Postcards From Mecca: How to Save a Desert Artist

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In the last couple of years I’ve feasted endlessly on 2,000 historic photos of the unexplored desert east of the Salton Sea. Taken by 1930s Mecca postmaster Susie Keef Smith and her cousin Lula Mae Graves, the collection offers an unparalleled portrait of the forgotten swath of desert between Mecca and the Colorado River. You can see the photos in a new book and in an exhibit (edited and curated by myself and Warner V. Graves III) opening at the La Quinta Museum January 15-May 11, 2019.

This post is an ode not to the photographs, however, but to those who rescued and preserved them.

When Susie Keef Smith died in Leucadia in 1988, she left no close relatives. A county administrator assigned to her estate saw nothing of value in her old cracked photo albums and chucked them into a dumpster. A brave archaeologist named Ron May jumped in and saved them.

This is for the archaeologists and archivists and dumpster-divers, the small museums and historical society volunteers who preserve stories and art. It’s for the savers and hoarders, the tribe of crowded closets and overstuffed garages.

A page from Lula Mae Graves’ photo album during the years she lived in Mecca, near the Salton Sea. Pages courtesy of Warner V. Graves III.

Every story of the early desert and her artists depends on someone who ignored the modern mandate to declutter. Every time an Agnes Pelton or Hilma af Klint or Susie and Lula are rediscovered, it’s because someone refused to shred the past and instead protected a cache until it found an audience.

Dumpster-hero Ron May passed the photos on to archaeologist Russ Kaldenberg, another determined saver of stories. Kaldenberg in turn entrusted them to Dennis Casebier, founder of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association (MDHCA) in Goffs. In this remote Mojave outpost, Susie’s photos finally got the professional care they deserved from archivist Chris Ervin.

If you have not been out to Goffs, plan a visit to see this 75-acre site that rivals Noah Purifoy’s place as the #1 outdoor museum in the desert. Casebier has helped preserve hundreds of desert stories but his organization–like local history groups and small museums nationwide–struggles to raise funds and attract new members.

Along with the shining example of the MDHCA there are many others scattered across the desert from Borrego Springs to Wonder Valley. Locally we have the Cathedral City Historical Society, Historical Society of Palm Desert,  Palm Springs Historical Society, Indian Wells Historic Preservation Foundation, La Quinta Historical Society, the Salton Sea History Museum (regrouping at present) and the Coachella Valley History Museum in Indio. They all need your help. There are dozens of forgotten artists and photographers languishing in their file cabinets just waiting to be coaxed out.

It’s a crucial time for these small museums and organizations as Modernism and an Instagram-sensibility threatens to overwhelm the endlessly fertile past. History always comes around again and the local history groups are the ones who preserve it for the next round of believers. For every $25,000 Coachella Valley cities are giving to DesertX, what if they contributed a fraction of that amount to their local historical society?

And what if the old photos and letters are not in a dumpster but stashed under your own bed? Resist the urge to purge. Warner Graves III, an artist recently relocated from the Bay Area to Cathedral City, held onto his grandmother’s substantial bundle of papers and photos and as a result we have the images you see on this page. As a preview of the La Quinta exhibit and the forthcoming book, here are never-before-seen original album pages from Lula Mae Graves’ scrapbook.

The photos you find in your closet may be small and faded, the paintings and papers dusty. Hang onto them. In time you’ll find someone who cares and you’ll pass them on. That’s how the Postcards From Mecca story came to be: a chain of people who cared, protected and passed it on.

Archaeologist Ron May said each time he jumped into a dumpster (or the equivalent) he felt like he was saving a life.

Save a life. Save an artist. Join a historical society.

Postcards from Mecca: The California Desert Photographs of Susie Keef Smith and Lula Mae Graves will be on display along with landscape paintings by Lula’s grandson, artist Warner Graves, Jan. 15–May 11, 2019 at the La Quinta Museum. The opening reception is January 24, 2019 from 5 pm-7 pm. 77885 Avenida Montezuma. (760) 777-7170.

The Postcards From Mecca book is available on Amazon as well as from the publisher, the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association: https://www.mdhca.org/books-3/postcards-from-mecca-detail

Palm Springs Life excerpt from book: https://www.palmspringslife.com/desert-history-coachella-valley/

For information see www.postcardsfrommecca.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 comments for “Postcards From Mecca: How to Save a Desert Artist

  1. jim develyn
    January 9, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    Excellent article Ann. Your message is so important, and necessary and I hope
    sees a vast audience. It’s a good reminder for us all. Thanks for putting the
    message out there.

  2. glenda
    January 9, 2019 at 6:42 pm

    exceptional and sincere chapter, making space and time for so many who care for those who went before us/taking the high road! thank you! dear ann! those old photos stop me in my tracks, every time!

  3. Ronald V. "Ron" May
    January 11, 2019 at 12:18 pm

    The Susie Keef photo scrapbooks, negatives, and loose prints were dumped in a huge metal dumpster after a Deputy Administrator for the County Administrator’s Office, County of San Diego, California decided no money could be made from auctioning off those materials. They did send out to auction desert oil paintings, silver spoons, a huge wood and brass stationary camera, boxes of glass negatives, dolls, hats, and personal effects of Susie Keef that I simply could not compete with the high dollar antique dealers. But here is the thing, EVERY county in the State of California has a public administrator that makes those same decisions every day and dump tons of personal effects they don’t think are worth a tinker’s dam. Track those people down and cut a deal for your historical societies and do it now!

  4. Robin Stewart
    January 14, 2019 at 7:25 am

    Congratulations on the book and the exhibit. I look forward to experiencing both. Thank you Ann for sharing your passion.

  5. jim develyn
    February 14, 2019 at 6:28 am

    I had a chance to see the exhibit the day it opened. I highly recommend it.
    It is a fascinating historical look at the area and an amazing introduction to these
    two most interesting women and their spirit.

  6. September 21, 2019 at 9:48 am

    im reading the book now i love the excitement of discovery
    when you really had to get out to do it. also the commitment to
    the photos/documentation and postcards oh yes and the deserts
    characters.

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