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Henry Mockel: The Philosopher of Flowers

This article first appeared in the Early Spring, 2014, edition of  The Sand Paper, the newsletter of the Anza Borrego Desert Natural History Association (www.abdnha.org).

Faced with a field of spring flowers, some of us want to run the other way. The names confuse us, the profusion intimidates us. Fortunately for the phobic, Henry Mockel has some advice: Pick just one primrose. Forget the acres of color and find yourself a solitary bloom. Visit it daily. Observe as the colors cycle from morning to night. Mockel self portrait

A renowned botanical artist, Henry once studied a Datura for an entire year. But you don’t even need to know the name “Datura”. “Erudition can become burdensome,” Henry says.

ABDNHA director Betsy Knaak and I share a fondness for this late flower-philosopher. ABDNHA has helped to keep Mockel’s name alive with exhibits of his serigraphs (a type of silk screen print) and sales of his popular notecards. Some years ago Betsy went to visit Mockel’s widow, Beverly, in 29 Palms and found his studio was preserved exactly as he’d left it–“like he’d stepped out to lunch”.

But something had clearly changed since Mockel’s heyday. The man’s personal story had faded from sight and few people seemed to remember him. What happened? It was my task to find out. Mockel ocotillo

It was a good time for this venture as Mockel’s star is finally rising, along with the growing popularity of California wildflower art in general. Mockel was included in a major show on the subject—When We Were Wild—at The Huntington last spring. One of the curators, John Wickham, says he identified about 40 artists who depicted California’s wildflowers.

“Some, like Alice Chittenden or A.R. Valentien, painted wild flowers from all over California,” he wrote in an email. “Others, like Henry Mockel, Jane Pinheiro, Edward Stuhl, and Sophie Mitchell painted the wild flowers in their immediate area. Pinheiro focused on the Antelope Valley and Mojave Desert. Mockel was the only artist I’ve found, so far, who focused on just the low deserts.”

The first place I went searching for more on Mockel was 29 Palms. I spoke several years ago to Rosemary Brockway, the woman who owned the rights to his work after the Mockels passed away. (Mockel died in Joshua Tree in 1981; Beverly died in 1990.) But when I inquired recently, my one link to Henry—Rosemary–had also died.

Next in my search, I combed through Mockel’s Desert Wildflower Notebook and Hot Air From the Desert. Both books were self-published in a charmingly rustic format, with the Mockels doing their own typesetting, paste-up, cover-making and even stitching. Henry was a DIY guy, a modern bohemian who eschewed mass-production.

Mockel1

I learned Henry had studied philosophy in Germany before coming to the US, where he studied art at Grand Central School of Art. His early works were dark and industrial–the Bowery, a workman stoking a furnace. But when Mockel moved across the country (first to Calico Ghost Town) in 1957, the darkness was gone, replaced with one of life’s most hopeful subjects: desert flowers.

The Mockels opened the Pioneer Art Gallery in 29 Palms’ old Plaza in 1961. They lived in a 47-foot house trailer and camped everywhere in the California desert. Mockel wrote articles for Desert Magazine and drew charming cartoons of campers by the road. (His sketches are amazingly modern looking and rival his flower prints for staying power.) He painted landscapes, mining camps, ghost towns, kangaroo rats and nudes. One 29 Palms resident still has a nude torso of Beverly hanging over her fireplace.

Henry Mockel sketch of desert homestead cabins

Henry Mockel sketch of desert homestead cabins

It was Mockel’s flower work that gained him prestige. In his prime he exhibited his flowers at the Living Desert, the Riverside Museum, the Palm Springs Art Museum and many other venues.

Tania Marien, an authority on botanical art, says Mockel belongs in the all-stars of the profession as his work appears in the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation collection; and he also participated in the 2nd International Exhibition of Botanical Art in 1968. “Being in the Hunt collection is a big deal,” she says. (For more on botanical art see Marien’s website: www.ArtPlantaeToday.com)

Mockel palo verde

I hadn’t yet found anyone who knew Henry personally–but I had one remaining thread and that was Kathi Hilton, daughter of desert artist John Hilton (who once mined calcite in Borrego). Kathi had been part of the early 29 Palms art scene and so I called her at her home in Roosevelt, Utah.

To my “sincere delight” (a phrase Henry liked to use) she said she had known Henry Mockel well. Her dad bought paints at his store, and they visited in the apartment behind the shop where the Mockels lived for a time. As Kathi was learning the art of the palette knife (she and her father excelled in the technique) Henry Mockel showed her his own palette knives he made from bamboo and razor blades.

“He was really good to me when I was starting out as a painter,” she says. However, much of his encouragement came from behind a closed door. Henry would be in the back room hidden from view, and would talk to Kathi through the veil.

He was on oxygen, she says, and hated being seen in public with his oxygen tank. “It bothered him terribly; he didn’t want people to know.” He even turned down a major magazine interview because he refused to be photographed. While we don’t know for sure, it’s possible Mockel had tuberculosis–as many TB patients moved to the desert for relief–or mustard gas poisoning. 29 Palms historian Pat Rimmington says the town was a sanctuary for mustard gas victims from World War 1 and Henry apparently had served in that war.

My luck had turned at last, it seems, as Rimmington also knew the artist. She met Beverly and Henry at their studio on the Plaza in 1977, and remembers that Beverly barked at her on their first meeting (“Are you going to buy something or not?”), while Henry hid out in the back of the store. Beverly always had a “bug in her ear” about something. Years later after Henry died, Beverly—who never learned to drive–roped Rimmington into giving her rides everywhere.

“I get the feeling she was a little bit bossy?” I asked.

“A little bit??!” Rimmington said with a laugh.

Beverly was secretive about the family business–sales of Henry’s cards and serigraphs. She would not patronize the local post office but instead drove to the UPS office in Palm Springs every Monday. While there, she often visited her friend Patricia Moorten, founder of the popular Moorten Botanical Garden on South Palm Canyon Drive.

Clark Moorten—current proprietor of the garden and the son of Patricia and “Cactus Slim” Moorten—has a vivid memory of the overbearing Beverly Mockel, but none of Henry, though he must have met him many times. Henry’s flower portraits were superb, Moorten says: “He was remarkably accurate.”

So now I have two theories as to why Henry dropped from view. Both are speculation, but biographical speculation is permitted these days. Henry may have been reclusive because of his disability, or he may have been driven into obscurity by his domineering companion.

Regardless, Henry is back from the shadows and ABDNHA intends on keeping him that way. In a recent development, the Nature Center is receiving a large collection of Mockel’s work, donated by Eric Wilcox. Eric’s father, Bill Wilcox, was a house painter in 29 Palms in the 1960s. The elder Wilcox loved desert art more than money, apparently, because he often painted houses in exchange for paintings.

Henry Mockel's painting of Lost Horse Mine, Joshua Tree

Henry Mockel’s painting of Lost Horse Mine, Joshua Tree

Eric was just a boy at the time, but he remembers Henry Mockel as a professorial man with a heavy German accent and an almost intimidating intelligence. “Of all the artists, all the people my father worked for, he really admired Mr. Mockel the most,” Eric says.

Bill Wilcox and Henry Mockel at Henry's Joshua Tree studio, 1970s

Bill Wilcox and Henry Mockel at Henry’s Joshua Tree studio, 1970s

So as you contemplate the bloom—if any–this season think of that brilliant German philosopher. Or rather, be like Henry: a man who never plucked flowers (“I can’t evince any enthusiasm over a cadaver”) and approached the tiny beings down on his belly, with an unwavering attitude of sincere delight.

 

 

 

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13 Responses to Henry Mockel: The Philosopher of Flowers

  1. Tom Baldwin
    March 19, 2014 at 8:10 pm

    Love the flower paintings

  2. janey ash
    March 22, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    An other wonderful article and chance to know the Mockels. I am blessed to own a copy of Henry’s book “Mockel’s desert flower notebook” it is a beautiful little illustrated book. Also was able to
    purchase his note cards in Joshua Tree Nat. Park.

  3. Karen Mockler
    April 30, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Now that Rosemary is gone, is Joshua Tree the only place to purchase Mockel’s notecards?

    As for the name coincidence (Mockel/Mockler), I noticed it years ago when Mockel’s work first came to my attention. (I am part German, but Mockler is actually an Irish name.) I ordered notecards from Rosemary for years. My husband and I even had her print our wedding invitations eleven years ago, with Mockel’s gorgeous mariposa lily on the front! (We have mariposa lilies around Tucson, too, where I live, but they are saffron instead of red—also stunning.)

  4. May 1, 2014 at 10:06 am

    Hi Karen,

    In Joshua Tree, I’d check the 29 Palms Art Gallery and the Historical Society Museum–they may stock Mockel’s work. Or try the Anza Borrego Natural History Association: http://www.abdnha.org.

  5. Lee Birdsong
    December 16, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    My name is Lee Birdsong. I’m Rosemary Brockway’s daughter. I took over the Mockel business after Mom passed away in 2011. If you’d like to purchase notecards, you can do so from the places Ann Japenga mentioned or from me. If you’d like an order form, please email me at leebirdsong@yahoo.com. Thank you so much for your continued appreciation of Mr. Mockel’s beautiful artwork.

  6. Rita Newberry
    July 10, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    I would be interested in the serigraphs of Henry Mockel’s desert flowers for sale by Trish Connors.
    Please e-mail me.
    Thank you.
    Rita Newberry.

  7. Mary ann
    September 19, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    I found a Mockel “desert sunflower” at an estate sale. 100/22

    I love it!

  8. Trish Connors
    December 18, 2015 at 10:23 am

    Rita Newberry, I have 2 Mockel Oil Paintings if you are interested.

  9. Margaret Coleman
    March 30, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    When I was a child visiting Anza Borrego with my parents, my folks always bought up the Mockel note cards where ever they could find them. My mother, an artist (albeit amateur) herself, appreciated the detail and vivid color in his botanical illustrations, which we’d use to identify desert flowers during nature hikes every spring. I have my own copy of Mockel’s desert flower notebook, and have been using his colorful notecards for correspondence since I was a young teenager. I hope my daughters continue the tradition.

  10. Katie Malone
    July 4, 2016 at 2:20 pm

    I have 3 original Mockel’s. Desert paintbrush 100/27, Old Dale 100/57 and Birgcage 100/83. Does anyone know their possible value? Im sure my Dad bought them at the plaza in 29.My grandparents were homesteaders and my Dad was the HS art teacher.

  11. Sheryl Dyer
    January 28, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    I recently came to own what I believe is a numbered serigraph of Henry Mockel’s: Campanulate Phacelia, 100/4. I would be interested in its worth, and may be interested in selling it.

    Thanks,
    Sheryl

  12. Deborah Whytock
    June 30, 2017 at 11:41 am

    Years ago I obtained a mixed media piece with a mounted nameplate titled “The Pied Piper of the Desert by Henry R. Mockel”. Not long thereafter I contacted Rosemary who was unable to provide any information on the piece. I also have both of his books. I would greatly appreciate any info regarding this art.

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