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The Last Desert Cowboy by Zoe Childerley

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This is an intimate portrait of a charismatic ranching family in the high desert that struggles to find meaning and moments of grace in a hostile environment. Less then a decade ago there were 16 ranching families in Lucerne Valley. The Mitchell family at Rattlesnake Ranch are one of a handful left. Billy Mitchell has brought up four daughters on the ranch, all but one have now left. There are constant changes in policy for grazing rights and leases have to be renegotiated every 10 years as well as the 8-year drought blighting California.

There is a resilience forged by life in a merciless clime that is not nearly as empty as it looks. The Mojave desert is a paradox demonstrating an intensity and delicateness, isolation and accessibility, fragile and contrary landscape.

On branding day at Billy’s ranch, everyone is given a job. The women cook, the children ride, round up, rope or feed the strays. Billy can no longer do many of the physical tasks. He sits upon his horse and oversees the action like a well-seasoned director. As hard as ranching is, Billy rarely complains. “My life is blessed,” he says. When all the cattle are branded, everyone gathers by the house. Homegrown beef is barbecued; someone brought salsa, guacamole, and beans. There is plenty of beer and even a private bottle of whiskey. Billy says a prayer before they eat. He thanks God for the cattle, his family, friends, the land and the animals.

I found people in this desert hanging on fiercely and yet just barely. What are they escaping to or from, have they been banished almost, to a place that is misunderstood by many, regarded as a dumping ground for outcasts. Their lives are fragile, some are heavily armed in response, like cactus with thorns. However, in contrast for many, that wide open terrain invites spiritual healing and people derive comfort and nourishment from its expansive spaces.

Zoe Childerley is a British artist with a MA in Photography and a strong record in community projects. She is a Senior Lecturer at Kingston University and has been working as an artist using photography and mixed media for over 10 years. Her work is developed by interaction with different communities and is inspired by the discovery of lost histories; reflecting a vision of the world concerned with identity, belonging and our relationship to the land and its stories. Zoe has exhibited nationally and internationally and undertaken numerous commissions and residencies in Italy, California, Colorado, Nepal, Jamaica and across the UK.