On a bright January day, I followed a poodle in a red sweater through the sandy washes of Box Canyon near Mecca. I had to keep an eye on the pooch at all times if I didn’t want to lose sight of the painter at the other end of the leash.
A painter on a “paint-out” (a communal outdoor painting excursion) is as engrossed as a monk in walking meditation. The poodle’s owner, Louise Tennyson, meandered up gullies and down washes, oblivious to anything but the angle of the winter sun illuminating the smoke trees.
I was there to learn how a painter sees the landscape and also to experience a venerable tradition: the monthly paint-out of the Desert Art Center. Established in Palm Springs in 1950, the center is one of the most influential and undersung institutions to grace the city. In almost 60 years of existence, it has fostered the careers of dozens of landscape painters whose work is now in demand by museums and collectors — folks such as John Hilton, R. Brownell McGrew, Fred Penney, Wilton McCoy, and Jimmy Swinnerton.
But the center is hardly a relic. It continues to operate as an artists’ co-op and gallery in the old Frances Stevens School near the corner of Alejo Road and Palm Canyon Drive. I knew I’d like the paint-out when Tennyson told me there’s no boss and no rules. You don’t even have to have to be an artist.
When I showed up at Box Canyon, painters were scattered here and there — within eyeshot of each other, but otherwise alone with their easels. At lunchtime, they ambled back to their cars and everyone swapped morsels and told stories of painters they know. Edna Hollinger, an early president and accomplished painter, still lives in Palm Springs. Sally Ward, 98 and living in a Tucson rest home, still paints every day.
The painters may change from year to year, but the places stay the same. Box Canyon was a favorite of Swinnerton’s in the 1950s. Tennyson learned where to paint from now-deceased artists such as Darwin Duncan and Karl Albert. She can show you a little park in Indian Wells where you can view the serrated mountains — without the distraction of development — just as Fred Chisnall or Carl Bray did a half century ago.
The Desert Art Center got started when the now-famous Agnes Pelton donated a smoke tree painting to raise funds for the center. The first president was Palm Springs’ flying great-grandmother, Zaddie Bunker.
The oldest nonprofit center in the Coachella Valley moved a few times before settling into its present quarters. At the time, the painters never realized they were part of a desert movement. But today these artists are coming into their own, just as the Carmel and Laguna landscape artists did before them. On the day I wrote this, there were 39 bids on a John Hilton painting on eBay — just one gauge of the growing popularity of desert artists.
Bray, the beloved painter of smoke trees and railroads (formerly of Indian Wells and now living in Banning) was president of the club in the 1950s. “Everybody that painted the desert seemed to belong to that group,” he says. “It was kind of our guidepost.”