Witherspoon & the Desert: An Artist’s Life Transformed by Nature’s Alchemy

The Sri Yantra in the Oregon desert created in 1990 by Bill Witherspoon and friends, photographed at 9,000 feet.

Most people would be hard-pressed to find an extended time to be alone in wild, undisturbed nature. But what if you had the chance to seek solitude for weeks, months, even years? Could attuning yourself to the land, its seasons, and its hidden rhythms dissolve the thin barrier between the observer and the environment? How would such exposure, devoid of the customary interactions with others, refine your perception?

In September, a new book and accompanying exhibit by Bill Witherspoon will chronicle such an experiment. Enter Space: Stories from the High Desert records in photographs and essays a life transformed by nature’s mysterious alchemy in Oregon’s Alvord Desert. Accompanying the book’s release, an exhibit of Witherspoon’s photographs will open on Friday, September 1, at Art 52 Gallery in Fairfield.

The Lure of the Desert

Back in 1961, 19-year-old Witherspoon traveled to Eastern Oregon’s High Desert—the western edge of the 200,000-square-mile Great Basin. There, in North America’s largest area of endorheic watersheds—those that retain water and allow no outflow to rivers or oceans—he discovered a symbiotic relationship with the vast geological expanse.

And so began a young man’s odyssey, one that would span five decades and wield painting, sculpture, writing, and photography as means to record his impressions of the landscape, where life thrives at its most minimal. And though he would leave the desert many times over the ensuing years, the spirit of the place would pull him back repeatedly—into its vastness, its remoteness, and its magic.

Witherspoon, the artist who uses expressive form as the means to settle individual awareness into its universal essence, is well known for his interest in the spiritual nature of ancient compositional arrangements. His forays into the making of yantras as laid out by ancient treatises like the Vastusutra Upanishad revealed hidden dynamics in the subtle yet complex ecology of the high Sonoran Desert.

The 2019 documentary Sri Yantra: The Oregon Desert Mystery narrates the unexpected twist of events that resulted from carving a quarter-mile ancient symbol in the Alvord Desert. It was one of many environmental experiments that Witherspoon undertook to probe how sacred geometry resonates in this most silent and remote geography. (Watch the documentary directed by Jim Ansley and narrated by Peter Coyote free of charge at Sri Yantra.)

Today, the nascent field of neuroaesthetics, which studies the biological effects of the arts on human perception, confirms that expressive form mirrors the organizing patterns of our brain and physiology. Cognitive neuroscience reveals that the world we perceive and the characteristics of place are so deeply intertwined in our neural pathways that where one begins and the other ends speaks of a continuum rather than separate realms. Man and place are part and parcel—one and the same.

Enter Space: The Book

Throughout history, the desert has been the doorway to exile, purification, and rebirth. Because the desert makes life precarious, it has the ability to refine consciousness until deeper, unseen laws of nature become perceptible. Enter Space is an initiation into the desert’s vast landscape, where the pull of beauty, a sovereignty that can grant uncommon insight, may grace the devoted observer.

The 27 stories and 108 photographs in Enter Space stand as a record of the artist’s experience. This testimony, saturated by the land that witnessed these events, is a doorway to the desert—and on a good day, self-discovery. It is a record of a seeker of deep experience, one that recognizes our collective longing to recover universal kinship.

Witherspoon’s stories of his time spent in the desert run the gamut from galvanizing and gritty to quiet and grateful—each with an awareness that a chance encounter with a wild horse or solitary bird may hold the opportunity for communion with a life seldom acknowledged yet teeming with a shared essence.

Some stories are short and quotidian, others engrossing and sublime, but all linger in the mind and heart, transporting the reader to a place where communion with the hidden reservoir of life erodes the deepest longings.

Enter Space: The Exhibit

1991 desert design: 11 miles of red volcanic cinders in plowed furrows spanning 320 acres in the Alvord Desert (from Enter Space)

On September 1, coincident with the release of the book, the exhibit Enter Space at Art 52 Gallery will present a new series of photographs by Witherspoon, a visual portrait of his recent time in the desert. “Maybe, just maybe,” says Bill, “these 30 photographs record something of the ineffable beauty that overtakes life out there.”

During the exhibit, the author will hold live readings of his desert experiences, events that he recorded with the eye of a seasoned surveyor and the faith of one seeking communion with the sublime. Additional events will include live music inspired by the high desert and a conversation with the author about deep beauty, neuroaesthetics, and self-transcending experiences.


Photographs and signed copies of the book will be available at the Gallery 52 opening on September 1. For more information, see EnterSpaceNow.com or email info@enterspacenow.com.

Learn more about Bill Witherspoon’s projects in the desert in the 2019 interview in The Iowa Source: Sri Yantra Mystery.