Stephen Willard’s Mammoth Lakes Gallery Reopening

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Portland art dealers Robert and Sue Joki were looking for an encore career to crown 25 years of success in the gallery business. They found their opening courtesy of the early Palm Springs photographer Stephen Willard. In May, 2013, the couple will reopen Willard’s Mammoth Lakes cabin and studio as a center for Sierra and Yosemite art.

Stephen Willard, Convict Lake and Hangman's Tree

While Mammoth is not exactly smoke tree territory, the new Gallery at Twin Lakes is great news for followers of desert art. In California, the desert artists overlap with mountain artists, just as the mountains and deserts themselves overlap. Follow a desert artist long enough and you’re bound to wind up at the Devils Postpile; Sierra artists lead you back to Palm Canyon.

I caught up with Robert and Sue Joki (pronounced Yo-kee) on their annual visit to Palm Springs. They’re usually here to barter desert paintings, but this time they were laying the groundwork for the new gallery. Sue added a vintage cowboy hat to her gallery wardrobe courtesy of collector Marty Newman. Robert enlisted Terry Masters and other desert artists to be part of a Sierra-Palm Springs artists exchange. And they visited the Palm Springs Art Museum archives to learn all they could about Stephen Willard.

Willard set up shop in Palm Springs in 1922. His wife Beatrice ran the little-known Palm Canyon Trading Post art gallery (where the Indian Canyons trading post is today), featuring sketches by Carl Eytel and other pioneering artists.

Willard later built a studio on the site of the current day Moorten Botanical Garden. For 58 years he roamed the desert and mountains, becoming known for his hand-painted postcards made from his black and white photos. He sold his work through the influential Desert Inn Gallery, and began spending summers at his cabin in Mammoth Lakes.

Willard by Joki

Joki, snow-covered galleryThe Gallery at Twin Lakes in winter and summer. All photos courtesy of Robert and Sue Joki.

By 1947, Palm Springs was growing and the verbena was disappearing. Feeling crowded, Willard permanently decamped to his small home and art gallery at Twin Lakes. Anyone who has cross-country skied the closed Lake Mary Road has passed this snow-buried retreat.

Willard died in 1965. In 1999, his daughter Dr. Beatrice Willard donated his collected work—glass and film negatives, personal papers, maps and memorabilia—to the Palm Springs Art Museum (then the Palm Springs Desert Museum). In 2001 the museum staged a major exhibit on Willard, helping to bring him back into public view.

Now Willard is getting another big break, as Robert and Sue Joki devote their considerable skills to promoting the artist and his fellow adventurers who painted the Sierra.

Carl Sammons, Lake in Eastern Sierra

Carl Sammons, Lake in Eastern Sierra

Yosemite attracted the Hudson River School painters, giants like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Thomas Hill. Places like Mono Lake and Mammoth Lakes were less accessible and less-often painted. But the true California landscape devotees made their way nonetheless.

The earliest piece the Jokis will feature is a 1860s painting by Enoch Wood Perry, who traveled with Bierstadt. Other early artists include Harry Cassie Best (father-in-law of Ansel Adams), and Harry’s brother Arthur Best, along with Paul Grimm, Carl Sammons, Paul Lauritz and Mary Nimmo Moran, wife of Thomas Moran.

The Jokis Bring Energy and Knowledge to the Task

Robert Joki is a towering fellow of roaring enthusiasms—he races Indy cars, cage-fights UFC style and raises urban chickens and bees. His Sovereign Collection art gallery, across the street from the Portland Art Museum, specialized in early 20th Century American and European art, as well as Northwest regional art. “All art is regional art in a way,” says Robert. “In a manner of speaking Van Gogh was a regional artist.”

Sue Joki worked in advertising at the Oregonian newspaper. She grew up in La Canada, spending family vacations at Woods Lodge on one of Mammoth’s lakes. When the couple, now in their 50s, began thinking of a second-act career, Mammoth was a natural draw. “After 25 years with the gallery, it’s time to do something else while we’re still young enough to do it,” says Robert.

They worked out a special use agreement with the US Forest Service to operate the old Willard cabin, adjacent to the site of the 1860s mining town, Mammoth City. Their gallery season will be short as the cabin is often covered with snow. During tourist season they’ll feature historic 19th and early 20th century artwork of the eastern Sierra and Yosemite. They’ll live on site in season and show visitors Willard’s Real Photo postcards that he once sold through the gallery, and also his hand-colored photos of nearby places TJ Lake, the Forest Chapel, the Devils Postpile, the old Lake Mary Store, Hot Creek geyser and more.

The Gallery at Twin Lakes, interior

The Gallery at Twin Lakes, interior

Willard pioneered the paint-on-photo technique and was as skilled as major landscape painters. “This has to be considered fine art,” Joki says.

The Jokis will also feature contemporary landscape artists and plan to offer an artist’s residency, once they restore an old miner’s cabin on the property.

This all sounds like a lot of work for an encore career, until you hear the couple describe how they imagine their days. First they’ll shed their modern trappings and live like 1930s pioneers, down to their wardrobes. “Sue has about 300 pairs of shoes she’ll trade for boots,” Robert says.

Sue plans to begin her days hunting wildflowers with an old-fashioned camera with real film. Robert envisions getting up early to fish at TJ Lake. He’ll fry up the trout on the old stove, and then prop up the “Open” sign when he feels like it. “If we’re there we’re open,” he says. “We’re not going to limit our happiness.”

For news on the Gallery at Twin Lakes watch for the new gallery website:

And visit the Facebook page:

Etching by Mary Nimmo Moran

Etching by Mary Nimmo Moran


18 comments for “Stephen Willard’s Mammoth Lakes Gallery Reopening

  1. Hi Robert & Sue,
    We were just informed that you will be opening your studio this next month. Congratulations. My husbands family were good friends with the Willards…way back when. My husband has fond memories of Mrs Willard making muffins in the wood burning stove/oven. That was a long time ago.
    I know that you are going to be busy but I would really like to ask you a few questions about the Willard we have.
    Good luck on your new adventure. Cindy Gustafson 760 873-7177 Bishop

  2. Thank you Ann for keeping us informed of artists far and wide that have expressed what we love to see in nature, whatever the medium.

  3. I am excited about the return of the Willard Gallery, it is an important part of the outstanding heritage of the Lakes Basin, much of which, including the Willard Gallery, dates to the 1920s. This gallery predates our museum (the Hayden Cabin) by several years. It is encouraging that the gallery will recognize the original owners, and the artistic endeavors of the Willards. Beatrice continued painting Willard photos after Stephen died. There is a lot of work yet to be done in putting together the Willard’s story. They spent much more time in Mammoth than in Palm Springs. The Gallery will bring together local art and history.

  4. Hey My Lovies….great article. Looking forward to early winter when you come home to Portland and hibernate like the rest of us bears. What a marvelous opportunity you are giving to all…extended happiness.

  5. Hello, Robert and Sue,

    I was surprised to hear of the Sovereign closing, but so happy to see that you have this new, exciting venture started. I read the article, and thus learned more about you than knew before, when I used to come in to research an artist now and then, or see Eric Jacobsen’s work.
    Congratulations to you, and I know you will love it there!

  6. I was wondering if anyone had any information on how many issues of the 24 page photo book of Palm Springs California’s Most Picturesque Desert Resort was made. I just came upon a copy and realize not many were made. Thanks

  7. I also so have the painting Summers Ending painted by Stephen Willard that my Mother left me. I have always loved it as long as I can remember.

  8. In 1978, I was asked to be a caretaker of the gallery. Having just left Yosemite, under the employ of Ansel Adams for many years, I welcomed the change, and the chance to live on the East Side. I learned so much of the fine art, romantic side of Mr. Willard’s work, and keep many of those memories in mind as I photograph today. Traditions such as his must, I believe, be kept alive to truly reflect the landscape. It was a pleasure to live at the gallery for so many months, and have it as a home base. Thank you…

  9. Hello to the folks at Cal desert art! – We are very excited about the discovery of your site……and of our own discovery of what we believe is an original Stephen Willard “mixed media” piece! It is a depiction of the Cal. high desert in spring, with the mountain range in the backround, and various desert flora in the fore-ground. It is signed at the lower left, and bears the “copywrite” symbol, and “No. 262”. It measures 9 5/16″ wide, by 7 1/8″ high (at the borders). We’re not sure if a photo was taken, but watercolor, and oil paints can be seen. Please call (402) 934-7831 for more info. (moving soon)

  10. I have no. 1740 of the high desert with mountains in the background. How many paintings are there? Mine is signed on lower right. It appears to have been sold from a furniture store near Detroit many years ago. Thank you.

  11. I worked with Beatrice Willard in boulder, co to get the Willard collection into the Palm Springs desert museum. I have a substantial collection of signed prints from the early years of his career. I am a fan of Stephen Willard and hope to meet you both some fine day.

  12. I have 11 – 4 x 6 original signed photographs from Stephen Willard.
    I bought them in the early 90’s from that cabin.
    I may be interested in selling to the right buyer.

  13. Aloha Robert,
    I don’t know if you remember me from way back in 2003 when I entered the Sovereign Collection seeking representation. You may recall you offered to pay the entry fee for two of my paintings to the “Expressions West” art exhibition in Coos Bay. One painting, “The Old Teapot” won second prize and I can never thank you enough for encouraging me to enter.
    What a wonderful new gallery and lifestyle you two are now living! I want to wish you both every success with the gallery and mountain life.

  14. Carey Stirling
    I have beautiful lithograph art pieces from Palm Springs, CA (No 1751, 1292, 1273, 1230, 2030, 1046, 1814, 1131, 1021). I would love to know the value of these art pieces. A gentleman absolutely treasures these, and I do not really trust getting the value from an outside appraiser. You can call me at (713)265-8806. Thank you.

  15. We have a number of the Stephen Willard Art pieces from Palm Springs and absolutely thrilled to hear the gallery is reopening. We have a number of archaeologists, and book publishing groups that are very excited to see this gallery opening.

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