Rings of Fire: John Hilton’s Pop-Up Art Camp in the Borrego Badlands

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Larry Hughes’ new book Rings of Fire tells the story of a little-known mining camp that doubled as an art camp during WWII. The calcite crystals mined there were used to make gunsights for ships and aircraft. At the center of the tale is desert artist John Hilton and an unlikely cast of painters, prospectors and drifters who came together in an impromptu colony in Palm Wash, west of the Salton Sea. Here is an edited excerpt from the book.

Author Larry Hughes’ painting of Camp Wilson, Palm Wash, the site of Hilton’s camp.

Preoccupied first by running the calcite mine and then as an employee, John Hilton found little time for the artistic muse. Yes, there were rare occasions when, during unexpected slowdowns in the mining or in camp after dinner, he would draw or paint. One landscape even made it into a shipping crate of calcite crystals—upon opening it back at Polaroid, a surprised supervisor didn’t quite know what to think of it. But in general, Hilton had slid into artistic dormancy. And no one at the mine had a clue what that felt like.

As spring warmed toward summer, there stirred within John Hilton a desire for artistic camaraderie. Unfortunately, his masters had dispersed: Dixon to Utah and Tucson; Fechin, based in Los Angeles, was traveling; and Forsythe was usually off in some woebegone ghost town painting prospectors and burros. But upon dialing Forsythe’s number one day, Hilton found his friend at home. How would you and Ed Ainsworth like to come see the mining work I’m doing? To Ainsworth—columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a close friend—Hilton offered a reporting scoop on a secret war project right in the Times’ area of circulation. And to both, he offered enticement of a more hedonistic variety: steaks—big, fat, juicy steaks.

Forsythe was beside himself at the thought. Meat rationing was into its third month now, and purchases required both an overly endowed rationing book and a well-stocked grocery store, neither of which were easily found. When the grocery counter obliged, there were ways to get around meat rationing, and some did, though rarely with sufficient cunning to put steaks on the table. But the mining camp had, by military circumvention, evaded the rationing board’s watchful eye. It was a small matter for camp cook, Lowell Frantz, to dispatch a Marine to Camp Dunlap’s meat locker in the morning, and by evening have a scrumptious steak dinner ready. And these were good cuts of meat, too.

Hilton’s bovine lure worked easily with Forsythe, whose palate grew mightier than his palette, even before he hung up the phone. Ainsworth, though not averse to a good steak, was thinking more about his story, though Hilton had notified him that the mining was classified as secret and the trip would be “off the record.”

Leaving Los Angeles in Forsythe’s trusty station wagon, the two intrepid diners crept through San Gorgonio Pass and descended into the desert, now on a high broil. Ainsworth puzzled over Hilton’s quizzical directions: head south on Highway 99 to Truckhaven, then cut west down a rough road and keep going until you see me, or you get shot at by Marine guards. Shot at? What in the world were they mining up there? Forsythe remembered Hilton had once found calcite specimens in that general area, but such a common mineral hardly constituted a war commodity, and certainly not an armed guard. While speculating on this delicious little mystery, Forsythe spotted their turnoff and followed the road westward.

John Hilton at the Calcite Mine in 1943.

Passing the few Washingtonia filifera palms still nourished by a declining water table, they threaded the heavily incised badlands. Forsythe had seen many such places in his artistic forays. But Ainsworth had not, and he suddenly felt far removed from the safety of his typewriter. And he still fretted about the prospect of trigger-happy Marine guards.

Then, suddenly, Forsythe slammed the car to a halt in front of, sure enough, two trigger-happy Marine guards! At least that was the storyline in his head. In reality, they carried no weapons, and security was the last thing on their minds. But Ainsworth thought otherwise. “From their expressions,” he recounted hyperbolically, “we concluded they were going to be very disappointed if they did not get to shoot us on the spot.” A nervous explanation mentioning John Hilton waived the two travelers on to the mining camp.

They could see the tents now and a wooden shack or two. Forsythe’s nose sniffed the air like a cat, drawing in a scent only open-cooked food could deliver. He pulled the car beside several others and shut off the engine. All was quiet, aside from some clanging about in the cook shack. The place seemed utterly deserted, reminiscent of Forsythe’s favored ghost towns, sans burros.

Then Forsythe spotted something quite extraordinary. Above the Army tents where cliffs met sky, a solitary figure, clothed only in a pair of shorts, sat on a makeshift chair, busily painting a landscape!

Incredulous, Forsythe approached and sputtered, “Are you an artist way out here?” The man stood up with measured difficulty, suggesting some sort of back injury. But he smiled and extended his hand. “Irwin Hoffman, with Artists for Victory.”

Forsythe was enchanted. Here, in this forsaken corner of nowhere, where a mysterious rock was being secretly mined for who knows what, a beneficent current of history had brought into camp not one, not two, but three artists! Hilton was there by virtue of his discovery, Forsythe by invitation, and Irwin Hoffman because his brothers were in charge of the mine.

Irwin D. Hoffman watercolor painting of Camp Wilson.

Hoffman and Forsythe hit it off upon discovering their common ties to the New York art scene and to direct, painterly realism. Most importantly, both had a love for plein air painting, as the French called painting in the open air—a tradition begun a century before the Impressionists and now firmly established in American realism, particularly in California.

Irwin D. Hoffman, Indian with Red Bandana, 1943.

Both artists knew plein air as a demanding teacher. Far from the studio’s orderly comfort, a plein air artist must work quickly and intuitively to capture the ephemeral qualities of the changing light. In a sense, art done in nature becomes nature itself: a summer day’s heat, translated to radiant pigment; the immersive experience of rapidly shifting light and shadow; the physicality of strokes from brush and knife, sometimes joined by the trespass of flying insects making the ultimate entomological sacrifice upon wet paint. Plein air art is primal, a consuming experience like wind and fire, as raw and exposed as the artist’s skin. It is ecstasy and suffering, an emotional alchemy that sometimes produces works of purest gold, sometimes leaden dross. Few understood that experience more than Forsythe and Hoffman, whose East Coast studios never robbed them of the unscripted joys of outdoor painting.

Victor Clyde Forsythe had grown up in California but moved to New York to pursue a cartooning career in the 1920s and early 1930s. His everyman character, Joe Jinks, was a popular feature in the daily newspapers, as was his “Way Out West” cartoon saga. Painting on the side, he contributed one of the most recognizable recruitment posters in World War I. For a time, Forsythe worked in Frederic Remington’s old New York studio, sharing the space with an emerging artist by the name of Norman Rockwell. But recalling his childhood and lured by his father’s tall stories about the West, he returned to the desert, seeking out remote plein air venues in ghost towns and abandoned mines, and gaining the trust of prospectors and iconoclasts he met along the way. From these experiences, his paintings took on a sharp, almost stark realism, always imbued with a spirit of place. While Wild West influences of Remington and Charles Russell were ever present, Forsythe’s narrative followed a less dramatic trail, focusing on heroism in the common man—individuals struggling to survive in a hostile environment, even as they drew strength from that struggle.

John Hilton and wife Barbara gather with Ed Ainsworth, left, and Clyde Forsythe, right, at Hilton’s 29 Palms home. Courtesy Rick MacGillivray.

Irwin Hoffman looked for the same heroic sinew in everyman. Unlike Forsythe, Hoffman was born an easterner. But his whole life had a universal rather than regional flavor, starting with his Russian-Jewish roots and expanding through travel to locales both remote and exotic. Trained at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Hoffman’s first one-man gallery show came before he was twenty. In 1924, he won the school’s coveted Paige Traveling Scholarship, permitting him to live the freestyle life of a bohemian artist in Europe and northern Africa. Two years later, his return to the United States brought a greater focus on portraiture. He settled into a New York studio and married. Before he was thirty, Hoffman had established a solid reputation in the high-energy New York art world.

Populating that aesthetic enclave were many socialists and Communists, who looked to a new-world order of equality and progress, which they thought was championed by Russia. In 1931, Irwin and Arnold Hoffman accompanied their mother there, not with any political motive but drawn by family ancestry. Shocked by the squalor and poverty in a supposedly utopian state, Hoffman simply painted what he saw. Upon publishing his work in the New York Evening Post, his apolitical candor drew the ire of many a radical artist.

Hoffman had no inclinations to far-left politics, regarding communism and fascism as equally grotesque faces of the same evil. Even so, he found common ground with the politically charged American social realism movement and its empathy for everyday life. Hoffman deepened his artistic vision while accompanying brothers Robert and Arnold in their mining ventures to the Canadian bush, then Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the United States. Like Forsythe, Hoffman lived and worked with his subjects—underground miners, Mexican peasants, rural people who knew the Great Depression’s hardest privation. His response to their struggles and joys produced empathetic portraits and scenes of daily life. Hoffman’s mining series, in particular, depicted underground labor with a visual grit that even his detractors could not malign.

Irwin D. Hoffman, Portrait of a Young Man, 1943. Source: Boston Public Library

Stylistically, however, Hoffman had grown as out of step with New York art as he had with its politics. Modernism was now king—a turning away from realistic classicism of the past to flat-spaced abstraction, and to a focus on form rather than subject. “The public, art critics and museum directors,” complained Hoffman, “seem to be in a perfect frenzy to discover the latest in the bizarre and sensational.” The modernists countered by disdaining representational painting as an utter anachronism. Even with his common-man imagery, Hoffman’s realism was growing passé, deposed from museum walls by the color fields and splatters of Mondrian, Rothko, and Pollock.

For the moment, forces that had been driving artists to abstraction were held at bay by a war that needed patriotic art with a direct, objective narrative. Many top representational artists, including Hoffman, now wielded brushes instead of guns in that cause—with frontline combat artists brandishing both. Hoffman plunged into his role with remarkable energy: helping organize Artists for Victory and spearheading and judging its early war poster contests; raising funds for the Red Cross; sketching hospitalized soldiers and gifting the artwork to their families.

John Hilton’s Fall in the Canyon shows a location near the mine site. Courtesy Bodega Bay Gallery.

Yet his injured back required time to heal, slowing his artistic output. Since he wasn’t doing much in New York, his friend, Harvard mineralogy professor Harry Berman, had a thought: Why not enlist that discriminating eye to sort calcite crystals? By late April, after training at Polaroid, Irwin was off to Palm Wash to try his hand at the art of calcite inspection. Oh, and maybe a watercolor or two.

He was doing precisely the latter when Forsythe and Ainsworth showed up. Forsythe remained flabbergasted at their chance encounter. As they locked together in conversation, Ainsworth began to despair of fulfilling their long-anticipated appointments with the promised steaks. He knew that their aroma would eventually slap Clyde back to his senses. But thankfully, the roar of incoming flatbed trucks sped up the process. Sunburned men fell off the trucks like dusty scarecrows and trudged to their tents to clean up for dinner. One sported a gaunt face that Ainsworth described as a “smoked ham,” yet was strangely familiar. It was John Hilton.

Hilton grinned. “I told you, steaks!”

After introducing the visitors to a few miners, Hilton’s promise was fulfilled. “There they were,” Ainsworth recalled deliriously, “big, brown, and luscious with real butter oozing on their steaming surfaces. Not until we were half through did Forsythe and I come up for air and look at one another appreciatively.”

 

Primary sources of quotations and events in this account, which are attributed in more detail in Rings of Fire, are:

Ed Ainsworth, California (Los Angeles: House-Warvin, 1951), 174–75

Ed Ainsworth, Painters of the Desert (Palm Desert, CA: Desert Printers, 1960).

Katherine Ainsworth, The Man Who Captured Sunshine (Palm Springs, CA: ETC Publications, 1978).

John W. Hilton, “Rock that Makes You See Double,” The Desert Magazine, September 1939.

John Hilton, “Mining for Gunsights,” Desert Magazine, October 1950.

John W. Hilton, “The Valley that Taught Me to Paint,” Desert Magazine, March 1963.

100 Contemporary American Jewish Painters and Sculptors (New York: YKUF Art

Section, 1947), 94.

An Artist’s Life (Boston: Boston Public Library, 1982).

Larry Hughes is a watercolor landscape painter and geophysicist who has been selected eight times as artist-in-residence at National Parks. His website: https://mgal.org/members/larry-hughes/mediapress/

The above excerpt from Rings of Fire, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is copyrighted 2024 by Larry Hughes. The book can be ordered from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other online booksellers. Available for pre-order prior to release in June 2024.

https://www.amazon.com/Rings-Fire-Unlikely-Scientists-Americans/dp/0811773892

 

 

 

 

 

3 comments for “Rings of Fire: John Hilton’s Pop-Up Art Camp in the Borrego Badlands

  1. A joy to see you in my in-box again, Ann!

    A story as juicy as the steaks, but what moves me are the portraits
    by Irwin Hoffman. The most saturated with the essence of the
    subject and the most delicately rendered.

    I hope you are really well.
    Thank You for this.

  2. Glad to see that comment about Hoffman’s work. He did those portraits plein air, and probably quickly, working with an assurance that showed his mastery of watercolor and his insight into the human spirit. He was pushed aside by the waves of modernism in the 20th century, and under-recognized. I have always idealized art as a ‘big tent,’ embracing a wide range of artistic expressions, but alas, fad-ism often rules, and Hoffman’s exile from galleries and museums after the 1930s is a sad example. But you can’t keep good art down!

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