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The Lost Colony of Sven-Ska: Christina Lillian and the Cathedral City Artists

Downtown Cathedral City | Paul Sableman/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)
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The following article is edited and re-published from California Desert Art, a doorway to the rich bohemian world of early desert artists.

Evan Lindquist heard stories about his Aunt Emma all his life. She was a beautiful blonde artist — a friend to Greta Garbo, D.H. Lawrence and Agnes Pelton — and she ruled over an artists' colony called Sven-Ska somewhere out in the California desert. To a boy growing up in small-town Kansas, Sven-Ska seemed as exotic as Atlantis.

Christina Lillian with Sven-Ska sign | Courtesy of Evan and Sharon Lindquist
Christina Lillian with Sven-Ska sign | Courtesy of Evan and Sharon Lindquist

This legendary aunt had inspired Lindquist to become an artist himself, yet he'd never met her.  Finally, in 1959, he and his wife, Sharon, were driving from Yuma to Palm Springs. They came around a curve, and there was a sign on the highway that said Sven-Ska.

 "Wait," he told Sharon. "That's got to be Aunt Emma."

They turned off the highway, following the sign to a motor court in the Cathedral City Cove. Lindquist knocked. A tall, stylish woman — she could be a stand-in for Katherine Hepburn — answered, and Evan said: "You're my Aunt Emma."

Lindquist had stumbled on the Valhalla of early Cathedral City artists, Sven-Ska. The route was winding and obscured for him, as it has been for many of us who have wanted to know more about Aunt Emma — known during her desert days as Christina Lillian. Christina was our California desert equivalent of Taos' Mabel Dodge Luhan: a charismatic figure who used her glamour and wealth to support artists.

While Mabel Dodge and her circle are celebrated in books, plays and retrospectives, Christina Lillian and the artists — most were women — of the Cathedral City Cove have remained obscure. (One exception: Christina's neighbor Agnes Pelton is currently enjoying celebrity. An exhibit of her work at the Phoenix Art Museum is headed to the Whitney Museum of American Art.)  

I first heard the name Christina Lillian mentioned as the owner of a midget rock house in the Araby Cove, where artist Burt Procter lived. Then her name came up again on the back of a 1949 painting (an image of Sven-Ska itself) by Sam Hyde Harris. I later saw a letter written in Cathedral City in 1936: Agnes Pelton mentioned her wealthy neighbor, Christina — a dress designer who was able to retire at age 35.

Agnes Pelton's portrait of her neighbor, Christina Lillian | Courtesy of Ann Brownlee
Agnes Pelton's portrait of her neighbor, Christina Lillian | Courtesy of Ann Brownlee

The clues were piling up, but no one seemed to know anything about Christina. She remained a beautiful enigma.  And then one day I got a note from Evan Lindquist: "Christina Lillian was my great-aunt."

Lindquist himself is a celebrated artist and printmaker. A master of the burin (an ancient engraving tool), he earned recognition as the first Artist Laureate for the State of Arkansas. His engravings are included in 71 permanent collections worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

By the time Lindquist was five or six, he was sure he was destined to be an artist, a conviction inspired largely by the aunt he'd never met. "My mother and father talked about Aunt Emma. My grandmother talked about Aunt Emma. My uncles and aunts talked about Aunt Emma." Aunt Emma persuaded him that "an artist can do anything."

Evan and Sharon Lindquist were able to fill in some of the mystery of Christina (aka Aunt Emma). Born in 1888, she grew up in the plain little towns of Salina and Lindsborg, Kansas, which may be why she was later drawn to the plain little town of Cathedral City: It felt familiar. The future costume designer kept busy making clothes for her six siblings — dresses for her sisters, shirts for her brothers.

 "Everybody spoke Swedish in these places," Lindquist says.  "And when Christina was a teenager she declared: 'This Swedish peoples' settlement is too small. I'm going to Hollywood. And I'm going to make gowns for the movies.'"

Saving up money from a receptionist job, Christina left Kansas after her father's death in 1915. She paid her own way to Hollywood, where — as promised — she became a successful gown designer, making costumes for films featuring Greta Garbo, among others. As part of her metamorphosis she dropped Emma and became Christina.

"She declared she was never going to marry, not going to meet a man's demands," says Sharon. "She was not going to raise a carnival." Carnival was Christina's term for children and family.

Like Mabel Dodge in Santa Fe, Christina was seeking "a new world plan." The ingredients included communal living, immersion in nature, study of metaphysics and spiritual pursuits. A cornerstone of this new world was art. While Christina was an artist herself — she made constructions from cast-off tin and called them Taos Tintypes — she poured most of her energy into encouraging and housing her fellow artists.

Her fascination was cemented when she took a painting class with Hans Hoffman, the foremost teacher of abstract expressionism, in the 1930s. At the end of her class notes, Christina typed a personal addendum. "It was the last day of class. Hans Hoffman was sitting out in the sun. I went out to tell him goodbye. I said — You have given me enough to last my lifetime."

Santa Fe, 1930s

After living in San Francisco and Hollywood, Christina's boho yearnings took her to Arizona and on to Santa Fe in the 1920s. "She bought a 1927 Studebaker, and she traveled out into the Arizona desert," says Lindquist. "She wanted to see if she could be a friend to the Apaches."

The Swedish rebel from Kansas puttered around the Arizona outback, offering rides to Indians. She found one man who had been out hunting and was trudging along with a stag across his shoulders. When the man declined her offer of a ride, Christina followed him until he finally gave in to fatigue and laid the carcass across the fender.

Of course, Christina would inevitably cross paths with the real Mabel Dodge Luhan. In the 1930s, Mabel Dodge invited her to come stay at her adobe home and salon in Taos.  "She lived in the main house with Georgia O'Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence and [his wife] Frieda and other visitors," Lindquist says. "Georgia O'Keeffe gave her some tools that she had collected for printmaking, and so, before she died, she gave me the tools."

Cathedral City, 1940s-60s

Moving to the Coachella Valley, Christina first owned a small stone house in Palm Springs, reminiscent of the stone house her parents lived in on the Kansas frontier. The Araby cottage — still standing — was designed by a little-known architect, R. Lee Miller, the imaginative force behind some of Palm Springs' earthiest structures. Christina put up artists in Araby, then moved further down Highway 111 to Cathedral City — the poor relation of posh Palm Springs.

In the days before development, Cathedral City had the most expansive views — all the way to San Gorgonio and the little San Bernardinos. Rents were cheaper here, too. Cheap digs and big vistas played a part in the town's appeal to artists.

Sven-Ska sign to left, Main Street, Cathedral City, 1942 | Courtesy of Cathedral City Historical Society.
Sven-Ska sign to left, Main Street, Cathedral City, 1942 | Courtesy of Cathedral City Historical Society.

When Christina settled in on Grove Street, her neighbors included the modernist artist Agnes Pelton and Harriet Day, manager of the Desert Inn art gallery in Palm Springs. Another neighbor, Matille Prigge Seaman — known as "Billie” — was one of the earliest Cathedral City residents, dating from 1928. The artist and accomplished horsewoman cultivated a masculine appearance ("I simply don't own a dress nor even a hat," she once said), fueling local speculation that the Cathedral City artists might have shared a Sapphic bent. (Billie's home is still there — at 37-086 Cathedral Canyon Drive.)

Matille Prigge Seaman, self-portrait. | Courtesy of Paulina Dellosso
Matille Prigge Seaman, self-portrait. | Courtesy of Paulina Dellosso

There has long been buzz in the art world that Agnes Pelton herself was gay. An Iowa curator recently went so far as to declare — with no actual evidence — she was "an under-recognized member of the Queer American avant-garde." Christina, too, left clues for future thesis-writers: She wore pants and swore her intention never to marry. Harriet Day had a child, who died of tuberculosis, but for the most part, their circle consisted of unmarried women with no children.

This was also an era, however, when some women rebelled against Victorian norms and fled to the Southwest, wore pants and thumbed noses at convention. Their freewheeling lifestyle did not necessarily mean they were lesbians. In any case, Cathedral City can claim its very own women's art colony — a rare thing in American art history.

Christina's neighborhood often entertained visitors from Santa Fe. The link was the Transcendental Painting Group, founded in New Mexico in 1939, with Emil Bisttram as founder. Pelton was a member of this group; Dane Rudhyar and others visited both her and Christina in Cathedral City.

The Mabel Dodge circle was slowly being replicated in miniature in Cathedral City, with some differences. Taos was exotic in location and culture, abounding with Indian pueblos, clairvoyants and communes. Cathedral City was a prosaic blue collar town later known for its brothels and bars. If there was going to be anything exotic in Cathedral City, the artists had to provide it themselves.

By the 1940s, Christina and friends were involved with the founding of the Palm Springs Art Museum (then the Palm Springs Desert Museum). Members of her circle helped create the Desert Art Center — still in operation in Palm Springs today. They staged exhibits at the home of Pelton, Cathedral City's first art exhibit space. Pelton's living room today looks much as she left it. The home is sometimes open to the public for tours.

Along with hosting Santa Fe artists, they entertained Cabot Yerxa, builder of Cabot's Pueblo; Harry Oliver, creator of the Desert Rat Scrapbook; California Impressionist painter Sam Hyde Harris; Marie Kopp, director of the Desert Magazine art gallery; and Betty Cree, a Palm Springs pioneer and founder of the Desert Inn art gallery. Phil Dike, one of California's best-known watercolor painters, stayed at Sven-Ska regularly.

The Sven-Ska women were fully immersed in small-town life — decorating tables for Women's Club luncheons, giving neighbors rides to the market — at the same time they were quietly probing philosophy, the occult, mysticism, Theosophy and how it all related to art.

Christina's Final Years

In the last decade of her life, Christina Lillian moved to Claremont, California, to be near a relative. She died there in 1976. The little colony in Cathedral City Cove was forgotten until recently, as art collectors and scholars begin to rediscover Agnes Pelton. With the interest in Pelton, her free-spirited neighbors are beginning to peek from the shadows.

Still, much about the cove artists remains a mystery. We await the discovery of a journal, letters, or a witness to tell us the bigger story of Christina Lillian's New World Order.

Christina Lillian gravemarker | Courtesy of Evan and Sharon Lindquist
Christina Lillian gravemarker | Courtesy of Evan and Sharon Lindquist

Top Image: Downtown Cathedral City | Paul Sableman/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

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