Artists paint the faces they see in Basin and Range National Monument

Valley of Faces takes a journey to Basin and Range.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

Two hours north of Las Vegas, in Nevada’s Basin and Range National Monument, there’s an eerie place where rocks and shadow take on familiar forms. To photographer, UNLV instructor and conservationist Checko Salgado, the rocks look like people. On previous visits, he named the area “Valley of Faces,” and photographed the rock formations that were most meaningful to him.

Many artists might stop there, with a series of nice landscapes. But Salgado is an organizer and a collaborator, too. He sent 10 of his favorite images to 10 of his favorite artists and invited them to draw what they saw. The result is the stunning Valley of Faces: Pareidolia in the Basin and Range. (“Pareidolia” is the term for seeing patterns where none exist.) The framed pieces are set up so that the viewer first sees the unaltered photo and then a painted overlay containing the artist’s variations. Setting the mood, Myron Hensel’s soaring drone footage of the Valley plays on a loop at the room’s center.

It’s fun to first decipher what you see in the rocks and then compare that vision to the artists’ interpretations. For example, Justin-Aaron Velasco saw a man thinking (“That Thinker”), which he expressed in a thick yellow linocut on vellum. To Natalie Delgado, those same rocks resembled lungs (“Filter”), which she expressed in intricate detail in graphite. Jeannie Hua Ferguson used collage to block out “Cat, Monkey, Dude.” Her strips of colorful torn paper evoke the landscape’s shape and texture, while adding whimsy and humor.

“Some [maintenance] guys just came in here from the county, they were like, ‘This is what I see,’” Salgado says. “That’s the cool thing about it. It crosses party lines. You don’t have to be super academic or artistic; everybody sees something different.”

In “Aku-Aku,” Angee Jackson sees tiki sculptures. Her hand-cut vinyl images hint at the lost glamour of Old Vegas, or perhaps a future apocalypse where Vegas returns to desert. A rock peak becomes a Mayan warrior’s thigh in Matthew Couper’s oil painting “Animas (Monkey Priest).” Couper also visited Basin and Range, taking inspiration from the area’s many petroglyphs. He had fun with the assignment and appreciates Salgado’s zest for the land. “The more [Salgado] looks, the more he finds these spots and comes up with these fishing hooks to lure people out there.”

Behind the joy of viewing this art, there is a subtle message. Basin and Range National Monument, just established in 2015, is in danger. By executive order, the approximately 700,000-acre monument is under review by the Department of the Interior. Salgado is co-chair of Friends of Basin and Range, a small group working to protect the landscape. The general public has until July 10 to submit comments to the government. This art show makes another convincing argument for preservation.

Valley of Faces: Pareidolia in the Basin and Range Through July 13; Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; free. Opening reception June 16, 5:30-7:30 p.m. Winchester Cultural Center, 702- 455-7340.

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