Desert Artists

Emerging from the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960

Fans of California art had heard rumors that the fine arts conservator and scholar Maurine St. Gaudens was working on a book about California women artists. Given Maurine’s reputation, it was bound to be big. Now that the four-volume set has been released, though, it’s clear that nothing could have prepared us for this visual thrill ride. Emerging from the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860-1960 introduces 320 mostly-overlooked or forgotten women artists and reanimates them and their work. (Bios of three desert artists are below.) Maurine was not content to render the women as footnotes.…

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The Lost Colony of Sven-Ska: Christina Lillian and the Cathedral City Artists

Evan Lindquist heard stories about his Aunt Emma all his life. She was a beautiful blonde artist–a friend to Greta Garbo and D.H. Lawrence–and she ruled over an artists’ colony called Sven-Ska somewhere out in the California desert. To a boy growing up in small town Kansas, Sven-Ska seemed as exotic as Atlantis. This legendary aunt had inspired Lindquist to become an artist himself, yet he’d never met her.  Finally, in 1959, he and his wife, Sharon, were driving from Yuma to Palm Springs. They came around a curve and there was a sign on the highway that said Sven-Ska.…

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Arne Trettevik: The Star Shaman of South Palm Canyon

When Arne Trettevik’s Alfa Romeo sputtered to a halt in Palm Springs in the late 1990s, it seemed his daring life was stalling out too. He had hitched dugout canoe rides in Belize, taught at Esalen and inspired consciousness pioneers such as Stanislav Grof.  Now–broke down and alone–he moved into a courtyard  cottage just off South Palm Canyon Drive, behind the current-day Knights Inn.   A persistent cough kept him housebound. Dust and dishes piled up in the apartment. Arne took to admiring the mountain (San Jacinto) out front and returned to the painting experiments he’d  pursued off and on…

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Smoke Tree George: The Fabled Life and Times of George Frederick Gleich

My fascination with George “Smoketree” Frederick, quintessential desert artist and Wild West character, began innocently enough when I was asked by the Mesa Historical Museum to curate a small exhibit of artwork from the Buckhorn Mineral Baths collection. The Buckhorn, a now defunct mini-resort in east Mesa, Arizona, was owned and operated by Ted and Alice Sliger.  It catered to those wanting a long soak in hot, mineral water and for many years served baseball’s Cactus League athletes needing to relax sore muscles after long practices and hard-fought games.  Also, because of the Sligers’ interest in art and their innate…

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Gary Fillmore on Appraising Desert Art

Gary Fillmore on Appraising Desert Art

Ed. intro: “I have a Conrad Buff that belonged to my stepdad’s mother…” “I found a Val Samuelson in my brother’s condo…” People write to this website all the time with questions about found art. The inquiries break down into two categories: “Can you tell me more about the artist?” And “What is it worth?” I love the first category because it often leads to the discovery of neglected desert artists. The juiciest queries have a seed of a story attached: “I have a painting that was given to my great aunt who lived in Mecca since 1914 when her…

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Eleanor and Ron Hurst: A Mother and Son Walk the Smoketree Path

The weekend ritual of Ron Hurst’s youth involved driving from La Mesa through the San Diego backcountry to the Borrego desert, where he and his parents would head down a dirt road and make camp. His mother would set up her easel and he and his father would go off to practice tracking and rockhounding. While learning all about obsidian, jasper and quartz, young Ron also unknowingly absorbed the texture and light of the desert. He was learning via the eyes of his mother, the desert painter Martha Eleanor Nicholson Hurst (she went by Eleanor Hurst). That buried knowledge came…

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Hermann Fischer, Karl May and the Desert of Imagination

It was Karl May’s pulp fiction that first prompted a boy growing up in Heilbronn, Germany, to long for the desert he’d never seen, and, eventually, to become a desert painter at age 70. For the German writer May (1842-1912)—as for many others–the desert represented freedom, adventure and beauty. May (pronounced “My”) captured this desert of the imagination in popular novels that continue to inspire Europeans to flock to the American West today. Now a Palm Desert resident, Hermann Fischer was incubated with his love of open distance when he was still a child. But his craving for Western spaces…

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DeWayne “Dooby” Williams: Guru of the Black Rock Desert

I arrived at Gerlach, Nevada late in the day on a photo assignment for Nevada Magazine. A story about two railroading sisters who hauled materials from the Empire gypsum plant to Gerlach and Union Pacific’s main line where the loaded railroad cars were picked up. I needed a writer so I could concentrate on taking photographs and invited a friend, Linda Neimann, to write the story portion. On the 2nd night in Gerlach, I slept in my car near the tracks, so I would be up at first dawn when the sun rose over the distant mountain range, setting the…

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Eric Merrell: On Seeing Color in the Desert

Note: Eric Merrell teaches a class–Seeing Beautiful Color in the Landscape–May 14-16, 2014, in Pasadena. Deserts pose a “wonderful problem” when it comes to observing color, he says. Here are ideas on how to tackle the problem, from one of the most poetic painters of the California deserts. I really began to develop some of the color ideas during my Joshua Tree residency in 2009. In the desert in summer, especially in JT, there are strong shadows early in the morning and late in the afternoon, but for 5-6 hours when the sun is overhead there is hardly a shadow…

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Bidding On Agnes: A Newbie Goes to An Art Auction

I fell in love with Agnes Pelton’s paintings when I attended the Channeling Agnes Pelton: Portraits, Landscapes and Readings exhibition at City Hall in Cathedral City last year. Ever since, I’ve been on a search to acquire one of her paintings. They aren’t easy to find. I finally located one that had been put up for auction. The only problem was that I had never been to an auction, much less purchased a painting at one. I envisioned the big expensive auction houses like Christies or Sotheby’s and I was afraid I’d be intimidated. Undaunted, I headed to the John…

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