Smoketree artist Carl Bray died in Banning on July 23, 2011, at age 94, after a brief illness. Carl had been working on new paintings up until two months ago. He took an annual vacation to Missouri with family members and declined quickly upon his return.
His death ends one of the great David and Goliath battles in California art history. For decades the City of Indian Wells tried to tear down his hand-built home and gallery on Highway 111. Carl held off the rich and powerful city with sheer determination not to be run off. After he moved away to Banning, his gallery was demolished, despite an environmental review finding that it was of historic significance. When he heard the news, Carl was philosophical, saying he had his mind on higher things (seeing his late wife, Luella, in heaven). It was his many friends and fans who wept when they knocked down the 18-foot fireplace, made with stones Carl hauled from Berdoo canyon, with special touches from the kids’ rock collections.
For more on Carl and his gallery see: https://www.californiadesertart.com/?p=29
Even after Carl became ill and had been admitted to an assisted living facility, we could still get a smile out of him by bringing up news reports of Indian Wells City Council antics and squabbling.
Carl was a fervent believer of the sort they don’t make anymore. He and Luella sang in the choir at The Fellowship of the Pass in Beaumont. During a memorial service at the church, Carl’s son Michael played the banjo and guitar to accompany a slideshow of his dad’s life. Guests—including six of Carl’s siblings and his four kids—talked of his love for fishing, inventions (he built a VW bug run by steam engine) and trains (he worked for the Southern Pacific as a brakeman and bridge builder for 40 years).
We learned that his parents did not support his choice to study art when he was a young man. Luckily for us, Carl always had an unshakable confidence in his own path and his own vision. While some dismissed his work as “rustic”, Carl kept right on painting his magical mountains and Maynard Dixon-like clouds. In recent years he had taken to noting the age of the artist on the back of his paintings: 91, 92, 92 ½. He increasingly threw in mystical touches: an angel or glowing light in the stylized landscape.
My own acquaintance with Carl was the inspiration for this website and my ongoing interest in desert art. Some of my most cherished moments as a Smoketree School chronicler have been visits to Carl’s studio to see what he was working on next. I’ll miss the paint-blotched easel, boxes of old photos and slides, railroad books and magazines scattered everywhere. Most of all I’ll miss Carl’s solid warmth and friendliness. He was a true folk hero of the Coachella Valley and California art, the kind they’ll write ballads about one day.