January 12, 2009

Artist's gallery a must-see

Jamie Lee Pricer
The Desert Sun

Carl Bray (right) spent time in the 1950s with Indian Wells neighbor and artist Fred Chisnell. (Courtesy of The Bray family)

His canvas of choice is a slab of masonite, perhaps because it is a sturdy medium when you paint in railroad yards or out in the desert.

His most popular subject is the wispy smoke tree that grows in washes.

His painting — influenced by days spent near the Salton Sea with iconic desert artists such as John Hilton, Maynard Dixon, Bill Bender and Clyde Forsythe — ranks him as a prized California artist.

His Indian Wells gallery was a Coachella Valley landmark for nearly 50 years.

Carl Bray was born in 1917 in Prague, Okla. He studied art during the Depression at Miami College in the Dust Bowl state, while working on farms to pay his tuition.

He moved West to find work in 1936 and landed a job with the railroad in Southern California, where he worked for more than 40 years. He painted almost every day, either at the railroad yard or later at one of his studios.

He married his wife, Luella, in 1939. The young couple moved 20 miles east of Niland, little more than a lonely railroad siding. Despite the lack of creature comforts, including air conditioning, the Brays learned to love the desert, and it was here that a shy Bray met the other iconic artists.

The railroad job took Bray and his wife to the Los Angeles area during WWII, where they bought property in rural El Monte, built a house and started their family of four children.

The desert beckoned, though. In the early 1950s, Bray bought a Highway 111 frontage lot in Indian Wells for $1,000. Working weekends and vacations, he built a house and gallery, and the family moved to the desert in 1953. Their backyard, now a golf course, was once the site of one the largest Cahuilla villages in the valley, Kavinish.

At the time there was little development in Indian Wells. The Brays' neighbors included a few cabins, a dance hall, two small groceries, two gas stations, a dance hall and a café. By the early 1960s, those businesses had been demolished, and the Bray gallery remained a signal outpost for miles in either direction on Highway 111.

Bray's art was popular, and people, including a steady fan base of celebrities, stopped by the gallery regularly.

Done in 2008, this 8-by-10-inch painting is of Carl Bray’s
most popular subject, smoke trees. (Courtesy of Adele Ruxton)

Bray continued working for the railroad while his wife ran the gallery. In the early 1960s, the Brays started to spend summers in Taos, where he had a gallery on the plaza for several years.

Bray retired from the railroad and continued to paint. He figures he's painted more than 6,500 smoke trees. Through the years, he has won dozens of art awards, demonstrated art on TV and has one-man shows throughout the nation and overseas. His paintings are owned by celebrities and held by the city of Indian Wells in its permanent collection.

The couple sold their Indian Wells property in about 2000 and moved to Banning.

Luella died a year ago, and the new owners of the Bray property lost it recently to foreclosure. It's now owned by Indian Wells, and the fate of the city's oldest building is not clear.

Ann Japenga contributed to this story.