Desert Artists

Marcia Geiger: The Secret Lives of Vintage Trailers

The Tin Goose was just an old school bus parked outside the Joshua Tree Saloon until Marcia Geiger decided to make it the subject of a painting. In Geiger’s version, the Goose looks at you head-on and unflinching. It seems to be reciting the dreams and defeats of every seeker who ever lived aboard. The piece won the Preston Ormsby Award for Excellence at the 2016 Palm Springs Artists Council Exhibit (ACE Show), and the image became an instant High Desert classic. The Nebraska-born artist has made a years-long study of the “infinite procession” of transformed buses and campers she’s…

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When Chuckwallas Dream: The Cahuilla Hills Homestead of Susan Smith Evans

Lucky is the artist who bonds with a significant place. Georgia O’Keeffe had her Abiquiu, Agnes Pelton her Mt. San Jacinto, and Susan Smith Evans–who died in an accident on March 6, 2017–her Cahuilla Hills, a rustic hideaway just outside Palm Desert. Drive three miles up Highway 74 from 111 and you’ll find a neighborhood graced with natural landscaping and remnants of 1940s jackrabbit homesteads; it feels more like Joshua Tree and the high desert than the Coachella Valley. A printmaker, painter and photographer, Susan Smith Evans taught in the College of the Desert (COD) art department for more than…

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Jim Toenjes: The Path of a Migratory Desert Painter

Longtime Palm Springs resident Jim Toenjes took off in his trailer four years ago, with his paints and his German Shepherd Greta by his side. His itinerant lifestyle resembles that of the early desert artists who made a seasonal circuit from Palm Springs to the Arizona Navajo country and then up to the Sierra in summer. It’s a life many of us envy, and in this Q&A Jim tells us what it’s like being a painter At Large in the World, as he calls himself. —Many people would be hesitant to go nomadic for fear of being too cold, too…

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John Hilton and the Smoketree Gang

Editor’s note–In anticipation of Kathi Hilton’s visit to Palm Desert March 17-20, 2017, we’re featuring Dan Rohlfing’s article about Kathi’s dad, John Hilton, and his own Wild Bunch of friends. John Hilton, who died in 1983, ran with a circle that included Agnes Pelton, Clyde Forsythe, Maynard Dixon, Bill Bender, Nicolai Fechin, Desert Magazine editor Randall Henderson, Zane Grey and others. The article–reprinted from Dan and Linda Rohlfing’s Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery newsletter–shows how the Smoketree School‘s strength was based not on individual celebrity but on a web of relationships. The friends spanned the fields of government, journalism, Hollywood, literature,…

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Still Life: Eric Merrell Looks at the Orange and Agave

In the hierarchy of genres taught in art history class, desert landscapes would be low on the list. But they positively rule compared to the lowly still life. Fortunately, the lowest-rated form has a new champion in Eric Merrell. The Pasadena artist has a style and intensity that attracts followers for whatever he’s doing, whether it’s painting Joshua Trees at midnight or a potted Euphorbia in his own backyard. Merrell grew up in Gilroy, California, where his parents still live. After earning an BFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, he went on to paint California landscapes…

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Barbara Gothard: Surrealism and the Desert of Dreams

When I heard there was a surrealist living off of South Palm Canyon Drive, near my favorite Indian Canyons haunts, I felt like a botanist who’d discovered a rare desert lily. In Palm Springs we have installation artists, landscape painters, post-modernists and tiki artists–but surrealists? Those are from Paris and New York. Well, not all of them. There were some noted surrealists inspired by the California desert, including Dorr Bothwell–who lived in Joshua Tree in the 1960s–and Helen Lundeberg, who spent time in Palm Springs and Death Valley. I’d always admired these bold painters and never thought I’d encounter their…

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Vaughan Davies: New Light on Tahquitz

I would have told you I know Tahquitz Canyon well. I’ve studied the jagged mouth from my backyard for 21 years. I’ve watched the shadow of the witch glide across the canyon in the mornings and have even trekked to the third waterfall to visit a former hermit-in-residence. So I thought I knew this place–as emblematic of Palm Springs as Ayers Rock is of Australia. But then I saw a Tahquitz painting by Vaughan Davies. Here was a tilted slab rearing up as if about to speak. A spiky monolith, slightly foreboding. This was a Tahquitz new to me. In…

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Funeral in the Rocks: A Tale of Cathedral City’s Early Artists

In honor of Cathedral City’s 35th anniversary celebration (November, 2016) we’re featuring vintage photos of the town, on display through December 18th at the City Hall Art Gallery. Accompanying the images is an excerpt from Painted Rocks by Josephine Morse True. This hard-to-find memoir depicts the village and the artists, as they were in 1935 when True lived there. Of all the Coachella Valley cities, Cathedral City claims the most beguiling art story: an early band of free spirits gathered around the artist Agnes Pelton and the teachings of Theosophy. Instead of remaining aloof from their neighbors (as bohemians tend…

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The Hidden World of R. Lee Miller and the Araby Rock Houses

If you walk the levee behind the Palm Springs PetCo and look toward the mountain you’ll see them, but barely: four little rock houses. It looks like boulders tumbled down the hillside and assembled themselves into a hamlet out of a children’s story. Aside from one new roof–suggesting occupancy–you’d think the  structures were vacant and about to be bulldozed to make way for luxury homes. I’d puzzled over the hamlet many times over the years. Then I puzzled some more when I heard that Christina Lillian, the glamorous arts patron and friend of Agnes Pelton, had once owned them and…

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Desert Romantic: The Newly Discovered Letters of Paul Grimm

From the 1930s through the 1970s, Paul Grimm’s paintings broadcast a sublime vision of the Palm Springs landscape to tourists from around the world. Yet for all of his importance to desert art, I’ve never known more about him than the standard mini-bio: He painted movie backdrops, ran a gallery downtown, loved his fox terrier named Cholla. Because he left few personal records and had no offspring to tell his story, it seemed we’d never know more. Grimm would forever remain an encyclopedia entry. That changed recently when Harbor City resident Ann Tompkins sent her grandson into her attic to…

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