery in Palm Springs.
Big names like Jasper Johns, Robert Smithson, Agnes Denes and others have played around with maps. While many books and papers have analyzed the mapping trend in contemporary art, I thought I’d learn just as much by going for a walk with the wayfinder herself.
I drove up the base of the Chino Canyon alluvial fan to the neighborhood of Little Tuscany one recent morning after a rain. New snow laced Mt. San Jacinto. Standing on Keeler’s driveway, the cartographer and I could see the entire Valley spread out before us–all the way to Point Happy. Tourists promenaded by, marveling at the modernist architecture around us. Starting downhill on our walk, Keeler greeted Busby the dog, the first in a parade of pets and neighbors she knows by name. First rule of mapping: Know your neighbors.
“If you pay enough attention and keep looking, you get really intimate with your neighborhood,” Keeler says. This is not so different from the earliest inhabitants of this canyon—the Cahuilla Indians–who relied on neighbors and knowledge of the terrain to survive. Just above Keeler’s house is Leaning Rock, a Cahuilla landmark. In the memoirs of Francisco Patencio, it’s the rock that guides voyagers home to Palm Springs.
“It is the Calling Rock. It says ‘Come, come back,” wrote Patencio, an Agua Caliente chief, in Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians.
Over the past 20 years, Keeler has called three different desert neighborhoods home. (She and her partner, Bob Merlis, also have a home in the Larchmont Village neighborhood in Los Angeles. Keeler previously worked as a creative director for Sony, CNN and HBO.) She honed her mapping skills in Vista Las Palmas, where the winding lanes, cul de sacs and curves informed her maps.
In Little Tuscany, Keeler knows all the shortcuts. She cuts through a neighbor’s yard, and assures me their two rambunctious labs are not on duty. With her orange vest (protection against distracted drivers) and her outgoing personality, everyone calls her The Superintendent. She’s the one you call if you’re locked out.
Cutting across to West Chino Canyon and heading uphill, we can see white-topped San Gorgonio beckoning across a boulder field where birders flock–drawn by run-off from the water district pools. Mapping a place makes you its protector. Keeler keeps a watchful eye on the open space as it has been threatened by the off-and-on development called The Boulders. Do not even think of building here, tossing dog waste or leaving cut brush by the roadside as long as Keeler is on patrol.
Trying to see like a mapmaker, I note mostly brown boulders–but Keeler sees color everywhere: A blue post. A yellow hydrant. She runs her hand along a boulder and says: “This crazy green”.
She has studied with desert painter Terry Masters and admires the way he signals seasons and temperature in his use of color. “You can really place a painting by him as September, mid-day.”
When I ask what to look for as an apprentice mapmaker, she says to watch for “trail crumbs”: trucks, blue tape around windows—anything that signals “something’s happening here.” Rooflines, gates, walls, street signs and glimpses of swimming pools all are fodder for Keeler’s maps.
“Repetition is important when you’re mapping,” she says. She does the same loop over and over, always looking for new information.
The designer houses end and we come to the secret doorway into Chino Canyon. This hidden trail—paralleling an old Cahuilla trail—once felt wild; bighorn butted heads on the steep hillside just above. A few years ago, though, the trail was pulverized by a massive earth-moving project for the Desert Palisades development. It was the most violent rearrangement of the natural landscape I’ve seen in my 25 years in the desert.
When Keeler moved here in 2015, she lived through the upheaval as boulders were blasted, and 3,000 truckloads of mountain moved. “It’s a classic case of the natural and the built fighting each other,” she says.
Resting for a minute (it’s all uphill or downhill in Little Tuscany), I took a seat on a cold boulder as Keeler told me she grew up in San Diego and ran wild in Tecolote Canyon—an experience that imprinted her with California landscape. “I can still smell it. I can see it,” she says of the San Diego countryside. “Once you live in a city, that’s shaken off you.”
I told her about my own childhood running feral in the San Gabriel Valley hills. For both of us, witnessing changes in the landscape is a natural part of growing up in California. Mapping is an essential skill when your childhood turf is always shifting.
Keeler’s earliest acquaintance with the wonder of maps was plotting family trips with her parents, maps spread out on the kitchen table. (She laments the demise of paper maps.) Her parents took trips to Europe and brought back maps, which Keeler tacked to her bedroom wall in place of the usual Beatles and Dylan posters. While playing in the hills she was only a pretend explorer; the maps promised that adventure would someday be real.
We were walking along an artificial path with boulders as big as baby elephants stacked along the trail. Looking below, Keeler said you get a sense of how natural movement—water and time—shaped the canyon before the bulldozers had their way. In 1860 massive floods roared through here, displacing Cahuilla families. The sounds of boulders tumbling eternally haunt this place.
Keeler is attuned to tumbling, shifting and all forms of movement. Her maps are made on unstretched linen so that they move, like the flags her partner collects. She mixes perspective—birdseye and straight on—in the same map. The maps take shape with layers of paint, ink, enamel, sand, nail polish and thread. Arrows show the way; secret messages are inscribed and then covered over.
Despite her popping colors and inspirations in modernism, Keeler works in the direct lineage of early mapmaker Norton Allen and Palm Springs’ original artist Carl Eytel. Eytel, too, spent time in this canyon, with his friend George Wharton James. Like all of the early painters, his job was to map the territory.
We wound up our journey at an artificial rock alignment locals refer to as the drum circle. Keeler turned us around and headed toward the Leaning Rock. Like the Superintendent herself, the rock was showing us the way out and the way back home.
Destination Unknown, an exhibition of Lynda Keeler’s road maps, paintings and sculpture is online Feb. 1-28, 2021. https://www.ashergreygallery.com/current.html
The paintings can be viewed in person at the Mojave Flea Trading Post, 383 N. Indian Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. Meet Lynda Keeler at the gallery Friday and Saturday, February 5th and 6th, 2021, 12-2pm. https://mojaveflea.com/
Lynda Keeler–along with artists Kim Manfredi and Anne Bedrick–have organized the first Coachella Valley-wide open studio tour, with some 70 participating artists. The event is Saturday, April 10, and Sunday April 11, 2021.