The Professor of Palomar: Pioneering California Artist Robert Haley Asher

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Just after midnight on January 1st, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a telegraph button in Washington D.C.; the signal shot across the country to launch the start of the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. In the harbor, the USS San Diego exploded guns in salute. It was a big moment for the California artists winning awards at the Expo. Maurice Braun, Alfred Mitchell and Charles Fries were gaining national attention for a new style of landscape painting influenced by Theosophy.

Robert Haley Asher. All images courtesy of the Peter Brueggeman archives.

On a nearby mountain—above the din of the crowds and cannons–a contemporary of those artists was coughing all night in his shake-sided homestead shack. Down to his last 15 cents, he hunted for bulbs and seeds to sell and scribbled fretful diary entries on the pages of an old fertilizer catalog:

No painting. Too wet AM. Too windy PM.

Short of Grub. Short of Paint.

Robert Haley Asher painting of Doane Valley, Palomar Mountain.

Robert Haley Asher (his neighbors called him Bobbie or Professor for his expertise in lilies and garnets) later trained with Maurice Braun, and produced a collection of early Southern California landscapes. Yet his work never graced a gallery. He has no reputation at all in the art world, which makes him perfect for my current tastes. The contemporary art scene has relentlessly commercialized and branded the desert. We need someone real. We need Bobbie Asher.

I’ve been transporting back 120 years as I read Asher’s diaries. (The diaries and paintings were rescued and digitized thanks to family members and Peter Brueggeman, a former UC San Diego librarian. Palomar writer Bonnie Phelps salvaged Asher’s memoir.) I find myself eager each morning to leave behind modern-day Palm Springs and return to “the sacred precincts of Palomar,” as Asher called his home. “Oh, Bobbie Asher is different,” said his rancher neighbor, Happy Mendenhall. “He’s almost like the wild critters himself. He just goes quietly around picking up a living from barks and roots and such truck, where anyone else would starve. He’s different.”

Robert Haley Asher’s homemade cabin.

If you drive Highway 74 from Palm Desert over the mountain and past Anza, you will be on your way to Asher’s land. Palomar is not technically desert; it’s a so-called sky island, a remnant Pleistocene Forest perched above the arid lands. Still, I’m claiming Robert Asher as an honorary desert artist. In a world of drop-in, pass-through Instagram creators, Asher embodies the code of the early desert painters:

Plant yourself in a place.

Study it for a few decades.

Ask for membership from the people, plants and animals who came before you.

Asher (1868-1953) was one of seven children born to Josephus and Sarah Asher, a respected San Diego couple who established the first tree nursery business in San Diego and became a founding family of El Cajon. Asher could have been successful in business or society–his sister Josephine was a popular teacher at El Cajon Grammar School and brother J.M. succeeded in real estate–but like many born to comfort, he wanted something less comfortable.

Robert Asher’s diary, 1905

He looked like a young Abe Lincoln—rangy and undernourished, with a long face. Asher was hampered all his life by a sickly constitution. At age 12, a doctor told him he was not fit for active sports. Soon after that, he broke his right arm and lost partial use of it permanently. Not a promising launch for a man who would homestead on a remote mountain before automobiles, often walking the 45 miles to San Diego.

Jennifer Wassel, owner of a woodworking company in the Texas Hill Country, heard stories about her Great Uncle Asher, as she called him, while growing up. “Robert was probably the most soulful of the children,” she says. “He lived a very solitary life, very devoted to God in a true naturalistic fashion. He painted, sketched and wrote, collected rocks, arrowheads and shells, dabbled in photography, carpentry and natural science.”

Some called him a hermit, but unmarried artists often are called hermits regardless of their social connections. (Consider Agnes Pelton who had many friends in Cathedral City, yet was often referred to as solitary.) Asher once called himself “a more or less eligible bachelor.” He was friends with almost everyone on the mountain. In a measure of civic engagement, he volunteered for the Election Board and laboriously carried the ballot box up and down the mountain by hand, bumming rides on neighbors’ buckboards.

 

Asher lived for a while in Los Angeles as a young man, sending out queries to magazines and hoping to become a writer. As he accumulated rejections and his finances dwindled, he had an offer to hunt for a “lost lily” for Carl Purdy, an early collector of native California seeds and bulbs. Asher headed up to a likely hunting ground, Palomar Mountain. It was named for the pigeons that lived there; the Native community called it Paauw. (Call it Palomar Mountain, not Mount Palomar, or a local will correct you.)

A visiting artist, John Wesley Cotton, painted Robert Asher’s camp in 1917.

He first camped on the mountain in 1901–living on rhubarb stew–and moved there fulltime in 1903, a move financed by a story acceptance from Overland Monthly. Asher undoubtedly saw himself in the lineage of pioneer writers like Mark Twain and Bret Harte, artists who were forging a new American voice in rugged places. Asher’s cousin had just died from TB and the settler was also spurred by worries for his own health.

He struggled to push a bicycle (he called it a wheel) with 70 lbs. of gear braced on the handlebars up the 6,126-foot mountain. The path was so steep wagons had to drag a tree trunk to keep from losing control on the grade. Asher was drenched by fog and dripping trees at lower elevations. The coastal fog worsened his cough. “I wanted, I wanted, I wanted to get up into the pines,” he wrote.

He began homesteading–eventually claiming 160 acres–the same year pioneer artist Carl Eytel moved to Palm Springs. You have to wonder if the two artists ever met halfway in Hidden Valley. (Asher did spend time on Mt. San Jacinto in 1903, when he guided a group of prominent naturalists, Willis Jepson and Arnold Stubenrauch, up to Hidden Lake and “Tauquitz”, as he spelled it.)

In a few years, the first Ford automobiles would come chugging up the Palomar grade, but Asher arrived when the mountain was still a primeval cathedral. The woods were thick with bears and mountain lions. Fellow settler Nate Harrison (an African-American homesteader famous in local lore) told Asher: “You could just hear them poppin’ their teeth.”

Along with Harrison, Asher met all the local ranchers, sheepherders and horse rustlers—an ideal cast for a new American chronicler. (Asher’s account of the community, My Palomar, is viewable online.) Neighbors held evening campfires where everyone dropped in and told tall tales; four sisters sang songs. One of the storytellers was Harrison, a former slave who homesteaded on the mountain from the 1880s to 1919. (San Diego State University anthropologist Seth Mallios conducted an extensive excavation and research at his cabin site in recent years.)

Another friend and neighbor, Esther Parnell Hewlett, raised rare Palomar Blue butterflies to sell to collectors. The photographer Edward H. Davis (previously profiled here) photographed Palomar and settled at nearby Mesa Grande. George Doane, a farmer and mountain lion hunter with a gray beard to his waist, was featured in an Overland Monthly article in 1908, with photos by Asher.

Robert Asher, Tiger Lillies

Equipped with a 5×7 camera, Asher began exploring his new home and taking photos of his surroundings and his neighbors.  It was natural for him to then begin painting the places he had photographed.

Inspired by his new ‘hood, he hopefully sent off a first draft of The Belled Coyote to the Saturday Evening Post. His style was intentionally unpolished, he said, a compost of “philosophy and nonsense, preaching and rhapsodizing.” He remarked on Mark Twain in his journals, and clearly shared Twain’s affinity for frontier humor and making himself the object of the joke: “My sister Josie has been worrying about my appearance for the last half-century or more, and she’s still at it.”

 

In 1905, the railroad magnate Henry Huntington grabbed up property on the hill and Asher was forced to defend his new home, terrified that his water rights—he’d posted a handwritten water claim on a tree by Doane Creek–would be taken. “I feel very uneasy as to the safety of my rights to the creek water,” Asher wrote. “But how could a little chap like me hope to win in a fight with a multimillionaire like Henry E. Huntington?”

Swallowing his intimidation, Asher wrote to the businessman and eventually received a terse note in reply: “I am not interested in the land you claim to hold. Yrs Truly HE Huntington.”

Robert Asher, left, and one of his brothers at Asher’s cabin.

On April 21, 1906, Asher made a diary note of the “terrible earthquake at San Francisco” where his brother was living. (J.M. Asher, Jr. lost all his possessions and barely escaped death from falling debris in the April 18th disaster.) Still hopeful of a journalism career, Asher sent off 40 photos to Outing Magazine and another story, Hoss Trader’s Guarantee, to the Saturday Evening Post.

He had a small income from trapping wild pelts (he said he did not like the work, but it paid), and growing and collecting native plants—medicinal Cascara bark, Asparagus plumosa fern and lilies.

He was buying supplies “on tick” (on credit) at Bailey’s store, and often notes feeling unwell. He does not specify an ailment but tuberculosis was prevalent at the time and others moved to the mountain to ease symptoms of the illness. His mother had been his steady champion through his hardships. But then in 1913, he loses his mother. His father and a sister, Mary, died around the same time. For the first time in his journals, he speaks of loneliness. “My life especially since coming to Palomar has been a lonely sort of life,” he writes.

In his diaries, Asher makes note of the bustling landscape art scene in San Diego and marks the occasion of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. With Twain-like irreverence, Asher notes the contrast between himself and the fancy artists down the hill: He’d sewn a new patch on his fraying trousers that very day. “Artistic? I’ll say so!”

He dived into painting more seriously after two months of study with Maurice Braun, the famous California impressionist who made an extended visit to nearby Mesa Grande in 1920. Alfred Mitchell, Charles Fries, Braun and others all painted Palomar scenes during this era. The Palomar painters also painted the Coachella Valley and Borrego deserts. In the early 1930s, Asher’s diary was full of painting references. He sold many paintings to his neighbor who ran a lodge, Alice Perkins Hill, a former Shakespearean actress in San Francisco.

In the manner of all folk artists, his painting could not be separated from the whole of his life. The paintings that have come down through the family (more are doubtless out there in private homes and collections) show his deep connection to the physical world around him. His trees are chunky with color, substantial and weighted. They have personality and substance—like individual people.

Robert Haley Asher, Birch Trees on Palomar Mountain

In 1938, strangers appeared on the mountain as plans were underway for the Palomar observatory. Asher continued sending out queries and noted “my verse still cries in vain for a profitable market”. He was told by one editor that his writing had trouble “confining itself to literary standards”. “I shall always have trouble confining myself to any standard,” Asher said in his diary. “There are too many things of absorbing interest all around me.”

 

As Asher grew older, his boyhood arm injury ached in the cold and his lungs labored. He eventually was forced to move to town in 1946—but he drew the line at moving indoors. Asher was still the “wild critter” Happy Mendenhall had observed years before. He set up a teepee, and later a shelter, camping out in his sister Josephine Asher Vacher’s yard in El Cajon, and making visits back to Palomar. He lived in his sister’s backyard until his death in 1953, at age 85.

Robert Asher as a young man with his mother, Sarah Asher.

He donated his mountain land to the Baptist Church, now the Palomar Christian Conference Center. In the 1990s, a former friend of Asher’s, Walt Fleisher, contacted writer Bonnie Phelps, who was compiling a history of the mountain. He said he might have something of interest for her and came by with an old cardboard box full of hand-written manuscripts and glass plates that had belonged to Robert Asher. “That night I was up till two o’clock in the morning reading through the chapters,” Phelps said.

Peter Brueggeman, a former cabin owner on Palomar, was enlisted to help when the family home where Asher had camped in the backyard was sold. A librarian and archivist, he painstakingly digitized the Asher diaries, memoirs and papers. Once again—as often happens in my world–an archivist comes to the rescue.

The paintings were handed down in the family and, in 2011, Asher’s great-niece, Jennifer Wassel, tried to interest a museum or gallery in taking the art collection. “I could get no one in Southern California to take one look at them,” she says. “None of the impressionist galleries, museums nor any art museum took any interest in them. This was very frustrating for me, because as an art history major, I know his paintings have intrinsic value for San Diego, and, ultimately, for Southern California.”

Asher never became known as a writer or artist, but he did gain membership to the mountain. For regionalists, this is the real triumph. As John Steinbeck wrote regarding his love for the Salinas Valley: “I think I would like to write the story of this whole Valley. I would like to do it so that it would be the Valley of the World.”

Bobbie Asher echoed a remarkably similar sentiment regarding Palomar: “I was really and truly at home there. All my plans were centered there. To me it was the center of the world.”

To learn more about Palomar Mountain, see Peter Brueggeman’s extensive website and archives. Brueggeman is a retired library director and archivist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego. He will be adding additional Robert Haley Asher materials to the online archive soon.

http://peterbrueggeman.com/palomarhistory/index.htm

Palomar Stage stops at Lone Fir Trail, the trail to Asher’s cabin.

 

 

8 comments for “The Professor of Palomar: Pioneering California Artist Robert Haley Asher

  1. Absolutely WONDERFUL story accompanied the those exquisite paintings. As you said, each has a very individual personality. Thanks for the biographical and historical profile. So interesting!

  2. Wonderful to see another individualist brought to light, Ann. This story reminds us all to digitize or get digitized whatever archives we each have, to bring them into the future with love and not let them be lost to history.

  3. Wonderful story!
    I love Asher’s paintings, especially his vibrant trees. I’m sad that no gallery saw their value.

  4. When I awoke, I intended to quickly check emails but when I started to read Ashers story, I could not put it down. Anns descriptive writing took me right into every word of the Story.

  5. Thank you for your wonderful writing, and for documenting and sharing the story of this remarkable artist.

  6. You took us to Palomar. Thank you for introducing us to Robert Haley Asher and bringing him to life. Those cobalt shadows!

  7. Just fascinating! But for your efforts, we wouldn’t know about Robert. That
    his name and his work is extent again is important. Let us not forget those
    like Robert Asher. Touché to Glenda’s comment about ‘ those cobalt shadows.’
    It’s the first thing I noticed. Thanks Ann!

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