There is something magical that occurs in the Sonoran Desert when all of the savage, piercing, desperate forms of plant life decide to procreate. In the spring and summer monsoon seasons, this normally drab environment suddenly bursts forth with life, revealing the most vibrant, waxy, durable blooms you have ever seen. If you had asked me a few years ago if I could imagine myself slinging weighted ropes over 20 foot tall agave stalks to harvest a branch of the flowers for a photo shoot, I would have said no… and certainly would never have imagined that I would make a career out of doing so. Today, I transform women for my portrait series titled, “Sonoran Muses” by creating elaborate headdresses out of native and naturalized plant species of the Sonoran Desert. The makeup and hair styling possibilities are endless and I am constantly inspired by what each season has to offer. Even more so, I am inspired by the amazing women I get to meet who understand that this project is more than just a glorified glamour shot. I want to provide women with an outlet to have a genuine experience of self-love while connecting to nature. When each woman steps in front of the mirror for the first time to see their styling transformation I am always taken aback when they respond with such gusto, likening themselves to goddesses, queens or nymphs. Initially though, this project wasn’t about my clients; it was something I needed to do for myself, even if I didn’t know it at the time. Flashback to me as a little girl huddled under a tree, madly mixing away at a magenta colored potion while adding in bits of orange peel and mesquite tree sap. I was a thin as a pole and as dark as a raisin. I constructed haphazard forts under large palo verde trees and expertly navigated trails through the shrubs and cacti patches. I could always sense the coming of the heavy monsoon rains and reveled in chasing alongside the washes as they overflowed with precious rainwater. I remember feeling wild and engaged and determined to learn as much as I could about my environment. Indeed, I felt a part of the desert, not some separate being synonymously living alongside “nature.” I reveled in the splendors of the wilderness but somehow as I aged, my appreciation for it waned. In fact, through my late teens and early 20’s I had developed a great distaste for the sweltering summer heat. The grass is always greener on the other side, but to me this analogy felt quite literal. I began to long for free flowing waters and a place that was green and bountiful. And yet, I remained in Tucson. In the spring of 2012 while I was stuck in line at a convenience store sandwiched between a snack counter and a shelf riddled with southwest tourist trinkets I had a realization. Peering through the roadrunner key chains and scorpion lollipops I detected a rather tacky placemat that featured a mountain sunset with saguaros and a tiny coyote howling in the distance. In that moment I recognized that visitors receive a very limited representation of the Sonoran Desert. I was suddenly overwhelmed with regret when I realized how I had taken this beautiful place for granted. I longed to feel connected to the desert the way I had when I was a younger. That spring I started noticing the cacti blooming cycles and one day decided to pluck a prickly pear cactus flower off of its perch with a pair of tongs. I examined it closely and poked my finger into the pollen-coated anthers and watched as they contracted inwards. I was mesmerized by the bloom’s beauty and experienced a strong desire to capture it. So, I called a friend over to model the flowers in her hair and after the photo shoot, despite being covered in thorns, I was hooked. I thought to myself, how many different Sonoran Desert plants could be represented if I did a whole series? So I planned more photo shoots. I crouched with models in decomposing pond water, knelt in front of jumping chollas and hiked to the tops of cliff edges to capture just the right shot. I learned very quickly that these photo shoots were anything but easy. I instantly began to look at my environment differently and became keenly aware of the plants around me that could be harvested. I wanted to honor the plant life for what it was- not something intrinsically bountiful but something that was ingenious for it’s ability to struggle, adapt and survive. Throughout this creative process despite the difficulties, I was able to reconnect to the desert in a way that would make my former self, proud. I had recaptured my awe of the natural world. After 2 years of developing “Sonoran Muses,” I now understand that this series did more than just help each woman feel connected and empowered, it rekindled my love for the Sonoran Desert. Now that I have restored my connection with the land and have found a way to honor women, I feel healed. It’s important to find ways to understand that in all reality, Earth Day is every day. How do you stay in a symbiotic relationship with your environment?
-Written by Emily Ann Jones