Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Stephen Berger

The Coachella Valley is a vibrant community for the arts—a place where aesthetics still matter. Not only is it a spectacular setting; it is rich in design, architecture and the visual arts.

The area has long been fertile ground for artists and interesting personalities. Our valley’s cities encourage and support a creative culture (with a few notable exceptions … but that’s a topic for another article). We have renowned museums that share their collections and expertise with locals and visitors alike, while a wide range of galleries provide art-lovers with a diverse palette of genres from which to choose.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Palm Springs Art Museum has such a large and vibrant Artists Council—and it is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a huge exhibit of works by local, living artists: The Third Annual Artistic Expressions of the Coachella Valley will be on display from March 1 to April 29 at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert Center.

I spoke with Terry Hastings, the president-elect of the Artists Council. He explained that the Artists Council is the oldest of the nine councils of the Palm Springs Art Museum, founded back in the days when the museum was a small regional organization dedicated to Western art. The Artists Council has since grown to include 350 members.

The purpose of the Artists Council is to nurture artistic creation with exhibitions, education and networking opportunities. It was Hastings, he said, who proposed the idea of the Artistic Expressions exhibit to UCR-Palm Desert three years ago. One of the goals of this exhibit is to get art out of the museum and into the community.

This year marks the first time the exhibition is a juried show with cash prizes. There will also be a “People’s Choice” award, to be presented on April 21.

The exhibit will showcase 70 works of photography, painting and sculpture from 49 local artists, including students from the UCR Art Department. A panel of three judges selected the works being displayed.

There will also be two demonstration and discussion days by members of the Artists Council—on Saturday, March 24 and April 21, from 10 a.m. until noon. A wide range of subjects and techniques will be covered, including photography, watercolors, colored-pencil techniques, acrylics and oil painting. There will also be a discussion of art and the Internet, and how artists can promote and sell their work.

“UCR Palm Desert Center has become a hub of artistic exploration and celebration, showcasing the rich diversity of talent we have in the Coachella Valley,” said Tamara Hedges, the executive director of UCR-Palm Desert Center, in a news release. “We are thrilled to be partnering with the Artist Council on this exhibition. This is the third year, and I have no doubt it will be the best show yet.”

Third Annual Artistic Expressions of the Coachella Valley will be on display from Thursday, March 1, through Sunday, April 29, at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert Center, 75080 Frank Sinatra Drive, in Palm Desert. There will be an opening reception from 5 to 7 p.m., Thursday, March 1; RSVP by visiting, or calling Zelda Glenn at 760-834-0592. Jurors’ award selections will be announced at the reception. Artworks are for sale, with 30 percent of sales benefitting the Palm Springs Art Museum. For more information, visit

Times are tough for community-oriented arts programs.

Despite record-setting prices for art at auctions, funding for public art and education is evaporating—or has already dried up. School districts have decreased course offerings in art, music and the humanities. As a result, to some art-lovers, the future appears bleak.

Enter the CREATE Center for the Arts. A year ago, the center opened its doors in a converted thrift store on Highway 111 in Palm Desert, and the 12 months since have been marked by accomplishment, tragedy and a dogged determination to survive.

The CREATE Center’s mission statement, “to create community enrichment through the arts,” is epitomized by founder and director Debra Ann Mumm. I’m a relative newcomer to the valley arts world, and as I’ve talked to local gallery owners, artists and museum representatives, one name kept coming up: I was told, “You have to meet Debra.”

I wanted to learn more about the CREATE Center and the woman who is the driving force behind it. I decided to volunteer there for a week and see what was going on for myself.

When I met Mumm, I was immediately swept up in her enthusiasm. She has big plans—really big plans: She envisions a multistory building serving the needs of artists, performers and designers by providing education, studio space, exhibitions and event space—available to everyone in the Coachella Valley.

“I want to make something that lasts—a permanent art center, something that increases accessibility,” she said.

Mumm described herself as a creative child. She majored in film and theater. Her first job was delivering blueprints—although the company also sold some art supplies. Later, a course at College of the Desert and interactions with local artists convinced her there was a need for a local art-supply store. She opened Venus Art Supply in Palm Desert, and started some art classes as a way to sell more paint. That led to sponsoring struggling artists and providing low-cost studio space. She’s received numerous awards and honors for her contributions to the arts community over the past 25 years, and the CREATE Center is the culmination of her history and core belief that art changes lives.

The center provides workshops and weekly classes. Low-cost studio space and equipment is available. Local artists can exhibit their work in both juried and non-juried gallery shows. Free and low-cost youth programs offer art education for kids 5 years old and up.

In its first year, the CREATE Center has made a big impression—but along with the recognition has come heartache.

On my first day of volunteering, I was asked to take down the memorial exhibition of works by Susan Smith Evans, and wrap the works for storage. Susan was a popular teacher at the College of the Desert, and a prolific painter and printmaker; she was also one of the founding board members of the CREATE Center. She was killed last March in an accident at her home, within months of the center’s opening.

Her husband, Ron Evans, a ceramics teacher at College of the Desert, asked the CREATE Center to be the permanent home for his wife’s art. He died on Nov. 30.

I talked with Michele Ohanesian, an instructor at the center, about the highs and lows of the first year. Susan Smith Evans was her first art teacher in college, and Ohanesian said Smith Evans was her inspiration to become a professional artist. As for the highlights, Ohanesian said the center’s energy—including people just walking in the door to ask what was going on—was the best thing about the it.

Things happen quickly at the center—and change is constant. Two days after my last volunteer shift, I had this story all planned out when I got a text from Debra Ann Mumm: “We’re moving tomorrow.”

A new space had become available. It was less expensive—a critical consideration for a fledgling nonprofit. It also allowed the center to move its private studios into the same location as the classes and exhibitions. This, too, saved money, and would benefit both the professional artists and the students by having them in the same space.

Mumm had big plans for the space, she said. Her enthusiasm caught me. I returned the next afternoon to help pack for a couple hours.

The CREATE Center for the Arts is located at 73733 Fred Waring Drive, No. 106, in Palm Desert. The center will hold a first-anniversary celebration from 5 to 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 13. For more information, call 760-834-8318, or visit

Mark your calendars: The seventh annual Cathedral City Home Tour of Artists’ and Historic Homes will take place from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 11. The event, sponsored by the Agnes Pelton Society, this year will show off five historic artists’ homes in the Cathedral City Cove.

The centerpiece of this year’s home tour is the low, rambling cinderblock structure on F Street in Cathedral City Cove, designed and built by Agnes Pelton in 1939.

Pelton (1881-1961) came to the desert for isolation and to live a more spiritual life. At the time, the area was considered remote, and she lived and worked in the house for 20 years. During that time, she produced paintings that sought to capture a visual representation of the meaning of life.

Financial hardships forced her to sell her beloved home and studio in 1960. She died six months later in a small cottage on C Street.

Pelton is celebrated for her exquisite “plein air” desert landscapes featuring the Coachella Valley, as well as her important abstract masterworks. The landscapes paid the bills (at least until the end), but her abstracts revealed her soul.

She is invariably compared to contemporary Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). In fact, the two women share some striking similarities. Both Pelton and O’Keeffe studied painting with Arthur Wesley Dow in New York. They were both inspired by nature, but each took that inspiration beyond classic landscape painting. Their work was exhibited in the seminal New York City Armory Show of 1913 that introduced Picasso, Duchamp and Kandinsky to America. Both of them visited Southwestern deserts at the invitation of Mabel Dodge Luhan, legendary patron of the arts in Taos, N.M. They both produced evocative paintings of their desert environments.

However, there are important differences between the artists. O’Keeffe’s move to New Mexico launched her into fame, while Pelton’s choice to settle in what would become Cathedral City relegated her to obscurity. O’Keeffe sought to force a new vision of reality on viewers with her over-scale and highly erotic paintings of flowers, while Pelton’s abstract work focused on the spiritual.

“She was ahead of her time in her conception of spirituality, life’s purpose, and the visual representation of it all,” Pelton scholar Nancy Strow Sheley once told Palm Springs Life.

Pelton believed in astrology and numerology, and she practiced a type of fire yoga called Agni. Her transcendental paintings are full of dream landscapes, glowing shapes and feathery fountains of light. Pelton is quoted as saying, “Life is really all light, you know.”

The Phoenix Museum of Art is currently organizing a retrospective of her work. The first major exhibit of her paintings in 23 years, Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist, will include works from 1910 to 1961. Approximately 40 to 45 of her paintings will be borrowed from private collections, museums and galleries for the exhibition, which is slated to open at the Palm Springs Art Museum in the spring of 2019 before touring the country, including a stop at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

The home tour will also include a home on Chuperosa Lane, adjacent to the Pelton home and studio. Along its walls are murals that have been created by desert artists. One of them depicts 10 of the artists who lived, painted and taught in the thriving art colony of Cathedral City from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Live music will be provided throughout the day by students and neighborhood musicians. Local desert artists will display their works under canopies, and dance and spoken-word performances are planned.

Tickets are $20; children younger than 12 are admitted for free. For tickets or more information, call 760-459-3564, or visit

There are many adjectives that could apply to Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art 1954-1969, an exhibit currently at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

Historic. Groundbreaking. Educational. Mesmerizing.

In the end, however, the most important thing is this: The exhibit, touted as the first in-depth examination of the role played by mid-century South American artists in kinetic art, is a whole lot of interactive fun.

Things move and transform. They shimmer and beguile. The viewer is an essential part of the artwork itself.

Kinetic art is divided into two categories. The first is active, where the art itself is animated by electric motors, wind, magnets or light. (A posting warns that some of the flashing lights may cause seizures in persons with a certain kind of epilepsy.) The second is passive, in which the transformation is dependent on the movement of the viewer themself. This exhibit contains examples of both.

I visited the exhibit on a recent Thursday evening—when admission is free to all. As I entered the museum’s central court, a black hole of an entry beckoned to the crowd. In it, two brilliant red diamonds shimmered and teased. Moving toward them caused the shapes to shift and adjust. As people passed between the diamonds, new illusions were created. A textbook example of passive kinetic art was on display.

Just beyond were artworks with mirrors, slowly turning columns of acrylic, and boxes that flashed lights in different shapes and colors—active kinetic art. The exhibit was already quite educational—but the fun was just beginning. My impression: Kinetic art is the rollercoaster in the amusement park of modern art.

There were different rooms, some light, some dark. In one area were paintings that changed color and design as one walked past them. The “Chromosaturation” chambers by Carlos Cruz-Diez, 1965/2010, invited the viewer to travel through three entirely white spaces illuminated by either blue, red or green saturated light.

“La Ciudad Hidroespacial (Spacial City),” 1946-1972, by Gyula Kosice, depicts the artist’s futuristic vision of our planet—completely covered by water, with floating cities of glass and light suspended above the all-encompassing ocean. People could travel between the cities, but never return to the drowned surface of the Earth.

The exhibit is brilliantly curated by Dan Cameron, whose resume includes a lengthy stint as senior curator of the New Museum in New York City, co-curator of the Taipei Biennial, and the idea man behind Prospect New Orleans.

Be sure to allow time to wander and play among the interactive artworks. Much of the active kinetic artworks are on timers, because the delicate mechanisms are now 50 years old or beyond. They turn on for 15- or 20-minute periods and then shut down for a rest period. You’ll want to go back and forth to see all of them functioning.

Kinetic art is widely regarded as a European movement that began with the 1955 Paris exhibition Le Mouvement. It has been wildly popular throughout the world, but for some reason never caught on that much in the United States. One of the goals of this exhibit is to bring attention to the art—and dispel the myth that kinetic art was solely a European invention.

“Kinetic art emerged in Europe in the early 20th century, with its progenitors employing light, space and motion to create an ethereal, almost sensuous experience for the viewer,” said Elizabeth Armstrong, the Palm Springs Art Museum’s executive director, in a press release. “This exhibition serves as an introduction to the Latin American artists who played critical roles in the movement, while simultaneously providing a curatorial case for kinetic art as an important medium.”

Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art, 1954-1969 is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an exploration of “Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.” Supported by grants from the Getty Foundation, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA is taking place January 2018 at more than 70 places across Southern California. 

For more information on Kinesthesia: Latin American Kinetic Art, 1954-1969, including museum hours and admission prices, call 760-322-4800, or visit

Stephen Berger has been both a painter and ceramic tile artist. He spent his career in fashion and design in New York City and Chicago. He currently lives in Palm Springs and is completing his first novel.