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An Artist in Chains Walks Into Town ...

January 05, 2006|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

The artist's suffering didn't truly begin until he pitched his tent in the desert and whipped out the chains.

Trevor Corneliusen, a painter and classically trained violinist from Washington state who makes pilgrimages to the Mojave Desert each winter to meditate, chained and padlocked his ankles Tuesday morning while posing for a sketched self-portrait -- and then couldn't find the key.

The artist hobbled for 12 hours through sand and scrub brush, using a wooden pole as a walking stick, before reaching a gas station in Baker to call for help, said Ryan Ford, a San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy.

"It's funny-sad," said his mother, Marie Corneliusen, "because he really could have gotten hurt. But it's not hard to believe. He can be very absent-minded."

Corneliusen, 26, graduated in 2001 from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma with a degree in music, said a school spokeswoman.

His mother said he lives with her in Olympia most of the year, teaching violin, painting with watercolors and oils, and writing a book.

Twice a year, he hops trains and buses bound for the high desert in San Bernardino County, where Corneliusen, a born-again Christian, camps for a month or so, his mother said. "It's somewhat a religious experience what he does there. He meditates. He communes with God in the desert."

Folks in Baker, a pit-stop town about 90 miles west of Las Vegas known for its giant thermometer, stumbled upon the artist a few years ago.

"We had a local who kept calling about a terrorist in the mountains, but it turned out he goes there for inspiration," Ford said. "He's not a typical person you'd find living in a mine."

Corneliusen's latest journey began two days after Christmas. He pitched a tent about 25 feet inside an abandoned silver mine, crashed on an air mattress and sleeping bag and lived on canned food, Ford said.

On Tuesday morning, the artist looped a foot and a half of inch-thick chain around his ankles, leaving a sliver of room to move, and bound the links with a Master Lock padlock.

Wearing sweats and socks, Corneliusen plopped down, stretched his legs and sketched the chains. The pencil drawing complete, he scoured the campsite for the key.

Uh-oh.

It was a long way to Baker.

The mine shaft sits atop rocky, steep terrain bifurcated with a narrow trail. Coyotes roam the mountains. The artist laced his sneakers, then hopped and shuffled and baby-stepped across the desert, leaning on a mining pole he had found and toting his sketch.

Nearly five arduous miles later, Corneliusen arrived at the gas station. He phoned for help about 12:02 a.m. Wednesday.

"I went out there to make sure it was a real call," Ford said.

Corneliusen was sitting in the gas station, head drooping, dirt-covered and weary.

"He was laughing and embarrassed and wanted to go back to his mine," Ford said.

So the deputy rang the county Fire Department, which used bolt cutters to unshackle the artist. It took three tries.

Corneliusen's ankles were reddened and indented with chain marks, but he was otherwise unharmed. He did not explain to his rescuers why he wanted to make such a sketch.

The artist could not be reached for comment, as he camps sans cellphone. He was last seen at the trailhead, taking long strides back to the mine.

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