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Praying mantis man Gem & jam

Reveling in the Hippie Art Escapades of Gem & Jam

by MatthewTheMailman

It sure gets cold at night in the Arizona desert, but layers of astounding art, a menagerie of musical styles and crystal aesthetics revealed the winter wook haven of Gem & Jam as a truly sublime experience to warm any hippie’s heart. Hosted at the Pima County Fairgrounds in Tucson the first weekend of February (amidst the world’s largest gem and mineral exhibition that takes over the city for a month), the boutique festival curated three days of both local and international music, visual art, fun costumes, and all around amazing vibes. Smiles were in abundance at all times across the event’s five stages, an art gallery with live painters, wellness and flow workshops, and a family zone for the little gems. 

With 6,000 people in attendance it was surprisingly spacious and easy to move around and dance. The flow performers came out in full force at every stage and even in the campgrounds practicing their moves before heading into the venue. Festival organizers ran the event smoothly making arrival, setting up camp, and seeing multiple artists back to back a breeze. Don’t get me started about the wind though! Mother nature gave us an uphill battle at times on Friday when trying to set up our tents. Temperatures dropped as low as the 30s at some points, but colorful coats and fuzzy furs kept spirits high to party on through nighttime chills.

After easily going through the main entrance, the first music we heard came from the Quartz stage. Tucked behind the main row of food vendors upon walking in, the stage accompanied a large grassy area with trees and plenty of room to set out a blanket and relax. Expertly cut wooden pieces made up the facade of this stage and created a 3D layered effect. The design also featured giant panels that came together to resemble large hand fans with each folded panel having a different design. The vibrant purple and green shade structure that hung above the audience beautifully added to the space both day and night. 

Towards the back of this area live painters shared their art with others and several performers flowed their minds out. The artform that stood out most here was the shibari rope suspension. A large metal structure, which served as a jungle gym to climb on most of the time, showcased the elaborate ropework on the blissfully suspended woman. The rigger used several knots but the suspension seemed to rely more on creating tension in the rope through weaving in order to hold the woman in the air without having to knot the rope at every key point. It was such an intricate, mesmerizing art to watch unfold with trust and communication key between the rigger and the rope bunny. 

Quartz stage

By the fifth plate of mouth-watering food that caught our eyes at the Quartz stage, it was time to check out the food vendors – and boy were we in for a treat! You know you’re at the right festival when you have staples like Super Heady Tacos slinging gluten-free and dairy-free tacos that are the bomb diggity. The Grilled Cheese Incident was the next booth over fulfilling all our cheesy desires and Kalikos Hawaiian Kitchen happily served us pineapple pork and poke bowls. It was a delicious, reasonably priced food lineup from Colorado to California and we felt spoiled everyday. For spirits we had the Fort Collins, Colorado favorite Odell Brewing onsite with hard kombucha available for the more adventurous drinkers. 

Smaller regional DJs threw down with enthusiastic energy at the Opal Stage. On Sunday it was taken over by a local collective called All The Homies that exhibited what the Arizona scene has to offer while vivaciously engaging the crowd. Their group rocked this stage all day and kept the party bumping into the late night with the Heartbeat Silent Disco. An awesome chill area with inflatable lounge chairs, hammocks, and room for live painters inhabited the left side of the stage. The dancers at Opal truly made it WILD! Pole dancers could be found shaking upside down, passionately spinning and twerking to the beat, electrifying the calm of the afternoon. 

The intimacy of this stage encouraged fun connections and antics, like the LED-synchronized lightsabers Vincent Antone passed to audience members for his set. Introducing someone carrying a hatless Woody doll from “Toy Story” to my friend wearing a Woody hat – during Cowboy Spice, no less – exemplified the kind of serendipitous silliness that punctuated interactions all weekend. Wooks and hippies weren’t the only party animals on the dance floor at Gem & Jam. There were clowns, unicorns, mystical beings and even a giant praying mantis! One legend had jaws dropping in awe and people hugging him everywhere he went. In a sea of fur coats, the Squishmallow King emanated pure joy with the softest winter-wear of all, a handmade coat made up of squishmallows.

Quartz stage
squishmallow coat

Adjacent to the Opal Stage was a cluster of art vendors with gems, pins, sublimated apparel, sage, rocks, you name it. Amongst the vendor rows, it quickly became apparent that the festival welcomed pets with open paws. Copious amounts of furballs and some unexpected creatures were roaming throughout the venue and campgrounds. A pet duck named goose and a pet goat were somehow at the festival, and word on shakedown street is that the two animals actually met over the course of the weekend! 

Alongside the art vendors an open pavilion housed the main live painting area as well as the art gallery. The sheer amount of art in one place was an inspiring sight to behold as the artists worked on their pieces in the open for everyone to admire while soundtracked by the excellent tunes of the main stage. Swirls of different styles vividly complemented each other, from carved busts and blacklight painted masks to fantastical nature imagery and psychedelic explosions of color. We acquired a print from one of the artist’s works for $40, while original canvases ranged from the hundreds to the tens of thousands in the gallery. 

Most of the visual artists were new to me, though recognizing the work of some I’d seen elsewhere – like Incedigris and Steven Haman at Tipper Red Rocks, Spero Art at Suwannee Hulaween – gave a sense of how much representation this event provides for visual creators in the live music scene. One well-known artist with a major presence at Gem & Jam was Chris Dyer. Aside from watching him live paint and noticing his artwork worn by attendees, you could find his art for sale at his own vendor booth as well as in the Grassroots apparel booth as collabs. Several murals at the main stage and a beautiful quilt on the side of the pavilion memorialized experimental bass artist CharlestheFirst, who passed away unexpectedly in December. These were touching to see and Lab Group‘s tribute set for Charles resonated with bittersweet high notes in low-end frequencies.

Random Rab kicked off the Emerald (main) stage on Friday with a peaceful and flowy set. Hippies swayed about while enjoying the sunset and mountain views in the distance. Bass music lovers were spoiled on the Emerald stage the first two evenings with Lab Group, Liquid Stranger and Opiuo. Liquid Stranger fans showed up in full force with their Wakaan merch, which was easily the most worn music label at Gem & Jam. Everyone layered up for the bitter cold that night, which dissipated as Liquid Stranger threw down heavy heaters in a wildfire of weird bass wavelengths. 

Shpongle‘s Simon Posford live set Saturday night united different realms of music lovers in a psychedelic circus of ambient instrumentals, as sounds from across the world mixed into intergalactic synthesizers to activate states of transcendence. Combining that with seamlessly blended hallucinatory visuals opened up a portal to higher dimensions, releasing a cascade of alien energy that felt like a launch into the cosmos. Sunday wound down with powerhouse jamtronica from Sunsquabi and STS9 on the Emerald stage that left me feeling some kinda way. 

After Lab Group’s set Friday, our spirits quickly lifted as we stumbled across the Richard Simmons of hula hoop lunacy, Pam Hoops. Bursting with vitality and outward expression, she corralled a random passerby and me into a spontaneous hooping lesson consisting of mind-bending tricks that you normally see magicians do with magic rings, as well as showing us how to make LED wings out of three interlocking hoops. Her energy was infectious and stayed with us the rest of the festival.

What do you get when you cross urban party vibes with crystalline visuals and a warm place to dance? The Onyx stage! This stage inside a steel building gave us an underground, late-night warehouse atmosphere where your entire field of view could be filled with stimulation overload. An LED screen dazzled from behind the DJs/bands, and those visuals were projected to the sides of the screen as well, bathing the whole front of the warehouse in kaleidoscopic visions of light. In front of the projections, immense gems constructed of mylar created the ambiance of being in a cavern of minerals. If it weren’t for the rails dividing the attendees from the geodes, then wooks would have been climbing all over them. 

The Onyx stage was the perfect environment for the wubs and wonks of bass music producers and Gem & Jam delivered in spades here with the likes of Angelic Root, Tripp St., Wreckno and NotLö, whereas Claude VonStroke whipped Onyx into a raving frenzy. Flow artists took over the space in the back of the crowd to paint the air with their flow props, and in the back corner a large addressable LED installation named Qube attracted trippers like bees to honey with its bewitchingly luminous patterns. 

Communal connection prevailed at the 14th year of Gem & Jam, bringing together high-flying hippies, wacky wooks, visionary artists and souls whose self-expression inspires others to live more freely, passionately and creatively. This desert diamond in the rough raised our vibrations for a shimmering, supremely satisfying start to the 2022 festival season.

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