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April 18, 2014

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Lasting Impressions: Anniversary of ‘The Last Supper’ brings visitors to celebration at Goldwell Open Air Museum

The Nevada gateway to Death Valley National Park is still. If you stop your car, the only sound you hear is the breeze clearing the valley floor or your feet crunching the gravel as you walk.

You can squint your eyes in the sunlight and look miles across the valley. It's vast, arid and empty.

For Charles Albert Szukalski, the late Belgian artist who spent a decade creating art there, it was inspiring.

Anyone who has driven west on Highway 374 from Beatty has likely come across Szukalski's sculptures: a dramatic cast of characters mingling statically at the base of the ghost town Rhyolite (home to the infamous bottle house).

In 1994 it was Suzanne Hackett's turn. The surveyor for Save Outdoor Sculpture! had driven to the area to examine the sculptures she was told were created five miles west of Beatty.

Expecting to find folk art native to the area, Hackett instead found a life-sized recreation of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," ghostly silhouettes of Jesus and his disciples made from plaster and Fiberglas, an all-white creation against the desert backdrop.

A perplexing and head-scratching sight for any passing tourist, the outdoor exhibit was just as stunning to Hackett.

"I was kind of blown away by the level of craftsmanship in these pieces," Hackett said. "This was educated, learned art that not only was well made, it was thought out. For as much as I love folk art, this was not that."

The white figures anchor the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture garden that includes a 25-foot pink sculpture of a woman made of cinder blocks, a 24-foot steel sculpture of a prospector and his penguin and a Greek-mythology-inspired wood-carved woman on a pole caught between earth and sky.

This weekend, at the same time as Beatty's Centennial celebration, the Goldwell Open Air Museum, now a nonprofit run by Hackett and her husband, Charles Morgan, will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the making of "The Last Supper" with tours, activities and a panel discussion on creating in the desert.

Additionally, there will be showings of the documentary "Death Valley Project: The Making of 'The Last Supper' Sculpture."

Regarding the documentary, Hackett said, "What we've got is not only a portrait of the sculpture and how it was made, but a portrait of the sculptor."

How the sculptor stumbled onto Beatty, known mostly as the locals say as a place to gas up your car, change your tire or get a meal on the way to Death Valley, was simply a Western European tradition.

Szukalski, known as Albert to his friends, visited Death Valley while in the United States to see his mother, who lived in Northern California. He fell in love with the area and the symbolic West. He would return annually for 10 years, live and drink among the locals, explore the terrain and create his art. Eventually, he'd bring other artists.

"He was intrigued by the story of Rhyolite," Hackett said. "There had been 12,000 people there and then there was nothing. The whole concept of Death Valley, the name, the foreign-ness of it is intriguing to Europeans because it's so different.

"Albert spent a lot of time with the people in Beatty and developed some real relationships. He hung out at the bar, the restaurant at Bailey's Hot Springs. For a while he lived in the railroad depot, then he had a trailer in town."

Desert creation

Born in a prisoner camp in Germany in 1945, Szukalski was known by friends and admirers for his sense of humor, damaged past and his longing for notoriety.

He referred to the area around Beatty as an "art situation." He had studied art at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, and became a well-regarded artist in Belgium.

But he appreciated the artistic freedom he had in the desert and the locals he befriended.

"The man had a lot of heart. He left an imprint on people's hearts and minds," said John Lupac, a 30-year-resident in Beatty, who first met Szukalski in Antwerp, then surprisingly ran into him again in Beatty. "Everybody always ends up in Beatty. Albert always said, 'I am in the center of the universe.' "

Lupac and Szukalski worked together, drank together and at one time lived together. Lupac posed for the Christ figure and Peter, Paul and John in "The Last Supper."

Regarding the era of Szukalski, Lupac said, "I quote, 'It was the best of times, the worst of times.' The best is the camaraderie you can't replace. The worst of times was people destroying the ghosts, lack of support, lack of funding from the state of Nevada."

Whether his work and presence was appreciated by all the locals, Lupac said, "Yes and no. There was lip service paid well."

But the "desert rat," whom Lupac considered a brother, enjoyed being a town character and left what Lupac and other locals consider a legacy.

"People come (to this area) here from all over the world to see Rhyolite and the sculptures and the ghost town -- Switzerland, England, Belgium -- and they don't know where Beatty is," said Jolene, a 17-year Beatty resident and owner of the Amar- gosa Toad gift shop (who prefers to be identified only by her first name).

Referring to Szukalski, she said, "He was wonderfully quirky. He was brilliant. He was loved. Once you knew him, he was a friend for life."

Szukalski died in 2000 in Belgium. While in the hospital he asked Hackett, who had started a Web site for the museum and worked with Szukalski on an exhibit at the Contemporary Arts Collective, to "keep it going."

Mythic American

Hackett met Szukalski in 1994 and the two became friends.

"He loved Beatty," Hackett said. "Everything here was so different. He also felt constrained in Europe by the art world there."

Beatty was established in 1904 and served as the central railroad depot for three different railroads and the nearby Bullfrog Mining District. Today it remains a small town, revered by its residents. There are a dozen hotels, motels and RV parks, two mini marts, a beauty salon, a main gas station, a candy store and a handful of gift shops.

"Albert made the sculpture using local people," Hackett said. "It wasn't like, 'Oh, I brought all my Belgian models.' He included the community. He wanted to be an American. He wanted to be that mythic American."

The videotapes that recorded Szukalski and the locals creating "The Last Supper" came to Hackett in December, when Szukalski's partner in Amargosa River Valley donated the land and film. The documentary was made using six hours of video taken during the making of "The Last Supper," in which residents posed in hundreds of pounds of plaster.

Moving forward

Originally "The Last Supper" was built on top of the hill above Rhyolite, with a neon bar across the table lighting it at night.

A result of vandalism or rebellious mules, three figures were destroyed and had to be replaced. Szukalski bought 7.8 acres and moved the ghosts down to the base of Rhyolite, then recruited other artists from Belgium to work in the area.

Artists included Dre Peeters, who created the female sculpture "Icara," based on the Greek story of Icarus, and Fred Bervoets, whose "Tribute to Shorty Harris," a steel homage to early prospector Shorty Harris, is accompanied by a giant penguin signifying the artist's feeling of being out of place in the desert.

Dr. Hugo Heyrman's "Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada," is a cinder-block portrayal of three-dimensional computer pixels meeting classical Greek sculpture. Friends since Szukalski was 18, Heyrman said the artist asked him 15 years ago to create art for the Goldwell Open Air Museum.

"I saw the 'Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada' functioning in this landscape as a complementary juxtaposition of culture versus nature," Heyrman wrote via e-mail.

The "monumental silence of nature, valley and mountains" were his inspiration in creating "Lady Desert," Heyrman explained, adding, "The place triggers the imagination."

Strenuous living

The relationship between imagination and the desert is something that author William Fox will discuss this weekend. Fox, who grew up in Reno and used to run the Nevada Arts Council, is a noted writer about cognition and landscape.

"The desert is a difficult environment for humans to perceive," Fox said. "It's a very different environment for human beings to understand and flourish in. It can be a very productive place, but you have to live in it very strenuously."

Creatively, he said, "there's nothing there to contradict imagination. Because it is so empty it tends to make you look back at yourself. Instead of looking externally, you're looking internally."

Fox said he's interested in the artist-in-residence program the museum is planning, as are certain artists. The program would follow next year's plan to overhaul the platform on "The Last Supper" and create an exhibit and lecture space in a nearby 2,200-square-foot barn given to the museum by the Barrick Mining Company.

"That image of 'The Last Supper' in the desert has had some wide circulation among artists," Fox said. "With the gold mine, Death Valley, this is a legendary space."

While the museum board plans to enrich the arts in the area, Hackett said the museum itself will remain as it is.

"People are going to have the experience that Albert intended them to have," Hackett said.

"I've hidden in the house and watched what people do. First, they drive up and they don't know if they should get out of the car. Then they get out of the car and don't know what to do. So they slowly walk up to it, first to 'The Last Supper,' then eventually they walk onto our porch."