Artists go to work in the desert

ALBUQUERQUE – The pandemic, while not quite over yet, has forced all of us to change not only our daily habits and routines, but also how we project our lives beyond the current circumstances. At this point, it’s almost science fiction to imagine the future. But as the author Ray Bradbury once wrote, “If we listened to our intellect, we would never have a love affair. We would never have a friendship. We would never do business because we would be cynical. Well, that’s bullshit. You have to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.” Ryan Quinney, Liz MacKenzie and Becki Jones are three New Mexico art entrepreneurs who reached the edge of the cliff and took that leap. High Desert Debris, Howdy Cakes and MoonGrrl are Albuquerque’s thriving creative businesses, connected thanks to the city’s tight-knit DIY arts community born in the wake of the pandemic.

High Desert Debris is a bootlegger t-shirt company launched by Ryan Quinney. Relatively new to New Mexico, from Gainesville, Florida, Quinney quickly learned that it must be hard to thrive in the desert. When he lost his job in March 2020, he knew he had to act quickly to continue. “So I was fired very early [in the pandemic] in March 2020,” Qunney said. “I had actually expected to go back to work at this family-owned printing company, but I wanted to develop a plan in case that didn’t happen.”

Ryan Quinney prepares to incinerate new designs on recycled screens (photo Marya Errin Jones/Hyperallergic)

Didn’t go back to work. The months dragged on and the number of COVID cases continues to rise in New Mexico. Quinney decided to use his severance payment to start his own printing business. High Desert Debris was born in his converted garage in the North Valley home he shares with his wife Emily and their dog Pork Chop. “It was just a weird coincidence, the layoff and the world at the time,” Quinney said. “I had just gone through these big life changes…we were determined to change our lives one way or the other.”

Quinney taught himself to draw, design and print. Via High Desert Debris, with its collage-like cut-and-paste layouts and deep color saturations, he produces the kind of vintage-style t-shirts you could spend your life searching for in thrift stores with ‘hidden gems’, but will never find. In his home studio, Quinney, drawing inspiration from his punk days as a musician, creates B-side-style visual designs that look like pages from zines, if you could wear one. “It’s like a zine on fabric,” he said. †[It’s like being] a 15-year-old who made a zine about the Ramones in 1979. I hope it looks the same.”

Bootleg selections from High Desert Debris (image courtesy of Ryan Quinney)

While Quinney makes shirts with recognizable artists, he also likes the obscure connections. And with a home print studio, he can easily experiment with new design ideas and shapes. For fans of the blues, there’s a shirt with the song “Blood Thirsty Blues” on it, recorded by Victoria Spivey in 1926. It can take a while to put two and two together if you’re telling someone the “Julee Cruise, The Voice of Love t-shirt, but fans of Twin Peaks will practically hear the American dream pop artist’s devastating ballad “Falling”. “Sometimes ideas come to you, you know, and like, I just want that shirtQuinney said.

High Desert Debris can often be found pop-ups from local art markets, alongside the resin art jewelry company MoonGrrl, founded by Becki Jones. Jones is not only a jeweler, but also a sex educator, a Diné full-spectrum doula, Marxist/proletariat feminist, co-creator of the revolutionary feminist podcast Probably cancelled and lead guitarist and vocalist of the Diné punk band Weedrat. Obviously Jones’s plate is full. Their DIY approach stems from a place of restorative artisan justice, creating jewelry with plants and flowers native to New Mexico and selling primarily to POC, Diné people, and other indigenous peoples across the country.

Becki Jones repping MoonGrrl at DIY popup (image courtesy of the artist)

“MoonGrrl started with I was just fascinated by resin jewelry,” Jones said, explaining that it took a little practice to get to work they could be proud of. “You know, it’s like when you’re making music you’re not really proud of your past work,” Jones said. “So, it’s just like any other craft, practice certainly helps. I now have my own style.”

There are many people making resin these days, but MoonGrrl is unique because of the plant medicine used in the jewelry. Jones uses lavender, cedar, rosemary and other plants in New Mexico to give the resin healing properties. “I was thinking about transferring things like cedar wood to other people,” Jones said. “Cedar is pretty potent stuff for us in the Southwest — it’s a drug for us that we use for things like prayers.” Jones explained that they approached elders for permission to use certain herbs in the jewelry, although other forms of drugs are off limits.

MoonGrrl generates funds to help support indigenous communities. Jones often organizes fundraisers through the MoonGrrl Instagram account, selling only to Indigenous people for mutual aid, to fight food insecurity and to support the anti-imperialist group Red Ant Collective. Closer to home, Jones used the lure of MoonGrrl to bring back a work of art once lost to capitalism.

MoonGrrl resin earrings infused with Southwestern sacred medicines including cedar, turquoise, and abalone (image courtesy of the artist)

Jones said their partner Greg Yazzie, while looking for limited-release records, found a decades-old carpet his grandmother had put up for sale at a “digital frontier town” art sale, and wanted it back. “My partner Greg has bought a lot of Native records…Reclaimed Native records from people in, like Germany, people in England, and all these weird white people hoarding and collecting Native records.” Yazzie recognized the clear signature of his family’s design.

The two contacted the carpet’s owner, who is located in Sedona, Arizona. All Jones could think was, “Get that carpet!” So they organized a MoonGrrl sale and within hours the money was raised. The couple picked up the rug and placed it back in Yazzie’s grandmother’s hands.

Jones used to be in a band called Nizhoni Girls with Liz MacKenzie, who also performs as a solo act under the name Liz Howdy. In 2020, MacKenzie launched her own baking company, Howdy Cakes, after someone ordered a cake topper. “A friend commissioned me to make a Baby Yoda cake topper for her partner,” MacKenzie said. “She remembered I was baking pies a long time ago. Then everything started flowing back to me.”

Liz MacKenzie in her chef uniform after a day of baking Howdy Cakes orders (image courtesy of the artist)

MacKenzie is a second-generation baker who attended the Arizona Culinary Institute in Scottsdale. She started working in her aunt and uncle’s bakery, where she honed her skills, and in August 2020 she launched her food business. Howdy Cakes are whimsical and at times ironic, featuring pop culture icons, cartoon characters, and conventional fruit and flower decorations. The cakes can also be customized for birthdays, holidays and other special occasions. Despite its popularity, MacKenzie found it difficult to see a way forward.

In the beginning, Howdy Cakes was a home business. MacKenzie explained, “I did a lot of cheap pies for people at a high price… But I really wanted to make sure I could do it, just prove myself with each pie.”

In 2021, she invested in her business and started renting space to create her culinary delights, but she soon found that she needed to diversify her offerings. “I mean, I knew custom cakes weren’t sustainable,” she said. “So then I thought about how I would fill in the spaces.” For the holidays, Howdy Cakes offers honey snaps and ginger snaps. And MacKenzie, who is Diné, has also added traditional dishes to her pie menu. “I think it’s me trying to tap into two different parts of my brain that trigger a memory,” she said. “I want to share a sense of home, like where my grandmother lives.” For example, Howdy Cakes now offers blue corn cake pops and saguaro-shaped sugar cookies with red chili, and MacKenzie is trying to introduce people to sumac.

Howdy Cakes will be a vendor at the Railyards Market in Barelas this summer, along with other local artisans and artists. And MacKenzie will team up with the founders of the New Mexico Prickly Pear Festival to produce an artisanal summer elixir of prickly pear and lemon, combining invigorating citrus fruits with what was once a native base. It gets difficult in the desert. They can also be sweet.

Hungry like the wolf: Howdy Cakes custom Twilightthemed birthday cake, vanilla cake with vanilla bean buttercream and strawberry jam (image courtesy of the artist)

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