Editor’s note: This article by Steven Carlson suggests an entirely new school of desert art. While we’ve deemed the Coachella Valley painters the Smoketree School, Effie Anderson Smith (Steven’s great-great aunt) devoted much of her work to the misunderstood yucca. Aunt Effie (1869-1955) was a pioneer Arizona painter who lived in a mining camp and turned to painting after the death of her baby daughter in 1907. Two decades before Georgia O’Keeffe, Effie experimented with impressionism as she followed the yucca through a rough Western land.
As we celebrate Easter, Passover or whatever your tradition is this time of year, I am reminded of Effie’s love affair with the yuccas – especially those near her home in Pearce. Her fascination with them began shortly after her arrival in the Arizona Territory in 1895. She often spoke of her fondness for one she called ‘The Old Yucca’ – a lone sentinel of the desert. We see them in several of her paintings of the Sulphur Springs Valley between the Chiricahua & Dragoon Mountains not far from her house.
They are also known to gardeners and desert experts as ‘Our Lord’s Candle’ (Yucca whipplei). Effie’s deeply rooted Episcopalian faith resulted in her styling of the plant’s name as “Desert Candles of Our Lord” for the purpose of inscribing this title on many of the yucca paintings she sold to admirers of her art or sometimes gifted to friends. Perhaps more than any other subject, from the mid-1930s on through to the decrescendo of her active life as an artist in the early 1950s, yuccas moved from the periphery of her earlier works to take center stage as the main subject of her paintings.
When this yucca painting by Effie appeared on eBay some years ago, it was accompanied by a rare intriguing hand-written note from Effie to the buyer that revealed the significance of pioneer history as the artist knew it at that time. She informs the buyer that the scene depicts… “Old Butterfield Trail – Apache Pass in the Distance. The foreground hill is the Sulphur Springs Valley Hill. Here the settlers camped on the way to Tucson.
The Yuccas (The Desert Candles of Our Lord) bloom in luxury all Summer.”
Effie signed it on April 23, 1945.
Depending upon the altitude of your yuccas in Arizona, California, New Mexico and the northern provinces of Mexico – they may go into or out of bloom at different times of the spring, summer and fall. For Effie, the many yuccas along the rail lines and roads between Pearce and Willcox to the north or Douglas and Bisbee to the south provided a spectacular show of white, contrasted against the clear blue sky or desert brown or mountain reds or violet – as the season turns to the hottest months of the year in Arizona.
Given most of Effie’s section of Cochise County had few to no other trees than the yuccas, these flowering wonders were a welcome delight – and may be featured in her art well after their blossoms have passed their peak.
In fact, it can be said that Effie’s depiction of yuccas is her unique contribution to desert art and are among her most sought-after paintings by collectors.
Prized by discerning art lovers but misunderstood by others, more than one of Effie’s yucca paintings have turned up in the sale bins at thrift stores. Because she painted more of these than any other subject, you have a better chance of finding one of her yuccas works in antique stores or estate sales. If you do find, please let us know!
This article is reposted from Steven Carlson’s Effiegram newsletter. To learn more about Effie Anderson Smith and to sign up for the Effiegrams see: https://www.effieandersonsmith.com/
Read about Steven Carlson’s epic quest to write his great-great aunt’s name back into art history. https://www.californiadesertart.com/effie-anderson-smith-how-to-revive-the-legend-of-a-forgotten-artist/