Marjorie’s View: Bringing Borrego Painters Home

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When Barbara Nickerson put an ad in the Borrego Sun looking for early Borrego desert paintings, she wound up filling in missing pieces of California art history.

The Executive Director of the Borrego Art Institute, Nickerson appealed to local collectors who may have paintings of the area in their homes. Right away, the calls came in. “We are in the midst of a happening!” Nickerson reported soon after her notice appeared. “We’ve got three nice Bartkos, four or more Marjorie Reeds, one large Ivan Messenger…”

The result: A solid first-ever exhibit of historic Borrego art displayed in downtown Borrego Springs during the Borrego Springs Plein Air Invitational last month.

Marjorie's View, by Jeff Sewell

To bring the past and present together, 14 contemporary artists also made a pilgrimage to the final home of stagecoach painter Marjorie Reed. The group spread out with their easels around Reed’s red shack on the route of the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach. Inspired by the location, Invitational first-place winner Jeff Sewell painted “Marjorie’s View” in honor of Borrego’s most famous artist.

Vallecito, where Marjorie Reed lived. Photo by Jul Nickerson

In the historic display, “Rim of the Mojave Desert” by Ivan Messenger, was on loan from Kay Levie, who just retired after 27 years at the Borrego Sun. The painting hung by her desk, and was given to her as a going-away gift. A member of a group called the San Diego Moderns active in the 1930s, Messenger owned a home in Julian and traveled down the Banner Grade to paint the desert.

Artist Liesel Paris, who owns a gallery in town, loaned an artist’s sketchbook by Armand Vallee, an Austrian-born painter who died in 2009. His diverse specialties included primitive cave art, totem poles and the California desert.

Armand Vallee

Roy and Amy Jennings loaned a selection of William Bartko’s works. Bartko was a member of the Desert Art Center in Palm Springs, and lived in Borrego Springs from 1961 until his death in 1989. The exhibit included a rare black-and-white smoketree by Bartko. Usually painters depict the iconic smoketree as silvery grey-green.

A desert painting by William Galen Doss, one of the earliest Laguna Beach painters, was on loan from Craig and Barbara Claypool.  Doss was Craig’s great-uncle.

William Galen Doss

California Desert Art donated a 1930s Edith Purer painting to the Institute’s permanent historic collection. Purer was an early California botanist who turned to painting while out hunting desert specimens.

The Park family loaned Marjorie Reed’s “The Butterfield Mail in Mason Valley”.  One of the best-loved Western painters anywhere, Reed first visited the red shack on the old Campbell Ranch at the suggestion of artist John Hilton; she lived there in her final years until her death in 1996.

Marjorie Reed, the Butterfield Mail in Mason Valley

Marjorie Reed's red shack, center. Photo by Jul Nickerson.

As the Borrego exhibit shows, each California desert region—Mojave, Death Valley, Anza-Borrego, Palm Springs–cultivated its own subgroup of artists. The particularities of those enclaves are still being discovered. In Borrego, for instance, most artists did not come from LA or Laguna but drifted over the pass from the active art community in San Diego. Some of San Diego’s (and California’s) most enduring Impressionist painters—Maurice Braun, Alfred Mitchell, Charles Fries—frequented Borrego in the first half of the 20th century. Another Borrego Impressionist who came over the hill from San Diego, Charles Reiffel is famous for his undulating brushstrokes and bold, modern use of color.

The great painters brought students and disciples with them to Borrego. The scope of the works they painted in this quiet desert region is just starting to be discovered, as artist Barbara Nickerson continues her hunt. The success of the Borrego exhibit shows there is a lot of desert art history still to be found—if you just ask.

For more information see:

Jeff Sewell painting near Marjorie Reed’s shack. Photo by Jul Nickerson


14 comments for “Marjorie’s View: Bringing Borrego Painters Home

  1. I have 2 large paintings done in the 1960’s by Martha Eleanor Nicholson Hurst. I am told they are well sought after since they are desert paintings actually of Borrego Springs desert. Do you know anything about her works? My parents bought them at an art festival in the desert in 1965 from her. At the time they paid over 300.00 for each one of them.They are in perfect condition.Please send any info that you may have about her paintings.Thank you, Bruce Dart

  2. Hi Bruce,

    I don’t know of this artist but I will send your note on to someone in Borrego Springs who might know more. If you live near the Coachella Valley, you might want to bring the painting to the Appraisal Day at the Palm Desert Historical Society on November 19, 2011. Appraiser Kevin Stewart will be there; he’s well-versed in desert paintings.


  3. Back in the late1980’s I purchased a painting By Galen Doss ( 18″ X 36″ ) that hung over his fireplace on Glenneyre St. in Laguna Beach. I am looking for more information on the artIst and also a general value.
    Pictures are available. Tom

  4. Please help me identify who the plein aire artist “Amos” is? I believe that they were part of the Borrego artists. The painting I have is of the desert and was signed Amos ’38. Any information you could provide me with would be appreciated.
    Thank you,
    Janet Cowart

  5. Hi Janet,

    I checked AskArt and it looks like the artist may be Arthur Chance Amos. Do you have any idea where the painting came from, or the story behind it? It’s nice to own such an early desert landscape.

    I’ll be out in Borrego soon and will ask around. If you have an image of the painting, please send it on.


  6. I have a large watercolor painting of the hotel in Oatman, Az. painted by Wm J. Bartko in 1972. Purchased it because that hotel is where Clark Gable spent his honeymoon. Beautiful painting of old west. Any idea of its value?

  7. Hi Faye,

    I don’t know the value but Oatman, Arizona was named for the Indian captive Olive Oatman, a favorite Western heroine. I’d check AskArt on prices for Bartko’s work. I’ll soon have a “For Sale” section on this website and you can also list the painting there if you’d like. It sounds like a treasure.


  8. My name is Ronald Allan Hurst and I am the son of Martha Eleanor Nicholson Hurst. I am not sure exactly what I might be able to contribute here however it was my mother who is referred to by Bruce Dart above and I can provide him or anyone else that is interested in my mother’s work, background and technique’s. I am now 66 years old and just beginning my own journey into the fine art field as a result of my mother’s influence and teaching.

  9. is there any way to see a sample of Martha Eleanor Nicholson Hurst signature? I recently purchased a beautiful landscape painting and the signature is Hurst. I am just curious about who the painter is.

  10. Hi Lori,

    I’ll be featuring an article on Martha E.N. Hurst very soon on this site and will try to include an example of her signature. Her son Ron, also an artist, is sharing many great images from his mother’s career.


  11. I have also been searching for information on the artist Eleanor Hurst. However, I just discovered her name is actually Martha Eleanor Nicholson Hurst,but, was thrown off because she signed her paintings “EHurst”. I searched AskArt under Hurst and up popped one of the very paintings I have of hers; I am told it’s the road to Borrego Springs. I have a total of 4 paintings by her and am fascinated by her use of color and her technique. Can anyone place a value on her works?

  12. i have 3 armand valle paintings of the borrego area. they were house warming gifts to my parents who were friends and lived in the area then. is there any interest in this artist and who would i contact

  13. Hi Lyle, Armand Vallee was a stylish painter with an interesting background. He was born in Austria to a family of artists, emigrated to Calgary in the 1950s, and painted the Canadian wilderness before moving on to the California desert. There was a gallery in Borrego Springs that featured his work (the Liesel Paris gallery) but it closed in 2015. Your note reminds me to try and find out more about Armand Vallee.

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