The forgotten desert artist Freda Marshall, recently rediscovered, was a central figure among the Coachella Valley resident painters. For a dozen years or more she lived in her own house on the Indio estate of the late Jackie Cochran. Freda created bas reliefs for the Cochran estate central room; she painted and created craft work, painting on fig boxes, doing ceramics and leather work. At the same time Jackie Cochran was entertaining the famous and powerful: Rosalind Russell, Howard Hughes, Edward Teller, Amelia Earhart and others who frequented the ranch. I can picture many of them purchasing art from Freda. The pictures in the Coachella Valley History Museum of Freda, Jackie, and Amelia together are from Amelia’s last visit just before her ill-fated flight.
Freda Marshall, nee Welborn, was born September 18, 1895, in Tennessee, Illinois. The family moved to Wyoming in 1910 and then to Long Beach in 1920. In 1915 Freda had married and had a son, but was single again in 1920. (From the timing of her husband’s disappearance from the scene, it might have had to do with WWI.) By family accounts Freda was a self-taught musician and was playing music for the silents in one of the movie houses near the beach. She met George Marshall, a lifeguard in Long Beach. They married and moved to Indio, California to farm, grow citrus and dates. George had studied agriculture and had been partly raised in Utah.
These dates are somewhat flexible as Freda gave information to an early publication, Western Woman, saying that she lived in Wyoming for 6 years. Her first marriage to W.D. Lewis might have taken Freda elsewhere for some years.
Freda and George must have had an uncommonly deep bond and acceptance of each other’s roles and tasks, both believing they could do anything they chose. That self-reliance was an essential to survive the kind of life they had chosen. Freda had a studio everywhere she lived and this required George supporting her art and her needs as an artist. This may have been more difficult than at first view. Recent visitors to the Valley do not know how isolated the emigrants were at the time. Vehicles often were unable to function in the heat and hills. Water-bags–designed to leak–hung over radiators to help cool engines. Getting stuck could be fatal. There wasn’t a national highway system, and paved roads were a luxury. But the one thing the Valley lacked was Illinois or Wyoming winters, which may have been enough for some people. While we don’t know of all Freda’s successes, failures and travails, it seems that she pursued her art as well as her job as mother, housewife and ranch hand.
Little is known of Freda’s art at this time, except that Freda’s son George—who lives in Yucca Valley–says that the esteemed Anna Hills was one of the painters that Freda studied under; and Anna Hills died in 1930. Hills was a California Impressionist, and painted some in the Coachella Valley. Freda’s desert scenes share close similarities with Hills so we can assume this is the beginning of Freda’s known style: California Impressionism. Anna Hills was just visiting the Valley. Freda Marshall would stay another thirty-some years.
Very little is known of the couple until George Marshall’s brother Ted, a naval aviator, befriended Jackie Cochran (the aviatrix friend of Amelia Earhart) when Jackie was learning to fly and introduced her to the Indio area. Jackie buys a bit of acreage and her partner Floyd Odlum buys about a thousand acres. Jackie hires Ted’s brother George to develop the ranch and build homes there–one for George himself and his wife Freda. Freda is also employed at the ranch and she has a studio.
The Coachella Valley History Museum in Indio has pictures showing Freda preparing a bas relief of a slightly stylized, modernistic Indian. This bas relief stayed with the Cochran house; the house and grounds became the Indian Palms Country Club and the bas relief was the centerpiece. In a historical society article, Freda is referred to as a well-known artist. Not much else is said about her artistic ability except for mention of the famous red and white oleanders that she planted on Cochran’s ranch in a meticulous alternating pattern. Son George said that even after Freda moved from the ranch in the mid-forties (after the senior George passed away), Jackie and Floyd and Freda remained close.
It has to be surmised that Freda was selling paintings at this time. They have been in the Valley for about fifteen years, and no longer have a farm, purchasing a cattle ranch around 1940. If you asked her if she was an artist or painter, I am sure she would have said artist, but she was productive and motivated to create and sell her art. (My understanding is that the difference between painters and artists is primarily that painters do not commonly switch to mediums other than painting, while artists feel comfortable moving between sculpture, painting, and ceramics and other venues.) They lived on the grounds of the Jackie Cochran estate for a dozen years, and Freda painted a mural on the wall of the Mabel Willebrandt home. Willebrandt was the famous prohibition lawyer for the Attorney General and she and Freda became very close in later years. The house was recently demolished and nothing is known of the mural. The Cochran Estate became the Indian Palms Country Club and the bas relief was the highlight of the main dining room. The whole club and artifacts were lost in a fire recently.
In gallery blurbs and family notes, there is reference to Paul Lukits as Freda’s teacher. This would probably be after Anna Hills passed. I couldn’t find a Paul Lukits, but I did find a Theodore Lukits.There was also a Paul Lauritz that was part of the group of painters resident in the Valley just before WW2. A group show in 1940 featured about 25 of these painters (two were from out-of-the-area, but the article does not identify them) at the Desert Inn Gallery in Palm Springs. Some are now famous and many still unknown. As a matter of record for future research, their names are: Henry Wagoner, Paul Lauritz, James Swinnerton, Clyde Forsythe, W. Charles Tanner, Agnes Pelton, Burt Proctor, John Hilton, Mourdes Hinson, Max Vouchet, Mathile Seaman, Captain True, Mary Traylor, Kuelhborn, Mary Levering Moore, Lloyd Mason Smith, Norman Bell, B. Kundert, Christine Lillian, Freda Marshall, Bonnie Welch, Paul Guenther, Jeanie Coutts, Helen Miller, Bee Nicoll, and Gretchen Surimerton. A special memorial exhibit included works by Gordon Coutts, Gertrude Coutts, Carl Eytel, Reta Doure, Billy Cody, Dr. Kocher, and Jack Frost.
This is an important group of painters, many very well known and seriously collected, who were exhibiting together, aware of each other, who were also known by the different galleries in the Valley. The primary bond between them was residency. These were the painters who lived in the Valley year around and it was the defining requirement to exhibit at the opening show of the season. As a group these painters deserve study, not only for their influence on each other, but for their influence on painting beyond the regional interests. Quite a few of these painters are well known, but about two thirds of them became forgotten. Freda Marshall was one of these painters and it indicates that there may very well be a trove of “to-be-discovered” Valley artists.
I am not going to assume that the reference to a teacher named Lukits was to Theodore Lukits, as Paul Lauritz was part of the Valley resident painters and certainly gifted enough to be a teacher to Freda. In researching Freda I found one painting in a gallery in the Northwest, but I cannot find it now. It was similar to the desert Impressionist painting I found. The style is impressionistic but differs from remaining works mostly by subject matter as it is a simple scene without vista or Valley context.
Freda was part of the residents’ exhibit shows. She was a mature, productive member of the painting community at this time, 1933 to 1943, and she experimented with many forms of art. She did another bas relief in her home on the Cochran Ranch. She was known to have painted on date boxes and sold them at the Desert Date Shop; she sold paintings from there as well.
A story told to me by Ann Japenga has Carl Bray seeing the painted date boxes in the Desert Date Shop. He went in and enquired about the boxes/painting and Freda Marshall ended up giving Carl Bray his first paint set. Ann interviewed Carl Bray and wrote about riding around with him one day, a wonderful coffee cup story. This story cements Freda into the center of the desert painting scene in the Coachella Valley. She and her peers were not well-paid artists; most of them scraped by, supported by other ventures. Some were artists first; others were desert lovers first. Some came to stay and painted, and some came to paint and stayed.
Freda and George also owned a cattle ranch near Kingman. She managed the ranch for several years, made friends with the Native Americans in that area, as well as the Navahos. She was befriended by the Native Americans, taken into their confidence, shown sacred sites. Many paintings from this time show her interest in these sacred sites. Her interest in Native Americans seems to cross over styles and is awaiting more study.
In 1943, George Marshall died of an unexpected heart attack and Freda had to deal with all the family matters, including running their Arizona cattle ranch. Her son George says that she didn’t paint for a while, but by 1945 she went to the government services office and promoted teaching arts and crafts to returning soldiers needing rehabilitation. Her son sent pictures to me of luminous and very interesting pottery from this period.
The younger George Marshall said his mother’s paintings changed the most after she studied with Henry Richter, a well-known Laguna-based painter of California and desert scenes. Her one extant watercolor is from this period. Mention of Henry Richter as a teacher of Freda exists circa 1945. I have been unable as of this writing to determine what that change encompasses. In the last fifteen years Freda experimented with a newer approach to landscapes emphasizing majesty, while also pursuing Indian sacred site paintings, paintings seeking the ideal/mythos of places, portraits, and Indian paintings using a kind of figural Impressionism. These various styles are known because of the remnants from sales and family collections. Mabel Willebrandt—known as “The First Lady of the Law”–owned Freda’s most famous painting from her time, God’s Garden, and the two were lifetime friends.
The Marshall family owns a total of about thirty paintings of diverse style. Some pottery remains; two bas reliefs were destroyed when the Indian Palms Country Club burned. No leatherwork, or painted date boxes have turned up as yet. (Strangely, I knew about the painted date boxes as a kid. A sister of one of my grandparents took advantage of the land give-away in the late 50’s and we visited the area. )
My own painting by Freda reflects my favorite style of hers; it’s a desert Impressionistic image of a small wash. It is peaceful and unassuming, seemingly done with ease, no pretense, an easy style to like. When I saw this painting, I had this weird feeling that I had somehow seen that exact painting somewhere before and that the person who painted it was famous. It is possible that my mother bought one of her date boxes long ago.
The ‘50s seemed Freda’s most successful decade as an artist, with several shows both in the Valley and in Long Beach. She died from peritonitis in March, 1960, at age 61. She was survived by two sons (only George survives today), and six grandchildren (two are deceased). When she died, the gallery shows stopped and she slipped below the radar. A few years after Freda died, Palm Springs grew popular again—and with it desert art. But the artists remained poor. According to a piece Bill Bender wrote, even after the desert was “discovered” he was painting while living in his car.
Freda Marshall becomes part of a larger story today, as the art movement in the Coachella Valley is slowly being found, promoted and discovered. If the early galleries had kept their records and photographs, the full history of an artist like Freda might now be told. As it is, the keepers of the history are too often promoters with a profit motive. There must be a place where historical archives of the artists can be kept alive, regardless of the commercial value of such records. Museums should not be just hip and slick clubs for the “right” people. A museum may become famous for some fantastic collection of whatever from wherever, but its real obligation is to its own area and its people.
If the regional art museums do not see the need to research and keep records on local art movements, who is going to do it?
I know that if I hadn’t found Freda Marshall, eventually she still would have been found. At least now there is some anchor point to catch on, and I give special thanks to Ann Japenga for her work with the desert art and lost artists. Her on-line site is the only place I know where people write and ask questions about unknown painters. That group of resident painters in 1940 indicates that some effort should be put into providing for these lost artists. Many regions revere and research their resident artists, with local museums giving special space to the artists that blossomed there.
The galleries listed below have shown Freda Marshall’s work, and may have hosted multiple successive shows over the decades besides the ones indicated:
The Desert Date Shop, paintings and painted date boxes
The Desert Inn Gallery, 1940 group show
The Desert Art gallery, multiple shows
The Pacific Coast Club in Long Beach, at least one show
Frances Webb Galleries in Long Beach, 1951/2 show of paintings.
Paul Sengir thanks the Marshall family for their help. This is a work in progress, as information keeps coming in. Send clues and leads to Sengir: email@example.com.
For Freda Marshall, Part One, see: http://www.californiadesertart.com/?p=1076
For more on Coachella Valley history, see: http://www.coachellavalleymuseum.org/