July 26, 2011

'Smoketree painter' Carl Bray dies at 94

Artist Carl Bray with author and friend Ann Japenga

Written by Coburn Palmer and Mariecar Mendoza
The Desert Sun

Carl Bray, a famous desert artist and “smoketree painter” who lived in Indian Wells and built the Carl Bray house and gallery along Highway 111, died Saturday morning from natural causes in Banning. He was 94.

J. Patrick Bray called his father “absolutely complex,” and said while he remembers his father painting, he also said Carl Bray easily could have been an engineer.

“He built a crazy steam car out of an old golf cart he bought that we thought was going to blow up on him one day, but no, it never did, and he just drove it around the house,” he said, laughing.

Bray was born in 1917 in Prague, Okla. He studied art during the Great 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 married his wife, Luella, in 1939 and moved 20 miles east of Niland.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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 at the turn of the century and moved to Banning.

His wife Luella died in 2008, and the 50-year-old property in Indian Wells, with its signature paint palette sign, was demolished in 2010. The Indian Wells City Council is still discussing plans to replace it with a memorial park.

“Carl was a person that you kind of felt that you'd always known very well,” said Adele Ruxton, president of the Indian Wells Historic Preservation Foundation

The funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Fellowship in the Pass Church, 650 Oak Valley parkway in Beaumont.

He is survived by his children Mary Weinhold (Bill), Sylvia Bray (Bernardo Larque), J. Patrick Bray (Linda), Michael Bray (Patt); nine grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.