My fascination with George “Smoketree” Frederick, quintessential desert artist and Wild West character, began innocently enough when I was asked by the Mesa Historical Museum to curate a small exhibit of artwork from the Buckhorn Mineral Baths collection.
The Buckhorn, a now defunct mini-resort in east Mesa, Arizona, was owned and operated by Ted and Alice Sliger. It catered to those wanting a long soak in hot, mineral water and for many years served baseball’s Cactus League athletes needing to relax sore muscles after long practices and hard-fought games. Also, because of the Sligers’ interest in art and their innate generosity, the Buckhorn was a refuge for artists needing a place to call home. One of them was George Frederick who, at the time of his death in 1964, lived at the Buckhorn and left behind oil paintings, an encrusted palette and paint-box, an annotated sketchbook, and stacks of watercolors and drawings.
In 1942 Palm Springs artist John W. Hilton had written an article called “Art Without Glamour” for Desert Magazine, describing George Frederick’s colorful personality and transient lifestyle. Hilton said, “Smoke Tree George Frederick…used to swagger about town [Palm Springs] in the brightest checkered shirt and biggest sombrero he could find….His canvases included palm canyons, sand dunes, cowboys, burros…Most of his pictures had smoke trees in them—hence his nickname. Friends finally shortened it to ‘Smokey’ and so it remains to this day.”
Hilton said Frederick was born in Lee County, Iowa, moved with his international-lawyer father and family to Switzerland at the age of three, and received art training at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich before returning to the USA at the age of twenty-one. The article also stated that George Frederick had been reading about the American West all his life and wanted to go there and “punch cattle.” A 1948 Phoenix newspaper article about Frederick and an unpublished biography of him written by his great friend and oral historian of the Apache, Eve Ball, told the same story of his birth, education, and yearning toward the American West, adding that he went to art school with Adolph Hitler, studied under Sigmund Freud, was fired on by Pancho Villa’s forces in Mexico, received a slight head wound while fighting with the renowned 168th Rainbow Division during WWI, and moved to Palm Springs where his sister lived. Delicious information, indeed! However, there was something suspiciously flamboyant about this biographical material, and my cursory attempts to verify any of it failed. For the Mesa exhibition, the decision was made to use a bare-bones biography and let Frederick’s artwork speak for itself.
George Frederick’s larger-than-life biography continued to nag at me, so I poked around a bit more, soon discovering that prior to the mid-1930s there was nothing about him to be found in Iowa census records and other likely sources. Frederick had married Amee Olivia “Alan” Yantis, and very quickly equally fascinating, but verifiable, information emerged about her. Born into a pioneering Texas family, Amee worked as a stenographer in Texas and Arizona, went to France with the Red Cross in 1918, and, for a brief period in the late 1920s, assisted Gutzon Borglum, the noted sculptor of Mount Rushmore. She also wrote lurid cowboy tales for pulp Western magazines like Overland Monthly and Out West. It’s entirely possible that her editors didn’t realize “Alan” Yantis was a woman since they wrote: “Mr. Yantis is a man who knows the West as it is and is a good story-teller along with it.” and “Yantis is one of the foremost writers of the West. His stories sell readily in Eastern markets.” Around 1930, Amee moved from Texas to California. She and George Frederick met at Laguna Beach and married in 1934 when both were in their mid-40s. By 1935 the Fredericks lived in a small desert dwelling outside of Tucson, Arizona, and in 1940 they purchased property and moved north to east Mesa. However, any earlier mention of George remained so elusive that I began to wonder if “George Frederick” could be a pseudonym.
At this point what did I know for sure about George Frederick? Social Security records gave his birth as May 9, 1889. A 1935 El Paso newspaper article said, “Mr. Frederick will exhibit his paintings each day through Saturday at the studio of Berla Ione Emeree…. He recently came here from the White Sands where he and his wife have been camping while he painted. Mr. and Mrs. Frederick live outdoors. Their tent, which is pitched at the back of Mrs. Emeree’s home, has sheltered them in California, Arizona, New Mexico and in eastern states. Mrs. Frederick formerly lived here. She is Alan Yantis, writer.” Frederick also had had one of his paintings displayed at the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition at the Dallas Museum of Art, and Doris Dawdy’s biographical dictionary, Artists of the American West, lists George as appearing in that exhibit, too.
George’s correspondence with Eve Ball confirmed that he and his wife spent pleasant winters on their Mesa property and the hot Arizona summers in a variety of cooler places. He did portraits and taught painting classes at the Grand Lodge on the north rim of the Grand Canyon from the mid-1940s until 1953 when, as he wrote his friend Art Green, it’s “too high for Alan—ha, ha! And too low for me (in income) as the meals and staying there are too high.” During the 1950s the Fredericks summered in Colorado, Southern California, Wyoming, in a friend’s mobile home in Oracle, AZ, and in Paradise Valley, AZ, in wealthy patron Walter W. Ross’s winter home, equipped, as Alan delightedly wrote a friend, with “electric refrigeration.”
There were references to artists who’d studied with Frederick: El Paso’s G. Harris Shelton in the 1930s and Bill Sutherlin in 1961 who said he “went on a landscape painting tour of the Southwest with George (Smokey) Frederick, a well-known Arizona landscape painter.” In the late 1940s and early 1950s George had a very young student named Frank Mannarino who was driven by his parents and older sister from Tucson to the Fredericks’ home in east Mesa every Saturday for painting lessons. Frank’s sister said, “I remember where the Fredericks lived, close to the Superstition Mountains. The studio was like one big room with benches or cots against the walls, and there were serapes lining the walls. The kitchen was separate from the house and had a big dry sink. They brought water in. There was an outdoor toilet, and they had no electricity. They were very isolated on their property and had no neighbors.”
On October 18, 1960, Alan died from a cerebral hemorrhage, and in March 1962 George Frederick donated landscape paintings to Girlstown in Big Springs, Texas, in memory of Alan and in honor of W. W. Ross, George’s patron and a benefactor of Girlstown. In the March 1963 issue of Desert Magazine John Hilton once again mentions “Smoke Tree George” Frederick as one of his mentors.
On September 16, 1964, George Frederick died in El Paso, Texas, although his death certificate gives the Buckhorn as his permanent address. He had been living for six weeks in the mother-in-law apartment of a Robert R. and Mary Delgado family in El Paso and was attended by a cardiologist who stated on the death certificate that he’d treated Frederick from 1962 until his death. George’s remains were sent to Albuquerque, NM, for cremation, and there is no extant record of who collected his ashes. A Delgado family member wrote, “[George Frederick] did live in my parents’ garage apartment. It was a garage with a maid’s quarters attached, and my father made the two into an apartment sometime in the 50s…. my Dad had not seen him in several days. Mr. Frederick, I believe, did not have a car and would walk to the corner to catch the bus. When my father missed seeing him for a while, he went and knocked and not getting an answer he opened the door…. Mr. Frederick had died, and my father called an ambulance.” Intriguingly, in the December 1964 issue of Baha’i News, “George Frederick El Paso Texas 1964” is listed in its In Memoriam section, so it’s probable that George had adopted the Baha’i religion.
It was baffling that a fellow so easy to authenticate after the mid-1930s would have no prior history, but it finally occurred to me that, since George and Alan had owned property in Arizona, there might be land records containing at least a hint of who he really was. And, eureka, the county recorder’s office not only had property deeds, but also a copy of George Frederick’s will (in which Alan’s two sisters and W. W. Ross were beneficiaries). The dazzling revelation in these legal documents was that I had been correct in speculating that he had used a pseudonym. His name was actually George Frederick Gleich.
With the discovery of the Gleich surname my search exploded. Edan M. Hughes, collector, art dealer, and author of Artists in California, 1786-1940, had written in an online query, “Could this be the artist: Gleich, George Frederick (1890- ). Painter. Born in Germany in 1890. By the mid-1920s Gleich had moved to Palm Springs into a cabin near San Gorgonio Pass. The locals called him “Smoketree George” due to the smoke trees in all of his desert landscapes. His track is lost after 1932; he is believed to have returned to Germany.” (Edan Hughes also confusingly identified our George Frederick as a George A. Frederick, born in Michigan. Hughes said, “While working as an interior decorator in Los Angeles, [George A. Frederick] painted Indians, cattlemen, and desert landscapes in his leisure. Called “Smoke Tree George,” he was a close friend and painting partner of John Hilton. He died in San Diego, California on May 10, 1994.”)
I soon discovered that, yes, George Frederick Gleich had been born in Germany, but had definitely not returned to the Fatherland. At the age of 22 he immigrated to America on the soon-to-be-famous ship Lusitania, his name noted on the ship’s manifest as Georg Gleich from Bamberg, Germany, and his destination first written as NYC, but penciled over by the words “Iowa Keokuk.” George arrived in America on February 3, 1911, was coded an LPC–likely public charge–and detained three days until finally admitted on February 6th. (An LPC code often meant an immigrant was suffering from disease or, most likely in George’s case, was deemed unable to support himself financially.)
Keokuk turned out to be a town in Lee County, Iowa, the place where George said he had been born, and I very quickly found traces of George Frederick Gleich there. The 1915 Iowa State Census listed him as a 26 years old German national, a Lutheran with ten years of education who had lived in the USA for 4 years. He sang in a quartette at Keokuk’s St. Paul Lutheran Church, attended social events, and in 1918 had his artwork commented on twice in The Gate City Daily newspaper: “George Gleich is doing some fine portrait painting,” and “Mr. Gleich of Vincennes is about to complete a fine painting of fruit and foliage.” A September 5, 1916, newspaper obituary listing George Gleich as a family member led me to his half-sister Marie Stübinger Trott who immigrated to America in 1892, married, and lived in Keokuk. George made application for citizenship at least twice in Iowa–once in 1919 and again when his application was denied on February 11, 1920, saying “George Gleich, German, of Lee County…registered for service with the Germany army at Chicago and violated his oath to renounce allegiance to the former Kaiser.”
After 1920 there is no further mention of George Frederick Gleich in the Keokuk newspapers, but there is this statement by an H. Snell on the AskArt.com website: “In 1923, George Gleich created a painting of an American Indian maiden for my grandparents who lived on a farm in rural Iowa….Mr. Gleich was traveling cross-country and offered to create the painting for them in return for room and board.…Mr. Gleich made the same arrangement with my grandfather’s brother, who lived on a nearby farm, and created a painting depicting a winter scene for him.” So, certainly by the early 1920s George had begun his peripatetic ways and seems to have been heading west. By 1928, he was in California and had established his desert-artist career, since the June issue of “The Clubwoman” from Long Beach noted that “George Frederick Gleich, artist, spoke on ‘Desert Moods.’ Mr. Gleich has lived alone in the desert for weeks at a time and knows its moods well.”
In the 1930 Federal Census George Frederick Gleich is living in San Gorgonio Pass, Palm Springs, California. His half-sister Marie, now divorced from her second husband, lived in Palm Springs village then and for many years afterward, so his assertion that he came to Palm Springs because his sister lived there is true. At this point George was still painting as Gleich–a 1932 oil painting of a Pala Indian man that was sold at auction a few years ago is signed George Frederick Gleich, as is a Palm Springs self-portrait.
Fortunately, his sister Marie Trott wrote often to a genealogist cousin, and those existing letters answer many questions definitively. In 1941 Marie said, “Yes, George Gleich has improved a lot and if you have space for one [painting] in your Room & frame it, I’ll send you one of his Desert scenes he made about 5 years ago, he seems to make enough to merely get bye….He bought himself a 40 acre Ranch (on Desert land so far) with a 3 room house & 2 small cabins for $500.00 they expect to get water from Colorado Dam for irrigation in 4 or 5 years, if that is the case, he could probably get $5,000.00 instead for it, he has a large living room he uses for Studio & show room, this is in Mesa, Arizona. His wife was a writer at one time & seems to be satisfied to live from hand to mouth. I couldn’t do it, I’d want something more, than to worry where my next meal comes from. George goes by his middle name now, dropped the Gleich….He said he got tired people calling him all kinds of ways, besides Frederick sounds and looks better on paintings. He is my half brother. Had the same Mother but a different Father… George and his wife were here 3 days, all we did was seeing some of the old places & old timers as he had not been here to stay in six years.” This would indicate that George probably left Palm Springs around the time he married in 1934. In a 1942 letter Marie says, “George & wife came & stopped over again last fall on their way back, I guess they have pretty hard sletting [sledding] this Winter. I wrote & told them once, he better do something else, he rather starve than give up his art. He may have to, as people are not buying paintings now. I stood good on a loan last winter so he could buy this place….As he says it is good land & 40 acres & house for $600.00 only draw back they have no water as yet but will eventually…. Fred, I don’t think George didn’t mind about the Religion [Could this be a reference to Baha’i?], but I do know he does not want people to know he is a German, seems to be ashamed of it somehow.…”
George finally became a naturalized citizen in 1941, and his naturalization papers also gave his marriage date, June 8, 1934, and place, Yuma, Arizona. Charlie Safford, George’s friend from his Palm Springs days and another Smoketree School artist, was a witness. The couple had an extended six-month honeymoon, living in a tent behind a friend’s cabin in Mecca, near the Salton Sea. It’s interesting that Amee Olivia “Alan” Yantis married George as George Frederick Gleich so she must have known his true biography, yet she aided and abetted in telling his fanciful life story to friends and newspaper reporters alike.
The focus of this article is George’s biography rather than a critique of his artwork, but we should note that he was primarily known as a landscape artist, although much of his livelihood was derived from portraiture. I have seen fewer examples of his artwork created when he was painting as “George Frederick Gleich” than as “George Frederick,” but he seems to have developed a muscular, thick impasto style in oils quite early. George’s canvases, or the hard boards he frequently used, are often quite thickly textured, although the paint seems to be laid on with a brush, not a palette knife. As he moved into the 1950s, his style loosened, especially with watercolor, and became much broader and splashier, and George even experimented a bit with abstraction. He was primarily a plein air landscape painter, but, judging from the one extant sketchbook, he often did rough watercolor and oil studies out in the open to use as inspiration for more polished artworks completed in the studio. While many of George’s landscapes, both in oil and watercolor, are evocative and quite lovely, to my eye his real talent lay in portraiture, especially in images of desert denizens—workmen, Native Americans, cowboys, and other rugged individualists of his beloved West. It’s also clear that for George Frederick making art was as vital as the air he breathed. He even illustrated the envelopes of every letter he wrote. George was obviously willing to sacrifice comfort and security for the freedom to paint as he liked and where he liked, and, fortunately, he found a willing and able partner in his wife. The reality is, however, that George Frederick was uneven as an artist—much of his artwork is very good, but a lot of it misses the mark. It’s possible that he was an artist who didn’t easily differentiate between excellence and mediocrity in his own work.
For the most part the mysteries of George Frederick Gleich’s life are now solved. It’s certain he was German, born on May 9, 1889, in Bamberg. It’s entirely possible that he, like many young men of his time and place, read rousing tales of the wild and wooly West written by novelist Karl May, who ironically never set foot in the USA yet inspired generations of German youth to dream of becoming cowboys. It’s doubtful that George attended the Royal Academy of Art in Munich–most certainly he didn’t attend with Adolph Hitler who was never admitted to any art school. It seems much more likely that George was a self-taught artist. While he and Alan did make several trips to Mexico, it’s also doubtful that he was dodging bullets there during the Revolution. (He claims to have gone south of the border in 1912 with Iowa artist, George Upp, and returned with him to Keokuk to live, but Upp had actually made his well-publicized portrait-painting jaunt to Mexico in the 1880s.) As an unnaturalized foreign national, it’s also highly unlikely that George Gleich served in WWI, nor does his name appear on rosters of the well-documented 168th Rainbow Division.
Delving into the fabled life and times of George Frederick Gleich has been a fascinating journey. He wasn’t a natural-born man of the desert and range, but certainly followed that All-American admonition to “Go West, young man.” He shook off his past, reinvented himself, and transformed Georg Gleich, German immigrant boy, into a vibrant free spirit named George “Smoke Tree” Frederick. In so many important ways he exemplifies the colorful, free-wheeling, tall-tale-telling independent spirit of the West and of his fellow desert artists, and he certainly earned his rightful place in their ranks. As a bona fide member of the Smoketree School and as an illustrator of desert flora, fauna, and human denizens in the mid-20th century, George Frederick’s contributions are valuable–and valid–to recognize and acknowledge.
Rebecca Ragan Akins: A theatrical costume and puppet designer with over 130 shows to her credit, Akins has been involved for many years with arts education in Arizona–recently concluding a 21-year stint as Curator at the Arizona Museum for Youth. The Tempe resident previously taught and was costumer/costume designer at the University of Denver Theatre Department. In 1985 Akins received the Arizona Women’s Partnership Governor’s Award for “Women Who Create,” and her own artwork has appeared in many galleries and exhibitions. Over the years she has received many AriZoni Theatre Awards for Excellence in Costume Design. Akins is active in the local arts community — guest-jurying exhibits, moderating arts panels, and serving on the boards of the Central Museum Association of Arizona, the Museum Association of Arizona [MAA], the New School for the Arts & Academics, the Executive Board of the Tempe Municipal Arts Commission, and the Daniel Nagrin Theatre, Dance & Film Foundation.
After having spent quality time poking and prodding at George Frederick, Akins has developed a keen interest in the artists of the desert southwest—those intrepid souls who willingly sacrificed security and comfort to follow their bliss. Akins can be reached at email@example.com.