john hilton artist

One of the Boys

John Hilton came to the desert to collect on a debt and left as a figure in art history.

Steven Biller Arts & Entertainment, Current PSL

john hilton artist
Leo Fender, of Fender guitar fame, owned A Morning in Spring (1969) before Bodega Bay Heritage Gallery in Graton, California, acquired it.

“I would probably still be a diamond appraiser or jewelry designer if the Depression had not kicked me out onto the desert,” the painter John Hilton wrote in the March 1963 issue of Desert Magazine. He had been selling the gems and minerals he amassed during his travels when he recalled that a man in the Coachella Valley owed him money. When Hilton arrived to collect, he learned the man had died, but his daughter offered him a bounty of “curios” to settle the debt.

Later in the day, he stopped for a cold drink at Valerie Jean Date Shop, and tourists began picking through his newfound assortment of Indian baskets, potted cacti, and other odds and ends. Russ Nicoll, the shop owner, convinced Hilton to open a store across the street. “That is how I became a part of the desert, and how it became a part of me to the point where the long submerged desire to paint came out.”

Hilton’s shop became a gathering place for many plein-air artists of the day, including Maynard Dixon, Jimmy Swinnerton, and Clyde Forsythe. “The desert painters as we know them today had found each other through the rankest amateur because I had a centrally located place where they could all camp in the yard and cook spaghetti and sing at the top of their lungs.”

Hilton learned everything he could from them and eventually sold his first painting to a Mrs. Weed, who had seen it in his shop.

By the time he painted A Morning in Spring (pictured) in 1969, John Hilton had moved to the High Desert. He wrote, “I can never forget that it is a short way back to the valley where two snow-capped mountains guard the pass, where a sea below the level of the sea mirrors rose-colored mountains reflected in the sunset, where canyons of wild palms will still beckon and dunes still put on their spring finery.”

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