On the final night of the Joshua Tree spacecraft convention in 1958, Hollywood stuntmen tumbled seven stories off the face of Giant Rock. Columba Krebs waited in the wings while organizer George Van Tassel’s daughters performed songs taught to them by the Space Brothers. Then came announcements on the loud speaker: The steel column had been set for the dome-shaped structure called the Integratron.
Finally, as the crowd was growing sleepy, a tall, imposing-looking woman took the stage to show her paintings. The crowd was hushed as they took in Columba’s visions of spirals, planets and humans ascending. In Columba’s vision of transcendence, the spacemen come to Earth and take poor people along with them on the ride home.
Informed by Christian Socialist ideals, the presenter was a comic book artist (a rarity for women when she started in the 1930s), a science fiction writer, book illustrator and painter–one of the few women in the elite class of 1950s UFO contactees. Her Giant Rock performance seemed like a made-for-Hollywood artist’s debut. She settled near Joshua Tree and started writing. The years following would be the most productive of her life. Her book The Moon is Inhabited (recently reprinted) was inspired by visions in the desert, including a scene with spacemen consulting President Eisenhower near Palm Springs.
Sociologist Thomas Kersen calls her an edge-worker and says she was an influential godmother to many countercultural figures in the early 20th Century. “She was one of the most worldly and knowledgeable people in the paranormal world,” Kersen writes in a forthcoming paper on the “spiritual saucerian”. “She spent most of her life facing modernity head-on and retooling it in a counter-world way.”
Columba (1902-1998) invites comparison to Paulina Peavy (1901-1999), a recently rediscovered artist who was also a UFO contactee. She shares traits with Agnes Pelton, who was painting in Cathedral City at the time Columba was showing her art at Giant Rock. Both found liberation in the desert and in metaphysics. Both studied Theosophy and the cosmos. Pelton once said she listened for “intimations from outer space.”
Columba appeared in an influential 1975 book, Cosmic Art, alongside Pelton, Peavy, and the transcendental artists Emil Bisttram and Dane Rudhyar. (Emma Lou Davis, recently featured on this website, is also in the line-up.) But while many such artists have re-emerged in recent years, Columba has remained obscure. Aside from her illustrations and comics, very few of her paintings have surfaced. The paintings could be called visionary, Outsider or folk art. The labels are not so important, as they were not important to Columba. She said she was after “the truths that set us free.”
I first heard about Columba in 2016 from Mark Esping, a folklorist and writer from Kansas City. He found a copy of The Moon is Inhabited amidst a stack of old sci-fi books he purchased. On the lower right of the front cover there was only the name Columba. It took Esping six months of sleuthing before he attached “Krebs” to “Columba”, finally arriving at a full name: Annabell Krebs Culverwell.
More footwork led him to Frances “Fran” Culverwell, Columba’s daughter, and Columba’s granddaughter Holly Blackman living in North Carolina. In many rediscovered-artist tales, contact with family members would be the breakthrough moment but, in this case, Columba was mostly a mystery to her family as well.
It turns out that Fran Culverwell, age 95, saw little of her mother or father growing up and was raised largely in boarding schools. Holly Blackman learned that her grandmother Columba (the name might have been taken from a dove, an Irish saint or a constellation) had apparently abandoned her family role to pursue an esoteric path, leaving only a faint trail of Christmas cards and creased photos. “Columba was always the she-who-should-not-be-named member of the family,” Blackman says. “I met her a couple of times when I was very young, but I didn’t know her well. I was born and raised in Laguna Beach. She came out to visit but didn’t stay long.”
Along with Esping, family members are working to resurrect Columba’s name by reprinting her books, her artwork and telling her story. Central to the story is the question: Why did she leave her family behind? Or was she really exiled due to her unconventional beliefs? “Columba seems to me to be completely misunderstood because of her ideas, her art, her gender,” says Blackman.
Columba did not leave personal journals or letters that would help answer the why-did-she-leave question. When she died in 1998, she had been living in an Ozarks commune and was not in touch with her family. The secrets and cut-offs in the family compound the mysteries. As Blackman says, the truth in families is by necessity fractured, “with each person having their own personal piece of it.”
When Esping first told me about Columba, I could see how she lined up with Pelton and the Transcendental Painting Group. But in truth, it took me a few years to warm up to the UFOs. It’s easier to embrace a Theosophist (Pelton) than it is a woman who boldly says she saw a UFO sucking up water on a San Diego beach.
I was swayed, though, by two men: Carl Jung and Harvard psychiatry professor John Mack. Both have argued for taking UFO contactees (also called experiencers) at their word, saying they are simply people responding to a damaged world and the need for “redemptive contact” with another form of intelligence. Behind everything Columba did was clearly a longing for this sort of contact, for community. With Jung and Mack as my guides, I forged on.
But I still had to get over my notion that aliens are scary. I had the impression that spacemen were goggle-eyed freaks grabbing innocents and slicing off fingertips to analyze in a lab. But, as it turns out, I was raised on a later and more sinister version of UFO lore. In Columba’s day—the Golden Age of Flying Saucers–an encounter with an alien was more like a visit with a fairy or an angel.
As Tristan Eldritch says in an article about Giant Rock: “In the wake of America unleashing the devastating destructive power of the Atomic Bomb, the contactees imagined the arrival on earth of a benign, redemptive advanced technology. They sought to escape modernity by refashioning the timeless story of contact with higher beings. There remains archetypal appeal in their visions of saucers and angelic beings landing in the desert, the place where all gods first stirred and spoke to solitary man.”
Columba was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1902, to a family grounded in scholarship and the church. Her father, Stanley Lefevre Krebs, was an Episcopalian minister who composed music and lectured on psychology, spiritual frauds and psychic research on the Chautauqua circuit. Columba’s mother Anna Frantz Krebs was a musician and vocalist. (After divorcing Anna, Stanley Krebs later remarried the actress known as Marjorie Main, or Ma Kettle.)
Columba lived in Europe as a child. In 1921 she married Frank Culverwell, an accountant and auditor for General Motors. The couple moved to Singapore for Culverwell’s job, then lived in Calcutta, Rangoon, Bangkok and Darjeeling, India. It was in Singapore that Columba began her study of Theosophy, the belief system that would play a big role in her life, as it did for many in the UFO movement.
Columba had a son, James, and a daughter Frances Bell. (Frances told me recently she never liked the Bell handle she shared with her mother: “I dropped it.”) James went on to excel in academics and got a PhD in chemical engineering. He died in 2004. Fran became a mother and an artist herself.
Segments of Columba’s life read like a standard artist’s biography: Study at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts and the National Academy of Art. Also true to the form, she did a stint as a WPA artist on a mural at Textile High School, now the Bayard Rustin Education Complex in NY. She showed her work at the Hall of Art, Salons of Art and Strauss Galleries all in New York.
During the 1930s, she was already blazing trails with her Christian Socialist graphic novel for kids. (The movement combined advocacy for the disadvantaged with the ethics of Christianity.) The Adventures of Skuddabud appeared in magazines in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Recently reprinted, the book features a family of 27–Mother Skuddabud and her brood–who are forced to leave their planet in a dirigible and proceed to have adventures on Earth.
The author’s lack of reverence for traditional roles was a mismatch for her accountant husband. It wasn’t the only contrast between them. “She was a very big woman—5’ 11’’ or so and hefty, though her weight fit her frame. Formidable,” says Blackman. “Her husband was slender as a skeleton.”
According to Blackman, half of the family thought her grandmother was “a witchy old lady” and the other half “held her in amazement.” The truth was hard to discern for a child growing up in the midst of the drama. “Of all that fractured family, only Columba made the effort to attempt a relationship with us,” Blackman says, speaking of herself and her sister. “What is most precious to me is the binder of some of her artwork she gave to us, with a loving message inside the front cover. Columba wrote lovingly of family and children in The Moon is Inhabited. Her words in that book made me begin to take a harder look at what I have believed her to be.”
While Blackman is warming to the grandmother she hardly knew, Fran Culverwell is baffled by the recent interest in her mother: “I’m surprised that she’s kind of come out of the grave to a certain extent.”
Culverwell struggles to tell people what they want to know about her mother, but she is missing a store of first-hand knowledge. “She was never exactly wanting to have children and take care of them,” she says. “I really can’t tell you very much about her. She wanted to paint and that’s all she wanted to do. She had this idea about creatures from space. My dad was never around very much either. He had to travel everywhere for his job. So, he was never at home.” Once the couple split, they remained married because General Motors did not allow divorce. Appearances were not just fashionable at the time; they could mean survival.
Culverwell—who does not believe in spacemen–says her taciturn father never explained why her mother left. In the only murky clues Culverwell was granted, Columba indicated to her daughter that she was just not mother material. Asked how she handled the painful separation from her mother, Culverwell now says: “I let her go like she let me go.”
In family photos taken when Columba was married with small children, she appears unsmiling and resigned. When she begins to explore the occult, the photos show a stylized persona, with an enigmatic expression suiting a mystic. She wore turbans and robes and gave talks on metaphysical topics all around the country—Tampa, Twin Falls, Yucaipa–billing herself as a world traveler and lecturer.
These photos only seem to obscure the woman herself. The first I truly glimpsed Columba, or Annabell, was in a much later photo taken by a young photographer Ken Steinhoff at an Ozarks flying saucer convention in 1961. Columba looks rounder and older now, approachable and grandmotherly in her babushka and conservative print suit. She holds reading glasses in one hand; in her other she holds a book that doubles as a command: Search.
In 1950, Columba tried to jump off the George Washington Bridge in New York and was taken by the police for evaluation to Bellevue Hospital, a famous psych ward that has hosted VIPs such as Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. All we know of the incident is a newspaper clipping found by Tom Kersen: “Suicide Averted. Policeman Grabs Woman Climbing Over Rail of Hudson Span”.
The news item makes a cryptic reference to Columba asking for protection. The police called her husband, Frank Culverwell. (We now know that when women are threatened the offender is often the husband.) Whatever—or whoever it was—that threatened her, something had to change. So, in her 50s, she set out for the California desert.
From 1953 until the late ‘50s she lived outside Joshua Tree National Park, immersed in a who’s-who of the UFO scene. She became secretary and writing assistant to Truman Bethurum—a truck driver and mechanic from Riverside who wrote Aboard a Flying Saucer. She illustrated books for the author-contactee Dana Howard known for My Flight to Venus. She was friends with George Van Tassel, the former aircraft mechanic who started the UFO scene in Joshua Tree.
In 1955, she had a close encounter with a UFO on Ocean Beach, San Diego. Columba may have been visiting the nearby Theosophy center, Lomaland. Or she may have been drawn to the location by the legendary Ocean Beach Spaceman, also a cosmic artist.
Another famous figure in UFO-ology, Buck Nelson, showed up at the Giant Rock conference one year when Columba attended. Meeting him would steer her life into a new phase. Nelson was a farmer who encountered spacemen and a 365-lb space dog, Bo, on his farm in the Missouri Ozarks. Columba soon moved to Missouri and bought land next door to Nelson. (Prior to this move she made a detour to live in Prescott where she published a newsletter called The Clarion Call.)
Few Joshua Tree scenesters know that the Missouri Ozarks can claim a scene equal in mystique to theirs. Like the high desert, the Ozarks is a vortex of swirling paranormal energies, a place inviting to aliens and misunderstood artists. The community is portrayed by sociologist Thomas Kersen in his charming book Where Misfits Fit: Counterculture and Influence in the Ozarks. The professor, who teaches at Jackson State University in Mississippi, describes the aging contactee, Columba, befriending Cat Yronwode, a countercultural heroine who founded the Garden of Joy Blues, a feminist, environmental back-to-the land commune in the Ozarks. Along with Cat, Columba was soon surrounded by much younger utopia-seeking friends.
Buck Nelson mysteriously disappeared in the late ‘60s (gone either to California or to space); the UFO movement nationally fizzled around the same time. Buck’s abandoned home and outbuildings were consumed in a fire. Yet Columba stayed on next door, concentrating on her efforts to build a Cosmic Art Shrine, apparently modeled after the Integratron. The local newspaper reported that “a minister’s daughter from Pennsylvania” planned to build a circular stucco structure with four aluminum pyramids atop a seven-rayed stained glass healing temple. This career-capping folk art environment was meant to encompass Columba’s ideas about Theosophy, humanity and space. A big project for a big edge-walking life.
Columba died in Missouri in 1998 at age 95, the shrine never completed. (The scene she helped to create is being revived with a Buck Nelson Festival and Cosmic Art Show to be held during the April, 2024, solar eclipse.) Out on the fringes in search of truth her whole life, she never quite managed to crack the baffling human family. But in old age she was embraced by hippies and back-to-the-landers, Space Brothers and Space Sisters—the whole cosmic clan.