Discomfiting desert forms: Elaine Parks conveys the sensibility of remote Nevada landscapes in uncanny sculptures 

When ceramicist and sculptor Elaine Parks moved to Tuscarora, Nev., from Los Angeles in 1999, there were 15 or so residents living in the remote desert community. Some were drawn to the area by the Tuscarora Pottery School, others by a sense of freedom and possibility. Today, she said, there are maybe two residents who split time between the Elko County locale and elsewhere, herself included. 

Parks first visited the area in 1998 while traveling for her master’s degree, which she earned from California State University, Los Angeles. Of the transition from growing up in one of the country’s most populous cities to one of its least, Parks said, “I guess I wanted a real contrast. I grew up going out to the desert around Apple Valley (Calif.) my whole childhood, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with being a desert rat. 

“I’ve always been really interested in nature. And then here I was. … You could see past civilizations all over, but they weren’t there anymore. … I think that has seeped into my work very deeply.” 

Many of Parks’ sculptures resemble materials and forms from nature, such as “Coral Forms,” which is made of clay. Photo/Kris Vagner

This is the first winter that Parks will not be traveling back and forth between Tuscarora and Los Angeles (or Tuscarora and Reno, where she now lives full time) in almost a quarter-century. Instead, her ceramic works, like those featured in Fossils and Bones, her current exhibition up through Jan. 14 at the Northwest Reno Library, bring the marrow of the remote Nevadan desert to Reno. 

As the current population of Tuscarora dwindles, evidence of past life is ever present in this hotspot of eternal return. “You cannot go walking without finding something, even if it’s a button from those days,” said Parks, speaking of the town’s silver-rush-era history. 

Before it drew white and Chinese prospectors to the region during a 20-year mining boom in the late 19th century, the area that is now Tuscarora was used by Shoshone and Paiute peoples. Parks said the desert sometimes reveals arrowheads, and even evidence of older epochs—via mineral remnants that indicate Paleolithic or Mesolithic occupation. 

“In the desert in particular, because you can see so far, things aren’t hidden,” said Parks. “Things might be buried, but when spring comes in, they heave up out of the ground, and there’s a new crop of stuff—rusty things, marbles, buttons. They’re kind of part of the landscape.” 

This desert manages to reshape materials of the distant and not-so-distant past until they resemble something of the ecosystem. Even inorganic materials, like discarded foam, might be easily mistaken for rocks after the desert takes them in and sculpts them through natural weather processes, Parks said. 

Both of these sculptures are titled “Bone Stack” and are made mostly from clay. Photo/Kris Vagner

“Things get less clear, more fuzzy out there in particular,” she said. This has allowed her to “see haziness clearly … things aren’t quite so black and white, like where this kind of thing belongs or what it is. … It’s sort of like living in an unexplained gray area.” 

Parks’ artistic practice mimics these processes that turn the legible fuzzy. She works on her ceramic works for up to 20 or 30 hours, an investment she feels imbues the final pieces with a sense of the organic, and perhaps even makes them sort of artifacts in their own right. “You can see my hand in it, but I do spend a lot of time making sure when I join one part to another that those transitions are very natural and organic,” she said. “They don’t look constructed so much as grown.” 

The influence of this desert’s ambiguity is readily apparent in the ceramic sculptures that comprise Fossils and Bones. While the works are inspired by and resemble organic materials, closer examination will reveal that these pieces are not replicas of any one thing. Vertically extending structures composed of individually stacked ceramic segments conjure strong associations to something spinal—but, no, they’re not quite spines, either. More tubular pieces oscillate in their appearance between something like fossilized coral, sun-bleached bones or the cellular. 

The exhibition’s vaguely organic forms yield an intense sense of familiarity but resist being pinned down into taxonomic classification. The resulting effect is one of overall uncanniness that Parks said can inspire anxiety in some viewers.  

“Some people were so definite: ‘Oh, that’s a fish. Oh, that’s a spine,’” she said. “They were almost hurrying to name it, like it made them uncomfortable to not have that answered. It’s almost like there’s some fear. Which is OK.” 

This power of her ceramic sculptures to resist identification and inflict discomfort by way of the uncanny is productive, Parks said. “You take a second look, and maybe it sticks in your brain a little longer. If you can name it right away, then you can put it away—you’re done. So maybe this keeps it from being finished.” 

Fossils and Bones, an exhibit by Elaine Parks, is on view at the Northwest Reno Library, at 2325 Robb Drive, through Sunday. Jan. 14. 

This article was produced by Double Scoop. Full disclosure: Parks is a member of Double Scoop’s board of trustees.