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March 31, 2022

So many hummingbirds! 10 years of the Focus on Nevada photo contest | The Sword and the Sorcerer turns 40, with a facelift | Where does art happen? This installation wonders

DURING A BRAINSTORMING meeting among the  Desert Companion editorial staff in late 2012, Art Director Christopher Smith brought up the idea of a photo issue. A photographer himself, Smith pays attention to photography journals and photo features in other magazines, and he knew that something similar would work in Las Vegas because of its strong photography community.

"Plus," he says today, "there's just so much to shoot beyond the Strip."  

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It was an exciting idea, and the discussion about how to make it work resulted in a multimedia community production — contest, photo issue, and traveling exhibit — that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

I'm not a fan of editorial navel-gazing or self-promotion, but in this case, I can invoke my reaction to Desert Companion's first Focus on Nevada as a reader, because I didn't work here yet. I remember when the June 2013 issue came to my mailbox at home. I dropped everything else on the kitchen table and flipped through it cover to cover, transfixed — from former Deputy Editor Scott Dickensheets' "Insta-guru" essay, to photographer Sabin Orr's imaginative spread adorning an ice-cream shop review, to photographer Jerry Metellus' breathtaking blue-tinted visual meditation on the human body in motion, to the 14-page feature with the winners of the photo contest. The next day, I took the issue to Vegas Seven, where I was then a staff writer, to show my editors what we were up against.

Even as a member of the team that produces it now, I can objectively say the photo contest and issue have continued to engage the community. This is evident in both the number of submissions to the contest — more than 1,500 the first year (triple the hoped-for target) and approaching 2,000 last year — and the people who come to the exhibition where winners are announced.

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Seeing their reactions is Smith's favorite part of the process. He gives this example: "Last year, Al Baker won second place in the Artistic and Abstract category, and I used his photo (of a Seven Magic Mountains diorama) on the cover of the (photo) issue. At the party, I had the magazine cover blown up and displayed on a tripod stand, and I see a guy I soon figured out was Al walk by and literally fall back. He was so surprised and grateful. I just had to go talk to him."

This points to something that distinguishes Focus on Nevada from some other photo contests: It's open to everyone, not just professionals. Hobbyists and students often win. And it's judged by not only photographers, but also a variety of other local tastemakers, from architects and chefs, to musicians and writers.


Each year, this eclectic group gathers in the Nevada Public Radio board room (unless there's a pandemic on, when it's done over Zoom) and goes through a selection of the photos that have made it past Smith and his team's initial culling. Judges debate the merits of the composition, lighting, subject matter, and technique.

"There's never been any heated fights," Smith says, "but there has been some intense back-and-forth. Like, it might not have been the greatest photo, in terms of technique, but the person really saw something unique in the moment they captured and someone's arguing for that. ... That's the best thing about how we do it. We have people who judge on both technical merit and impact, so it's a good balance."

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This balance caught Darren Johnson's eye when he attended the awards event at the Fifth Street School in 2015. Johnson is the gallery services manager for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District, which has been hosting the Focus on Nevada photoshowcase on tour at libraries around the Valley since 2016. He appreciates that it's a community exhibit, while still maintaining a high artistic standard.

"The quality of the photos is higher than what most folks might take," he says. "There's a lot of skill that goes into the photos that make it into the showcase, and it's an extremely attractive presentation."

Johnson's favorite memory of the show is when the actor who portrays Scooter Elvis on the Strip called. "He'd missed the show, but he'd heard there was a photo of him in it," Johnson says, "and he wanted to see it. Later, a casting agency wanted to hire Scooter Elvis for the TV show  Hacks, and I was able to put them in touch with him."

Smith, who checks every entry into the contest and looks at every photo multiple times during judging, says there are still some that stand out in his memory. No one will ever forget Jeff Scheid's photo of a little blond boy with outstretched hands holding a pair of just-severed steer testicles (above). And there was the 2016 black-and-white photo of a houseless man sitting in front of a metal gate crying, remarkable for the sheer anguish it showed.

But Smith says his favorite may still be the first year's winner (above), an image of Harry Reid International (then McCarran) Airport at night with the city twinkling in the background and streaks of light from cars going in and out in the foreground. "It had so much to look at," he says, "and it captured what the Strip is about, all the activity, the constant people in and out."

NOTE: Our favorite contest photos over the years, with comments about why we loved them, are in the slideshow above. To enter this year's contest, click here


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IN 1982, a fantasy epic about a fierce warrior taking back an ancient kingdom from a cruel tyrant grossed nearly $40 million at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing independent movie of the year and establishing an enduring following. It wasn’t Conan the Barbarian or The Beastmaster but rather The Sword and the Sorcerer, the debut feature from cult filmmaker and longtime Las Vegas resident Albert Pyun.

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To celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Sword and the Sorcerer, Scream  Factory has released a lavish new home video collector’s edition of the movie on Blu-ray and UHD. It includes a gorgeous 4K restoration, multiple interviews with cast and crew members, and a full-length commentary track from Pyun himself. Prior to this release, fans would have to seek out a 20-year-old DVD with a muddy transfer, and the only legal way to stream the movie has been in a version by RiffTrax, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 offshoot featuring comedic commentary. (Pyun’s quotes in this story come from both the Blu-ray’s bonus features and from an interview with Desert Companion, conducted over email to accommodate Pyun, who suffers from dementia.)

The Sword and the Sorcerer stars Lee Horsley as Talon, the deposed prince of a previously peaceful kingdom now ruled by the villainous Titus Cromwell (Richard Lynch). After wandering the world for more than a decade, Talon returns in secret to the land of Ehdan, aiding a rebellion to overthrow Cromwell and restore peace. He romances the lovely Princess Alana (Kathleen Beller) and wields a three-pronged sword that fires its blades like a rocket launcher, which “makes no sense, but I thought it would be really cool,” Pyun says.

Pyun grew up in Hawaii with dreams of making movies, and he began his career in Japan working on projects for legendary actor Toshiro Mifune. When he arrived in L.A., he was a complete outsider with no clue how to break into the business. All he had was an idea for a sword-and-sorcery movie, developed with his friend, writer John V. Stuckmeyer. “Getting people interested, that was a chore,” he says.

“I had a love for Japanese fantasy films growing up in Hawaii,” Pyun says. “I saw Excalibur open up really well, and Excalibur was in the same sort of genre as I was pitching.” He combined those two influences to develop The Sword and the Sorcerer, and then traveled all over town attempting to pitch it. “I had big replicas of the makeup effects we were going to do,” he says. “I’d be walking down Sunset Boulevard with a snake head and all these gore effects.”

Eventually, Pyun scored a $1.5 million budget to make the movie, although he says he and his partners only saw $10,000 of that. Pyun clashed with producers, the director of photography, and the editor, but he persevered in pursuing his concept for the movie, influenced by the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series and with a darker edge than typical fantasy fare. “I was probably an inch away from being fired every day,” he says. “It’s your first film, you just go for it. If they fire you, they fire you.”

But Pyun wasn’t fired, and even though he still feels that his vision was compromised, The Sword and the Sorcerer helped him launch a career that has lasted for decades. He went on to direct cult favorites including Nemesis (and three of its sequels), Radioactive Dreams, the 1990 version of Captain America, and the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg. Since moving to Las Vegas, Pyun has embraced the local film community, working with a Vegas-based cast and crew for his independent productions. In 2008, he directed Tales of an Ancient Empire, an unofficial sequel to The Sword and the Sorcerer (featuring Horsley in a cameo appearance as Talon) that had early previews at the now-defunct Theatre 7 in Downtown Las Vegas.

“It’s amazing how generations grew up on it,” Pyun says now about The Sword and the Sorcerer. “Many fathers and sons.” Those fans are the people who now work with Pyun on his own productions and spearhead projects like this home video release and the forthcoming feature documentary Albert’s Pyuniverse. “Considering the film is from almost 40 years ago, the story is still great, and the special effects are amazing,” says Albert’s Pyuniverse director Lisa D’Apolito.

“Albert achieved all his goals on his first film and also learned the treachery of the film biz,” says Pyun’s wife Cynthia Curnan, who’s also been the writer and producer on many of his films for the past two decades. “I am continually mystified how Albert can be not angry at the horrible treatment he received his entire career.”

Instead, Pyun is busy working on his next film, supported by a local cast and crew. He’s never let his dementia stop him from creating. Despite the challenges of fundraising, production, and his own illness, Pyun remains as optimistic now as when he was first pitching The Sword and the Sorcerer, refusing to take “No” for an answer from studio executives.

“It’ll be out this summer,” he promises.

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THE GLASS FRONT at Test Site Projects has been filmed in red plastic, so walking into the gallery space inside is an adjustment. It is white and full and lit up in tube light. Walls jut out at angles and a chunky white TV in the back plays a VHS tape like some altar to a lost past. This is 3200 GAUCHO DRIVE LAS VEGAS, NV 89169, a new installation by Las Vegas artist Nima Abkenar.

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“What I usually do with my artworks is that I try to put enough clues of the thought process that I’m intending to be the main thought process about the work, but then I give the freedom to the audience. If they want to take a different path, they’re fine, they can do it,” Abkenar says. The title of the installation, which he calls “the negation of my address,” is one such clue.

The installation stemmed from an idea Abkenar had to create an exhibition of curated areas of his house. “But of course, if I’m curating it, I can select it however I want, I can crop it the way that I want it. And I just involved anything that made me like that area. Of course, the wall is part of it, the structure is part of it, so I included that,” Abkenar says.

A standalone wall runs almost the length of the small gallery, complete with molding and a dummy electrical outlet. Another freestanding wall has a few rolled up prints leaning against the side of it, as if the artist rested them there while he went to make space in the closet.

As the gallery fills up, people clog the hallway and float into the adjacent rooms. Test Site Projects is a complete eco system: print shop, frame shop, and gallery in one, just off Main Street in the Arts District. The energy of the audience is fire bright, mostly young artists and creatives. I make this assumption based on shoes: the black Converse that have come back around, spotless Nike’s, and orange bubble slides that look like Yeezys. It’s a see-and-be-seen event, but it’s also sweet conversations lining hallways, with people apologizing their way through to look at Test Site Project’s own art collection.

Every piece in Abkenar’s installation is iteration one of four, meaning each sculpture — which he calls a replica — can be remade three more times. “The reason I call them iterations is because they can have a different life after. So, when somebody takes them to their house, they can have a completely different interaction with the space. People can move objects within that frame that I’ve created,” Abkenar says.

“When you go to the gallery and you finally see it, you see that there is a duality about the notion of site. These objects still are representing something that was site-specific to my house, and they’re also representing the selection that I make for the gallery, so (the exhibit) has two notions of site. But when you think about it more, you notice that they actually don’t belong to either site; they are their own site.”

The installation as it exists here is only midway through its life cycle, and the concept behind Abkenar’s piece involves a two-way transference — the sculptures as sites and the space that displays them as a site, each affecting the other.  

“I think it would become a lot more clear why I’m making this claim if you imagine what happens if one of these goes to another house. What happens is these items, as soon as they’re put in the house and they start interacting with the existing site, because they’re their own site, the two sites start mixing. So, depending on what house they go to, and how people interact with them, they just take on a different life.” 

Exploring this space made up of other spaces, I am struck by the relentless ambiguity being created and recreated here. Abkenar has chosen chunks of his home that feel disjointed from place and time. The colors are muted, the lights cast a strange glow, and the old TV takes me back to another decade, when I was very young, and had not yet been here. Or maybe I had, and this is an alternate lineage of walls and their boundaries. When you’re inside 3200 Gaucho Drive, it’s hard to say for sure.

The work is on view through April 16 at Test Site Projects, 1551 S. Commerce St., Unit A. Open by appointment. 702-706-8512,

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Photos and art:  The Sword and the Sorcerer courtesy Scream Factory; 3200 Gaucho Drive Las Vegas, NV 89169 by Nima Abkenar

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