LAS VEGAS – Here in the desert I am a “settler”. During my 20 years as an artist in Las Vegas, I have seen an incredible amount of creative practice moving through our neon valley. The nature of Las Vegas and perhaps the desert itself is characterized by transience. Things come and go, as do people who are thrown off course by strong, hot winds.
Wendy Kveck (a grande dame of art in Nevada, if there ever was one) is also a settler. She is an MFA graduate from the University of Las Vegas (UNLV), where she is currently a professor and recipient of the 2018 Soaring Gardens Artist Retreat grant. Her multidisciplinary practice generates powerful observations on the representation of women in popular media through a feminist lens. Her paintings, collages and performances cast a phantasmagorical light on the male gaze, radiant with overwhelming threat. In practice it is even more intense.
Kveck observed the ebb and flow of artistic migration through Las Vegas, a place often perceived as a cultural wasteland, and began a kind of anthropological study. In 2015 she created the art journal/catalogue/calendar/experiment Settlers + Nomads (S+N) as a format to engage with the ephemeral creative life of southern Nevada.
She says, “At the time, Las Vegas lacked infrastructure for the arts and connections between local artists and audiences/artistic communities outside of Las Vegas. I was trying to showcase a portion of the Las Vegas art scene that didn’t already have a major online presence, or at least not in any organized, cohesive, or meaningful way.”
Kveck’s unique sense of digital cohesion began simply as a curatorial effort. “This group was originally conceived as a smaller group of colleagues but eventually grew to include many other artists I’ve worked with or know in various capacities over the years,” she says. By its third year, the site had become “a sort of archive of contemporary art in Las Vegas.”
Featuring portfolios and analysis by resident artists Like Dk Sol, Mikayla Whitmore, and Justin Favela, the site also featured profiles and interviews with “Nomads,” artists whose work and methods contributed to Las Vegas’ artistic identity after their stints ended. Nomads include Catherine Borg, Erin Stellmon, Eri King, David Sanchez Burr, and Yo Fukui, all of whom can be found at one point or another in Las Vegas art.
Las Vegas is unique as a city in the way it presents community, identity and place. Elvis Presley wasn’t from here and didn’t live here for more than two years, but he remains a city figure due to his influence on its cultural identity. I find it appropriate that Kveck maintained this rationale when deciding who can be considered a “Las Vegas artist.” It’s a nice way to sidestep the inevitable talent drain that occurs in a city that lacks the cultural power to sustain a solid art class.
“I’ve always described the Las Vegas art scene as small (compared to other cities) but powerful,” she says. “Without a wide and diverse array of art museums, galleries, local grant and exhibition opportunities, and other support, artists in Las Vegas have created community and culture through artist-run spaces and online projects, working as art educators, administrators, curators, entrepreneurs, and advocate. But Las Vegas needs more institutional support, funding, and city planning policies that better support the creation and sustainability of a thriving arts scene. I’ve always seen S+N as an art project.”
As the project grew, so did its collaborators, weaving a greater connective fabric both inside and outside the city. The site and Kveck began to serve as both an archive and an incubator. “In 2018, thanks to Aurora Tang, who had just curated an exhibition at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art (the only art museum in Las Vegas), Settlers + Nomads partnered with the museum, UNLV, and Common Field to host an art Meet-Up, a gathering of arts leaders from artist-run spaces and arts organizations to discuss strengths and challenges within our community,” explains Kveck. “Looking back, there were exciting projects that transpired and meaningful connections that were made, like Goldwell’s Bullfrog Biennial and the Mystery Ranch.”
The Bullfrog Biennial is a weekend-long desert art exhibition (full disclosure, I co-curated the 2021 Biennial) taking place in Beatty, Nevada and created by the Goldwell Open Air Museum, and The Mystery Ranch is an artist residency in Searchlight, Nevada ; Both began to gain prominence at the Las Vegas Common Field Meeting and became significant cultural aspects cataloged by Settlers + Nomads.
Other notable works Settlers + Nomads have been involved with in recent years include Kveck’s 2020 curatorial project New Monuments for a Future Las Vegas, produced for the Nevada Humanities Program, in which she “invited artists to work in pairs or groups to reflect on the place and purpose of erecting monuments and envisioning a future together through this collective work.” Settlers + Nomads also documented work during the pandemic through The Art We Needed 2021, an “Instagram New Years project they led by Lyn Hinojosa, which asked artists to share artworks that have particularly inspired or strengthened them during these trying times.”
Settlers + Nomads has become an essential resource for understanding Southern Nevada’s artistic modality not just as advocacy or observation, but as cultural infrastructure. It has resulted in some exciting new projects for the town and Kveck. “Because of my work with S+N, Las Vegas-based artist Justin Favela invited me to collaborate with him on Live in America, an exciting upcoming project (years in development) with Fusebox and The Momentary,” she says. “The festival celebrates the performance, installation and community-based work of under-the-radar arts communities in the United States and its territories and Mexico.”
Kveck becomes increasingly aware of what the word “settler” means as he lives and works on land stolen from the Southern Paiute people. “When I think about the terms ‘settlers’ and ‘nomads’ in the context of the American West, I think about a name change,” she says. I’m sure Settlers + Nomads and Kveck will be watering this desert and cataloging what flowers are growing.