You don’t appreciate the smoke tree right away. First you have to notice one in the desert — usually in a wash, looking brown and scraggly unless a rush of water has recently nourished its fluffy purple bloom. Then you need time to accept its unwieldy form and mercurial coloration. My path to appreciation began with a 1940s painting, Smoke Tree Shadows, by the early California plein air artist Sam Hyde Harris. It inspired many long walks into unpaved places, and I eventually grew to admire the ethereal beauty of the smoke tree as I do the sculptural quality of the Joshua tree.
The striking shrubs, named because their foliage appears similar to puffs of smoke from a distance, have held the interest of artists with the same resilience as they withstand the harsh desert elements. Photographer Millicent Harvey became drawn to the smoke tree during visits to Araby Wash and Cathedral Canyon with contemporary plein air painter Terry Masters.
“The Smoke Tree is in me. I’m always painting them. They’re really hard [to depict]. There are no edges; they’re like clouds of smoke. The colors shift. it’s very nebulous.”
— Terry Masters
The two artists reveal their reverence in A Celebration of the Smoke Tree, an exhibition running throughout April at Desertpainter Studio Gallery in Palm Springs.
The show might have seemed unlikely when the artists met almost seven years ago. “When I moved here from Boston I bought and renovated a condo, and I wanted a painting that had some orange, green, and red,” Harvey says. “I came across Terry’s website and found a little painting of an orange with some leaves on it. I called him, but he didn’t call me back. I tried again about six months later. That’s when we met, in 2012.”
They became fast friends, and during their early-morning and afternoon trips to the washes they would always talk about the smoke trees. “I’m from the Northeast, and I’ve shot everywhere with good landscape architects,” Harvey says. “Here it’s more spiritual, soulful, and inspiring.”
Masters, a desert resident for 51 years and a landscape painter for the last 20, can hardly resist the trees’ color, form, and shape. “The smoke tree is in me. I’m always painting them. They’re really hard [to depict]. There are no edges; they’re like clouds of smoke. The colors shift. It’s very nebulous.”
And, Harvey adds, “They show our seasons more than anything.”
Millicent Harvey’s photographs and Terry Masters’ paintings fête an underappreciated desert plant.
Last spring, when the trees’ muted-green leaves gave way to vivid violet (“The purple bloom is unbelievable,” Masters says), Harvey suggested that they mount an exhibition of her photographs and his paintings on the subject.
“I’m not much into doing shows,” Masters concedes. “Running a gallery is hard enough. I have to consider whether I want to do anything that takes me away from my easel.”
But his outings with Harvey inspired him, and new photographs from the field provided fresh subject matter. “It’s crazy what the light does to the smoke trees,” Masters says.
They have even commissioned a special cocktail for the opening reception: the Sharpshooter, named for the leaf-hopping bug whose piercing-sucking mouthparts feed on the trees’ sap and then — er — urinate tiny drops of fluid.
“Terry and I were in Cathedral Canyon on a sunny day, and we saw this beautiful bloom,” Harvey says. “There was a backlit moment when we saw dew falling. My camera was getting wet. I did some research and found it was a Sharpshooter bug that eats [the sap] and pees it out.”
Fortunately, that fluid was only an inspiration, not an ingredient, for the drink.
A Celebration of the Smoke Tree runs April 1–30, with an opening reception April 6, 5–8 p.m., at Desertpainter Studio Gallery in Palm Springs. desertpainter.com