Artist Aaron Sheppard navigated mermaids through Joshua Tree to honor memories of Coney Island.
By Laura Henkel
What to do when you live in the Mojave Desert and you long to be flip-flopping around at the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island? To counter feeling like a fish out of water, you invite a group of adventurous friends from Las Vegas to dress up and strut their stuff amongst the Yucca palm trees and honking cars of Highway 62 in Joshua Tree, California.
Artist Aaron Sheppard leads a procession of mermaids, sea urchins and a seashell-clad pooka in the aproprosly named parade, Bearded and Shucked. His larger than life creation of a green lace bodysuit, fish bobbins for breasts, high heel boots and a orca-adorned staff shepherds a colorful cast of characters through dirt roads, convenience stores, and bars under a moody desert sky.
Sheppard says, “I was intending to dress like Neptune with a long white beard. My character morphed into itself as a more playful iteration, since, as creating it, I decided I wanted something more dynamic and simply fun. I found its eyes (rubber car scraps along the road) as I walked the parade path before the event as a dry run endurance test. The eyes made the character more Sleestak-esque (Land of the Lost). My outfit had become alien or reptilian, while also being plush puppet-like - a perfect mascot for mermaids.”
Sheppard’s vast body of work consists of painting, performance, installation and sequential art. His works engage sexuality and gender identity. Sheppard’s personal retreat and atelier, Horns of Cypress, reflects his affinity for tangible dualities that are actually complementary and interconnected in nature. Elements of masculinity femininity, desert and aquatic life embody his desert Xanadu.
Bearded and Shucked embraces Sheppard’s keen performative nature. The artist elaborates, “My work has evolved in the last few years from purely spectacle, as physically engaging within the space of my viewers, to a more objectification of the body as living sculpture. I enjoy a fascination with books, storytelling and morals outlining the life development of a person. I source fable, religion and my own reflective writing for iconic examples then incorporate what I find into examinations of identity or role-playing.”
The Mermaid Parade is a party that exists from the opulence of self-adornment all the way through to the end of melted off makeup and remnants of well-worn costumes. Despite triple digits of extreme heat, the merriment of all who attended the Joshua Tree parade brought joy to everyone they met along the parade route. The group’s interacting brought connections and smiles otherwise not there. In the end, nothing matters more than genuine rawness, love between friends and strangers, appreciations of simple fun. The desert heat only amplified the sincerity of parade participants and made distant onlookers wonder if it were all a mirage.
The intention of Bearded and Shucked pays tribute to the original parade in Coney Island. Sheppard has been attending that parade since 1996 and has a core group of people that he goes with and meets there almost religiously. The desert parade serves as an honor to all the people Sheppard has met at each Mermaid Parade who have celebrated life to the fullest and have encouraged him to be the artist who he is today. Bearded and Shucked is an opportunity to be with friends and create new experiences. Future parades will be held earlier in the year to take advantage of cooler temperatures and access to the Joshua Tree National Park for good ol' mermaid posing sessions.
Sheppard’s Joshua Tree paradise is accessible year round to patrons and overnight guests through Airbnb. His atelier serves as a sophisticated gallery, as well as a place to create and contemplate. Sheppard is one of those rare creatures who embodies beauty, purity, mystery and kindness to all – even a group of dusty mermaids. His art mimics his life.
ABOVE: Gig Depio
“Through the Muddy”
2017-18 480” x 144”
Oil on Canvas
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