When Carl Bray and I used to drive to Oak Glen for pie, it was always a thrill to hear him talk about the artists he’d known in the desert–everyone from Maynard Dixon to John Hilton, Sam Hyde Harris and Agnes Pelton. Then there was this guy named Jon Gnagy.
Unlike the others, Gnagy (pronounced NAY-gee) was never an art world success. I collected the artists’ names like trading cards, but this particular card I shuffled back into the deck. Dismissed.
My mistake. Tomorrow (May 22, 2020), the Chicago gallery Firecat Projects opens an exhibition dedicated to Jon Gnagy (1907-1981). Gnagy may be, after all, the most influential desert artist who ever lived. I call him a desert artist–despite his various residences–because he lived in Palm Springs in 1942, was a member of the Desert Art Center and a visiting instructor at the Shadow Mountain Palette Club in Palm Desert. He spent the last 20 years of his life in Idyllwild. Most importantly, he’s a desert artist because he honored the Gods of Tahquitz and knew the tricks smoke trees play on travelers.
As America’s first TV artist debuting in 1946, Gnagy was a predecessor to the now-trendy Bob Ross. Hundreds of working artists and so-called weekend artists credit Gnagy as their inspiration. Everyone from New York contemporary artist Allan McCollum (Gnagy’s nephew) to Andy Warhol were jump-started by Gnagy. “Jon Gnagy taught me to draw,” Warhol declared.
Gnagy was as radical as Warhol in his own way. For him, art was not an elite pursuit reserved for those who speak in art school code. Rather, he was of the punk, do-it-yourself persuasion. Gnagy was raised by Mennonites in Kansas, who also subscribe to DIY beliefs. Cook, quilt, hoe…or try making something with a ball, cube, cylinder and cone.
Ball, cube, cylinder, cone was Gnagy’s mantra, channeled from Cezanne. With his Van Dyke beard and his everyman flannel shirts, he beamed these words down on kids at the very dawn of TV.
Gnagy’s populist gospel is central to the early desert painting scene as described by the late Indian Wells artist Carl Bray. An amateur art movement overtook America in the 1940s and 50s–the same time Pollock and de Kooning were sizzling on the East Coast. Winston Churchill’s 1948 book Painting as Pastime was key to the egalitarian revolution, as was the paint-by-numbers fad and plein air painting in the canyons.
The New York scene excluded all but the chosen; John Gnagy’s TV show and Learn to Draw kits launched a parallel movement that included everyone.
Born in 1907 in Varner’s Forge, Kansas, Jon Gnagy dropped out of high school and later went to work as an art director for an ad agency in Tulsa. It was there he met his wife-to-be–his apprentice at the agency–Mary Jo Hinton. (Mary Jo was herself an unheralded cartoonist, illustrator and cartographer.)
After the two were married, Gnagy took a job at a New York agency; his budding family lived in nearby New Hope, Pennsylvania. The pressures of work wore on the artist and he suffered a nervous breakdown. During months of hospitalization he began to read philosophy, psychology and physics. In idleness he discovered his life’s plan: He would show everyone the creativity inside them. “I decided that what I wanted most was to give this knowledge to others,” he wrote.
Writer Liz Seymour is Gnagy’s granddaughter. She described what happened next in an article for Art and Antiques: “When, in 1946, the first TV tower was erected atop the Empire State Building, Gnagy was ready. NBC gave him a spot on ‘Radio City Matinee’ alongside a chef making hollandaise sauce and a milliner trimming hats. The crayon melted under the lights, the chalk squeaked, but he was a hit—with almost everybody.”
The Museum of Modern Art’s committee on art education wrote to The New York Times to protest Gnagy’s philistine approach “destructive to the creative and mental growth of children.” The rebuke stung. Though a common man to his core, part of him always craved the approval of the art establishment.
His TV show, You Are An Artist, heralded the beginning of the Golden Era of children’s programming. “Jon was the first,” says Joshua Tree resident and Gnagy collector Tom O’Key. “He replaced the TV test pattern.”
Prior to Gnagy’s big break, his brother-in-law Sam Hinton took a job as director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (now the Palm Springs Art Museum), in 1941. The small operation was then devoted to natural history and was housed in the Welwood Murray Library building downtown.
Sam Hinton was a folk singer, marine biologist and later director of the Aquarium/Museum at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He was also a desert artist, of sorts. The Palm Springs Historical Society has his cartoons of local luminaries such as Edmund Jaeger and Carl Eytel.
Around the time of Hinton’s arrival, Jon Gnagy also moved to town with his family, staying with the Hintons at 1235 Via Miraleste. (The house appears to be gone or the address has changed.) Gnagy’s wife Mary Jo took a job in the lab at Torney Hospital, an army hospital installed at the El Mirador Hotel–now Desert Hospital. Gnagy started teaching classes out of his home. In the 1940s, and again in the 1960s, an ad ran regularly in the Desert Sun advertising private instruction with Jon Gnagy.
While in the desert Gnagy did lithographic series reflecting the local landscape: “Land of the Desert Sea”, “Nature on the Colorado Desert” and “Beware the Smoke Tree”. He had talks with Carl Bray about the shapeshifting mysteries of the smoke tree, and later honored our signature shrub with a cameo in The Doodler’s Handbook.
Liz Seymour added these family memories of Palm Springs: “One of Gnagy’s students was east coast arts patron Jennie Grossinger, who later invited him back east to be resident teacher at Grossingers [ed: an opulent resort in the New York Catskills]. The Hinton family was also friends with Albert Frey, who later designed a La Jolla home for Sam Hinton.
Jon Gnagy would return to the area after his days of fame had passed. He taught in the summer program at Idyllwild Arts Academy in 1960, and soon moved there–to remain working quietly under-the-radar the rest of his life. (His brother-in-law Sam Hinton also taught folk music at Idyllwild Arts, hosting Pete Seeger and other famous musicians.)
Gnagy operated a gallery next door to the Mile High Cafe. His nephew, Allan McCollum, remembers visiting him on the hill around 1969. “We went up there and found that Jon was holding drawing lessons at a local cafe (bar?) on the weekends,” he says. “We went and watched him do it. It was presented just like his TV show, with an easel, and so on, to weekend folks. So even though he was retired from the television lesson program, he still thought to teach people.” (A survey of Allan McCollum’s work is on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami through July 12, 2020.)
After Jon Gnagy died in 1981, the first person to get a good look at his Idyllwild studio was Joshua Tree resident Tom O’Key. O’Key got his first Learn to Draw kit for Christmas at age seven and was a fan of Gnagy from then on. When his family would go camping in Idyllwild he went by the gallery hoping to meet his hero, but Gnagy was never in. Legend has it he slept by day and painted by night.
It was only after Gnagy’s death from heart failure that O’Key finally met Gnagy’s wife, Mary Jo Hinton, and daughter Polly. (Mary Jo has since passed away; Polly Gnagy Seymour lives in Florida.) While Mary Jo and Polly were cleaning up the house, they invited Tom to tackle the studio out back.
As Tom recalls, Polly walked him across the yard to the studio. The door swung open and Tom stepped inside the dimly lit cabin, the last lair of the man who mentored thousands.
Before departing, Polly switched on a desk lamp to reveal an unkempt workspace. “It was a big mess. He wasn’t the tidiest guy,” O’Key says. While Gnagy was never known for his own art, he had been painting seriously for years. In the studio O’Key found stacks of ethereal paintings of supernatural beings (“He obviously had a spiritual side to him”), along with rural scenes, desertscapes of Tahquitz Canyon and other local sites, and underwater scenes. Mary Jo told him her husband had an affinity for Neptune, Lord of the Sea.
As a Mennonite, Gnagy was not allowed to draw human figures (idolatry) so any figures in the paintings–human or supernatural–were added by Mary Jo.
O’Key, founder of the Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theater, wound up with a number of paintings which he has in his personal collection, along with the undersea knife Gnagy wore on his belt while skin diving. He took home some of Gnagy’s used paint brushes and has given them away to artist friends over the years: DIY talismans.
In the years since his studio visit, O’Key has grappled with the puzzle of why Gnagy isn’t better known. “Why isn’t this guy famous?” he asked. He even appealed to the late Ray Davenport, compiler of the influential Davenport’s Art Reference and Price Guide. Davenport said Gnagy wasn’t a known player because he did not have the key requirement: paintings sold at auction.
Today, Gnagy’s former students–Tom O’Key in Joshua Tree and Stan Klein in Chicago–are determined to bring his name back to the public. For his show opening tomorrow, Klein borrowed a number of paintings and Gnagy ephemera from the family. Despite the disruptions of coronavirus, the gallery owner is confident that several family members–as well as a passel of Mennonites from Kansas–will make it to the Chicago show before it closes in August, 2020. He hopes to work with Tom O’Key to move the exhibition to a venue in the California desert at a later date.
Stan Klein makes art himself under the name Vito Desalvo. Gnagy was the one who first encouraged kids like him to make a mark on paper. Then another. Then came the “shouts of amazement”, as Liz Seymour once wrote. For Stan Klein, Tom O’Key and thousands of others, it was a shout that keeps reverberating through the years.
The Firecat Projects exhibition You Are An Artist opens May 22-August 14, 2020. Call for appointments and for information on the planned Friday, May 22, opening, which may or may not take place due to coronavirus restrictions. Original work, prints, T-shirts and posters available. https://www.firecatprojects.org/
The Jon Gnagy website maintained by his family includes a guestbook with nearly 300 messages from fans: