When the war ended Hilton returned to his curio shop and gallery in such bad condition that he could not even hold a palette knife. Exhausted both physically and mentally, he went to Santa Monica to seek treatments for his physical conditions. After several operations on his arm and hand, he traveled to Alamos, Mexico to recuperate spiritually.
Alamos had always had a special meaning to Hilton. It was one of the locations where he was convinced he had lived a past life. In 1947 he published his first book, Sonoran Sketch Book. The book chronicled his experiences in the region. Hilton also discovered two previously unknown species of turtles on the trip, one of which is named for him.
When Hilton returned from Sonora in 1948, he began adding beeswax to his oil paints. He derived the idea from a study he had read on the enduring quality of ancient Egyptian art. This medium helped to give his landscape paintings an appearance that to this day is both distinctive and unique.
Slowly the accolades and sales began to accumulate. Over the next few years Hilton’s work began appearing in galleries throughout the state of California. Yet as financial success was slowly being realized his marriage, which to this point had survived almost thirty years of deprivation and hardship, began to unravel. In 1951 the Hilton’s divorced.
It was a divorce in which Hilton claimed he contested nothing, giving up everything from his homes in Sonora and Indio to his son and his daughter. When it was over Hilton moved to a small house in Twentynine Palms. When asked later years why he chose Twenty-nine Palms over Palm Springs, which had become a thriving community with a wealthy clientele, he remarked that at the time “I was pretty sick of people . . . pretty sick of life”.
Yet Twenty-nine Palms also gave Hilton the isolation to pour all of his energy into his art. Not long afterwards he met his second wife Barbara. The two were married in 1952. As it was with Fechin and Dixon, Barbara also had a profound influence on his life. The twenty years that followed represented the pinnacle era of Hilton’s artistic achievement. Not long after his marriage to Barbara his work came to the attention of William Cressmer, at the time one of the most prominent collectors in the country. Cressmer arranged for Hilton to have a one man exhibition at the Grand Central Galleries in New York. It was a tradition that would be continued every year for the next twenty-five years.
Hilton became one of those few artists who realized both significant commercial and critical success during his lifetime. More often than not his one man shows at the Grand Central Galleries in New York City were sellouts. He also exhibited at the Death Valley 49er’s show for decades. By the late 1960’s Hilton’s success allowed him to buy a home in Lahaina, Maui. For the next several years he and Barbara would travel between homes in Twenty-nine Palms and Maui, all while taking several motor coach tours of the Baja. While in the Baja the Hilton’s favorite place was the fishing village of Bahia de los Angeles. In 1960 he published his second book, Hardly Any Fences, in which he recounted his memories of the people and the nearby places he visited during his trips to the Baja.
Barbara Hilton died in 1976 after a trip to the Baha. In 1978 Hilton’s biography, which he narrated to Katherine Ainsworth, was published. The book was dedicated to Barbara. John Hilton died in Lahaina in 1983.
Hilton claimed in various magazine articles that for many years he maintained a New Years eve tradition of inviting several of his friends to an “annual meeting” in Box Canyon in the Coachella Valley. After building a huge bonfire, Hilton would entertain the gathering by singing and playing the guitar. Then, when the clock struck midnight, he would throw all of his paintings from the past year which he considered sub-par into the fire. It was an acknowledgement of sorts, that he was his own worst critic. Dixon had taught him well. (Note: Some long time residents in the Twenty-nine Palms area today whisper that the burning part of this story is fabricated. They maintain that the paintings were always “rescued” at the last minute by willing buyers.)
Hilton was often fond of recounting the message of his childhood art teacher in China. The instructor, who Hilton described as “a venerable Chinese, steeped in the almost mystical lore of his honored profession” used to drill into his students that art is made up of three components, all equally important. “An object of beauty, the artist, and the eye of the beholder. Any painter who forgets any one of these three can never be a success.” Hilton claimed the message never left his memory. The work he left behind provides ample proof. He did indeed accomplish what he “set out to do.”
Essay by Gary Fillmore
The Man Who Captured Sunshine by Katherine Ainsworth
Sonoran Sketch Book by John Hilton
The Desert Painters by Ed Ainsworth
Arizona Highways, March 1960
Desert Magazine, January 1941
Conversations with Robert “Doc” Smeton
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