[On the scene] Ghost town art

A spooky, avant-garde evening in Rhyolite

Greg Thilmont

In a wind-rocked and tin-roofed mining-camp building, Suzanne Hackett-Morgan stood before the temporary inhabitants of ghost town Rhyolite, permanent population 0, this past Saturday night.

“Right now you are the bravest art-goers in the state of Nevada that I know of,” she said as she introduced Albert’s Tarantella, the inaugural art festival at Goldwell Open Air Museum.

Located just outside Death Valley National Park and about 115 miles north of Las Vegas, this desert cultural area is mostly known for the ghostly “Last Supper” sculpture by Albert Szukalski, a Belgian artist who brought modern art to Rhyolite. A scattering of successive postmodern installations now fill the enigmatic Mojave plot.

The 80-some living souls whom Hackett-Morgan, museum co-founder and board member, addressed had braved hard, gusty winds to witness and support a fund-raising event for the museum’s Red Barn Art Center, the partly renovated building they were seated in. As the evening’s theatrical and modern-dance performances ensued—accented by Halloween-appropriate horror-show paintings by Vegas’ S.C. Jones—there was a slight but palpable sense that this isolated group, many miles from city safety, might be braving more than the wind. Half-moon sky, deep desert, ghost town, Halloween season ... it made for naturally creepy environs.

As the performances unfolded, the atmospheric creepiness grew.

Las Vegas’ Cockroach Theatre presented an absurdist short drama, The Methuselah Tree. Complete with outré and non-sequitorial black comedy and more than a bit of violence, the play’s narrative included shouted-out references to destroying tornadoes—just as Death Valley gusts creaked the Red Barn’s ceiling. It was an uncanny synchronicity that the actors not only shouted over but used to effect.

A doleful but elegant modern-dance performance by Vegas’ Threshold Dance Theater kept the dark theme going alongside the external racket. At the end of the performance, Threshold’s trio of dancers led the audience in a quick tarantella, a fatalistic but joyous Italian folk dance that provided the second half of the festival’s title.

After the performances, crock pots of chili were devoured in the chilly night. Outside, the Red Barn was bathed in colored-light projections created by museum board member and Vegas photographer/lighting expert David Lancaster—a reminder that what was scheduled to be a largely outdoor event was hemmed inside by the weather. But the post-show crowd was enthusiastic—hey, it was avant-garde culture in Rhyolite on a Saturday night. Enthusiasm and curiosity were requisites.

Las Vegas architect and artist Stephen Jackson, like most everyone else, commented on how the wind added to the dramatic events. “The barn ad-libbed with the play,” he said.

On Sunday morning at the Red Barn, theater-company members and other core museum folks were cleaning up. Light cords were being unstrung from the building’s rafters. Brewed coffee was at hand. It was barely breezy outside.

Reflecting on this first art festival at Goldwell Open Air Museum, Hackett-Morgan was tired but happy.

“I was pretty grateful that 85 people made it up here,” she said. “We wanted to offer something special, and I think we did.”

As for that crazy, creepy, frightening wind amidst all the art?

“Everyone who came here became a part of the event,” she said.

Learn more about Albert’s Tarantella, the Red Barn Art Center, Goldwell Open Air Museum and Rhyolite at

Photo by Greg Thilmont

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