Robert Arnett: The Original Wonder Valley Homesteader

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If you take the Hwy 62 Art Tour this weekend (Oct. 27-28, 2012), you’ll notice the ephemeral feeling in the air. So many LA artists have moved here in recent years. The studios feel like they might close up at any moment and return to abandoned homestead status.

Boarded Up By The Wash

Not Bob Arnett’s place. When I wandered into his backyard on a recent visit, there were paintings stacked up everywhere, hung on the fences and leaning against an old swing set. I felt like I’d stumbled on the timeless heart of the overheated High Desert scene. One of the earliest artist-colonizers of the region, Arnett has been painting Wonder Valley for 27 years, long before LA even had a clue about the place.

When I visited, Bob and Jeanette were preparing for the 11thannual Hwy 62 Art Tours. They had just driven in from Covina,  where they have a home and gallery. In the chaos of unpacking, their dog Harry walked across a painted canvas, and was instantly forgiven. Bob folded into a chair in the living room, which has the worn feeling of an early desert homestead. He is long and loose like the former Harley biker that he is.

Bob and Jeanette Arnett, and Harry

Even as a kid growing up in Baldwin Park, Bob knew he wanted to be an artist. When he won an art contest sponsored by the Doodles Weaver TV show, he was further convinced of his destiny. After a stint in the Army (he missed Vietnam) he went to Mt. San Jacinto College in Walnut and took art classes.

They didn’t teach him the basics of perspective and color he’d need, however. He was going to school at a time when abstract art was in vogue. “The teachers I had never thought realism was worth anything,” he says.

Predictably for the time, Arnett briefly worked as an abstract expressionist, exhibiting at a gallery owned by his aunt, Dorothy Kosovac, in the Bradbury Building in downtown LA. There are few traces of his abstract period in the homestead shack, but I did find one remnant of those days in the hallway: an animated rendering of a skeleton on a motorcycle.

Once Arnett was married and had kids to support, he put fine art aside for a career in graphic and commercial art. He worked as a silk screener, opening his own shop in Glendora in 1974. When he started coming out to Wonder Valley in the early ‘80s to go dirt biking with friends, the place was undiscovered; abandoned shacks dotted the landscape.

Chad’s Trailer in the Snow

Arnett grew fond of the open, outlaw feeling. He wanted to buy a cabin out here, but lacked the funds until he began designing wildlife covers for camper tires (you see them on the back of RVs), a project that turned out to be lucrative. He was able to put $8,000 down on a homestead shack in 1985. ”It was really thrashed, royally,” he says.

About the same time, he met his second wife-to-be, Jeanette, and the two of them came out to work on the house together. Wonder Valley was so deserted, he says: “You could lie down in the road and take a nap.” There was no phone and no cell phones then. If Jeanette needed to check on one of her real estate clients, she had to hike to a phone booth at the tiny rural airstrip.

The quiet, simplicity and vast landscape led Bob to think about painting again. It’s easy today to imagine plein air was always popular, but when Bob jumped into it, artists were not especially excited about going outside to paint. There were few artists in the Joshua Tree area of any kind—indoors or outdoors.

Bob sat out in front of the shack one day and attempted to paint the landscape.  Capturing the creosote and the horizon was the hardest thing he’d ever done. “He was so miserable,” Jeanette says. The misery and difficulty was exactly what hooked him.

“A still life or a portrait has a definite shape and color; the measurements are easily found,“ he said. Then Bob pushed open the front door of his house, revealing a rolling desert expanse. “But the shapes out there aren’t easily found. The colors are hard to explain. The sky is always changing.”

Though he’s a fan of the early California painters Sam Hyde Harris, John Hilton and Edgar Payne, he is not a follower of anyone’s style. For showing him the basic skills he didn’t get in art school, he is grateful to these workshop teachers: Scott Christensen ( “One of the best landscape painters ever. Look at the surface and you’ll see how hard he works.”); Daniel Greene; Joe Anne Arnett (no relation) and Ray Roberts.

After the Rain

These days he spends much of his time driving down dirt roads with his shade umbrella and easel. He’s been stuck in the sand, had the cops called on him, been threatened by the neighbors. When you’re in a pinch out here, he advises, your best shot at rescue is a Marine from the nearby base. “It’s edgy. It’s not like you’re in downtown Pasadena.”

What has emerged from these outings is a vision of the desert unique to Arnett. In his reverence for ruins—old trailers, water towers, trucks and cabooses–he  stands in sharp contrast to some of the newer landscape artists who portray cast-offs as detritus; the landscape as a wasteland.

The old jackrabbit homestead shacks, in particular, have taken on symbolic importance to artists. The five acre sites were originally deeded to city-dwellers as part of the 1938 Small Tract Act; the cabins built there subsequently deteriorated. To some they are symbols of apocalypse; Arnett chooses to infuse them with soul and memory.

The Arnetts were pleased and shocked when—in recent years—LA artists began to descend on their lonely corner of the desert, buying up the old shacks and turning them into studios. ”We just couldn’t believe what was happening,” Jeanette says.

When they sit on their porch at night, the blackness is now sprinkled with the lights of reinhabited homesteads. The Arnetts have made good friends among the newcomers; they go to the art parties and participate each year in the Hwy 62 studio tours. But you get the feeling that when the scene rolls up and moves on, Bob will still be here getting stuck in the sand and painting whatever is most difficult.

For more on the artist:

The Arnett homestead and studio will be open to the public the weekend of October 27-18, 2012, as a stop on the Hwy 62 Art Tours. For information:

South of Wonder Valley, Church

5 comments for “Robert Arnett: The Original Wonder Valley Homesteader

  1. It is a very nice article and they are a very nice couple but they live in LA. They come out more often than he did as a kid but they don’t live here. There are many other artists who were here back in the 1920s who are quite famous (and dead) John Hilton is the most recognized. But even before he was here there were artists from the old country in Morongo Valley doing classical sculptures. I am sure they were not the originals nor were the Chimuava.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Lucy. Bob was not the first but he was one of the first of the recent wave (influx of artists from LA.) I’d like to know more about the other early artists from the area. Aside from John Hilton, do you know of others from the 29 Palms region?

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