What they don’t tell you in the glorified posts and instaglam stories about vanlife is that it. is. hard. It’s especially hard if you’re doing it yourself and you don’t have everything you need to live semi-comfortably in place.

After coming back from the sailing trip in Mexico, I was set on being a nomad. For better or worse, I may be impulsive, but I have follow-through. I bought a Ford Transit 250. It was big enough to stand up in – and that was my number one requirement. Aside from vanlife, this is a fairly practical investment for a woman who constantly hauls around weird projects, projectors and way too much steel. It would be hard to have any sort of buyer’s remorse.

I’m the kind of woman who has shown up to a steel yard on many occasions prepared to transfer 12′ sticks of steel in my Honda Fit. I needed a van a decade ago.

But anyhow. It came empty, and so as I traveled, I picked up tools and supplies to build it out. 

This was a horrible plan.

But there I was. Building supplies, insulation, tools, stuff to live with jammed in a van, driving cross country with one of my very best friends – on a quest from St. Louis – City Museum – to Oklahoma and Texas. We really only had goals to find cool sculptures, camp, drink, and make it to the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in time for my birthday.

The quality of my build would have been significantly better if I’d have just taken 6 months to get it done. If I had a garage setup and a wood shop, I could have made something fantastic for a lot less money. 

My heart wasn’t having it, though. I wasn’t up to staying where I had those things – I needed to be away from Nashville and I wanted to figure out where I wanted to be, even if a sensible person would have stayed for awhile. Like it or not, my heart is my compass, and I just kind of go with its shenanigans.

Balloon fiesta was magical. That’s a whole story in and of itself to be written (and I will – because it’s something I think everyone should experience at least once in their lives.) For the month of October, I stayed with friends. Saw wild horses. Went to hot springs and hiked in the weird, wonderful mountains of Southern Colorado. I went to “Pizza Van Camp” with a bunch of other vanlifers and did yoga in the desert. 

The fall is absolutely gorgeous in Albuquerque. It’s golden yellow. The aspens that sound like twinkles in the wind all turn to a vibrant yellow color. I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d love my favorite season in this region. 

In November, I’d head west toward LA. I had a friend with a warehouse studio that had been asking me to come visit for some time. A week or two of making digital and LED-based art with him sounded delightful and welcome. I missed people I knew. I missed soldering and building things.

I had a friend in Las Vegas that I’d not seen in years – and decided to go pay her a visit on my way out.

The drive out to Vegas was fairly easy – it took all day and I got there pretty late. I ended up pulling the van into a dried up river bed south of the city. There were other vans off in the distance. I could see headlights in the desert scrub periodically, and it was comforting. This was a marked and fairly well known location for vanlifers, and I slept easily – I could stay there and not feel like I was going to get a knock telling me to move on. I got rest, thankfully. 

The next day I woke up with the sun – popped into the front seat and searched on my phone for a coffee shop to work out of. Just beside where I’d parked for the evening there was art. Serendipitously, “Seven Magic Mountains” was right there. If I wasn’t producing big crazy art, at least I was finding it. I pulled off, had a few moments with it – grabbed some photos and kept on my way. I drove right by them the towering, boldly-colored totems the night before and never noticed. I must have been exhausted. 

After a full day of designing comps for a website, I met up with my friend. We geeked out on finding Nespresso pods at really cheap prices and went to Costco (as financially responsible, professional women do) to pick up salad and a tray of cheesecake bites for dinner. At the time, she was working on a book on policy in the Las Vegas region. Of interest to me was her mention of the problems of continued development. Developers were pushing to whittle away at public lands – and this was compounding the drought problems that Vegas was already experiencing.

Vanlife out west means camping out in the BLM lands. They are such a gift to folks who decide that they don’t really want to partake in the exhaustion of working your ass off to give a bank money for a lifetime commitment to a mortgage.

At the time, I decided I’d rather exhaust myself not being in any one place and not contributing to that whole mess of a system. Live like a turtle. Take it all with me. Try to live with less and use a bit less. 

A day into the Vegas stay, I got a call that my uncle had passed away. He’d had some long term problems, including rheumatoid arthritis – and he had complications with COVID/Pneumonia. LA was not to be – I needed to go back home. See family. Give hugs to my cousins.

I started back on the road and decided to work, that day, at the park by Hoover Dam. I sat in the back of the an and cranked away on design work. After work I wandered around and admired the transmission towers – the bridge – the concrete structure – and felt a sense of awe. This was such satisfying moment, and really – for someone who worked for so long illustrating electrical infrastructure, the trip was overdue. The dam is intensely inspiring. It really makes you marvel at the ingenuity of humans, despite our constant seeming effort to wipe ourselves off this planet. If we could do this without computers, what could we *actually* accomplish with the computing power we have. 

We can do better as a species. 

I guess maybe art just stirs inside of you if you practice creativity. I did pick up a bunch of tiny canvases for the road, and I did make myself paint on them. Why? Because I never finish paintings. In theory, I want to do it, but in practice, nope. My linework is fine, but the shading and texture of paint is something I’ve not mastered, and then I end up looking at the piece and hating it and just stopping. (This is why working with metal is so much more personally satisfying. It’s purely form.)

Do things you are terrible at until you’re better at them. You’ll be a better human being for it, I think. So I occasionally will pick up paint and I’ll try again. Do things that make you uncomfortable and you’ll figure out where your boundaries actually are. Fail at things and don’t apologize for trying. Make 1000 things that suck and get that out of your system. Find people who will tell you honestly about what they dislike about your work, but who support your growth. Listen to what they say. Internalize it. Grow. The more you take on, the more you start to see patterns, develop rhythms, and the more you will make better work. 

All I really could complete or commit to creatively were tiny little three-inch projects – that and getting myself to work out (Planet Fitness is a godsend for vanlifers), getting to work on time and finding a place to put the van. Building out the van was a lot. The skills in electrical work, plumbing, and even finishing up the details in the interior were a little beyond what I could do well in the driveways of friends, and although it was getting a bit more comfortable in the van, there was a lot left undone. Cabinet doors, trim, switches that were the wrong type… what the hell was I going to do for heating? Winter was coming and I didn’t have $700 plus installation costs to throw toward a propane tank under the van. Doing my own propane work terrified me (as well it should). 

I made it back to Albuquerque, where I left the van with my friends and caught a flight to the midwest. Vanlife would be on hold for a few weeks, until I got back. And I was thankful. 


I get nostalgic for time and places that I’ve never been part of when I see a train. 

A huge part of what made industrialization as widespread as it became in the United States was the intricate network of trains that spider webbed the country. As it turns out, Albuquerque was a vital part of keeping the elements of that system going solidly. I learned this on my visit to Albuquerque, while sitting in a massive, glorious raw industrial building of full glass windows, where trains used to be brought to life.

I seek out “beautiful nerds” wherever I go. When you find such a nerd, you should figure out what they’re into and listen. Even if you feel your eyes glaze over and the cognitive overload starts to make your head hurt, push through it. You won’t absorb everything, but you can learn a lot from the stories of people who have deep knowledge about whatever it is they’re passionate about. I usually find them in maker communities, out social dancing, at conferences, or at a circus arts gym. 

And so, I stumbled upon a few of these wonderful souls at the Quelab makerspace in Albuquerque.

My mission this year is to make big. crazy. art. I have no idea how I’m going to do this or what exactly I’ll make, but I’ve always found that if you go boldy in a direction, the universe will bend with you. 

After an email or a facebook message – I don’t remember which, Rebecca welcomed me with open virtual arms to the Wednesday Weekly call. I listened through the voicing of typical makerspace concerns – the solving of problems, how post-covid reopening was going. Members and team leaders voiced individual concerns around safety and talked about what projects folks were wanting to take on next.

I asked to have a tour of the space the following evening, and Rebecca excitedly obliged. The tour melted into conversation about strategy and workshops and planning and how the space got things done. We talked about our experiences of being female leaders in a male-dominated space – the good, the bad, the everything. I went home feeling as though maybe there was a little hope and that maker communities were still a good thing. The maker community I used to help run had left me feeling devastated after the loss of two members. It has been difficult to cope with and constantly on my mind for the last few years, to say the least. 

I came back the following Saturday to volunteer to help Rebecca out a little. It’s a hell of a lot of work to help run a makerspace. Makers are weird and wonderful, but a makerspace is a constantly-spewing volcano of creative and social chaos. 

What did she need help with? Sometimes it’s easier to tackle tasks like organizing a room when you have someone by your side to chat and work with. I know that after a few years of being out of the makerspace scene entirely, I missed the creative energy and just hangin’ out. The sewing room was her responsibility. I’d helped organize a sewing room in the past, so I started wiping things and rolling up fabric. 

When we finished up, Rebecca asked if I’d any plans for Sunday. She asked if her partner, Adric could come along.

As far as I was concerned, the more nerds the merrier.

So we met at Quelab on Sunday and decided to take the scenic route to the market.

The “scenic route” included sculpture. If Big. Crazy. Art. was the mission, Adric was making sure we hit the target. Two enormous robots stood along the sidewalk beside a tatoo parlor. They were real-life Transformers, and they were brilliantly assembled. Families were stopping by the sculptures to get group photos and selifes with the pieces.

It’s a magical thing when a bunch of old car parts can bring people that much joy. 

And we kept on. We ended up at The Rail Yards. It felt like spring after a long year of COVID winter. The artisans and food vendors had come out and decorated the grounds of a massive glass-and-steel building that once upon a time was a space where trains were born. It was being converted into an event space, and it was often rented out for photo shoots. 

The work that was done in these spaces was difficult and dangerous. This sacred place made multi-ton beasts out of poured iron. The cars and engines they made built a nation and brought people from coast to coast.

Progress – right? Progress is good, we’re told. Progress is savvy at business and makes deals. It’s cutthroat and competitive. It’s exhausting.

The same rigorous “progress” that built the rail empire brought its demise. Progress doesn’t have a sense of right and wrong and progress will destroy itself if not kept in check. 

The art market felt so friendly, slow, and safe. This past year, human interaction felt anything *but* safe. For me, the last 15 months were a year of bombings and tornadoes, hiding out away from a virus, episodes of anxiety and feeling almost hopelessly isolated and alone at home. A little joy, some art, and some friends were very welcomed.

The space was so impressively large that the experience of being in it was almost religious. The room was welcomingly bright and open. 

Adric offered stories of sneaking onto the railyard grounds in his younger years, stealing photos and exploring. He knew so much about the buildings and how the whole site functioned. There were local groups dedicated to rail car and engine restoration – and they were just starting to get back to building. Rail was a major part of the history that shaped Albuquerque. All I could think was that I needed to read whatever I could find about it. This skeleton of a space was only a soft echo of what it used to be.

I left that day with treasures. For my friend who had lost her partner and not found another, I picked out a copper foil origami crane. She folded a thousand for him before he left this earth. I think of her every time I see a paper crane because our apartment was covered in them. For my friends who I was house sitting for, I picked up red and green chili sauce. (When in New Mexico, do as the natives do and slather everything with chili sauce, I’m told.) I got myself some glass bead jewelry strung by Native American artists. The slightly sad irony that the “indian beads” that comprised it had come from a craft store wasn’t lost on me.

We left as the market was getting ready to close with aguas frescas in hand. I had quite a bit to get ready for my next adventure, travel to Mexico to visit a friend on his newly acquired sailboat.

Where do all the artists hide? In their natural environment they thrive, but publicly they can be quite difficult to spot, as they tend toward being an introverted sort. 

My friend Ennie and I found quite a few sculptures along the way to Albuquerque – and we jumped out of the car to take a look at just about every one we passed. However, I came to this place with the feeling that I’d love to learn and perhaps get my hands messy if I could. Seeing sculptures wasn’t enough, I wanted to meet the people who made them. 

We were headed out for the day. Along the road was a funky welded horse sculpture that we’d missed the night before on our drive in. I turned into the driveway and we got out to get a close-up look, cameras in hand.

I’m working on becoming the sort of person who takes their time on the journey, and I’m thankful to have had a friend along who was excited to do the same. 

This horse stood in front of a plaza where there was a small cafe, a gallery and a few other businesses. The Wild Hearts gallery has some phenomenal pieces inside. We wandered around for a bit and I grabbed a card to send back to my mother. Geri, the gallery manager, was excited to learn that I wanted to go hang out with and maybe get to work with some of the local artists.  

Within a day of the visit, she’d messaged several local metal artists and had given me tips on where to find their work online. She said one of her favorites sculpted bike chains. I tried to wrap my head around what that could look like, but honestly I couldn’t imagine what was possible with such an odd material.

Ennie flew back home a few days later – and I worked, worked, worked – and looked in awe at the birdbath out the window as the desert drank and preened themselves.

And then Stephen emailed me.

His emails were thoughtful and warm. And it turned out that his space wasn’t too long of a drive from where we were staying. I called him up and planned a late-morning Saturday visit, so that he could get a bike ride in that morning. Bike chains. Huh.

Steven’s work was not in the gallery. He didn’t have a web site. He was an artist that may have suffered more through the pandemic were it not for the fact that he was retired psychologist and he had let his roots in Placitas run deep.

Stephen built his studio with his own two hands and built it well. He was an excellent craftsman and admirably, self-taught. I drove the gravel roads that day, in my tiny little car that had no business being in the mountains or desert, to a little oasis that simply felt magical. The yard, in the middle of the hilly desert terrain, was a lush garden of flowering trees and succulent plants. Interspersed among the plants were bright colored glass totems, figures, metal torsos and lamps; evidence of an unending creative drive.

I wandered around the grounds with him and he told me stories about his work. First up were the lamps. I immediately noticed them, as a good friend of mine in Nashville had a similar fascination with geodesic shapes and had worked on a metal lamp with me. They were a little clunky and a little wild. The surfaces of each side were made of fused bicycle chains. The sculptures were motorized and would spin, they recharged by solar power, and some of them had colored glass incorporated into the sides.

I marveled at one of the torsos hanging in his garden. He said that always wanted to work with the human body, so his bike chain experimentation led him to figure out a new process. He created a plaster negative from mannequins and torso castings and delicately placed and tacked, placed and tacked, placed and tacked sections of bike chains along the interior of it until the piece suited him. 

The glass work wasn’t his. His partner was equally phenomenal. All of the glass work was hers. I didn’t get to meet Elaine, but I would gladly travel back just to hear her talk about all of the bright, whimsical glasswork she’d made. 

He showed me walls that he and Elaine had collaborated on, and my heart melted. He had taken heavy squared grating used to sort gravel (which there was PLENTY of in the desert) and built decorative walls in various places in his garden. His partner made hundreds of funky little glass tiles, all of which were hung inside of the individual squares. He drilled the holes in all the glass for her and wired the piece together.

My heart skipped a beat when he told me they’d worked together on it. 

Finding someone in life who matches and compliments your energy, steals your heart, and helps you make something beautiful is a form of love that is rare and wonderful. Some couples get by never knowing or caring what the other is passionate about – but the ones I adore create together. I love watching my partnered friends who are artists go about life, whether they’re experimental filmmakers, mead makers, sculptors, or photographers. To be an artist in love with another artist means that your sensitive heart always has a source of inspiration. You’ve got a spirit alongside you who wants to find beauty and take time to celebrate or feel what others would just pass by. 

I hope to meet Elaine soon. 

We kept on the tour – he asked me if I’d like to see his workshop.

Now you have to understand, I have developed a thing for domes. The friend who had invited me on this journey to Albuquerque had convinced me five years prior, to build a planetarium. I had no idea what I was doing, but managed to wrangle together the local maker community and eek out a 20′ projection dome that barely worked. That experience led me down a path of collecting, building and learning about the dome community and how planetarium projection systems worked. (Someday I will write several lengthy posts about this – what you need to know at this point is that I love LOVE domes.)

And wouldn’t you know it. Stephen HAD A DOME.

Not only did he have a dome, his dome was his workshop. I’d seen a few of the torsos here and there in the yard – but MY GOODNESS – here were all his works in progress. On the workbench was the tiny little tool he used to disassemble the chain and the solvent he used to painstakingly clean it. Because of COVID, he really hadn’t made much work in the last year, and so his work sat waiting for him to find a tiny little spark of motivation. Gallery tours had stopped and dried up. People just weren’t wanting to spend on art, and there wasn’t much opportunity to get it out in front of folks unless he went online. His works aren’t done much justice online – you don’t get the sense of the form.

He talked about powder coating – how pricey it was, but how stunning the works turned out when he did. He had one of his torsos done in blue and it was magnificent.

His favorite figure – well, he calls “butt” erfly. (And to be fair, that torso indeed has a respectable derrière.) He has spent weeks of his life looking for mannequins that have dynamic gestures – and his searching has led him to the conclusion that a good torso is a very difficult and often expensive thing to find. 

After awhile we head to his showroom. Here, his figures take on an entirely other form. He had been tinkering with brass and bronze and tin, melting down bits and bobs – shell casings and other random things he’d find on his adventures and pouring them over the bike moulds. 

The effect was stunning. If this man has a masterwork, the torsos and castings of his face that have this second layer of melted elegance through it are absolutely it. 

He continues to show me pieces in his gallery. He shows me the fixtures he’s designed to suspend his torsos away from the wall, and the spinning luminescent globes he’s created. He ticks on some spotlights and adjusts them, creating dazzling effects behind the works. 

I ask about pricing, well knowing that I have no budget nor place to put a torso at the moment, and our discussion shifts. We talk about customers who ask how long it takes him to make a piece, as though they are trying to calculate an hourly rate. They want to see if his work is “worth it”.

I empathize.

When you are an artist, you aren’t an art factory. It turns out that there is a whole segment of folks who want to quantify a rate for a work that has taken a lifetime of experimentation, inspiration, work, and observation to produce. I feel really badly for what society has done to reduce individuals to thinking about the value of art in such cheap terms.

And he then tells me that regardless of what these sorts think, he’d never devalue his pieces by selling them cheaply. Since the pandemic started he hasn’t really been selling anything. He tells me his community has been hurting. Instead of taking in money to cover his labor and materials, he has decided that the food pantry down the hill could use the funds more than he. Once more I recognize that I am in the presence of a truly compassionate, wonderful human being. I would buy every piece he had if I had the means. And maybe someday I will. “But what can I do?” I think to myself – if he’s not in a position to promote himself at the moment, I’ll try my best and share his story so that maybe he can sell a few pieces.

What I really want to do is make him a few negatives. Commission some dancers and make him some forms so that he can build out even more spectacular shapes. Or maybe find a way to connect him with an arts group and a makerspace or someone who can collaborate with him to do this. 

My mind just goes on like that sometimes. And I suspect that I may not be able to actually do that sort of work for him, but I love the thought exercise. When you see someone doing good, what can you do to help them along? If you aren’t in a position to buy the art, how can you help them on their path? 

I left his studio humbled and in admiration, and thankful that my heart has been feeling awakened but happily introverted as of late. 


Learn more about Stephen Feher’s work:

To Albuquerque

Uncomfortable Zones.

A few months ago I decided that I was getting too comfortable. At the time, I was living by myself in a three-bedroom apartment, which worked relatively well for the 2020 lockdown. I’d turned the guest room into a little bit of a personal makerspace/office and amassed a stash of plenty of art supplies, half-finished projects, and tech gadgets.

In January, I decided I should buy a home. I need a shop. Somewhere with a garage – that didn’t have pristine hardwood floors – a place to weld and build. so I figured out a deposit, got a realtor, and began the home buying process. 

Meanwhile, my landlord informed me that she’d be selling my apartment. My lease wasn’t going to be extended – I had to move come the end of March.

So what did I decide to do?

I did not buy a house. Instead, I ran off to Mexico. I ran off to Mexico with a delightful, newly nomadic gentleman on a complete whim and I began to let go of the idea of home in a place overrun with developers and investors. 

Digital Nomad. That’s what he calls himself. I love this title and I’m stealing it. 

Two months after Mexico, I’m sitting in a gorgeous mostly empty house that isn’t mine. I’m staring at the window working on a laptop, working at a job I have held for years that is suddenly 100 percent remote, watching desert birds drink water out of a bird bath. There’s a mountain peak in the distance. There are wild horses all over the place and the sunsets are magical, to say the least. I’m here by myself – in the quiet, in the desert.

Ask 20 year old me – the 38-year-old version of Jenn was going to have a house, a husband, a couple of kids, and a dog. 

What life gives you is often not what you want. I can’t say it’s exactly what you need – it’s just how things go.

Back home I had bid on a few houses – and after falling short several times in a hot market, I began to think that perhaps Nashville isn’t the right place for me. I caught myself saying it to people out loud – I didn’t want to be there anymore. 

And I realized as I was road tripping west Thelma-and-Louise-style with an friend who needed an adventure, that I’m not exactly sure where the right place is for me, yet.

Big. Crazy. Art.

At the moment, I’m technically homeless, but I am not really worried about that at all.

I could go out and get an apartment or try again at buying a house, but I don’t feel like I’m ready to do that.

I moved to Nashville to help out a friend during a hard time. The pain of losing someone you love is unbearable. She needed some support and I needed a change at the time. She was the only person I knew in that city when I moved to the South. In the seven years I lived there, I made a lot of friends. We did some really great things with very few resources. 

I’ll certainly come back and work on projects here and there and visit, but Nashville doesn’t quite feel like home and I’m in no rush to figure out what does.

I recently listened to a podcast where they discussed how the people who are happiest often take a long time through transitional phases of life. In other words, they don’t rush through big life decisions. And that said to me that it’s ok that I don’t know every detail of what I want yet.

I do know that I want the sort of life that you read about with fascination. I want to make time for things that others don’t prioritize; to make art that outlives me by several generations. And also to have a million crazy, unbelievable-but-true stories to tell when I’m too old and frail to walk, if I’m lucky to make it to that age.

My best friends know that you don’t have to ask me twice to get in the car and drive 16 hours across multiple states to go see someone’s art installation. I never thought I would be “this sort of person”, but now I’m actively looking at camper vans. I’m out to learn new things, meet artists and master craftspeople, become a better welder, imagine sculptures and large-scale works, and figure out how to live cheaply.

I think the main goal at the moment is to live well and save a bit. Look for a good place to start a studio – and all the while, make big, crazy, metal art. 

Fortunately, the Southwest has no shortage of metal sculptures and beautiful places. I’ve never been here just to visit, and I’m thankful to have made the journey with a friend. She who is the sort that is delighted to stop off and see the oddities along the freeway, even if we get in late because of it. 

We found more than a few pieces that are interesting along the way from Nashville to Denver to Albuquerque. Somewhere around St. Louis, I decided to document as many as I could and learn about the sculptors and fabricators who made them.

This is a trip where I’m am actively trying to learn from the places and spaces around me, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to be on it.