Happy Are the Painters: How a Cocktail Waitress and a Roadside Artist Sparked a Desert Art Happening

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Each day when she finished her shift at the Shadow Mountain Club in Palm Desert, Evelyn Chevoor swung by the base of the mountain where Fred Chisnall was painting beside the panel truck that doubled as his home. Chisnall was the Kerouac of the desert art scene: Handsome, vagrant, doomed to thwarted love and a lonely death.

Fred Chisnall, known as Ol’ Paint, was the soulful inspiration for the Palette Club painters. Images courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Desert.

In those days, Highway 111 was a meandering two-lane. Tourists drove slowly and stopped to visit the oddball trio who hung out behind the current-day Desert Crossing Shopping Center. Along with Chisnall, there was the rockologist Chuckawalla Slim and Andy the Donkeyman, who sold burro rides for 25 cents. Chevoor said a quick hello to the rockhound and the burros, then zeroed in on Chisnall. She soon convinced the roadside artist to give her painting lessons.

One day weeks later Evie (as she was called) walked into the Shadow Mountain Club and suggested to hostess Thirza Schenk–also a student of Chisnall’s–that they display a few of her fledgling artistic efforts. Unframed landscapes were unceremoniously propped on tables here and there in the modernist stone, wood and glass clubhouse. It seems there were more painters hidden amongst the club membership. Soon 33 additional paintings appeared on the tables. In the Spring of 1961, Evelyn and Thirza–along with their friend Irene Fenton–founded The Shadow Mountain Palette Club. It would become, for a time, the most popular art club in the desert.

The Club was part of the Do-It-Yourself art movement that overtook the country in the 1950s and ‘60s. As different from the commercial art scene as it could be, the amateur movement “tested the nature and limits of the modern artist’s identity and the values of art-making in the modern world,” wrote art historian Kim Grant in a paper called Paint and Be Happy.

Grant took her title from Winston Churchill who spurred the fad with his book Painting as a Pastime. “Happy are the painters,” he wrote, “for they shall not be lonely.”

The first meeting and all Palette Club events thereafter were carefully recorded in the five binders containing the club’s history.

And happy are those who write about the painters for they shall not be lonely, either. During my trip through the history of the club, I’ve found excellent company in a champion trap shooter, a female sheriff who drew mugshots, a transplant from Germany descended from the Grimm fairy tale family, as well as famous names such as Milford Zornes, Jimmy Swinnerton and modernist Dorr Bothwell. They all painted and taught at the Shadow Mountain Palette Club.

Margaret Tyler, mother of Palm Desert historian Bob Tyler.

As art scholar Grant points out, the movement was driven by women, with a crew of housewife-painters leading the pack. One of the regulars at Shadow Mountain was a dentist’s wife named Margaret Tyler. The artist’s son, Bob Tyler, is today a docent at the Historical Society of Palm Desert. He remembers the group painting off of Highway 74 where the Bighorn Golf Club is today. “The bighorn sheep would wander down to watch them work,” Bob Tyler said. “It really mushroomed there in the 1960s.”

I’d heard about the Palette Club long ago in stories told by Bill Bender, Carl Bray and Desert Magazine gallery owner Ginger Renner. Former Palm Desert historical society president Hal Rover told me about the Club’s scrapbooks–five giant black binders—held in storage. I’d always meant to dig through them.

But then, more recently, modernism swallowed the desert and many local history groups began to throw out anything not related to the trend. I worried that the binders might be subject to a purge so I got to work. The books were huge, heavy and unwieldy. When I picked them up, covers fell off and ancient dunescapes fluttered out. Inside, long-dead society columnists told tales of a populist uprising. You could open to any page and discover neglected artists waiting to be resurrected. I’m sharing some of the names and stories in hopes that other researchers will take over. The roll-call is long, but it’s worth reciting as so much inspiration is found here on the fringes of the sanctified art world.

Lucille Bertrand poses with her painting of the La Quinta Wash. Palette Club events were held in the modernist clubhouse of the Shadow Mountain Golf Club, still in operation today.

Studying the scrapbooks in chronological order, I learned that Evelyn, Irene and Thirza staged the very first Artists’ Ball on March 24, 1961, with prime rib on the menu and Jack Kerns orchestra on stage. At the club’s peak, as many as 500 guests attended the annual artists’ balls. (One of the earliest country clubs in the Valley, Shadow Mountain was known for its giant figure-eight pool, a novelty at the time. The golf club is still in operation and was recently purchased by a new owner, Lindi Biggi.)

It’s hard to imagine Evelyn Chevoor’s hobo teacher Fred Chisnall at these society events. I picture him waiting out the festivities in his camper with a can of tuna and a cat. But Chisnall was connected to many name artists. He spread the word and soon his artist friends from around the Southland were coming out to teach classes. The scene was a hybrid of high society and punk anarchy. While the balls were formal country club affairs, the paint-outs in places like the Mecca Hills, Box Canyon and Pinyon Pines were more like the Bombay Beach art scene today: Scruffy and free.

Palette Club paint-out in Box Canyon.

Early in the 1960s the club gained momentum. The scene benefited from proximity to the Desert Magazine building on Highway 111 in Palm Desert. The magazine, at the time, was popularizing the desert and desert art all over the country.

The very first demo was by Heiner Grimm. A forgotten artist Bill Bender told me about, Grimm was famous for illustrating Grimm’s fairy tiles on tile and porcelain. When President Eisenhower was in the desert, Grimm presented him with his own portrait in porcelain.

The Chocolate Mountains, painting by Palette Club founder Irene Fenton.

The Palette Club then held an exuberant paint-out at Chester Spencer’s ranch in Yucca Valley. Spencer was an architectural designer and illustrator for Douglas Aircraft. Later field trips took the group to Paul Wilhelm’s 1000 Palms Oasis, and Thirza Schenk’s Snow Creek rock house.

Charter member Frederick Doyle Penney (he lived on Silver Spur Trail in Palm Desert) chaired a field trip to Andreas Canyon. Penney had studied at Chouinard Art Institute in LA and the Art Students League in New York as well as the Chicago Art Institute. He had painted a number of ballerinas in his career, and upon first encounter with a smoke tree he said it reminded him of a floating dancer.

Bill Hagar, Wilton McCoy, Fred Penney and Hal Moore on a paint-out.

A fly-in paint-out held at the Desert Air Hotel in Palm Desert featured a composite painting demonstration by Carl Bray (he supplied the foreground), Irene Fenton, Joseph Frey, Wilton McCoy (he did the smoke trees) and Sam Fleischman (foothills.)

Wilton McCoy, author of the book Painting the Desert, took the group to the Fish Traps Wash. Meanwhile, back at the figure eight pool, Keith Ward, a children’s book illustrator (The Black Stallion, Elsie the Cow) did poolside painting demos and eventually opened the Keith Ward Art School and Gallery in Palm Springs.

Among the artists who enlivened the club, there was Irene Scoggin Bertrand (a Joshua Tree resident who had been a designer for MGM studios), Lettye Edens (she owned Edens’ art center in Indio), Sally Ward, Harriet Lake and George Coblentz, a topographical mapper in WWI and later an MGM artist. There was Lela Schade, who opened the Del Sol Art Gallery in Rancho Mirage, and Marjorie Schumacher, who had a studio at 32-603 Desert Vista Rd in Palm Springs. Goldie Powell Harding, a teacher of the dentist’s wife Margaret Tyler, had studied at Columbia University and was a widely traveled lecturer on modern art.

Goldie Powell Harding lectured widely on modern art.

John Hilton was a regular. Larry Sitter of Palm Springs (the late Terry Masters studied with him), R. Brownell McGrew and Snow Creek painter Axel Linus were on the board of directors. The illustrious James Swinnerton was an honorary lifetime member. Cathedral City modernist Val Samuelson was a frequent speaker and contest judge. The famous TV artist Jon Gnagy (he predated Bob Ross) was a guest instructor.

Visiting painter and printmaker Dorr Bothwell brought modern influences; she was part of the Bay Area surrealist scene that included Lorser Feitleson and Helen Lundeberg. Another guest, Howard Burke, was an artist for the LA Examiner and drew the maps for the Happy Wanderers, a weekly travel TV show sponsored by Ford Motor Company.

More Shadow Mountain names well-known to fans of California art include Ivan Messenger, Sterling Moak, Paul Lauritz and Joseph Frey, who opened his first studio in San Francisco in 1915.

Lela Hall Frank painting of smoke trees.

Champion trap shooter and desert painter, Lela Hall Frank.

But my personal favorite is an unknown, Lela Hall Frank, who shares space with Annie Oakley in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. Historical society docent Bob Tyler remembers Lela giving painting lessons to his mother; they hung out at the Trap and Skeet Club at Jackie Cochran’s Indio ranch. Bob’s own competitive shooting background was partly inspired by Lela, an eight-time national award winner. He still has a painting she painted for him at the Salton Sea. All the people who “shot trap” at the Salton Sea duck clubs coveted a Lela Hall Frank painting, Tyler says.

Another favorite: Western artist Gertrude Rust. She was a deputy sheriff and forensic artist in Apple Valley who painted composite sketches of suspects from the descriptions given by witnesses. At one Palette Club gathering, Rust did a demo of her trade, asking men from the audience to pose for various body features. (Palm Desert founder Carl Henderson was the neck.) Rust lived in Indio and studied at Otis Art Institute; she was a frequent guest at the Riverside County Indio Date Festival, as were many of the Palette Club regulars.

One of these artists who deserves more attention purely for his artistic skill is Robert Rishell. A frequent presence at the events, Rishell showed a dramatic grasp of shadows in his painting. He was pals with Swinnerton and John Hilton, and once painted Swinny’s portrait. He was one of the founders of the Oakland Museum and was a look-alike for John F. Kennedy.

Robert Rishell: “You need dark to show light.”

In 1965, Robert Rishell barely escaped a flood that engulfed his trailer in Painted Canyon. His promising career was later cut short when he died of multiple myeloma at age 59.

Also in 1965, a lovelorn Fred Chisnall holed up sick in his trailer. Carl Bray found him barely conscious and took him to his home, where he soon died. Evelyn Chevoor cried when she found out that Ol’ Paint (as she called her teacher) was gone.

Luce Felts was one of the last of the Palette Club members.

The following year, violence interrupted the festivities. The occasion was an art show at the Erawan Garden Hotel in Indian Wells. (Now the Miramonte Resort and Spa, the former Erawan recently was named a historic landmark by the Indian Wells Historic Preservation Foundation.) The Palette Club was staging their poolside exhibition and party when, suddenly, gunshots boomed. A Palette Club member shouted: “Murder! Murder!”

The victim survived the attack by her crazed husband, who was apprehended after a chase on Dillon Road reaching speeds of 119 mph. Back at the hotel, painters packed up their easels as the forensics crew sampled blood stains on carpets and photographed a porcelain elephant from Vietnam which sustained a bullet wound. The art party was over.

Ruth Ann Smith at a Box Canyon paint-out, 1966.

The episode marked a symbolic turning point; the group’s flame flickered slightly each year thereafter. By the 1970s—binder number five–the club veered toward cocktails and away from bohemia. The 60s were over, after all. One of the founders, Thirza Schenk Williams, died in 1971. Founder Irene Fenton died in 1977. Artists were getting married and leaving the fold to pursue domesticity. “Cupid Nabs Artist” read the headline as Angela Spencer wed Wilton McCoy. “Cupid’s Darts Keep Zinging” a society columnist said, as Palette Club photographer Avis Hebgen wed treasurer Harold Turner.

A few remnant members of the Palette Club operated a storefront space on Hwy 111 until about 2008. Luce Felts and El Paseo dress shop owner Edith Morrey were some of the last of the crowd to pass away. A number of the men are known today in desert art circles: Darwin Duncan, Wilton McCoy, Fred Penney. The cocktail waitress with the Boston accent is forgotten.

The Shadow Mountain Palette Club meets at Chester Spencer’s Yucca Valley Ranch, 1968. Images courtesy of Historical Society of Palm Desert.

To honor Evie and her friends, you can walk out to Painters Path, the Palm Desert street named for Fred Chisnall (it’s now the trailhead for the popular Bump and Grind). This is where the happening began. Back in Evie’s day, the painters could see for miles from Coachella to Palm Springs and many a landscape artist was born right here.

Today the view is hemmed in by buildings so you’ll need to use your imagination, but sit for a moment and you just might hear the ghostly bray of Andy’s donkeys. Go near sunset and remember the rest of Churchill’s quote about those happy painters: “Light and color, peace and hope, will keep them company to the end, or almost to the end, of the day.”

Listen to a 1981 oral history interview with Shadow Mountain Palette Club founder Evelyn Chevoor, courtesy of the Historical Society of Palm Desert and California Revealed. If you are a fan of Palm Desert history, there are many more enlightening oral histories available on the California Revealed website:

https://californiarevealed.org/islandora/object/cavpp%3A209700

 

Poolside art show during the Palette Club heyday.

 

 

18 comments for “Happy Are the Painters: How a Cocktail Waitress and a Roadside Artist Sparked a Desert Art Happening

  1. Thank you so much for preserving these memories and sharing them here! I am lucky enough to have purchased a Frederick Chisnall painting at an estate sale in Perris about 25 years ago. Your newsletter is the only place I’ve found any real biographical and lifestyle information about him. You’ve brought him and others to life with your descriptions.

  2. It had to have been a daunting task to collect and organize so much information. As usual, you were up to the task. Congratulations on another superb article. There are gems all over the desert, but you seem to find more of them than anyone else.

  3. Another marvelous story, Ann. it’s always a thrill to see a new post. Someone should make a movie about this history!

  4. Thanks Ann. Irene Scoggin Bertrand taught me oil painting, and mentioned the Shadow Mountain Palette Club in passing several times. I had no idea about its history.

  5. A terrific roll-call, Ann. Thank you for making sure their names, if not their works, are not forgotten. I would love to have been part of this fantastic scene but sadly, by the time I emerged, as you say, the party was over. Great work!

  6. Hi Glenda, I would have liked to have been at the party, also! You and Marcia and Sharon and others are carrying it on. Also to Susie and the other Glenda, Bonnie, Gary and Andy, it’s heartening to me that you are out there reading this. Thank you.

  7. wow! what a wonderful, evocative story. Thanks, Ann! Have you run across a painter named Millie Spiegelman? She was my painting teacher in a city sponsored art class in the complex where DAG is now.

  8. glenda, has it right, of course. So many ‘ comings together ‘ here, as
    so often in Coachella Valley history. It’s fascinating; and many
    avenues are here to explore. Your accompanying illustrations are wonderful.
    I’m particularly taken with the paintings of Luce Felts and Irene Fenton
    depicted here. No one has brought the area alive as you have Ann, through
    all your articles; not easily achieved! But obviously well appreciated. Our
    Mr. Chase would be in hearty concurrence, no doubt.

  9. Hi Nicole, Yes, who broke Ol’ Paint’s heart? We do need to know.

    I have not heard of Millie Spiegelman, but found one reference in the Desert Sun, February 2, 1967. Apparently there was a Hale Galleries in the last remaining building of the old Desert Inn and at their very last show they featured this line-up: Val Samuelson, Rosalie Crocker, Jeanne Rand Green, G. Powell Harding, Joy Purcell, Annette Freeman, Caroline Summers, Marcia Barrett, Mickey Getz, Miriam Moyer, Millie Spiegelman, Rachel Scott, Jeannette McCabe, Camille Homme, and Dorothy Glasgow.

  10. This is marvelous. We always wondered about the derivation of Painter’s Path. Now we know. Thank you!

  11. Ann, I check in on your California Desert Website periodically and am always rewarded. This article on the Pallet Club is especially enjoyable reading. It reminds me that creative collectives seem to come in waves: They seek to assemble and then disassemble over time, coming and going like ocean tides.

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