Making trailer trash art in Glen Echo Park

Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006

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Photos by Laurie DeWitt⁄The Gazette
Her photo ‘‘Salton City” is above.

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Val Makepeace, left, can’t get enough of 1950s decaying monuments.

Val Makepeace’s name sounds too sweet for a woman who spends time photographing rusted out doublewides. But with her flower power moniker — it’s British — and a hankering to make art for art’s sake, she has her reasons for honing in on the desolate community surrounding the Salton Sea. It happens to be the largest manmade lake in the southeast corner of California.

Makepeace hopes the images, mostly moody black and white snapshots of the forlorn communities, crystalline lake and surrounding mountains, will shake up elected officials and spur them to consider spending the money to restore the region. Her mission is some 3,000 miles afield, where few people know where this mistake-of-a-lake is. Still, she figures exhibiting ‘‘The Salton Sea Series” at Photoworks in Glen Echo Park through Sept. 5 is a start.

The series began in 2004, when this Southern California native, now living in Fairfax, Va., decided to return to the Salton Sea resort community she remembered visiting as a child. With glorious memories of camping and water skiing, Makepeace arrived at a mostly abandoned and neglected human landscape. She met a few gnarled, rough and tumble old-timers living hard luck lives in tumbledown trailers. These visits were a huge change from the 1940s and ’50s when the region was touted as a California Mecca, with its fancy resorts and golf courses catering to the likes of Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys.

The community seemed a perfect artistic opportunity for the mostly self-taught artist, who says she has always been fascinated with photographing the decline of 1950s Americana communities — including Route 11 from Virginia to Tennessee. And while her photos border on documentation, they pass the fine art litmus test with her use of artful angles and careful editing of an abandoned public pool and a long abandoned metal swing set.

Makepeace may have spent childhood vacations there, but upon arriving, she insists she had ‘‘no emotional attachments” to the region. Her detachment waned as she learned about the Salton Sea’s birth and ultimate abandonment.

‘‘I became more interested,” she says. ‘‘It could have been so vibrant.”

In fact, the Salton Sea was an engineering blunder. At the turn of the 19th century, a cut was made in the west band of the Colorado River to channel water toward California’s farmlands. Heavy rains caused water to break through the gates, and it flowed into what was then the Salton Sink — a low point surrounded by the Santa Rosa Mountains. Decades later, satellites would have spotted this break, but in 1905, water from the river flowed for some two years before anyone noticed. By then, the Salton Sink had become a 376-square mile sea.

Within 20 years of the break, developers saw dollar signs in this major mistake and by the 1930s, it had become a hot spot Southern California resort. But the man-made lake had problems; since it wasn’t a natural lake, the sea lacked the balance of water flow. And since folks don’t like swimming in stagnant water, by 1970, the much-touted Mecca was abandoned.

People may not have taken to the murkiness, but left alone, scores of fish and bird managed to flourish. Now it has become a major pit stop for migrating birds traveling the Pacific Flyway from South America to Alaska and Canada.

Makepeace believes improving water quality will help locals and wildlife, and is determined to continue highlighting the region. With more trips planned, she hopes to photograph the region’s wildlife and vital recreational fishing industry. Meanwhile, she spends her days touching up photos at a lab and evenings in her periwinkle photo studio working on her art. Her favorite moments are putting what she likes to call ‘‘mood into the photo, dodging burning and defusing” the light while the print is being processed.

Some people know how to make peace and save a small corner of the world.

Val Makepeace is showing her ‘‘The Salton Sea Series” through Sept. 5 at Photoworks Gallery in Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd. For hours, call 301-229-7930 or visit