Art, Desert Beginnings, and Someday

Slides and artwork from Mark A. Hicks, illustrator

      Long ago, on April 9th, 1985 to be exact, I quit my newspaper graphic artist job and began my full-time freelance art career. Young, with a big imagination and a head full of thoughts of someday, I set off to pursue illustrating for children’s books and other publications. I also had a dream of someday bankrolling my talent into creating a retreat for myself and other artists in some yet-to-be-determined place in my native Arizona.

It all started in an ideal location a few miles north of the then lightly-traveled Carefree Highway north of Phoenix. Seeking an inspiring place to work, my in-laws graciously let my wife and I put a small manufactured home on one corner of their 10-acre cholla cactus-filled desert property. My wife was planning to start freelancing as a writer so it was a perfect time to make the move from the city.

The location wasn’t very convenient for mailing off illustration samples or obtaining art supplies (at that time, it was a twenty-mile drive into Phoenix.) However, it was quiet and definitely inspiring. Only a scattering of small houses and mobile homes dotted the landscape to the south. The rough dirt road that ran by the land would only occasionally be driven on by a rattly old truck hauling potable water to residents farther down the road. To the north, directly across the road, was an open, undeveloped landscape filled with cactus, creosote bushes, and palo verde and mesquite trees. Not far was a rugged desert mountain covered with stately saguaros. Blue-purple mesas and mountains in the distance completed the vista. The sky was bright blue during the day and magnificently star-filled at night. It was the perfect location for aspiring creatives and nature lovers. Here, I imagined, on this open land, artists, writers and nature enthusiasts like us could come to enjoy the beauty and solitude of the desert.

When my time wasn’t occupied with art assignments or trying to convince publishers to give me something to illustrate, I would head outside. There, with my wife as a co-adventurer, as much time as possible was spent hiking and observing the desert flora, fauna, and geology. Rabbits, coyotes, skunks, cactus wrens, hawks, owls, roadrunners, quail, as well as numerous reptiles were regular visitors to our unfenced land. Among those reptiles was one particularly large Gila monster that sauntered across our space early one morning that would inspire Gila Ben, a cartoon character and Arizona-themed coloring page website.

Unfortunately, the time we lived out there was too short. Life intervened and altered plans and delayed dreams. That beautiful open landscape I once lived adjacent to is now a mega development. The desert has been bulldozed and covered with cement and asphalt. Strip malls and thousands of houses fill the space. With the exception of an occasional unwelcome rattlesnake or coyote, gone are many of the desert animals that once roamed freely. The quiet has been replaced with a cacophony of car traffic and leafblowers. Exhaust fumes hang heavy in the once fresh air. The night sky is now so illuminated from street and house lights that only a handful of stars are visible. I'm sure that most of the current hurried residents are unaware that awe-inspiring scenery and peacefulness once existed there.

Looking back, I have accomplished a lot. I have illustrated many children’s books and much more – it just didn’t pan out quite the way I so vividly envisioned it would. However, although I am many years older, I still have a big imagination and a head full of thoughts of someday and a dream of establishing a retreat for artists. 

Daisy Mountain in the rain 1985. Copyright Mark A. Hicks
Daisy Mountain Cloudburst
(A view from my studio window in 1985.)

In October 2017, my wife was diagnosed with hereditary cancer caused by a BRCA2 mutation. On June 26, 2021, my wife died in my arms from the cancer. It was a journey through the deepest, darkest corners of hell for her, for me as her caregiver and for our adult daughter. Hopes and dreams were wiped out. Hereditary cancer changed everything.  Many stories and illustrations on this blog speak of the awfulness of cancer and grief, how it all could have been prevented, and my efforts to prevent others from suffering the same fate.

I still have the dream of an artist retreat. But now it includes the hope of making it available to cancer patients and their caregivers. And my creative imagination is still there, but not as strong. Also gone is much of the whimsy that was so much a part of my art for so long. Ripped away by the untimely death of my beloved wife, co-adventurer, and muse. 
I hate cancer.