Although best known as a landscape painter of the American Southwest, John Hilton was a man of multiple talents. Hilton was also a naturalist whose work on desert subjects was incorporated in numerous museum publications, a biologist and botanist whose discoveries led to the naming of species of crabs, ticks, snakes, turtles and cacti in his name, a jewelry designer for the Hollywood elite in the Roaring Twenties, a gemologist of international repute, a southern California desert guide for General Patton, a miner and prospector, the author of several books and a musician whose musical talents allowed him to make a living while he honed his artistic skills. Yet for all of these accomplishments it is his visual interpretations of the Sonoran Desert for which he is still best known.
Hilton’s love of the desert was apparent in both his writings and paintings. In an essay which appeared in the March 1960 edition of Arizona Highways, Hilton says of the Sonoran Desert “This is my desert! It extends through Arizona, southern California, Nevada, southern Utah, New Mexico and northern Mexico states of Sonora, Chihuaha, Sinaloa and Baja California. . . . It is a land of peace, silence and boundless skies . . . It is as if nature herself set aside these vast areas . . . so that thinking men might have a place where they go to regain their perspective and find themselves and their true meaning.” He went on to state that if he was able to share at least a portion of his feelings for his desert, then he would have accomplished what he “set out to do”.
Ironically enough, this Renaissance man of the desert was born on September 9, 1904 in a sod shack near Carrington, North Dakota. His mother was a North Dakota farm girl and his father was a baker who decided when John was four years old to become a missionary. The family set sail for China and arrived in time to witness the Sun Yat Sen revolution. Hilton later claimed that by the time he was ten he met Chinese bandits and philosophers, traveled the length of the Great Wall of China, crossed the Pacific Ocean four times and visited forty states, Japan, Canada, and Mexico. These early experiences during his formative years helped to create a wanderlust and sense of adventure that never deserted him.
Another incident took place shortly after the family’s arrival in China that would have a lasting influence on John Hilton’s life. Hilton recalled that an elderly Chinese man, who served as the gatekeeper to the Hilton’s residence, remarked to Hilton’s father that John was “one of the old ones.” The gatekeeper went on to explain that young John had lived on earth before and had returned “with much wisdom”. Obviously the concept of reincarnation was deeply disturbing to Hilton’s devout Christian parents. They asked the gatekeeper not to bring up the subject again. Exactly how impressionable the gatekeeper’s observations were on young John is not known. But throughout Hilton’s life he maintained a fascination with the occult as well as a deep seated belief that he had led several past lives.
Not long after John turned ten the Hilton family returned to the United States. They lived in the Midwest for a few years before moving to Los Angeles. The age of thirteen found John’s family living in Redondo Beach, California. He decided to take up gemology after he was thrown out of his high school art class for his portrayal of a fully clothed live model totally in the nude. Although in later years Hilton’s recounting of the episode took on a very humorous tone, he also recalled that the art instructor’s rebuke was so severe that he couldn’t bring himself to paint or draw for several years after the incident.
After completing his education at various schools in the Los Angeles area Hilton attended La Verne College. During the summers he worked for the Golden State Gem Company. After his second summer on the job the company offered him full time employment. Hilton later claimed he accepted the offer in small part because of the good pay it offered and in large part because he had just become engaged to his first wife, Eunice.
The Golden State Gem Company was one of the largest wholesale jewelry and importing firms on the Pacific coast. Over the next several years Hilton’s client’s included many of the Hollywood elite. However with the onslaught of the depression the jewelry firm went out of business and Hilton found himself both broke and unemployed at the age of twenty-seven. Hilton recalls going alone on a camping trip in the desert not long afterwards where he lamented his situation: a wife and small son to support, no job, no prospects, and no money. After staring at the clear night sky for hours, he began pounding his fists in the sand and crying. But once drained of his emotions he made a determination: from then on John Hilton would answer to no one but John Hilton.
Armed with ten dollars and a burning desire to succeed as an artist Hilton moved his family from Los Angeles to Indio, California. At first he sang and played guitar in local taverns for subsistence. Not long afterwards a friend who owned a date shop in Indio convinced Hilton to open up a rock shop across the street. In between building the rock shop into a curio business and his gigs in local taverns, he painted. Hilton also learned the importance of playing to one’s audience as both an entertainer and an artist. He grew a goatee and always dressed in western style clothes complete with a black sombrero.
Starting with pastels, then moving on to oils, Hilton felt little but frustration at his artistic efforts during the first several years. Friends began to question him on whether his artistic endeavors were worth the effort. Yet he persisted. His first major influence came from Charles Stafford, a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute who lived and worked at the old Coachella Trading Post. Then Hilton was fortunate enough to come in contact with perhaps the greatest of all desert painters, Maynard Dixon. Dixon was a frequent visitor during those years to the Salton Sea. Impressed with Hilton’s intensity and desire, Dixon was soon inviting Hilton to accompany him on sketch trips. Dixon had two profound and lasting effects on Hilton. First, Dixon convinced Hilton to throw away everything he had painted during his first three years, even though some of Hilton’s early paintings had won awards at smaller exhibitions and shows. Hilton later remarked that this was important because “art is a continuing process of growth and widening vision.” An artist could never progress to the next level if he fell in love with his work. Secondly, Dixon convinced Hilton to throw away his brushes and use a knife. Dixon felt Hilton’s images at the time were too precise, almost photographic. Hilton later claimed converting to knife painting was a relatively effortless transition if only because he easily tired of cleaning brushes. He often joked that basic laziness played a large role in his decision to become a knife painter.
Other artists who accompanied Hilton and Dixon on sketch trips during the years that followed included James Swinnerton, Nicolai Fechin, Conrad Buff, Burt Procter, and Orpha Klinker. Hilton later recalled that “It was an unforgettable time, something that can never come again.” Members of the group would typically gather at Hilton’s place in Indio because he “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 also recalled that while all were friends, everyone but Dixon and Fechin were “comparatively gentle” in their criticisms of Hilton’s work. Fechin and Dixon on the other hand, “really poured it on”.
Fechin was also a strong influence in Hilton’s progress, constantly prodding him to work on his drawing first. “No one can paint unless he knows how to draw”, Hilton recalls Fechin telling him. Hilton also remarked that “I don’t believe anyone had the effect upon my life that Nicolai had.”
Gradually the recognition and accolades came, accompanied by commercial success as well. Starting with a one man show in 1935 at Nellie Coffman’s Palm Springs Inn, his artistic career was beginning to progress slowly but steadily.
Then came World War II. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hilton’s knowledge of the desert surrounding Indio prompted the U.S. Army to approach him to help select a location for Camp Young. Camp Young would eventually become the training ground for the 3rd Army Tank Corp commanded by General George Patton. During the next several months Hilton advised Patton on many occasions on the suitability of various locations for training maneuvers. Soon the training was completed and the 3rd Army Tank Corp was ready to embark for North Africa. Before leaving General Patton formally awarded Hilton a map of the area which was signed by him with the notation “Thanks John, you saved us a lot of trouble.” Until the end of his life Hilton always claimed the map was one of his prized possessions. Patton also offered Hilton a warrant officer’s position with the 3rd Tank Corp. It was an offer Hilton almost accepted. Then he received a phone call from a Harvard University representative.
The man from Harvard questioned Hilton about an article he had written on his calcite holdings in a 1939 issue of Desert Magazine. At the time Hilton owned a claim to an optical calcite mine in the Borrego Badlands near the Salton Sea. Before long Hilton was not only the owner of the mine, he was also the full time operator with a contract to supply the U.S. government with all the calcite the mine could produce. The mine operated continuously throughout the war years. Hilton was a hands-on operator, fully involved in the mine operations, actually operating the drills on numerous occasions. As a result, he suffered injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life.
When the war ended Hilton returned to his curio shop and gallery in such bad condition that he could not even hold a palette knife. Exhausted both physically and mentally, he went to Santa Monica to seek treatments for his physical conditions. After several operations on his arm and hand, he traveled to Alamos, Mexico to recuperate spiritually.
Alamos had always had a special meaning to Hilton. It was one of the locations where he was convinced he had lived a past life. In 1947 he published his first book, Sonoran Sketch Book. The book chronicled his experiences in the region. Hilton also discovered two previously unknown species of turtles on the trip, one of which is named for him.
When Hilton returned from Sonora in 1948, he began adding beeswax to his oil paints. He derived the idea from a study he had read on the enduring quality of ancient Egyptian art. This medium helped to give his landscape paintings an appearance that to this day is both distinctive and unique.
Slowly the accolades and sales began to accumulate. Over the next few years Hilton’s work began appearing in galleries throughout the state of California. Yet ironically as financial success was slowly being realized his marriage, which to this point had survived almost thirty years of deprivation and hardship, began to unravel. In 1951 the Hilton’s divorced.
It was a divorce in which Hilton claimed he contested nothing, giving up everything from his homes in Sonora and Indio to his son and his daughter. When it was over Hilton moved to a small house in Twentynine Palms. When asked later years why he chose Twenty-nine Palms over Palm Springs, which had become a thriving community with a wealthy clientele, he remarked that at the time “I was pretty sick of people . . . pretty sick of life”.
Yet Twenty-nine Palms also gave Hilton the isolation to pour all of his energy into his art. Not long afterwards he met his second wife Barbara. The two were married in 1952. As it was with Fechin and Dixon, Barbara also had a profound influence on his life. The twenty years that followed represented the pinnacle era of Hilton’s artistic achievement. Not long after his marriage to Barbara, his work came to the attention of William Cressmer, at the time one of the most prominent collectors in the country. Cressmer arranged for Hilton to have a one man exhibition at the Grand Central Galleries in New York. It was a tradition that would be continued every year for the next twenty-five years.
Hilton became one of those few artists who realized both significant commercial and critical success during his lifetime. More often than not his one man shows at the Grand Central Galleries in New York City were sellouts. He also exhibited at the Death Valley 49er’s show for decades. By the late 1960’s Hilton’s success allowed him to buy a home in Lahaina, Maui. For the next several years he and Barbara would travel between homes in Twenty-nine Palms and Maui, all while taking several motor coach tours of the Baja. While in the Baja the Hilton’s favorite place was the fishing village of Bahia de los Angeles. In 1960 he published his second book, Hardly Any Fences, in which he recounted his memories of the people and the nearby places he visited during his trips to the Baja.
Barbara Hilton died in 1976 after one of the couples trips to the Baha. In 1978 Hilton’s biography, which he narrated to Katherine Ainsworth, was published. The book was dedicated to Barbara. John Hilton died in Lahaina in 1983.
Hilton claimed in various magazine articles that for many years he maintained a New Years eve tradition of inviting several of his friends to an “annual meeting” in Box Canyon in the Coachella Valley. After building a huge bonfire, Hilton would entertain the gathering by singing and playing the guitar. Then, when the clock struck midnight, Hilton would throw all of his paintings from the past year which he considered sub-par into the fire. It was an acknowledgement of sorts, that he was his own worst critic. Dixon had taught him well. (Note: Some long time residents in the Twenty-nine Palms area today whisper that the burning part of this story is fabricated. They maintain that the paintings were always “rescued” at the last minute by willing buyers.)
Hilton was often fond of recounting the message of his childhood art teacher in China. The instructor, who Hilton described as “a venerable Chinese, steeped in the almost mystical lore of his honored profession” used to drill into his students that art is made up of three components, all equally important. “An object of beauty, the artist, and the eye of the beholder. Any painter who forgets any one of these three can never be a success.” Hilton claimed the message never left his memory. The work he left behind provides ample proof. He did indeed accomplish what he “set out to do.”
Blue Coyote Gallery
The Man Who Captured Sunshine by Katherine Ainsworth
Sonoran Sketch Book by John Hilton
The Desert Painters by Ed Ainsworth
Arizona Highways, March 1960
Desert Magazine, January 1941
Conversations with Robert “Doc” Smeton