So Long Ol’ Fren’ Bill Bender, Moonlight Merrell, Jennie Kelly Memorial…More

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Bill Bender was the last of the desert painters–the original desert painters, that is.  Of the 13 artists profiled in Ed Ainsworth’s 1960 classic Painters of the Desert, Bender long outlived his compadres. He was a caring friend and a tireless resource for my incessant questions about the painters and places he knew.

Bill Bender, with Ann Japenga and Brownie

Bill Bender, with Ann Japenga and Brownie

He’s been so energetic into his 90s–fixing pipes and feeding the wild birds at his Victorville ranch–that it seemed he’d live forever. But I regret to report that Bill died on his 97th birthday, January 5, 2016, at the old Route 66 homestead that had been in his family for more than 100 years. He is survived by his wife Helen.

At a later date, I’ll feature a profile of this desert cowboy artist, who knew all the big names in desert and Western art: Harry Jackson, Charlie Dye, Clyde Forsythe, John Hilton, Jimmy Swinnerton, Olaf Wieghorst, Ed Borein and many more.

I’ll sign off to Bill like he did in his letters: “Adios for a little while. Ol’ fren’.”

Jennie Kelly and the Early Art of the Salton Sea

A memorial for Salton Sea historian Jennie Kelly is slated for January 30, 2016, 1-5 pm, at the North Shore Beach and Yacht Club. The Club is normally closed to the public, but this Saturday you have a chance to visit the celebrated Albert Frey building, and to honor Jennie.

Jennie single-handedly preserved much of the history of the Salton Sea, by turning her personality and tenacity to the task. Her efforts were matched by her husband, Steve Johnson. She founded the Salton Sea History Museum, which enjoyed a brief glorious tenancy in the refurbished Yacht Club. Driven by her enthusiasm for the Sea (she lived in North Shore for 35 years) she inspired long-time residents to bring in boxes of old letters, vintage ads, memorabilia and paintings. One of her interests was the early art of the Sea. She co-curated (with Deborah Martin) the inaugural exhibit on Salton Sea art, Valley of the Ancient Lake, and shined a light on the early Rancho Dos Palmas artists. This was an old Bradshaw stage stop and later a celebrity hang-out, where artists John Hilton and Barry Atwater once resided.

Jennie also explored the artists of the North Shore artists colony, led by writer Ed Ainsworth. Maynard Dixon lived here briefly; Bill Bender and friends partied here.

Bill Bender, in wig, and his wife Helen party with Ed Ainsworth at the North Shore camp.

Bill Bender, in wig, and his wife Helen party with Ed Ainsworth at the North Shore camp.

With the help of artist Kathi Hilton, Jennie waged a campaign to save John Hilton’s Art and Gem shop in nearby Thermal. While the gallery was ultimately demolished, Jennie did manage to save Hilton’s magnetic rock that stood sentry out front. Hiltons’ rock is now forever planted in front of the Yacht Club. (Bring a can opener to Saturday’s gathering and tap the rocks till you find one that sticks.)

More than 17,000 visitors from all over the world stopped by the North Shore Yacht Club to learn about the Sea’s story, before the county abruptly closed them down in 2011. The shutdown occurred in the middle of the Valley of the Ancient Lake exhibit. Jennie had to disassemble the display with no warning, as artists from around Southern California scrambled to the Sea to pick up their evicted artwork.

Jennie’s supporters are now lobbying to have the Museum put back in the largely unused Yacht Club building. “That was Jennie’s final wish,” says Johnson.

The website: For information on Saturday’s memorial call (760) 250-8927 or write

Eric Merrell’s Moonlight Mile

Some of the great California painters–Theodore Lukits, Frank Tenney Johnson– shared an enthusiasm for moonlight. They and their friends would wander around all night, painting here and there and finding their way by the lamps on their miner’s helmets.

Eric Merrell, a champion of desert painting, is reviving this time-honored enthusiasm with Nocturnes: Paintings by Eric Merrell, a new video produced and directed by Alec Ernest for LA Review of Books. The atmospheric film is sparking media attention; one critic says Merrell may be the guy to make landscape painting cool again. Spend a few minutes watching Eric explore Joshua Tree in the dark. It will make you want to get out your headlamp and give it a try.

History of the 29 Palms Artists Guild

The Twentynine Palms Artists Guild was started by John Hilton and a band of high desert artists who deserve to be better known. On February 12, 2016, 7 pm,  historian Pat Rimmington will talk about the history of this artist’s collective, an event sponsored by the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park. Housed in an old adobe, former home of Western writer Tom Hopkins, the gallery is still in operation today.

Grace Hall Hemingway Desert Painting Discovered in Grandmother’s Closet

Grace Hall Hemingway, mother of Ernest, was a desert painter, as first revealed in a California Desert Art article by John Sanford.

Now Grace’s art is getting more attention: A biography is underway by an Illinois writer, and a July 2016 conference (Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park), will feature a showing of Hall Hemingway’s paintings. Even better for desert art fans, a rare desert painting has surfaced.


“This painting has been sitting in a closet in my grandmother’s house in Portland, Oregon for 70 years,” writes Jim Driscoll. “She told me Jack Hemingway (Hemingway’s son) gave it to her when he lived in Portland in the late 1940’s. It has a small plate on the bottom of the frame that reads: Hall Hemingway.”

Driscoll would like to find a good home for the painting, either with a devoted collector or a museum interested in Grace Hall Hemingway’s life. You can reach him here:

For information on the upcoming conference and exhibit of Grace’s paintings, see: info:

4 comments for “So Long Ol’ Fren’ Bill Bender, Moonlight Merrell, Jennie Kelly Memorial…More

  1. “high desert artists who deserve to be better known”….thank you to you dear ann “we” are all the more enriched by your compassionate coverage!

  2. Bill was a joy when I interviewed him for an upcoming book involving John W. Hilton. Full of information. As an artist myself, I immediately grasped his down to earth artistic integrity. Did not require words.
    Larry Hughes

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