Eric Merrell at La Quinta Museum, a Headstone for Christina Lillian, Farewell to Kathi Hilton, Agnes’ Dead Reckoning and More

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Eric Merrell shows widely in the West, but soon you’ll have a rare opportunity to see 35 works of the desert master right here in the Coachella Valley. Merrell completed the series of paintings–showing the “wonder and strength” of the desert landscape–during a 2019 artists residency at Mojave National Preserve. The results will be on view in a solo show at the La Quinta Museum in February. The same month, Merrell’s work can be seen at the Autry Museum’s Masters of the American West show.

Eric Merrell, Alignment

Eric Merrell, Snowglobe

In his two decades in the desert exploring representation and abstraction, Merrell has achieved the sublime. A French writer described this exalted aesthetic as “a marvel, which seizes one, strikes one, and makes one feel.” Come be seized in La Quinta, February 8-May 21, 2022.

A Headstone for Christina Lillian

The glamorous arts colony ringleader Emma Christina Lillian brought bohemian style to Cathedral City. But when she died in 1978, her grave was marked only by an impersonal metal sign. (Lillian was founder of the Sven-ska colony and a close friend of Agnes Pelton.) Her neighbors and relatives in Lindsborg, Kansas, got talking recently. “They said it was such a shame she never had a proper stone,” says Kathy Shogren, Lillian’s great niece. Shogren lives on the family farm outside Lindsborg.

Led by Shogren, the resourceful Lindsborg locals got to work to give Christina a place in the Lillian family plot. “I chose the color of stone because it reminded me of the desert colors that she loved so much,” says Shogren. “The calla lily happens to be one of my favorite flowers, plus Lillian in Swedish means lily.

The Lillian family marker in Lindsborg, Kansas. Photos by Kathy Shogren.

“The marker is nothing fancy,” she adds, “but I don’t think Aunt Emma would want a big to-do nor to stick out from her beloved family. She was very humble and never spoke of herself. She was so totally interested in what crops my dad was planting, and she enjoyed driving around at five mph in his pickup, looking at the farm and the irrigation.”

Christina Lillian’s new marker was installed on April 19, 2021, at the Elmwood Cemetery in Lindsborg, Kansas. Just after the mud was smoothed, an April snow paid quiet tribute to the Lindsborg Legend.

Sam Hyde Harris Sells the Southern Pacific

One of the regular guests at Christina’s Lillian’s Cathedral City hideaway was the well-known landscape artist Sam Hyde Harris. Harris was the unofficial mayor of Artists’ Alley in Alhambra, where he spent time with Clyde Forsythe and Norman Rockwell. In a show at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in San Clemente, Maurine St. Gaudens and Joseph Morsman highlight a little-known side of Harris’ work: His commercial campaigns for the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads. When Gaudens was enlisted to catalog Harris’ estate, she discovered the stash of railroad posters in a storage area beneath a staircase. The show highlights Harris’ significant contribution to 20th century advertising, as well as the endless appeal of railroads and the West.

Sam Hyde Harris, Seeing the Unusual is on view through February 27, 2022. The Casa Romantica center also offers Paint like Sam Hyde Harris classes during the course of the exhibition.

Santa Fe – Grand Canyon. Commercial advertising for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway Company, 1930, by Sam Hyde Harris. By permission of Maurine St. Gaudens.

Agnes Pelton’s Dead Reckoning

Christina Lillian’s famous friend Agnes Pelton has now wrapped up her triumphant national tour; the scholars and critics are hushed. In the quiet after the frenzy, here is a fresh theory from one of Agnes’ current-day neighbors, Denise Cross. While the late art historian Michael Zakian noted Pelton’s attraction to heavenly bodies, Cross goes further to propose that Pelton had formal knowledge of astronomy and was drawn to Cathedral City by its dark desert skies. Cross guesses the artist was first acquainted with the cosmos on ocean crossings from Europe, when she was a child. The theory depends on knowing the night sky from the same perspective as Agnes would see it. Cross has watched nightly for 40 years from her perch just up the street from Agnes’ home. She writes:

There are two paintings which show her knowledge of planets and stars. Orbits shows exactly how all those planets depicted move amongst one another throughout the year– not in unison. Sometimes there’s a convergence of two or three with the moon, never six or seven.  The other painting is untitled (1931). There’s the bright planet Venus in the winter sky aka The Star of Bethlehem and there’s the Christmas Goose below the snowy mountain peaks. 

I’ve never investigated the previous years this has happened–when Venus & Jupiter align to be that bright–but we just had that happen year before last. Imagine being familiar with crossing the Atlantic back when ships weren’t lit up like the Hilton nor had GPS. It is dark and beautiful out there. I can imagine that Agnes–always the curious child at any age–asked a lot of questions. I think it was the dark clear skies that called her here to Cathedral City, not terrain. “Hail San Jacinto”, she wrote. Living on this side of the mountain and right under it, we know Agnes had knowledge of celestial navigation, dead reckoning, ships’ fog horns and lighthouse fog horns–what it feels like to depend on them and that feeling of safety those sounds provide until you finally see their light. 

Agnes Pelton, Orbits. 1934

Remembering Kathi Hilton

Desert artist and former 29 Palms resident Kathi Garvin Hilton died on October 7, 2021. Kathi was born in a Mecca doctor’s office in 1939 and spent her early years hanging around Hilton’s gem shop at Valerie Jean corners in Thermal. She learned the palette knife technique from her famous and flamboyant father, John Hilton. Art dealer Dan Rohlfing and I would each call her now and then with a question about Hilton-era art. She was invariably gentle and serene–perhaps due to her powerful faith. She was baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 29 Palms in 1963.

Dan Rohlfing knew Kathi well, as you can see in this tribute in the Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery newsletter:

Kathi Hilton, center, with Ute Mark, left, and Mary Jane Binge in 29 Palms, 1970.

“Smokie” George Frederick Sketch Found

Tom Moore responded to Rebecca Ragan Akins’ article on “Smokie” George Frederick with a Smokie sketch of his own—a portrait of his grandfather, Chuck Moore. “He lived in Omaha working for Union Pacific, and family lore has it that he worked publicity for the inaugural train ride from Hollywood to the Sun Valley ski resort, which UP owned,” Tom Moore writes of his grandfather. “In addition to his love of the Old West and riding the range, he also had a wonderful singing voice and loved performing in community theater musicals. I guess you could call him the ‘singing cowboy’ if that wasn’t already taken!

“Smokie isn’t the only Old West character my grandfather befriended. He also appears briefly as a minor character in a Louis L’Amour book, as an itinerant judge named Charles P. Moore who quickly bites the dust.”

Rebecca Ragan Akins’ article:

Michael Moore: Visions from Smoke Creek

While he’s in the Smoke Creek desert in Nevada several months of each year, Michael Moore wakes every morning, walks outside and paints the ever-changing playa. Every day. Season after season. This decades-long dive into a specific landscape is the antithesis of the currently popular parachutists’ school of desert art (as exemplified by Desert X), in which artists drop in for a weekend and explain the desert to us. You can see Moore’s lifelong-contemplation style in Visions from Smoke Creek at the Nevada Museum of Art now through July 10, 2022. If you’re in Oakland before January 11, 2022, you can also catch his paintings on the windows of the Roll Up Project at 214 Harrison Street.

Michael S. Moore, Enigma of the Sheldon Range

Michael Moore’s daily paintings for 2019, as seen from his kitchen table. Photo by Jack Bacon.

2 comments for “Eric Merrell at La Quinta Museum, a Headstone for Christina Lillian, Farewell to Kathi Hilton, Agnes’ Dead Reckoning and More

  1. Beautifully and kindly written, dear Ann! All articles/news of importance of Lives well lived! And outstanding Art and Photographs!

  2. Fascinating and thought-provoking to read Denise Cross’s “Dead Reckoning” observations on Agnes Pelton.

    Much has been written about Agnes and “the occult” while ignoring her lesser known interests including astrology, numerology, and astronomy.

    Agnes left little to chance in her abstractions, and both the number and position of stars in “Orbits” is likely by design to convey very specific symbols/narratives.

    Thank you for this perspective!

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