Category Archives: California History

On Thinking and Making California

American Studies offers students the experience of thinking and making: of joining in the dialogue, thought, and conversations about the past and the present. By engaging in the project of explanation and understanding we can elevate our lives by making connections, and discovering the questions about ourselves, and our world, that might matter.

The second half of the semester will be organized around your thinking and the way that thinking takes shape in the projects you make. Below are inspired (and inspiring!) projects that open us up to the natural and cultural history of California. Spend some time with these projects. They will help you begin to answer questions about your own project methods, and lead you to think about how to design your own.

Kim Stringfellow, an artist and educator residing in Joshua Tree, California, teaches photography and multimedia courses at San Diego State University in the School of Art + Design. Her web site offers a window into the natural and cultural history of California and her projects provide inspiration for organizing creative investigations and explorations.

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary that explores the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.


There It Is—Take It! is a self-guided car audio tour through Owens Valley, California
along U.S. Route 395 examining the controversial social, political, and environmental history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. The tour illuminates various impacts this divisive water conveyance infrastructure has created within the Owens Valley over the last one hundred years of the aqueduct’s existence. Stories of the aqueduct are told from multiple perspectives and viewpoints through the voices of historians, biologists, activists, native speakers, environmentalists, litigators, LADWP employees, and residents from both Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.

Jackrabbit Homestead is a published book, photographic exhibit, and web-based multimedia presentation featuring a downloadable car audio tour exploring the cultural legacy of the Small Tract Act in Southern California’s Morongo Basin region near Joshua Tree National Park. Stories from this underrepresented regional history are told through the voices of local residents, historians, and area artists—many of which reside in reclaimed historic cabins and use the structures as inspiration for their creative work.

imgres.jpgInvisible-5 is a self-guided critical audio tour along Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Invisible-5 is a collaboration between three artists and two organizations. The collaborators on Invisible-5 are artists Amy Balkin and Kim Stringfellow, audio lead Tim Halbur, and organizations Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, and Pond: Art, activism, and ideas. The project uses the format of a museum audio tour to guide the listener along the highway landscape. Invisible-5 investigates the stories of people and communities fighting for environmental justice along the I-5 corridor, through oral histories, field recordings, found sound, recorded music, and archival audio documents. The project also traces natural, social, and economic histories along the route. Sites along the tour, which can be driven in either direction, include Livermore, Crows Landing, Kesterson NWR, Kettleman City, and Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. The free, downloadable program in MP3 format along with the printable PDF booklet is available at the project’s website.

California Humanities is a non-profit that promotes the humanities in California in order to help create “a state of open mind.” The work of California Humanities is designed to inspire Californians to learn more, dig deeper, and start conversations that matter among the dramatically diverse people in the state.


California Documentary Project is a competitive grants program that supports documentary film, radio, and new media productions that enhance our understanding of California and its cultures, peoples, and histories. Projects must use the humanities to provide context, depth, and perspective and be suitable for California and national audiences through broadcast and/or distribution. Since 2003, we have awarded approximately $4 million to projects that document the California experience and explore issues of significance to Californians. CDP grants support projects at the research and development, production, and public engagement stages.

Negro_Notebook_2Bible of Black Travel During the era of Jim Crow, many African Americans relied on this “Bible of Black Travel” to navigate safe passage and find sustenance and respite while on the road. This oral history project will identify and interview individuals who are connected to historic sites of refuge in Los Angeles – hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses. Stories will be presented through public programs, an interactive website, and provide material for a book and exhibit that will document a little known chapter in California history and provide opportunities to re-examine America’s troubled history of race relations.

 An American Mosque is a documentary about religious freedom and the struggle against intolerance set in a rural California town.  Sparked by the destruction of a mosque, the documentary film explores how a farming community responds to hate through painful but ultimately positive discussions about the perception of Islam in America and our responsibility to defend everyone’s constitutional right to worship.

Cynthia Hooper: A few weeks ago we looked at the work of the artist Cynthia Hooper through her interdisciplinary media project that features six short observational documentary videos and accompanying essays that examine and interpret the built environment of Humboldt Bay—California’s second largest estuary.


A Negotiable Utopia: The Humboldt Bay Project is made up of six short observational documentary videos and accompanying essays. The project investigates the bay’s natural resource economy and infrastructure (including timber, fishing, and aquaculture), its transportation (including roads, rails, and ships), as well as the bay’s power infrastructure—including formerly nuclear, fossil fuel, and renewable energy. The project also documents Humboldt Bay’s natural and municipal watersheds, as well as its varied conservation zones and complicated shoreline.




High and Dry Project

In the first unit of this class we talked about the high desert, the region of California the writer Mary Austin described as “the land of little rain.” You will also recall that Phillip Fradkin spends some time talking about the Owens Lake in The Seven States of California. He describes the ambush and massacre of the native Paiutes in 1863 near the lake shore. As Mary Austin wrote, “The Paiutes has made their last stand on the border of the Bitter Lake; battle driven they died in its waters, and the land filled with cattle-men and adventurers for gold.” 

The writer and historian Christopher Langley and the photographer Osceola Refetoff are documenting the natural and cultural history of the region with stories and images of the past, present, and future legacy of human enterprise in the California desert.


Assembled rocks symbolize the nest of a snowy plover (Photo cedit: Christopher Langley).

Their High & Dry Project exploresthe myth of California’s deserts is charged with human hope and inextricably tied to that most American ambition: the pursuit of freedom and happiness.” As they go on to say, “Iconic images of these arid lands are part our cultural DNA, essential to our collective understanding of the West and to our assumptions of what it means to be an American:

Against these grand ideals exists a loose patchwork of struggling communities, military-industrial compounds and vast open spaces; long a refuge for loners, dreamers, and broken spirits. In the near future, immense wind and solar projects will likely dominate many areas, transforming the landscape in ways that are complex and irreversible.

The artist Perry Cardoza has also been at work exploring and interpreting the region. Off Highway 136 in the Owens Valley, just north of Owens Lake. This example of Earth Art is described in a recent article by journalist Christopher Langley, “Perry Cardoza’s Land Art Project.” 


Concept drawing of the NUVIS Owens Lake landscape project (T30-1) for CDMSmith/LADWP (Photo credit: ArtBound)


Why California?

“California is America—only more so.”
—Carey McWilliams

The writer and journalist Carey McWilliams offers one answer to the question of why California is such a useful window into the cultural history and significance of the United States.


While McWilliams is mostly known for his twenty-year career as the editor of The Nation, between 1939 and 1950 his writings were focused on California. His book California: The Great Exception (1949) is one of the important early works on the cultural history of California. His book Southern California Country (1946) caught the attention of Robert Towne’s screenplay for “Chinatown,” his Prejudice (1944) argued against the internment of Japanese-American citizens during the Second World War, and his Factories in the Field (1939) and North from Mexico (1949) offered a glimpse into the agricultural system in the Central Valley of California and the Mexican-American population in the United States. The writing of McWilliams helped Cesar Chavez in his work supporting migrant farmworkers, including the establishment of the National Farm Workers Association.

Historians of California, including Kevin Starr and Patricia Nelson Limerick, have continued to build on the legacy of McWilliams in their work as well. For more about Carey McWilliams, and his life and writing California between 1939 and 1950, read Peter Richardson, “Carey McWilliams: The California Years.”