Cabot and Carl: Drawn to Art and Each Other

Our recent newsletters have profiled some of Cabot Yerxa’s neighbors in the landscape that decades later became Desert Hot Springs. We would be remiss to move on to other topics without paying tribute to a person who lived in Palm Springs but whose friendship and company Cabot regularly enjoyed during his homesteading days: Carl Eytel. With a seemingly infinite capacity for observation and a creative mind, Cabot naturally connected with art and artists. But we know from his writings that he admired Carl (21 years his senior) for more than his visual output. While Cabot pursued sketching and painting, his path in life most closely followed one of business and devotion to creating what is now known as Cabot’s Pueblo Museum. On the other hand, Carl devoted himself entirely to his art. Here’s what Cabot had to say in his “On the Desert Since 1913” newspaper column:
Carl Eytel was the first artist to ever live and paint in Palm Springs. One day in 1914, I was hunting my burro Merry Xmas in the vicinity of Seven Palms. Carl Eytel was camped there, making interesting sketches of sand dunes with San Jacinto Mountain in the background. And so we became acquainted.
His camp was by a small pool of water near the base of a large native palm tree. It was a very simple affair: just a faded blanket and piece of dusty canvas showing wear. By the grayed ashes of greasewood roots was the inevitable, well-blackened coffee pot. Carl was German and liked plenty of coffee at every meal. Upright in the sand, handy to the fire, rested a covered tin pail in which to boil cereals. One tip cup, tin plate, camp-style knife, fork, and spoon completed his outfit. Palm fronds cast shade over a canteen leaning against his saddle, which had been thrown carelessly on the ground. A bright-pattern, woolen, Navajo saddle blanket hung to dry in a mesquite tree. There was no gun, as Carl had an aversion to killing any desert creature.
All of this equipment was tied back of the saddle when moving camp, as he never liked to bother with a pack burro. His horse was an old cow pony raised on the desert, bay in color, with stiff knees. But it had been his trusty companion on many miles of rough country travel, and he was very much attached to it.
Carl and I often went sketching together. Sometimes he would come to my cabin near Two Bunch Palms and stay several days. At other times, I would go over to Palm Springs and visit him. His cabin was of redwood shakes and very small, scarcely 6×8 feet, in which was a single cot; small, wooden, unpainted table, homemade; and his painting paraphernalia. Of necessity, I slept out of doors on the ground.
There was no space enough for a stove in the toy-size room. Therefore, cooking was accomplished over an outdoor fire, ringed with a few small, blackened rocks.
One day when I was visiting him, two ladies who were strangers in Palm Springs came to buy a picture. He seated them outside on campstools in front of the cabin. Carl then went into the tiny building and brought small pictures to the open doorway for them to see. One lady purchased a sketch for 12 dollars. He was elated, because finances were low and paint and food items needed, one of which was canned milk. Carl was a very indifferent and haphazard cook. He relied upon canned milk as the mainstay of his every meal. It took no fire, no time to prepare, and was always ready and satisfying.
He had true and deep appreciation for all these colorful western lands. His pen-and-ink sketches and paintings show careful, sincere effort to reproduce the beauty and mystery of the desert.
Carl Eytel, who was born in Germany in 1862, died five days after his 63rd birthday. A 1963 newspaper article recalled the artist through the words of Cabot:
We burro men named him the “aristocrat” because he owned a horse instead of a burro. But Carl used to make long trips into the Arizona desert and New Mexico to paint the Indians and he never could have used a burro whose top speed was two miles per hour.
Carl told me how he ran away from his home in Stuttgart, Germany, when his family insisted he become a baker. Horses and cattle had always fascinated him, so he roamed the plains as a cowboy until he could lay aside enough money to live on while he taught himself to paint.
He was such a frail man and so very poor. About the only money he earned when he first came here was made by selling his sketches to the few tourists we had. Finally, he did get a break when George Wharton James commissioned him to illustrate his book, Wonders of the Colorado Desert.
Cabot further recalled that, when Carl was working on sketches for Wharton’s book, he was mistaken for a noted horse thief and condemned to hang. According to Cabot, the only thing that saved him was that the horse’s owner confirmed that the animal found in Carl’s possesson was not his stolen horse. The 1963 article concludes thus:
Carl was far from being a timid man, but an experience like that so unnerved him that his hands shook whenever he talked about it.
His work required persistence, patience and gentleness. Carl possessed all of these qualities. The Indians loved him and when he died, they buried him in their tribal cemetery in Palm Springs, the first time they had accorded a white man this honor.
A sketch by Carl Eytel hangs in Cabot’s Pueblo Museum; and Palm Springs Art Museum has a Carl Eytel collection that includes watercolors, drawings, and paintings. More than a hundred years after Cabot and Carl met, how fortunate we are that both men left behind something of themselves to inspire us.