Desert Art Center: Clubhouse of the Legends

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An institution that nurtured generations of Smoketree painters—the Desert Art Center—celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. This is not some moldy shrine to art history; it’s a working co-op gallery in downtown Palm Springs. Located at 550 North Palm Canyon, the center is a warm, light-filled space housed in the old Frances Stevens School. You can go next time you’re in town and see works by contemporary artists while soaking up the vibe of the early giants.

The Desert Art Center in Palm Springs

The gallery nurtured the All-Stars of desert art including Carl Bray, Wilton McCoy, Darwin Duncan, R. Brownell McGrew, Jimmy Swinnerton, John Hilton, Bill Bender, Agnes Pelton, Ralph Love, Fred Penney, Larry Sitter, Marj Schumacher, William Darling and Desert Hot Springs pueblo-builder Cabot Yerxa.

Self-portrait by Darwin Duncan, a former member of the Desert Art Center

Many of the names on this list also belonged to the other major artists’ hang-out in the Valley–the Desert Southwest Art Gallery in Palm Desert (74225 Highway 111 in Palm Desert). This is no longer an active gallery but today houses LG’s Prime Steakhouse. The building was home to the style-making  Desert Magazine, which also operated a book shop and art gallery to promote writers and artists from their pages. Both the magazine and its artists helped define the mystique of the California desert for the nation and the world.

The artists went back and forth between their lairs in Palm Springs and Palm Desert, also dropping in at the Shadow Mountain Palette Club in Palm Desert. (Read more here soon on the Desert Southwest Art Gallery and the Shadow Mountain Palette Club.)

The painter Edna Hollinger, who died in 2009, was a former president of the Desert Art Center. As a young painter, she trekked the canyons with many of the aging legends. Shortly before her death, she recalled two things about the early days of the Center: The painters took their work very seriously, but didn’t take their own status so seriously at all. There was no competition, no jealousy, she said, just a shared desire to improve their artistic chops.

Reprinted here is an article from Palm Springs Life (February, 2008) on one of the Center’s traditional paint-outs–a walkabout with brushes and poodles. For more on the Center, see:

Smoketrees by Desert Art Center painter John Hilton

Paint-Out in the Desert

by Ann Japenga

On a bright January day I followed a poodle in a red sweater through the sandy washes of Box Canyon near Mecca. I had to keep an eye on the pooch at all times if I didn’t want to lose sight of the painter at the other end of the leash.

A painter on a paint-out (a communal outdoor painting excursion) is as engrossed as a monk in walking meditation. The poodle’s owner, Louise Tennyson, meandered up gullies and down washes, oblivious to anything but the angle of the winter sun illuminating the smoke trees.

I was here to learn how a painter sees the landscape and also to experience a venerable tradition–the monthly paint-outs of the Desert Art Center, established in Palm Springs in 1950. The center is one of the most influential and undersung institutions ever to grace Palm Springs. In almost 60 years of existence it has fostered the careers of dozens of landscape painters whose work is now in demand by museums and collectors—folks like John Hilton, R. Brownell McGrew, Fred Penney, Wilton McCoy, Jimmy Swinnerton and Sam Hyde Harris.

But the center is hardly a relic. It continues to operate as an artists’ co-op and gallery in the old Frances Stevens School near the corner of Alejo and Palm Canyon. Next time you’re having a mocha at Koffi, wander across the street and investigate the on-site painting classes as well as the legendary paint-outs that whisk painters off into the dunes and canyons, where they seem to belong.

I knew I’d like the paint-outs when Louise Tennyson told me there’s no boss and no rules. You don’t even have to have to be an artist to come along. That was my invitation.

When I showed up at Box Canyon, painters were scattered here and there–within eyeshot of each other but otherwise alone with their easels. At lunchtime, they ambled back to their cars and everyone swapped morsels and told stories of painters they know. Edna Hollinger, an early president and accomplished painter, still lives in Palm Springs. Sally Ward, now 98 and living in a Tucson rest home, still paints every day. (Ed. Update: Hollinger died in 2009. Sally Ward is now 100 and still painting.)

The painters may change from year to year but the places stay the same. Box Canyon was a favorite of Jimmy Swinnerton’s in the 1950s. Louise Tennyson learned where to paint-out from late artists such as Darwin Duncan and Karl Albert. She can show you a little park in Indian Wells where you can view the serrated mountains without the distraction of development, just as Fred Chisnall or Carl Bray did a half century ago.

The Desert Art Center got started when the now-famous Agnes Pelton donated a smoke tree painting as a fund-raiser. The first president was Palm Springs’ flying great-grandmother, Zaddie Bunker.

The oldest nonprofit in the Coachella Valley, the center moved a few times before settling into its present quarters. At the time, the painters never realized they were part of a desert painter’s movement. But today these artists are coming into their own, just as the Carmel and Laguna landscape artists did before them. On the day I wrote this there were 39 bids on a John Hilton painting on eBay—just one gauge of the growing popularity of the desert artists.

Carl Bray, the beloved painter of smoketrees and railroads (formerly of Indian Wells; now he lives in Banning) was president of the club in the ‘50s. “Everybody that painted the desert seemed to belong to that group,” he says. “It was kind of our guidepost.”

35 comments for “Desert Art Center: Clubhouse of the Legends

  1. Hi Connie, The best place to see Louise Tennyson’s work or to contact her is via the Desert Art Center at 550 N. Palm Canyon in Palm Springs. Their phone number is (760) 323-7973.

  2. I have a desert(Borrego Springs)painting signed G. Christopher Smith 1958. I have tried to research who this is and cannot find any information. Does anyone have any?

  3. I have a “Desert and Smoke Tree near Palm Springs, California painting from Larry Sitter. Does anyone have any information on it?
    Thank you!

  4. I have a desert landscape painting by Larry Sitter and it has “Palm Springs” written on the back (I assume this is the title of the painting). How do I find out information about the painting- what year it was painted, etc.? And where can I find more information about Larry Sitter?

  5. Hi Greg, I usually look first at the website AskArt or at Edan Hughes’ “Artists in California” for info on an artist (You probably do this as well) but Larry Sitter doesn’t seem to appear in either source. While I have often heard his name mentioned as a Coachella Valley painter, I can’t help with any details. In a future article, I’ll be asking an appraiser how we amateurs can evaluate these desert paintings. Good luck with your quest.

  6. I acquired an oil Painting by Marj Schumacher. Does anyone have an information about the artist and value of her paintings?

  7. I also have a small oil on canvas signed Larry Sitter. The subject is smoke trees in a desert wash. I noticed that Stewart Galleries of Palm Springs, in its dicussion of the artist Terry Masters said
    “In 1996, he (Terry Masters) received the Larry Sitter Memorial Award for best desert painting at the Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival”. So to have an award named after him seems to indicate a certain amount of prestige among his fellow artists. I still do not find a listing for Larry Sitter in any of the usual reference works. Has anyone come across more biographical info for him lately?

  8. I have a print by John W. Hilton Named ” Cheerful Morning ” and would like to know approximate value

  9. Hi Terry,

    For an opinion on value, you might try appraisers Kevin Stewart in Palm Springs or Alissa Anderson in Santa Barbara. Or come to the art appraisal day at the Palm Desert Historical Society on April 9th starting at 10 am. The event is held in conjunction with Desertscapes, a monthlong tribute to the desert painters. For more, see


  10. Hi everyone, My name is Shannon Calloway and I am Larry Sitter’s granddaughter. I see in 2010 that there were a few emails about my grandfather. I will answer any questions that I can about him. He was inspirational, talented, well known and well respected in Palm Springs. I miss him.

  11. Hello Desert Art Center….. I have taken a net road that has led me to your gallery. I am researching O. McDonald or Ollie McDonald and have found out he was trained at your school of desert painting. I have 2 of his works. One is a miner sitting with a work donkey with mining equipment and a desert scene around him. The other is just a desert scene. I thought it might have been in the arizona eastern lower cali area like Needles Ca. Do u have any further info on this artist? From 1965-1975 he is listed as having spent time at the Desert Art Center.I am going to list them for sell but dont know their value. Any further info and maybe i can have a good picture of his accomplishments.

  12. lists a woman artist Olline M. McDonald (1920-2005). It also gives a brief biography on her.

  13. I have a painting by Harriet E. Lake but cant seem to find her in the Desert Art Center?? Said she was a president at one time?? Was married to L. Thoral Lake. (Realtor)
    Any information I can find on her work??
    Thank You, Tracy Mitchell

  14. Dear Desert Center,
    I have a John Conners desert scene and I heard he and Hilton were friends and painted together. I also would like to find out what McCoy’s 8 x 10 original oils are worth. Can anyone help me to find the answers to these questions?? Barbara

  15. I have painting by Marjorie Schumacher. It is done on flexible wood- like balsa wood, maybe? It is of an old desert town & in the upper right, she painted a map like area of Nevada… showing Reno, Silver City, Carson City, & Virginia City. I am having trouble finding info about it, or the artist. Is there any value to it?

    Thank you for any help.

  16. Dini,

    If you are anywhere near the Coachella Valley, come to the Appraisal Day at Palm Desert Historical Society on November 19, 2011. Appraiser Kevin Stewart can give you an opinion on the Schumacher painting.


  17. Dear Desert Center,
    I recently bought a little painting, a little desert scene, from Marie Gustafson,who, as I’ve learnt,was member of the Desert Art Center.
    I’d like to know more about her life and to see more of her work.
    Could you give me further information?
    Many Thanks

  18. Hi Iris,

    I don’t know of Marie Gustafson specifically. There were many accomplished artists in the Coachella Valley who are still waiting to be researched. Sometimes you can find a link to a relative on the Discussion section of the AskArt website. Or you might be able to find an online obit and find more information there. Surviving relatives are often happy to talk about the artists in their family.

    If you find out more about Marie Gustafson, I’m happy to post that info on this website, adding to the overall knowledge of the Smoketree School.


  19. I have 2 John Hilton paintings out of the family estate which my grandfather purchased. We had them profesionally cleaned and they are in beautiful condition. They areSun and Shadow dated 63-3-9 16/20. Also Glory of Afternoon dated 63-3-9 20/30. We’ve enjoyed these pictures but feel its time to pass them on. We have photos of these fine works. We would really like to know the best place to offer them for sale. Thanks Dan

  20. looking for any information about a desert artist named paul salopekand were to see examples of his canvasas

  21. we feel we have an original by Darling called Taquitz Canyon but it is unsigned and we have not tried to remove the original framework..there is a srtory behind ti as well…..when is your next appraisial in Palm Spriongs for the rest of this year and the year soon to be 2013. We are at Dec 9, 2012 as I write… this…Thanks..Judith and Richard Bigham, past Palm Springs residents

  22. Dear Judith and Richard,

    There may be an appraisal day at the Palm Desert Historical Society again in April, 2013, as part of the Desertscapes celebration. Please check this site or in late January for updates.

    Meanwhile, I’d like to see the Tahquitz painting and to hear the story behind it! William Darling lived in Araby, the house on the right with the nice stone wall just before you come to the wash.



  23. My wife Mary Margaret is Larry Sitters daughter. She would be happy to fill in the blanks about her father. We have many of his paintings and love each and every one of them. Fill free to email us at the email address I posted. Michael and Mary Margaret Volpone

  24. Just realized that my email address doesn’t get published.This is the email to contact Mary Margaret Volpone-Sitter

  25. Michael and Mary Margaret,

    Thanks for getting in touch and I hope we get together soon so I can learn more about Larry Sitter–one of the important desert painters. His name often comes up in conversation with the older desert artists.


  26. Hi, I am Marjorie “Marj” Schumacher’s grandaughter Brenda Bowen. Please let me know if you have any questions about her and I’ll answer as best I can. She was a vibrant beautiful woman, avid lover of desert landscapes and a fabulous artist. She is sorely missed and in my heart always.

  27. I recently bought a painting by Marie Gustafson and this site is the only link I have been able to find. I am looking for any other information. The painting is a sunset ocean scene.
    Thank you, Evelyn

  28. I knew Mary and Larry Sitter years ago when I was manager at Desert Inn Plaza. I liked them and they were friends of my boss, Mr Sharp.
    I was at their house and always admired his desert paintings. He would spend time showing me his work and I admired it so much. It was to expensive for me even at that time so was never able to purchase one. I moved back to St.Louis and lost touch and have searched to find his name and work. Remember great conversations with them and anyone with one of his paintings should feel very lucky. I will try to email their daughter. bb

  29. Hi Bette,

    Thanks for your note. As manager of Desert Inn Plaza, you likely knew other artists who had galleries downtown. I’m hoping we can talk soon, both about Larry and Mary Sitter and the downtown PS art scene of an earlier day.


  30. I am the wife of Marjorie Schumacher’s great grandson and we have an avid interest in acquiring several of her paintings. If anyone has any of them and are interested in possibly selling them,we would greatly appreciate it if you could contact us at mrs.krupp2010@ Thank you for your time. Cheryl Krupp

  31. Hello!
    I have a beautiful Darwin Duncan seascape that belonged to my grandmother. She painted and belonged to the Glendale Art Association from 1960-1980 or so.
    I’m not sure where she got this painting but one of the family said she might have won it at one of the Association’s events.

  32. Hello, Today I purchased a painting from late artist Larry Sitter. It is a 18×24 . it was sold in rancho mirage in 1969 for $175. It reads Smoke Tree on back of frame. I feel lucky to own this painting.

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