Fred Grayson Sayre: Finding Light and Life on a Thermal Date Ranch

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

While Barbara Harmon and her husband Cliff are being honored this season as pillars of the Taos arts community and the Taos Moderns, you can bet Barbara’s thoughts will sometimes drift to a different desert and another time.

Fred Grayson Sayre, The Turquoise Sea

Barbara was just six weeks old in 1927 when she first rode out from Glendale to the Coachella Valley with her father Fred Grayson Sayre. Their destination was the Barker Ranch, home of Harmon’s mother Ruth. (Ruth’s family were pioneer date ranchers in the Valley since 1905.) The Sayres stayed in a cabin called the Paint Shack. Fred Sayre would roam out daily to the Orocopias and the Salton Sea with his sketch buddy, Laguna painter Theodore Jackman.

Fred Grayson Sayre, 1937

At the end of the day Sayre—among the most elegant of the California desert painters—told young Barbara tales of fairy Queen Tatiana and her adventures with a rabbit and a bear. “He would just make the stories up,” Barbara says. The tales she heard under the date palms would inspire Barbara Harmon’s own art her entire life.

The happy times in Thermal lasted only until Barbara was 11. Then Fred Sayre died; his wife Ruth died a year later. Barbara went to live with relatives. She later married modernist artist Cliff Harmon, built an adobe house in Taos and became known as a painter of fantasy and fairy tale scenes. Despite her full life since leaving the desert, she was eager to revisit the Coachella Valley days in a recent phone interview.

Barbara Harmon, photo copyright by Kathleen Brennan

F. Grayson Sayre (as he signed his paintings) was born in Medoc, Missouri in 1879. “His last year in high school he sent for a correspondence course in pen and ink,” says Barbara. “It opened up a whole new world for him.”

Sayre moved to Chicago where he was accepted in the prestigious Palette and Chisel club and met fellow members Victor Higgins, Edgar Payne and Walter Ufer. In 1915, the rising star in the art world was abruptly felled by the Chicago diphtheria epidemic. His doctor gave Sayre only months to live.

The entire history of desert art is intertwined with sickness. Many painters, such as Jimmy Swinnerton, Gordon Coutts and others, first came to the desert to convalesce. Fred Sayre retreated to the Coachella Valley, to the date ranch belonging to his second cousin, Ben Laflin. (Laflin remains a familiar name in the Valley. Patricia Laflin, married to Ben Laflin, Jr., is one of the Coachella Valley’s best-known historians.)

“He stayed for two years with Ben Laflin,” says Barbara Harmon. “He didn’t paint at all. He just rested under the palm trees and looked out at the desert. When he got his strength back he began painting and kept on for 25 years. He knew the desert so well in all its moods that it was a part of his consciousness. ”

Fred Grayson Sayre, Hermit Canyon, gouache

Once he was well, Sayre courted Ruth Barker, sister of date ranchers Bob and Frank Barker. The couple was married in 1926 and Barbara was born the next year. The years that followed left Barbara with good memories of the California desert. Her father took them to places like Box Canyon and Biskra Palms. He also painted farther afield: Laguna Beach, La Jolla, Monument Valley and Lone Pine.

East of Indio one year Barbara remembers: “The lupines were as tall as I was.” During those years the family crossed paths with famous painters like Guy Rose, Nicolai Fechin, Hanson Putfhuff, Jack Wilkinson Smith, Edgar Payne and Jimmy Swinnerton.

Barbara said the desert gave her father back his life, and it certainly gave him his style. According to Laguna Beach gallery owner Ray Redfern, Sayre was a master at capturing wind, light and vibration with his short brush strokes. “Life, beauty and motion,” define his work, wrote Redfern in an essay for a 1987 catalogue.

Sayre helped found the California Watercolor Society and co-founded, with Joseph Kleitsch, the Painters and Sculptors Club of Los Angeles. The family was living in Glendale and making plans to move full-time to the Coachella Valley when the artist died suddenly in 1939.

After her mother also died, Barbara was caught up in fashioning a new life with a new family. The fields of desert lupine must have seemed like a distant dream at times. Barbara came to Taos in 1947 and studied with Emil Bisttram, a founder of the Transcendental Painting Group that included Cathedral City’s Agnes Pelton. She married fellow student Cliff Harmon, known for his modernist Southwest landscapes.

In the years following Fred Sayre’s death, he never had a big splashy exhibition, yet he quietly became known as one of the most elegant desert painters. Barbara would like to see a Sayre retrospective staged in the desert her father loved. She hopes to return to the Coachella Valley to visit the places her family once lived and played.

One couple who will welcome Barbara back is Pat and Ben Laflin. Sayre had given Ben Laflin, Sr. some paintings in exchange for his stay at the ranch. Pat and Ben Jr. inherited several large Sayre landscapes and display them in their home. “My favorite is an oil painting of Sheep Mountain with cottonwood trees in fall colors in the foreground,” says Pat Laflin. “We also have two of the Salton Sea. Fred’s sister, Viola Sayre, also did beautiful work and we have two of her small oils of sand dunes and wildflowers.”

Fred Grayson Sayre, The Opal Range

The old Barker Ranch, near PGA West, is gone now and the date groves and sand dunes are paved over with golf courses and gated communities. The altered landscape will be strange to Barbara. It should make her feel right at home, though, when she is introduced to Pat Laflin’s grandson and hears his name for the first time: Sayre Laflin.


Tributes to Barbara Sayre Harmon continue this summer at these events:

Suspension of Disbelief: The Fantasy Worlds of Stella Snead, Barbara Harmon, Frieda Lawrence, Gisella Leoffler, Ila McAfee and Millicent Rogers.

July 7-October 14, 2012, Harwood Museum


Barbara Sayre Harmon—Magic and Mystery

September 23-February 3, 2013


20 comments for “Fred Grayson Sayre: Finding Light and Life on a Thermal Date Ranch

  1. I bought a print of a wagon train going across a desert the name on the bottom is f grayson say. I think someone trimmed the picture and cur off the re from sayre. Its a beautiful picture. I got it at a garage sale of all places. I am interested in find out more about the print. Thanks

  2. I recently moved to the state, residing at the in-laws, in cleaning out the place i ran across a couple of your paintings that i would like to get refurbished or reframed. color faded, trees on both sides, rock seats, mountain background,with river or lake view in the middle, and grass, hope thats a good description

  3. To Melissa Koonsman, I read your comment, it sounds like me I too have a wagon train painting in the desert and I thought it had been trimmed to fit the frame! The re is missing from the signature, Have you learned anything about it? This one was found in an old barn. Thanks

  4. I also have a painting of a wagon train crossing the desert with F. Grayson Sayres name on it. Just curious what I have, how I can tell if it is fake.

  5. Hi Linda,

    I believe there were many prints made of Fred Sayre’s wagon train painting. For information and to check the value, see the website Some of the info on the site is free. For a fee you can check auction prices and get a good idea what a painting may be worth.

  6. I have a Fred Grayson original that was my Mother’s Moms and she gave it to her. It is an original – how much is it worth? It is the painting of a Larger Tree on the side – Mountains & a Lake in the middle and a smaller tree on the other side.

  7. I found a painting by Grayson Sayre, it is 22″ x 28″ mountain and desert type scene in pastel colors, how do I find out if it is an original and its value. It was found in a old abandoned ranch house that I bought in Oregon

  8. corrine butler

    December 24, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    I am interested in the name and date painted and any value. I love the picture. I too have a wagon train painting in the desert and I thought it had been trimmed to fit the frame! The re is missing from the signature, Have you learned anything about it? This one was found in an old barn. Thanks

  9. I have a Grayson Sayre painting that was my Mother’s given to her by her sister. If it is an original – how much is it worth? It is the painting of a Larger Tree on the side – Mountains & a Lake in the middle and a smaller tree on the other side. I can’t tell if there was an f or not and some of the g is behind the frame. I know this it is at least 50 years old, painting or print. Please advise

  10. I have inherited a F. Grayson Sayre painting from a friend that hs passed.The scene is tall poplar trees on right side, white barn with red roof,meadow and mountains. Original glass and frame. Very old. what is the value?

  11. I have a painting or print by F Grayson Sayre, it is of a wagon train, it belonged to my stepdad’s mother. It is in an old looking frame.I have had it 40 years, my Mom had it about 20 years. My stepdad said his mother had it since mid forties. I cannot tell if it is a painting or print.

  12. I have a Fred Grayson Sayre painting that I got about 50 years ago. I would like to know the worth of the painting. Can you give me any information on how I can find out?

  13. I have an oil painting of a desert scene 28×22 signed F Grayson Sayre
    itis in a frame and had the heavy brown paper on it. can I send in info and get a price.

  14. Hello, I have two Viola Sayre oil paintings. One is a desert scene with palm trees and a small house in the center of the picture. The other painting is of a green vase with blooming cherry blossoms. Could you tell me where I can find out more information about these pictures and the artist Viola Sayre. I only seem to see information about her brother Fred Grayson Sayre. Thank You, Greg…………

  15. I was given a litho GP 10857 with pencil writing on back “Desert in Bloom”.
    Can you tell me more about it and what its worth would be? It is by F. Grayson Sayre

  16. When cleaning out my moms house that she lived in for 66 years we came upon an old painting ring ( I can see brush marks) in a very old frame. The title underneath the painting said ” pioneer trail by f Grayson sayer and signed that way also mom said it belonged to her mother any idea of how old this is? It’s the wagon trail scene And value I don’t want to seek it but we are going through he things and just wondering. Thanks

  17. Hi Brent, There were a number of silk screen prints made of Sayre’s wagon train painting. I’m not sure if yours is a silk screen but it’s possible. They apparently look more like paintings that the usual prints. The popular wagon train scene dates from 1937 or earlier and it appeared in the John Wayne movie “Tall in the Saddle”. I learned this from the AskArt website. If you go to the Fred Grayson Sayre listing and click on “Bulletins” you’ll see more comments from people who own this print.

  18. In cleaning out my mother in law’s home, we found an F. Grayson Sayre painting or print. It has a lake, mountains and trees on each side. We are wondering if it is a collectible and what the value might be. Thank you.

  19. Hi Judith, There were a lot of prints made of F. Grayson Sayre’s work, including one of a lake ringed by mountains–as you described. I just saw a Grayson Sayre lake-mountain print on Etsy for $85. If it’s a painting it could be worth $1000-$2000 or more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *