March 20, 2008

Four artists picked to compete for sculpture project

Magic Morning by John W. Hilton

K Kaufmann
The Desert Sun

The Palm Desert Art in Public Places Commission took the first step Wednesday toward the creation of a public sculpture honoring the Coachella Valley's early outdoor artists who set up their easels in the 1930s, '40s and '50s near the road now known as Painters Path.

The commission voted 5-0 to recommend that the city pay $2,000 honoraria to four artists to come up with designs for the piece, which would be placed in a desert landscape garden by the city's Visitor Center on Highway 111.

The sculpture will show two artists - one male, one female - at work at their easels. The life-size installation could also include a plaque listing some of the artists who lived and worked in the valley.

The winner of the competition would be awarded a $250,000 commission for the piece.

"This was such an important milestone in painting in America and this area, and it's pretty much overlooked," said Norma Bussing, chairwoman of the commission.

The first half of the 20th century saw about 200 painters working in the desert, according to Richard Twedt, the city's public art manager. These "plein air" painters - literally painters who work in the open air - included artists such as Fred Chisnall, the cartoonist Jimmy Swinnerton, John Hilton and Agnes Pelton, a contemporary of Georgia O'Keeffe.

Painters Path in Palm Desert was given its name because artists often set up their easels in the desert near the road.

"We're losing so much of that part of the desert they painted," said Hal Rover of the Historical Society of Palm Desert, which is archiving papers about the early art scene in Palm Desert.

"They painted in all the canyons," Rover said, "(They) went to the north shore of the Salton Sea; all the painters got together and worked together."

The recommendation for the sculpture will go to the City Council in April, Twedt said. If approved, the four artists chosen for the competition would probably submit their designs later this year, he said.

The four artists are Terry Allen, Deek Clements, H. Clay Dahlberg and Gary Lee Price, all recognized figurative sculptors.