By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer – In honor of the 10th annual Ridgecrest Petroglyph Festival on Nov. 4 and 5, we offer this story. Next’s weeks edition will also feature another petroglyph story.
You may have noticed that some of the city service boxes around town are adorned with petroglyph images. There are ten of them.
Artist Dr. Don McCauley started this project in 2015. He almost didn’t. He and his wife, Judy, were on a local garden walk with friends when Meris Lueck told him she knew that he painted. She told him that her husband, Doug Lueck, wanted to have the city service box painted on their street and in Ridgecrest. Doug had seen service boxes painted in other cities and thought it would spruce up our town for the Petroglyph Festival.
Initially, McCauley declined. “I couldn’t see myself out at the boxes in the heat painting as people walked by and honked. So, first, I said, ‘No.’ My daughter-in-law came over that evening.” He told her about the request and that he had declined. “She said, ‘Dad, you got to give back to the city.” So that’s what I did. I changed my mind.”
McCauley began to research, which one would expect from a retired Physicist. He learned that the service boxes have a removable panel and realized he could create his art in his soon-to-be garage studio. He applied himself to the project. “I experimented with designs and a little bit with materials. I noticed that the Maturango Museum has colors that they like, and if you go look at Petroglyph Park, you’ll see the colors they’ve chosen.” He decided to use beige, red, white, and black. “I went down to Home Depot and I got the best paint they have and started designing. I designed the way I always have.” He starts by forming a viewpoint. “The way you form a viewpoint is you have an experience or an experience chooses you and you have some emotional reaction to it and you think about your emotions. Think about your emotions, and you come up with a viewpoint. Everybody has viewpoints; everybody has opinions. But your job as an artist is to find out what’s expressible about that viewpoint and then express.”
He drew from life experiences for some of the work. He tells us about one image that was requested. “Doug Lueck recommended the one going up to College Heights Boulevard, Coso Family Welcome. Doug said, ‘How about we welcome people coming in from the south?’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ That one has a little bit of a catch to it. I try in all of them to have a little bit of graphic humor. I’ll have little dogs that are playing or something.” In this image, a child is dangling a desert critter. “The man has got an atlatl (a stick used by indigenous people to propel a spear) in the air. I’ve had people say, ‘That doesn’t look very welcoming.’ And I say, ‘Well if you’re a friend of the Navy, no problem.’ That’s kind of a little bit of dark humor in that one.”
McCauley is making sure that the artwork on the service boxes can endure the weather and the ravages of time. When he first began, he noticed slight cracking in the wood in the original works, so he had wraps made by RAD Design Ryan Abbatoye. It took them six months to get the colors right. “He was just as fussy as I was. And once we got it, we rolled it out. About every two or three years, we go take the wraps out, bring them back here and clean them up. We scrub them good because sometimes there are blisters in the varnish. We give them new, fresh coats of varnish. They look brand new.”
McCauley came to China Lake/Ridgecrest in 1962 after earning a degree in physics from Chico State. He had originally begun studying engineering, but then Sputnik (the first satellite launched by the Russians) happened and he was concerned and saw it as a threat. He remembered World War II and Oppenheimer’s work on the creation of the atomic bomb. He thought, “I don’t think the engineers are going to get us out of this. I’m going go over to physics.” He subsequently left China Lake in 1964 to earn a PhD in Nuclear Physics and returned in 1970. Changes had been made at the Base and he says he never really adjusted to them. So he took up painting.
He began by taking workshops. McCauley says, “Primarily with the first generation of watercolorists, who went outside and painted full sheet watercolors, and inside, too. I went to a workshop with Milford Zornes up in Orville, Utah. I tried his technique; I really enjoyed it.” His art career took off. His first sale was to Onyx Store, who traded a piece of art for half a beef. However, he went on to show and sell in galleries. “I started in ‘77 and ‘78. I had an article in Southwest Art and then I would go up to Kernville to the Whiskey Flat Days to sell paintings. I met an artist up there who worked for Disney.” He met a Western artist who introduced him to Irma and Bob Eubanks of The Newlywed Game. The Eubanks “had a big spread over in Simi Valley. They would take one of their horse barns, clean it all up, put new hay in it, and then artists would have a stall where you bring your work over there. I was in those art shows. And pretty soon, I had like ten galleries carrying my art. I had one in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and one in Dallas, Texas.” When the tax laws changed under Ronald Reagan, the small galleries disappeared. McCauley went back to work as a physicist.
You can find Coso Rock Art Expressions pamphlets at the California Welcome Center, 880 N China Lake Blvd. The pamphlets have maps and QR codes for each location.