Behind the Scenes of Cactus Living

A few months ago, I devoted some time to a project called “Cactus Living.”  This is a behind the scenes look.


The inspiration behind the project stemmed from my constant desire to be out in the middle of the wilderness.  I love being on a trail (or off the trail) in the mountains, or on a boat in the water, soaking up my surroundings and filling my soul with creation.  I especially like to be as far away and secluded from civilization as possible.  There, I can clear my head and find peace.  I also wanted to do a project that took advantage of the Arizona landscape.  This project included nature and macro photography–which I LOVE.  Ever since I was a young child, I’ve loved the idea of creating tiny fictional worlds deep within the woods.  I used to write stories on that theme, climb trees, play with dollhouses and day dream. What fun to revisit this!


The process began in the studio.  I created the house out of paper was painted with watercolor and embellished with colored pencil.  I added scraps of paper to it, glued and sewed different parts to make the whole piece.  The colors were chosen based on what I thought would contrast well with the colors in the mountainous landscape.  The house took multiple days to create, but once it was complete, it was time for the adventure to begin.


I drove to South Mountain with enough time before sunset to scout for a good location.  I parked the car on the side of the road and went walking onto the terrain.  Once I found the place I wanted to shoot, I went back to my car to get all of the equipment.  This included my camera pack, the fragile paper house in a box and a big bottle of water.  As predicted in Phoenix, it was hot.


A shot of the scene. (Note that this is not a finished photograph in the series, just a behind the scenes look.)

A big challenge was realized as I began to settle into the location.  I wanted the house to sit on a cliff with spectacular views of the sky at sunset.  I ended up working literally on the side of a mountain.  I easily slid down the rocks.  I would grab onto a rock only for it to break lose from the ground and fall.  The way down was about 40 feet to the road below.  Trying to prop myself up while holding the camera took all of muscles and energy.  I had no idea that the task was going to be so physical.  I appreciated the flexibility I have from my background in dance when, at one point I laid backwards a rock backwards, shooting the scene upside down.  Since I am not native to the southwest, I had no understanding of the danger the cactus can pose.  I brushed up against the cactus several times only to learn just how damaging they can be.  At one point I panicked, afraid I wasn’t going to be able to pull the barbs out that were deep into my skin.  Everything worked out, but it definitely caught me by surprise!


I think it was about 40 feet down to the road.

On top of the physical challenge, shooting at sunset is working against time.  The color changes with every second and there are many angles to consider.  As I packed up “camp” and left, I felt exhausted, but accomplished.  I was able to capture what I set out to get.  I walked back to my car only to find a ticket on the windshield.  Apparently I didn’t park in a designated area.  Note that there are no parking areas on South Mountain that have signs designating them as such.  Unfortunately, I had to pay the fine.  The price you pay for adventure.


Although it was a big challenge, I’m proud of this project.  I learned a lot too.  I learned that I may not want to create something quite as three dimensional in the future, but allow the watercolor to be the central focus.  I still think that any excuse to go and enjoy the natural landscape is a good excuse. Through all of the challenges, it is so rewarding to look at the images and perhaps be transported to a little fantasy world.

You can see all of the final pieces in the series by clicking here.

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Amy DeCaussin specializes in cut paper art and animation.  View her work here,

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