A painting of Robert Balance by David Fairrington, part of his Red Kimono II Project.

The Desert Art Center sits nestled in two historic buildings on Palm Canyon Drive. Founded in 1950, it is the oldest art organization in the Coachella Valley.

The artists who created it 68 years ago had an expansive vision of their role in society. It wasn’t enough for them to simply express their creativity; they also believed it was important to contribute to their community.

Today, that commitment to both residents of and visitors to the valley is realized through low-cost classes, workshops, programs for students, high school scholarships, seminars and a gallery staffed by the member artists themselves. The center also provides scholarships for seniors and grants to local teachers for art materials.

The facilities themselves are worth a visit. Located in one of the first schools built in the Coachella Valley—in 1927 by Frances Stevens—the classrooms, studios and gallery are architecturally and historically important. In 1974, the city of Palm Springs purchased the site with a mandate that it be used for education, the arts and children’s programs. President Gerald Ford dedicated it as a cultural arts center.

The studios and gallery are open spaces with high ceilings, filled with light pouring in from large windows. There is an atmosphere of stability and serenity—these spaces are conducive to the creation of art.

The current Desert Art Center president, Ian Cooke, is a Brit and former horticulturist. He now teaches watercolor painting in addition to his other duties.

“We are a very welcoming group,” he said. “Whether you are an accomplished artist, a beginner, an improver, or simply an art lover, our members are willing to share their knowledge and expertise. We are open to a wide range of artists. You don’t have to be a member to take classes. We want to provide an opportunity for everyone, locals and visitors alike, to learn.

“We would like to expand our ceramics program with a dedicated clay space. Also, a purpose-built gallery would allow us to display more of our local, original and affordable art.”

Some 20 different classes are available during the year, with topics including painting, life drawing, collage, plein-air painting, stained glass and ceramic sculpture. Some of the valley’s most popular artists teach these classes. Kay Henkel, now in her mid-90s, teaches and creates ceramic sculpture.

While browsing through the gallery, I was impressed by the high caliber of the works for sale, as well as the moderate pricing. I found myself drawn to a large, luminous landscape of saguaro cacti and mountains. I noted the artist’s name, thinking it would be nice to speak with her. Around the same time, a woman entered the gallery. One of the two artists staffing the gallery said I should meet her … and she turned out to be Elaine Mathews, the name I had just written down. She graciously invited me to her home to view more of her work and talk about the center.

Mathews is a California native who grew up in Compton and studied art at Long Beach State University. She taught high school art for 30 years. After taking an early retirement, she and her husband moved to the desert.

“The desert and the light here were a big inspiration for me,” she said. “I started doing large paintings to cover my walls. I took one into the Desert Art Center, and they told me, ‘You’re in.’ I was asked to teach there. I was hesitant, because I’d been teaching for so many years. My husband encouraged me to give it a try. I liked it. It’s adults who actually want to be there.

“I like that the center is a nonprofit and carries only local artists. The city of Palm Springs really supports us. I’ve been teaching there for 15 years now. I also lead the group of plein-air painters. We go all over the valley to paint, and we have a lot of fun.”

After viewing a number of her works, I was in awe of her mastery of light, color and the desert landscape. I’m not alone in that opinion: Mathews was recently selected to be the featured artist at the prestigious La Quinta Arts Festival in 2019.

In addition to classes, the center also offers art-enrichment events, demonstrations and talks. All of these events are open to the public at no charge, while members can also take advantage of friendly and supportive group critiques of their work.

The Desert Art Center offers a two-tier membership. Anybody can be a supporting member, but gallery members must go through a jury process that takes place once a year in the fall. Gallery members can display and sell their work in the center’s gallery. They also staff the gallery on a rotating basis—so when you visit the Desert Art Center or purchase art there, you are being helped by the artists themselves.

In addition to the large gallery, there is also a small gallery where up to three members are highlighted in a revolving show, starting on the first Friday of the month.

On Dec. 7, the small gallery will feature David Fairrington and the first public showing of his in-progress Red Kimono II Project. Each painting in the series features a subject from the LGBTQ community draped in a vintage Japanese kimono. After the opening from 6 to 8 p.m., the exhibit will remain on display through the weekend.

Since this is the season of gift-giving, I asked Ian Cooke what he thought about giving art as a present.

“Art is something that stays with us for a lifetime,” he said. “Our appreciation of a work grows over time. It can make a gift that is never forgotten. However, art is a very personal experience. If you want to consider giving art as a gift, I would suggest that you bring the person you’re giving it to into the gallery to see which pieces they are drawn to. That way, you can be sure that your gift will become a cherished part of their life.”

The Desert Art Center, at 550 N. Palm Canyon Drive, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 760-323-7979, or visit desertartcenter.org. Below: a photo of the Desert Art Center.