John Hilton

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Not long after John turned ten the Hilton family returned to the United States.  They lived in the Midwest for a few years before moving to Los Angeles. The age of thirteen found his family living in Redondo Beach, California. He decided to take up gemology after he was thrown out of his high school art class for painting a fully clothed live model in the nude.  Although in later years Hilton would recount the episode in a humorous manner, he also recalled that the art instructor’s rebuke was so severe that he couldn’t bring himself to paint or draw for several years after the incident.

After completing his education at various schools in the Los Angeles area, Hilton attended La Verne College.  During the summers he worked for the Golden State Gem Company. After his second summer on the job the company offered him full time employment. Hilton later claimed he accepted the offer in small part because of the good pay it offered and in large part because he had just become engaged to his first wife, Eunice.

The Golden State Gem Company was one of the largest wholesale jewelry and importing firms on the Pacific coast. Over the next several years Hilton’s clients included many of the Hollywood elite. However with the onslaught of the depression the jewelry firm went out of business and Hilton found himself both broke and unemployed at the age of twenty-seven. He recalls going alone on a camping trip in the desert not long afterwards where he lamented his situation: a wife and small son to support, no job, no prospects, and no money. After staring at the starry desert sky for hours, he began pounding his fists in the sand and crying.  But once drained of his emotions he determined that from that moment forward he would answer to no one but John Hilton.

Armed with ten dollars and an intense drive to succeed as an artist Hilton moved his family from Los Angeles to Indio, California.  At first he sang and played guitar in local taverns for subsistence. Not long afterwards a friend who owned a date shop in Indio convinced Hilton to open up a rock shop across the street.  In between building the rock shop into a curio business and his gigs in local taverns, he painted.  Hilton also learned the importance of playing to one’s audience as both an entertainer and an artist.  He grew a goatee and always dressed in western style clothes complete with a black sombrero.

Starting with pastels, then moving on to oils, Hilton felt little but frustration at his efforts during the first several years.  Friends began to question him on whether his artistic endeavors were worth the effort.  Yet he persisted. His first major influence came from Charles Safford, a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute who lived and worked at the old Coachella Trading Post. Then Hilton was fortunate enough to come in contact with perhaps the greatest of all desert painters, Maynard Dixon. Dixon was a frequent visitor during those years to the Salton Sea. Impressed with Hilton’s intensity and desire, Dixon was soon inviting Hilton to accompany him on sketch trips. 

Dixon had two profound and lasting effects on Hilton.  First, Dixon convinced Hilton to throw away everything he had painted during his first three years, even though some of Hilton’s early paintings had won awards at smaller exhibitions and shows.  Hilton later remarked that this was important because “art is a continuing process of growth and widening vision.”  An artist could never progress to the next level if he fell in love with his work. Secondly, Dixon convinced Hilton to throw away his brushes and use a knife. Dixon felt Hilton’s images at the time were too precise, almost photographic. Hilton later claimed converting to knife painting was a relatively effortless transition if only because he easily tired of cleaning brushes.  He often joked that basic laziness played a large role in his decision to become a knife painter.

Other artists who Hilton befriended during his years in the desert included James Swinnerton, Nicolai Fechin, Conrad Buff, Burt Procter, and Orpha Klinker.   Marjorie Reed  later pointed to Hilton's suggestion that she travel to the remote Campbell Ranch in Vallecito as an important factor in her development as a young artist.

Hilton later recalled that “It was an unforgettable time, something that can never come again.” Members of the group would typically gather at Hilton’s place in Indio because he “had a centrally located place where they could all camp in the yard and cook spaghetti, and sing at the top of their lungs.” Hilton also recalled that while all were friends, everyone but Dixon and Fechin were “comparatively gentle” in their criticisms of Hilton’s work. Fechin and Dixon on the other hand, “really poured it on”.

Fechin was also a strong influence in Hilton’s progress, constantly prodding him to work on his drawing first.  “No one can paint unless he knows how to draw”, Hilton recalls Fechin telling him. Hilton also remarked that “I don’t believe anyone had the effect upon my life that Nicolai had.”

Gradually the recognition and accolades came, accompanied by commercial success as well.  Starting with a one man show in 1935 at Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn, his artistic career was beginning to progress slowly but steadily. During this time Hilton supplemented his income with a series of articles in Desert Magazine on prospecting for gems in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts.  He also wrote biographical articles for Desert Magazine on his contemporaries including Maynard Dixon and Fritioff Persson.

Then came World War II. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hilton’s knowledge of the desert surrounding Indio prompted the U.S. Army to approach him to help select a location for Camp Young. Camp Young would eventually become the training ground for the 3rd Army Tank Corp commanded by General George Patton. During the next several months Hilton advised Patton on many occasions on the suitability of various locations for training maneuvers. Soon the training was completed and the 3rd Army Tank Corp was ready to embark for North Africa. Before leaving General Patton formally awarded Hilton a map of the area which was signed by him with the notation “Thanks John, you saved us a lot of trouble.” Until the end of his life Hilton always claimed the map was one of his prized possessions. Patton also offered Hilton a warrant officer’s position with the 3rd Tank Corp.  It was an offer Hilton almost accepted. Then he received a phone call from a Harvard University representative. 

The man from Harvard questioned Hilton about an article he had written on his calcite holdings in a 1939 issue of Desert Magazine.  At the time Hilton owned a claim to an optical calcite mine in the Borrego Badlands near the Salton Sea.  Before long Hilton was not only the owner of the mine, he was also the full time operator with a contract to supply the U.S. government with all the calcite the mine could produce. The mine operated continuously throughout the war years. Hilton was a hands-on operator, fully involved in the mine operations, actually operating the drills on numerous occasions.  As a result, he suffered injuries that would plague him for the rest of his life.



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We are always interested in purchasing or accepting on consignment work by John Hilton.  Please contact us with any inquiries.
John Hilton First Blush of Spring
John Hilton at work circa 1946
John Hilton Tracks in the Wash


John Hilton circa 1942

John Hilton-Circa 1942

John Hilton After the Storm
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