Desert Artists

Effie Anderson Smith: How To Revive the Legend of A Forgotten Artist

Effie Anderson Smith was an early Arizona settler and artist who studied with the esteemed California Impressionists Anna Hills and Jean Mannheim. She admired the Salton Sea mirages, declaring them on par with the Sulphur Springs Valley mirages in Arizona. So, for our purposes, she belongs in the annals of California desert art. For her nephew’s purposes, though, she belongs everywhere. I’ve watched in admiration as San Diego resident Steven Carlson has restored Effie’s name to public view from Laguna to Bisbee. If you have an obscure desert artist to promote–or are one yourself–you’ll want to heed the story of…

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Cabot Yerxa: The Theosophist-Artist of Miracle Hill

One hundred years ago Cabot Yerxa scraped a dugout into a clay bank, claiming a 160-acre homestead on a patch of sand alive with wind and water spirits. (Today we call them energy vortexes.) He spent $10 on a burro, Merry Xmas, then later built a Hopi-style pueblo of 35 rooms, now one of the most beloved handmade houses in California. Desert-dwellers know this story. But you might not know that Cabot traveled with a sketchbook and paints strapped to his burro. You might not know that he was pals with Jimmy Swinnerton, Agnes Pelton and Carl Eytel, or that…

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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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