The Desert Art Dynasty of John and Kathi Hilton

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Kathi Hilton’s Storm’s Promise, courtesy of Blue Coyote Gallery

The painter Kathi Hilton Garvin, art dealer Dan Rohlfing and I had just finished dinner at the 29 Palms Inn. The sky was turning pink then blue, like a Technicolor Hilton painting, when Dan suggested that we try to find John Hilton’s old 29 Palms homestead, playhouse to movie stars and desert artists.

As we crammed into my Subaru, I wasn’t so sure about this plan. It was getting dark and no one really knew where we were going except that it was out in nowhere. Dan, co-owner of Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery on the Sonoma coast, had never been to 29 Palms and Kathi—a former resident–hadn’t been back for 30 years.

We turned off Amboy Road onto a dirt track; the lights of the old five-acre homesteads were far between. The street signs were sandblasted and unreadable, even when I aimed the headlights directly at them–and Kathi didn’t remember the street names anyway.

We blundered along for awhile, until a dark structure loomed ahead on a hillside. Kathi said: “Pull in here by this row of trees.” A strange orange moon was rising over “the loneliest little house on a hill,” as John Hilton once described it. The place now looked like a scary tweakers’ den with shredded toys and junk strewn everywhere.

Kathi pointed and said: Here was my dad’s garden. Here was the mineral water pool where James Cagney came to swim; here was the studio where I painted when I lived here. Sometimes my dad’s friends flew in and there were two Lear jets parked on the landing strip out back.

Kathi Hilton at a reception in 29 Palms. Courtesy of Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery.

The three of us sat in silence. I made a U-turn on the old airstrip and drove back to town, awed by this glimpse into the mythic life of the first family of desert painters. Kathi—who now lives in Roosevelt, Utah–deserves to be written about without mention of her dad on occasion. She has an art career all her own. At Dan’s Bodega Bay gallery, co-owned by his wife Linda Sorensen, customers often prefer Kathi’s pastoral paintings over the work of John Hilton. Still, you can hardly talk about one without the other.

The Hiltons shared a devotion to the palette knife, a love of pink skies and a heaping of family lore and myth. Names like Agnes Pelton, Clyde Forsythe, Maynard Dixon, Nicolai Fechin and Bill Bender weave in and out of John’s life and Kathi’s childhood memories.

Like many stories of dads and daughters, this one has its share of sorrows. While John Hilton gave Kathi a calling and a name, he also abandoned the family when she was young and did not always encourage her art. When she entered a poster contest as a young woman he remarked: “It’s good, Kathi, but you really can’t draw.”

Kathi Hilton, age 4

This sometimes-difficult dad also happens to be the best-known of the desert artists, not just for his paintings but also for his shtick. Hilton’s early years spent in China with missionary parents infused him with a love of the exotic, and he later mined the themes of old souls, reincarnation, and the occult to win audiences.

The man mined calcite in Borrego, captured Gila monsters in Baja, sang in Cahuilla and had a poltergeist named Felica. (“Felica was my friend too,” says Kathi.) His story is told by Katherine Ainsworth in The Man Who Captured Sunshine with the tall tales left unchallenged.

One such tale: Hilton was friends with Cathedral City’s Agnes Pelton, but he was no fan of abstraction in art. To make his point, he once painted a gag Pelton, slapped on the title Cosmic Metamorphosis, and sold it instantly for $350 (or so he said.)

In another bit of stock showmanship, Hilton held a ceremony each year in which he burned his rejected paintings in a big bonfire in Box Canyon. The bonfire routine was not unique to Hilton but was practiced by other theatrical painters such as Tucson’s Ted de Grazia.

Born in North Dakota, Hilton first came to Valerie Jean corner in Thermal in 1931. Valerie Jean’s was the famous date shop where old Route 86 meets Ave. 66. Hilton opened his gem and art shop across the street. The ruins of the gemshop were leveled a few years ago; the date shop building still stands.

Hilton’s first wife was Eunice, a nurse. The couple’s daughter Kathi–named after Katherine Ainsworth, Hilton’s biographer and wife of newspaperman Ed Ainsworth–was born in a Mecca doctor’s office in 1939 and spent her early years in the art and gem shop amidst Chuckwallas, geodes and magnetic rocks.

Her brother, John Philip Hilton, also an artist, died as a young man. Kathi was born into a perpetual party. An early photo taken at the Thermal home and gem shop shows her mom and dad seated on the bed and presiding over an artists’ party. Is that Maynard Dixon in the corner with the black hat? Kathi says she doesn’t know. Dixon was on the scene at the time, but she was just a kid and often hid under the bed while famous painters sang along to John’s guitar.

John Hilton with guitar, Eunice Hilton (with dark-hair) seated on bed at the Thermal art and gem shop.

Of her father’s friend Maynard Dixon all she remembers is: “I loved his voice.” She remembers Clyde Forsythe as the man who brought her peppermint candy. Marjorie Reed was her sometimes-baby sitter. And, yes, for all you desert art gossips, her dad did have a fling with the legendary stagecoach painter.

The PT Barnum of California art, John palled around with guys like Zane Grey, President Dwight Eisenhower (a fellow painter) and General George Patton and was always going off hunting mummies or on other adventures with LA Times reporter Ed Ainsworth.

Hilton’s career was helped along by Ainsworth, author of the classic on the Smoketree School,  Painters of the Desert. Hilton supplied the stories Ainsworth needed and in turn Ainsworth gave Hilton and friends ink.

Hilton was also championed by Harriet Day, the influential director of the Desert Inn art gallery and later the Desert Magazine gallery in Palm Desert. (A neighbor of Agnes Pelton, Day also once ran a curio shop and sold Carl Eytel sketches in Palm Springs’ Indian Canyons.)

Kathi and her grandmother Hilton in 29 Palms

Hilton moved out of the family home when Kathi was nine; he and Eunice divorced when Kathi was twelve. She didn’t see her father for four years until she showed up unannounced at a show he had at the Palm Springs Museum. His absence had to hurt, but Kathi was stoic as she told the story over dinner in 29 Palms.

Hilton moved to 29 Palms in 1951 after the divorce, choosing the remote town as a place to regroup. He met and married Barbara Hollinger, and became the founding president of the 29 Palms Art Guild and a founder of the 29 Palms Gallery.

The 29 Palms Gallery building, courtesy of 29 Palms Historical Society.

Meanwhile Kathi’s youth was itinerant. She went to school briefly in Alamos, Mexico; her dad wrote about those years in his Sonora Sketchbook. She attended the bohemian Desert Sun School in Idyllwild, then a private school in Sherman Oaks, made a foray into modeling in Beverly Hills and took classes at UCLA.

John’s party life continued. There was always revelry going on at the new house in 29 Palms, and though Kathi became friendly with Barbara, she was on the periphery of the scene.

Only after moving to 29 Palms did Kathi finally become a painter herself, despite her dad’s initial discouragement. She was 30 years old at the time and recent spinal surgery had left her immobile and dispirited. Her friend Ute Mark encouraged her to paint.

Kathi Hilton, center, with Ute Mark, left and Mary Jane Binge, in 29 Palms, 1970.

Lee Lukes Pickering–author of Colorful Illusion, a valuable history of the 29 Palms art guild–helped her with colors and convinced her to change her name to Kathi with an “I”. “There’s a lot of Kathy’s out there,” Pickering advised.

When she began painting Kathi found mixing colors came easily to her, a genetic gift.  Her paintings, made with palette knife, oils and fossil wax, looked remarkably like her father’s. “We found out we had the same mind’s eye,” she says proudly.

Kathi’s very first show was at the 29 Palms Gallery in 1970. Her father sent orchids and antheriums from Maui, where he was living at the time. While initially the senior Hilton had not welcomed her foray into art, he now began to appear in father-daughter shows with her. They even sometimes worked on the same canvas together: a Hilton-Hilton.

After Barbara died in 1976, Hilton charmed a waitress named Janna. Kathi recalls her dad carried gemstones from his gem-collecting days in his pocket and used them to woo women. Yet Janna, Hilton’s new wife, was an unfortunate choice. “She didn’t understand who he was,” says Kathi. When Hilton died in 1983, she discarded his files, photos and letters, a complete history of the Smoketree School of desert art.

Bill Bender, a respected desert artist who lives in Victorville, has mixed memories of John Hilton. He sometimes annoyed his friends with his swagger and tendency to hog the spotlight. Yet he brought the impoverished painters needed attention. Painting landscapes is not inherently newsworthy so the desert artists needed a promoter. Hilton was it.

When Bender invited John to Manila and Guam as part of the US Air Force artists program, John took credit for the trip. “As long as he was on stage he was happy,” Bender says. “Still we remained friends right down to the bitter end.”

Kathi Hilton moved to northwestern Utah in the late 1970s and moved into a geodesic dome with her husband, Boyce Garvin. She showed her work widely in the West, exhibiting with the Death Valley 49ers and the Women Artists of the West, among others. Boyce died in 2007; Kathi still lives and paints in the dome.

Kathi Hilton, Enchanted Desert, courtesy Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery

When Kathi returned to 29 Palms recently after decades away, it was like the reunion scene from the Wizard of Oz.  She held court in the adobe gallery–scene of her very first show–surrounded by her small bronzes of yucca and palms, her own paintings, and a few of John’s. The walls were lush with images of verbena, dunes and smoke trees glowing nearly white.

A parade of indistinct faces approached Kathi. Her smiles dawned slowly as she recognized people from the past. In a greeting typical of others, 29 Palms historian Pat Rimmington said to the artist: “I haven’t seen you for 100 years!”

Along with people from the early days, there were many new devotees who hold the name “Hilton” in near-reverence. Gary Cardiff of Palm Desert asked Kathi to sign his books on the early painters, and also purchased three of her paintings. He told her his grandmother, Pearl “Mona” Stuart, worked in the Desert Magazine gallery, one of the places John Hilton got his start.

As Kathi greeted well-wishers in the crowded room, her father was never far from anyone’s mind. There are photos and a bust of her dad, done by Cyria Henderson of Palm Desert, in the gallery hallway. Even John’s remains are here. When Hilton died Kathi flew her dad’s ashes back home and placed them in a compartment under the bust.

It took many years for Kathi to comes to grips with a disjointed childhood and the overpowering influence of the Man who Captured Sunshine, but in the end the sunshine on display in 29 Palms belonged to her alone. As Desert Magazine said in 1978: “Kathi creates a luminosity of her own.”

UPDATE: Kathi Hilton Garvin died on October 7, 2021. For more on Kathi and John Hilton see these gallery sites:

John and Kathi Hilton in a father-daughter show at Saddleback College.


18 comments for “The Desert Art Dynasty of John and Kathi Hilton

  1. Thank you Ann for another precious look into a desert painters life.

    I appreciate your fine style of writing and sensitive sharing and peek into the artists life. Kathi Hilton is a treasure as is her fine artistic contribution.

  2. I purchased an 18 x 24″ Kathi Hilton desert painting in 1978 entitled “Spring Frolic” (according to the writing on the back of the canvas).
    Unfortunately it was recently scratched by movers and they tried to have it fixed, making it worse.
    The moving company is attempting to find the value of the painting to offer me compensation.
    Is there any way I can find out the value of the painting so I can be prepared when the movers make their offer?
    Your help is greatly appreciated & I thank you in advance.
    Juanita Kennedy
    Tucson, Arizona

  3. Hi Juanita,

    I sent your question on to the Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery; maybe they’ll have an answer for you. By the way, Kathi Hilton’s art will be shown at the Historical Society of Palm Desert in April, 2013, with a guest appearance by Kathi herself. This will be a rare chance to meet a legendary desert painter.


  4. Glad I stumbled on this article. Very interesting and entertaining. I am wondering how I can get in touch with Kathi Hilton. My parents Mary Anne and John Hilsabeck were great friends of John Hilton. in Santa Ana, Ca. If possible could you please forward her my email.

  5. My father (Joe Garvin) was an Electrical Contractor in 29 Palms from the late 50’s until the mid 70’s He did some work for John Hilton and was paid in way of a painting which our family still has. I had it reframed 10 years ago not thinking the frame was of some importance also…in any event if you would like to see a picture of it I’ll send it. I saw the Garvin-Hilton name on the internet….I’m no relation to Boyce Garvin that I know of. It would be nice to see what an appraisal of value today might be…Tim Garvin

  6. I am Kathi’s second cousin. Aunt Eunice was my great aunt. My Grandma Hollinger had 2 of uncle John’s paintings and they are now in the hands of my mom and sister. I remember going to see Kathi in La Jolla when I was a kid and spending time at Aunt Eunice’s when Phillip was there. I worshipped him as a child for he always made time for me when the other “grown ups” were busy. He did have his problems, but I was heartbroken when he died. I remember being in awe of the colors and light in both Kathi and John’s paintings. Still am to tell the truth. The paintings my family has are in need of restoration, but that luminescence still comes through. It is good to come here and see Kathi again.

  7. I am a “SnowBird” spending my winters in Borrego Springs,CA—-just going on 30 years here in the desert! I have a signed painting done by Kathie Hilton. It is in perfect condition and entitled, “Happy Day.” I would consider selling it. Could you direct me to a museum or someone interested in making a purchase? I would be happy to send a picture of the painting. I can be reached in Borrego at 1-760-767-4630. Mid April I will return to Eugene, OR at 1-541-686-8664. Can you give me any idea of the value of the painting? I read that Kathie H. Will make a guest appearance at a Gallery in Palm Desert in April. Do you know the date? Sincerely, Ruth Nill

  8. Hi Ruth,

    Unfortunately, Kathi Hilton’s visit to Palm Desert was last year. As for your painting, the best place to find out the value is the website See the section “What Is My Art Worth?” For a fee you can check past auction prices and come up with an idea of the value on your own.

    As for a place to sell the painting…someone needs to open a vintage desert art gallery! You might try the Borrego Art Institute, an impressive new gallery there in Borrego where you’re staying. Perhaps they’d be interested in displaying the painting.

    Best of luck,


  9. Janna and John loved each other very much and she stuck with him after he had his stroke and his health deteriorated for years after. She cared for him every day. All John’s personal letters and pictures and in Lahaina were given to the Smithsonian, that’s what John wanted to have done with it. It was not discarded. I was there when they came to catalog it all.

  10. I actually remember meeting John Hilton as a child at his workshop near Thermal, around 1945. My dad managed a date ranch near Mecca and built the first ice plant in Coachella Valley. In those days everyone knew their neighbors who were few and far between. Dad concluded that Hilton;s art would never amount to anything, probably a prevalent view among those conservative ranchers. However, even as a child I recognized his ability. He had a great painting of Billy the Kid in the Pony Express Museum in Azuza. Interesting article. Fred Colley

  11. Hi Kathi,

    We love your art and recently purchase a painting titled “Tranquil Dawn”. It looks like it was created in May of 1975. Do you recall this beautiful work, and where did you paint it. It brings us much joy, and we thank you.

    Todd & Sharon Place
    Jackson Hole, WY

  12. I have a small John Hilton painting entitled ” Those last precious moments”. I got it at a thrift shop in Santa Maria (yes these things still happen),and have been a big fan of Hilton since. Read all the internet stuff and feel I have a sense of the man, good and less than good. Still, an interesting character, and a great artist, which is most important. Do you still have John Hilton stuff at your gallery or has it moved on?

  13. Dearest Kathi, It is so wonderful to hear how your life painted it’s own picture. I remember going to your dad’s house with you one time while I was in your loving care as a foster child. I have always loved you and thought of you. I would love to touch bases with you sometime. I’m married and live in the beautiful hills of Western North Carolina. God bless you richly, my friend. And, Kathi, thank you.

  14. Glad I stumbled across this site! I lived near you in 29 palms 1975-79. My parents got 2 huge paintings from you.
    I Was only 7 at time but I vaguely remember your house in fact I think my family was baptized as Mormon in your pool?? I can’t find anywhere that you were Mormon. It’s been so long. The Brinkley’s

  15. Kathi I met your father thru my grandmother Mary Livingston owner of Gallery 2 in Santa Ana when I went with her to his home. We took a painting to be touched up. A fingerprint by a customer who had read the “do not touch wet paint” sign. Guess she wanted to see if was wet. James Cagney was there in the pool. I was a 16 year old star struck girl getting to talk to him that day. I have the autograph from him and your father!
    Mary Hirsch

  16. I was John Hilton’s driver while I was a senior in high school. I drive him to his art shows and had my first plane ride with John and James Cagney In James Cesna ( I lost my lunch as we just ate at the Round up Room before the flight. I lived in John Hilton’s house as well while driving for him in my senior year of high school at 29Palms high. Great memories as John would let me put my thumb print in the lower right hand corner or some of his paintings and he signed his name over the print. Great great memories
    Kathie Foreman

  17. I was friends with John and Barbara..John would send me slips of plants from the Islands And I would root them to give him plants when he returned. His poltergeist was Real. And they were amazing folks. Kathy did a full wall painting in the local LDS church. Beautiful work. I have a ceramic painting she did called.
    Number 9 of Twentynine. C 82. Palm trees raised as she made it 3 D. .

  18. We used to live next door to Kathy back in the 70’s. My mom still has 2 huge painting from Kathy. I took my wife through there a few years back. Was sad to see the house/pool house in such bad shape.

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