Last Supper and Giant Pink Woman
We've dropped in uninvited on our share of Last Suppers. Folk artists and sculptors seem to never rest in their novel interpretations of the da Vinci masterpiece -- in wax or wood, gourd seeds or sand. Near the desert ghost town of Rhyolite, The Last Supper tableaux is one that's especially hard to forget -- burned forever into our brains.
But that may be just the heatstroke talking.
Through scheduling serendipity -- okay, stupidity -- we were checking out Nevada desert attractions in August. At Rhyolite, one of us nearly locked the car with keys inside and motor running. Scolding done, crisis averted, it was time to enjoy the one-two punch of a freaky outdoor sculpture museum and adjacent off-the-highway ghost town in the Amargosa Desert, in what is prettily referred to as "The Gateway to Death Valley."
Rhyolite is hot, but also quiet -- one of the quietest attractions we've ever visited (for the noisiest, go to Daytona).
We first came upon the Rhyolite Last Supper in 1985, just after Poland-born Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski completed it (but before it had been placed on a wooden platform). Szukalski wasn't there that day, and he isn't around now, having died in 2000 at age 54. Although his Last Supper was built decades before the first Lord of the Rings movie was released, his ghostly white forms resemble the dark Ring Wraiths in those films. He made the figures by wrapping live models in plaster-soaked fabric to achieve his Apostle o' Shrouds effect.
Dispelling any notion that this is a religious park, a strikingly different sculpture stands slightly up the hill and across a wash from the Last Supper. It's a 25-foot tall LEGO-like woman titled "Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada," built in 1992 by Belgian artist Dr. Hugo Heyrman. The Lady's yellow hair and pink skin are garishly eye-capturing in this land of brown and gray. Dr. Hugo sez the pixels used in his electronic 2D art inspired him to pixelize a nude woman in cinder blocks.
Other sculptures cling to the slope as well, in what is now called the Goldwell Open Air Museum -- which is maintained in Szukalski's memory. There's a 24-ft. tall prospector and a penguin sidekick made of rusted steel. Szukalski's chrome aglomeration, called the "Desert Flower" (1989) stands like a disastrously teleported '50s bulgemobile. And there's another Szukalski sculpture made the same year as The Last Supper -- a shrouded "Ghost Rider" holding a bicycle (Apostle running late for the repast?).
The sculptures are well-maintained. According to Goldwell Museum co-founder Suzanne Hackett-Morgan, Lady Desert was repainted and restored in 2005 to her full, radiant pinkness.
There are plans to restore The Last Supper as well. Back in 1984, Szukalski expected his sculpture to last only two years; in 2006 we noted the plaster still seemed firm, and its white paint hadn't baked off. Hackett-Morgan said they might replace the platform's original fluorescent tube lighting -- representing the supper table -- with an "intelligent LED" display.
A small one-room building near the sculptures serves as a visitor center on weekends, and contains a gift shop and a permanent exhibit about the Goldwell.The museum, on 15 acres of land reaching down to the highway, plans to install more artists' works. One is Eames Demetrios, who has planted historical plaques around the US describing events that happened in his Kymaerica alternate universe. His "Gwome of Rhyoleind" marker went up at the Goldwell in February 2006.
Only a few hundred yards up the road from the Goldwell sculptures stands what is left of the abandoned gold mining town of Rhyolite. The government-owned area contains hundreds of old mines, and a scattering of buildings -- some still standing and others little more than broken walls. The view from one smashed structure was scenic-yet-ramshackle enough to be used as a film location in 2005's The Island.
Benches have been placed along the road shoulder for visitors to rest on while contemplating the ruins (although the resting would be more like roasting in August). Signs warn of the danger of rattlesnakes, which seems to us to further lower the chances of peaceful pondering.
The highlight of Rhyolite is Tom Kelly's Bottle House, made of 30,000 bottles by a prospector who used the only building material available. It took him six months to build in the winter of 1905-06, and was abandoned with the rest of the town when the gold ran out in 1912. It lived on as a desert landmark and was featured on vintage vellum postcards.
Preservationists rebuilt the Bottle House in the summer of 2005. It now stands behind a locked fence, along with a miniature bottle village that was also Kelly's work.