The following article is edited and re-published from California Desert Art, a doorway to the rich bohemian world of early desert artists.
When the Indian Wells artist Carl Bray and I used to drive around the desert, it was a thrill to hear him talk about the people he'd painted with — everyone from Maynard Dixon to John Hilton, Sam Hyde Harris and Agnes Pelton. Then one day, he told me about this guy named Jon Gnagy.
Unlike the others, Gnagy (pronounced NAY-gee) was never an art world success. I collected the artists' names like trading cards, but this particular card I shuffled back into the deck. My mistake. Gnagy may be, after all, the most influential desert artist who ever lived. As America's first TV artist debuting in 1946, he claimed the role before the now-trendy Bob Ross. Hundreds of established artists — everyone from New York contemporary artist Allan McCollum (Gnagy's nephew) to Andy Warhol — were jumpstarted as kids by a Jon Gnagy "Learn to Draw" kit.
"Jon Gnagy taught me to draw," Warhol once declared.
I call him a desert artist — despite his various residences — because he lived in Palm Springs in 1942, was a member of the Desert Art Center and a visiting instructor at the Shadow Mountain Palette Club in Palm Desert. He spent the last 20 years of his life in Idyllwild. Most importantly, he's a desert artist because he honored the Gods of Tahquitz and knew the tricks smoke trees play on travelers.
Gnagy was as radical in his own way as his protégé Warhol. For him, art was not an elite pursuit reserved for art school grads. Rather, he was of the punk, do-it-yourself persuasion. Gnagy was raised by Mennonites in Kansas; Mennonites are the original DIYers. Cook, quilt, hoe — or make something with a ball, cube, cylinder and cone. Ball, cube, cylinder, cone became Gnagy's mantra, channeled from Cezanne. With his Van Dyke beard and his Everyman flannel shirts, he beamed these words down on kids at the very dawn of TV.
A gallery owner in Cleveland named Stan Klein was one of those kids, listening in at age seven. "To a suburban isolated kid, it was: 'Oh yeah, he's the guy,'" he says. Klein honored his teacher with a retrospective show at his Firecat Projects gallery in Chicago last spring. Klein and Gnagy family members are planning to transport the show to the California desert after pandemic restrictions have eased.
Born in 1907 in Varner's Forge, Kansas, Jon Gnagy dropped out of high school and later went to work as an art director for an ad agency in Tulsa. It was there he met his wife-to-be — his apprentice at the agency — Mary Jo Hinton. Mary Jo herself went on to be a cartoonist, illustrator and cartographer.
After the two were married, Gnagy took a job at a New York agency. His budding family lived in nearby New Hope, Pennsylvania. The pressures of work wore on the artist and he suffered a nervous breakdown. During months of hospitalization, he began to read philosophy, psychology and physics. In idleness he discovered his life's plan: He would show everyone the creativity inside them.
I decided that what I wanted most was to give this knowledge to othersJon Gnagy
Liz Seymour, Gnagy's granddaughter, described what happened next in an article for Art and Antiques magazine: "When, in 1946, the first TV tower was erected atop the Empire State Building, Gnagy was ready. NBC gave him a spot on 'Radio City Matinee' alongside a chef making hollandaise sauce and a milliner trimming hats. The crayon melted under the lights, the chalk squeaked, but he was a hit — with almost everybody."
The Museum of Modern Art's committee on art education wrote to The New York Times to protest Gnagy's philistine approach "destructive to the creative and mental growth of children." The rebuke stung. Though a common man to his core, part of him always craved the approval of the art establishment.
His TV show, "You Are an Artist," heralded the beginning of the Golden Era of children's programming. "Jon was the first," says Joshua Tree resident and Gnagy collector Tom O'Key. "He replaced the TV test pattern."
Prior to Gnagy's big break, his brother-in-law Sam Hinton took a job as director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum (now the Palm Springs Art Museum), in 1941. The small operation was then devoted to natural history and was housed in the Welwood Murray Library building downtown.
Sam Hinton was a folk singer, marine biologist and later director of the Aquarium/Museum at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He was also an artist. The Palm Springs Historical Society archives include his cartoons of local luminaries such as Edmund Jaeger and Carl Eytel.
Around the time of Hinton's arrival, Jon Gnagy moved to town with his family. Gnagy's wife Mary Jo took a job in the lab at Torney Hospital, an army hospital installed at the El Mirador Hotel — now Desert Hospital. Gnagy began teaching classes out of his home. In the 1940s, and again in the 1960s, an ad ran regularly in the Desert Sun advertising private instruction with Jon Gnagy.
"One of Gnagy's students was east coast arts patron Jennie Grossinger, who later invited him back east to be resident teacher at Grossingers [an opulent resort in the New York Catskills]," says Seymour.
The desert inspired Gnagy's lithographic series starring the local landscape: "Land of the Desert Sea," "Nature on the Colorado Desert" and "Beware the Smoke Tree." He had talks with Carl Bray about the shapeshifting mysteries of the smoke tree, and later honored this California native signature shrub with a cameo in "The Doodler's Handbook."
While hanging out with the local painters, Gnagy encountered a familiar populist gospel. The plein air painters he met in the Coachella Valley camped together and dined on free grapefruit off the trees. There was no money and no prize to compete for.
The desert enclave was just one branch of an amateur art movement that overtook America in the 1940s and 50s — the same time Pollock and de Kooning were sizzling on the East Coast. Winston Churchill's 1948 book "Painting as Pastime" was key to the egalitarian revolution, as was the paint-by-numbers fad and plein air painting. The New York scene excluded all but the chosen. Jon Gnagy's scene included everyone.
Jon Gnagy and family moved back to Pennsylvania after their stay in Palm Springs, and then to New York after his TV show became a hit. He would return to Southern California after his fame had passed. He taught in the summer program at Idyllwild Arts Academy in 1960, and soon moved there — to remain working quietly under-the-radar the rest of his life. (His brother-in-law Sam Hinton also taught folk music at Idyllwild Arts, hosting Pete Seeger and other legendary musicians.)
Gnagy operated a gallery next door to the Mile High Café in the mountain town. His nephew, Allan McCollum, remembers visiting him on the hill around 1969. "We went up there and found that Jon was holding drawing lessons at a local cafe on the weekends," he says. "We went and watched. It was presented just like his TV show, with an easel, and so on, to weekend folks. So even though he was retired from the television lesson program, he still thought to teach people." (The Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami featured McCollum's work in a retrospective, which closed in January.)
After Gnagy died in 1981, the first person to get a good look at his Idyllwild studio was Joshua Tree resident Tom O'Key. O'Key got his first "Learn to Draw" kit for Christmas at age seven and was a fan of Gnagy from that day on. When his family would go camping in Idyllwild, he went by the gallery hoping to meet his hero, but Gnagy was never in. Legend has it he slept by day and painted by night.
It was only after Gnagy's death from heart failure that O'Key finally met Gnagy's wife, Mary Jo Hinton, and daughter Polly. (Mary Jo has since passed away; Polly Gnagy Seymour lives in Florida.) While Mary Jo and Polly were cleaning up the house, they invited O'Key to tackle the studio out back.
As O'Key recalls, Polly walked him across the yard to the studio. The door swung open and O'Key stepped inside the dimly lit cabin, the last lair of the man who mentored thousands. Before departing, Polly switched on a desk lamp to reveal an unkempt workspace.
"It was a big mess. He wasn't the tidiest guy," O'Key says. While Gnagy was never known for his own art, he had been painting seriously for years. In the studio, O'Key found stacks of ethereal paintings of supernatural beings ("He obviously had a spiritual side to him"), along with rural scenes, desertscapes of Tahquitz Canyon and other local sites and underwater scenes. Mary Jo told him her husband had an affinity for Neptune, Lord of the Sea.
As a Mennonite, Gnagy was not allowed to draw human figures (idolatry) so any figures in the paintings — human or supernatural — were added by Mary Jo.
O'Key, founder of the Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theater, wound up with a number of paintings, which he has in his personal collection, along with the undersea knife Gnagy wore on his belt while skin diving. He took home some of Gnagy's used paint brushes and has given them away to artist friends over the years: DIY talismans.
In the years since his studio visit, O'Key has grappled with the puzzle of why Gnagy isn't better known. "Why isn't this guy famous?" he asked. He even appealed to the late Ray Davenport, compiler of the influential Davenport's Art Reference and Price Guide. Davenport said Gnagy wasn't a known player because he did not have the key requirement: paintings sold at auction.
The requirement he did possess was the ability to inspire. Stan Klein, for instance, today makes art under the name Vito Desalvo. Gnagy was the one who first encouraged kids like him to make a mark on paper. Then another. Then came the "shouts of amazement," as Seymour says. For Stan Klein, Tom O'Key and thousands of others, it was a shout that keeps reverberating through the years.