The Pleistocene shorelines that drew Sylvia Winslow are mostly off-limits now behind the gates of the million-plus acre Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. On a recent trip to research Sylvia’s life, I longed to duck behind those gates. Even standing near them, though, I could sense a breeze that crosses miles of ancient lakes, and catch intoxicating vibrations of Early Man (as the original Californians are called). A good place to contemplate deep time and current events.
In the past months I’ve had to ponder—as we all have—the relevance of my pre-Armageddon pursuits. How pertinent are desert artists, really, in a world torn by drought, heat, war and disease? By the gates of the Secret City–as China Lake Naval Base was called–I weighed these very questions, while getting to know Sylvia Winslow.
Winslow was a now-forgotten desert artist and amateur archaeologist who explored the wilds in a canvas-winged little airplane called Buttercup, with her bush pilot husband, Slim, at her side. Braving the treacherous Owens Valley winds, Sylvia hedgehopped her away across scorching playas, following the wildflowers and the old prospectors she called the Knights of the Wasteland. The more time she spent on the extinct lakes, the more she became attuned to the ancestors who once lived there.
A founder of the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, Sylvia also had ties to the Coachella Valley. She was friends with painter Jimmy Swinnerton, showed at Desert Magazine Art Gallery in Palm Desert and—like many artists—quested after the perfect smoke tree in Joshua Tree and 29 Palms. I first heard about her from my late artist friend Bill Bender, who was a stunt rider for movies in the Kern country—as was Slim Winslow.
The respected desert writer Harold Weight profiled Winslow in Desert Magazine in 1948. She was born in Ireland in 1910 and grew up like royalty, attending private boarding schools in Italy and Switzerland. After she came to America with her mother at age 18, she turned away from refinement and embraced the rustic. In the Kern River country, she met and married a cowboy, Alvin “Slim” Winslow. The two had a daughter named Susan and built a home in Bodfish, calling it the Double S Ranch. (The Ranch still shows up on maps but I haven’t been able to confirm that the buildings remain.)
Below the homestead lay the vast expanse of empty Mojave tucked between the Sierras and the Nevada border. Slim’s airplane brought this wilderness closer as the two relentlessly explored dry lakes and lost ranges all the way to Death Valley and the 11,000-foot Panamint Mountains, and on into the Nevada desert.
It was the deserts—their plant life, geology, pioneers and ancients–that engaged Sylvia’s imagination her whole life. As she told Desert Magazine: “You have to know intimately the characteristics of greasewood and palo verde and smoke tree before you can suggest them in painting.”
Sylvia was first hooked during a camping trip to the Coso Range. “This was the start of the desert trail,” she wrote. The people who lived there left a record in art, a panel of 100,000 images pecked into the volcanic rock of the basalt. The Coso petroglyphs—perhaps the inspiration for Sylvia’s devotion to archaeology–are the greatest concentration of rock art in the western hemisphere.
In 1944, as Sylvia was pursuing her education in arid lands, she sent a letter to the lauded desert painter Jimmy Swinnerton. Abstract Expressionism was in vogue and Sylvia worried for her fledgling calling. “Can an artist as new to the game as I am paint the way they want to, or must I conform to the styles that prevail in order to exhibit my work?” she asked Swinnerton. “It looks like some of these modernists, or whatever they call them, get away with murder.”
The Winslows planned to making a living ranching their 640 acres but faced a costly setback when fire destroyed their cabin and gear. Around this time a roving landscape painter, Harry C. Smith, suggested to Sylvia that she could make more with her painting than the couple could with ranching. Slim bristled at the notion.
Nonetheless, Sylvia’s work soon brought profit and recognition with exhibits at the LA County Museum of Art, the Death Valley 49ers art show and the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, along with commissions by hospitals and collectors. Sylvia sold to officers’ wives on the China Lake base. The Officers’ Club commissioned a large painting for their clubhouse.
The “great white sink” of China Lake—as Sylvia called it–held everything she was seeking. First, a smooth landing place for Buttercup. Next, an endless store of geodes and fire agates (the couple were avid rockhounds). Here were obsidian flakes and scrapers left by humans as well as bones of extinct bison. The region once was a system of giant saline lakes frequented by mammoths, saber-toothed cats and marsh-dwelling men and women.
Sylvia did not have a degree in archaeology or paleontology but she became adept at both, with a specialist’s eye for reading the terrain and spotting promising sites. Because of her hours spent exploring by air, she was sometimes first on a find—leading professional archaeologists to the site. Her discoveries earned her credits in archaeological papers and textbooks, as well as friendships with leading California archaeologists.
One such friend was Emma Lou Davis. A former Taos Modern sculptor, Davis turned to archaeology in her 60s and—like Sylvia Winslow—became enthralled with the Pleistocene lakes. It was Sylvia who guided Emma Lou Davis to the lakeshore where she made breakthrough discoveries in Early Man. The Ur-question in archaeology has long been: When did Early Man first appear in North America? With the toe bone of a mammoth and Sylvia Winslow as her guide, Emma Lou Davis shook up the existing theories. (While in Ridgecrest studying Sylvia Winslow at the Maturango Museum, I also glimpsed their extensive archives on Emma Lou Davis. You’ll hear more about her in a forthcoming article.)
In 1961, Winslow and Davis spent many weekends surveying the playa of Panamint Valley, looking for the earliest art—colossal ground figures known as geoglyphs. Together they wrote a paper about what they found: “Giant Ground Figures of the Prehistoric Deserts.”
Slim’s skill as a pilot was essential to these endeavors. He earned his backcountry stripes in Civil Air Patrol Search and Rescue, helped along by an inborn daredevil streak. Landing on dry lakes and vanishing wagon tracks—places where there are no rules—Slim and Sylvia relied on bush pilot instincts they referred to as Happy Flying. The skillset has almost gone extinct today, as the land is more regulated and people require safety rails with their adventures. In the 1950s and ‘60s, though, as Sylvia said, “the desert was vast, unspoiled and uncluttered.”
Sylvia and Slim landed at a wisp of an airstrip, Briggs Field, on the summit of the Panamints, where the scouts Rogers and Manly led the 49ers to safety. In Manly and Rogers style, they also helped to rescue stranded travelers in Death Valley. In 1954, Sylvia crossed the Panamints on horseback, again following the route of her role models–William Manly and John Rogers. In the air, the couple routinely outwitted the Sierra Wave, the deadly wind that forms when the warm air of the desert smacks into colder Sierra air.
In her book, Adventures with a Desert Bush Pilot, Sylvia gives tips on landing on dry lakes: If you aim for the middle of the salt flat, the glare is so intense it’s like landing in an Alaska snowstorm. Better to aim for the edges of the playa. And always lash your plane to the base of a creosote, not the flimsy branches.
In the China Lake country, keep your eye on Pilot Knob, that distinctive chopped-off volcanic peak that guided the 49ers and the 20-mule team Borax wagon drivers. Sylvia always kept her own eye on the landmark, painting the peak again and again.
At least one contemporary bush pilot, Dustin Mosher, has put the Winslows’ acquired wisdom to good use. Known as “The Flying Fiddler” Mosher works as an aerospace engineer for Virgin Galactic. His hobby is exploring the desert wilderness in a 1947 Cessna, the same vintage as Buttercup. He once said of his sport: “You’re up there in the air making your own destiny, making your own decisions. Everything you do is in your hands.”
Mosher’s cowboy ethic can be traced directly to Sylvia Winslow. It was while studying her books that he was inspired to start exploring remote deserts. Risk was a bigger part of life in Sylvia and Slim’s day, he says, but even for their times, they were “remarkably adventurous.”
These days Sylvia would be considered a member of the “badass women” genre replete on Instagram and outdoor adventure websites. (I’m not wild about the “badass” term as it trivializes competent women.) But in her own day, Sylvia played down her abilities. She is usually in the co-pilot seat—with the couple’s daughter Susan serving as map-reader—but she sometimes nonchalantly takes the controls. In one episode she steers Buttercup around a 5,000-foot peak in the dark as she cheerily whistles “…she’ll be comin’ round the mountain.”
In two out-of-print books about Sylvia’s life–both published by the Maturango Museum–Winslow comes across as an amiable Erma Bombeck type narrator, the jaunty housewife and mother who bumbles along the routes of the early explorers. She is self-deprecating, non-threatening and in thrall to her man. “My big brave pilot,” she calls him. “My fly-boy, Slim.”
She toned down her adventure cred in deference to 1950s expectations of women, and also in deference to Slim’s ego. It seems there was always money pressure (at one point, Sylvia trades a painting for gallbladder surgery) and Slim was subject to fits of anger. “A slumbering volcano” the artist calls him. He had a spinal injury that limited his ability to walk, and Sylvia often had to take over physical tasks to compensate.
Eventually Slim took a job as a machinist at the China Lake base, and the Winslows—along with their airplane Buttercup—moved to Ridgecrest. On days off, the couple scouted remote landing areas with their jeep, Little Pete, tying white cloth strips to creosote bushes to guide them when they returned by air.
Once they touched down at a landing site, Sylvia toted her paintbox into the bush and made field sketches of the terrain, completing larger paintings at home. She was a self-taught botanist who placed her plants in the context of the larger landscape rather than showing individual flowers as cameos. She chased the exotics–giant yellow primrose and rare dwarf penstemon–and was equally loyal to the commonfolk: Ironwood, catclaw, cholla and creosote.
Her style–in the relaxed documentary mode of the early Expedition Artists—captures manmade and natural cues: mining shacks, sand verbena, faint tracks left by the Borax wagons. She draws on the history she’d learned from her prospector friends. She and Slim arrived in the desert in time to meet the last of the desert rat miners such as Seldom Seen Slim and The Duke of Muddy Waters. Charlie Brown—he came to hunt for lost bonanzas in the Turtle Mountains in 1922—sent Sylvia purple petals in the mail to signal when the smoke trees were in bloom. Like a surveyor recording uncharted lands, Sylvia’s paintings included enough detail to show you how to get where you’re going and what to pay attention to when you arrive.
Sylvia combined her decades of experience in art, geology, archaeology and botany in her role as founding curator of Ridgecrest’s impressive local showplace for natural and cultural history, the Maturango Museum. The art gallery there still bears her name. Starting in 1962, she organized local wildflower art shows and rallied the public to halt open pit mining in Death Valley. Her Chart of the Ages poster–showing the natural history of the area and how it fits into geologic time—was a hit with visitors. Time was on Sylvia’s mind. In her own Erma Bombeck way, she was playing with the same materials as the Transcendental artists.
These days Sylvia’s well-loved Mojave is growing perilously hot. The Pleistocene lake-dwellers presumably departed due to climate change; we humans (me included) are once again having to contemplate migration. We are all touching down anywhere we can land, hedgehopping our way across an alien landscape. What better guide than Sylvia Winslow? What better skill than Happy Flying?
Thanks for research help to history curator Elaine Wiley and the Maturango Museum staff. For travelers headed north to Lone Pine and the Sierra, be sure to take the brief detour to Ridgecrest to visit the Maturango Museum and the Sylvia Winslow Gallery. And pick up a Spirit of the Desert refrigerator magnet while you’re there! https://maturango.org/