Interview with Daniel Dixon
Son of Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange
Nancy Green: Daniel, because you were only 21 when your father passed away, have you had to go back and reconstruct your relationship?
Daniel Dixon: Well, most of my recollections of my father were concentrated in the very early part of my life, because after the divorce he left, San Francisco and he never went back, so I didn’t see very much of him at all after he left San Francisco in 1939, just a couple of trips to Mount Carmel and I think one or two to Tucson, but not much. So what I bear around in my memory is stuff that starts at about the age of six and ends at the age of eleven or twelve.
Green: Your Dad had a particular persona--he cut quite the figure. Describe him for me.
Dixon: Well, it all depends on where he was. I mean he had a San Francisco persona. In San Francisco he was a figure, he didn’t wear clothes, he wore a costume. And it was for most of his years there a black, tailor-made suit, because he was built like a pencil, you know, it took some special tailoring. And black cowboy boots, but without any ornamentation at all. They were just simple, black leather. And he had usually a kind of cream-colored shirt, soft color, and a green, Chinese silk tie. And a silver-headed black ebony sword cane, with a sword still in it. And a black Stetson hat, sometimes with a rattlesnake hatband so that when he walked there sometimes was a faint little sinister rattle, but he didn’t wear that all the time. And of course he had his, his silver watch fob with his thunderbird wrought out of that. I don’t know what, not on a chain, was his watch pocket. And to walk down the streets of San Francisco on the side of that figure put you in the spotlight. Everybody kind of stopped and looked because he walked like a deer, very delicately and he was intensely vain about his feet because he wore, later on when he gave up his cowboy boots he got his shoes at women’s shoe stores. He had very small, slender feet. So that’s the figure he cut. And he would wear that costume to the studio. And he would take, when he got to the studio he would take off his hat, and he had kind of an apron that he used, but he was quite formal in that way. And he was very well known in, in San Francisco and he was a very quite subject of Herb Kane. Herb Kane would frequently drop his name into the column. But he didn’t have very many close friends, particularly among artists. He was not a joiner. He didn’t belong to any group of artists or movement, artistic movements. And he was quite disdainful of pretentious jabber about art.
Green: Was he a witty man?
Dixon: Yes, he was witty. He was witty and he was highly literate even though he was, I think he, I don’t think he got past the eighth grade. As a child he was very frail and was kept home from school because he didn’t feel well and that’s when he started to draw to amuse himself. Some of those drawings he did very, at a very young age, are really quite accomplished and from that time on he never made a nickel his whole life that wasn’t directly a result of what he could do with pen and ink.
Green: That’s so rare. Did he always know that he wanted to be an artist?
Dixon: I think, more or less, it was that he couldn’t do anything else. He was a good writer. I’ve got a whole, a whole portfolio downstairs of his unpublished writings.
Nancy: He loved the West. Many people categorize him as a Westerner and some refer to him as a cowboy.
Dixon: Well let’s deal with the fact that people call him a cowboy artist.
Green: You said he wasn’t a cowboy artist. Why do you think people sometimes call him that?
Dixon: That’s part of what he did. He did, he spent a good deal of time looking at and documenting the life and work of cowboys, but a lot more documenting the life and work and worship of the Native Americans and a lot more than that just the character of the landscape.
Green: Why do you think he was so drawn to Native American life and spirituality?
Dixon: Well I think he, first of all, he was drawn to the landscape of the west because that was where he was born, that was where he was raised and the Central Valley of California has its own plains and horizons, you know it’s...He was drawn to that and to the history of it and then in going to visit the land, who did he encounter? It’s all part of the same thing, you know. The people are part of the landscape and the landscape are part of the people. I think for him it was indivisible. And when he first went into the west, the southwest in particular, the tribes were not as compromised to put it that way, as they are now, or have been. And he, he perceived, or thought he perceived a real nobility among those people and did his best to record that. I like to think of my father, in his own way, as a kind of historian because he worked in many different styles …a greater diversity of styles than many people are aware of, but one thing about him, about the work he did is almost unfailingly the same, and that is the faithfulness and the fidelity of the facts. They are correct to every detail. That’s costume, that’s implements, that’s horses, that’s the landscape. They’re really truthful paintings in that work and drawings. I guess one of the most interesting compliments I have ever heard paid to my dead father’s work is some years ago I went down to Palm Springs, for the opening of an exhibition or drawings. And some of them were little sketches and some of them were quite big. They were important drawings, if you can speak of drawings as important or not important. And, as I was walking around mingling with the people I saw over, over on the wall yonder, they got a big grizzled guy, disheveled with a beard and he was looking at a drawing, a fairly good sized drawing and he was talking to himself. And I sidled up next to him to hear what he was saying and he was mumbling, “That’s right. That’s right. This guy’s got it right.” And I waited for an opportune moment and then I asked him what it was that this guy’s got right and he said, “The landscape. The landscape.” He said, “I’m a geologist and I know what’s right and what’s wrong and this guy’s got it nailed. Not many people see the landscape as the way we do.” Didn’t care at all about, about…was it a work of art or wasn’t it? He just had the landscape right then. So he had a lot of things right. He could tell, my mother once told me, he could tell where in the west a cowboy came from by the cut of his boot heel, the boot heel. The Texas, the Texan, the Texas cowboy had a different kind of boot heel than the Nevada cowboy.
Green: He knew his subjects. You’ve written that your father would sing songs to himself, Native American songs. He would do sweat lodge ceremonies. Do you think Native American customs were just something that he incorporated into his life?
Dixon: Not as a regular thing, no. But he learned some of the songs and, and he built sweat lodges, partly as amusements for his children, but also, you know you get out into the desert and you can take a bath by heating up the rocks, going into the lodge, and you know, you’ll sweat out into all the impurities. You don’t need a great big pond or river to do that so that’s one of the things that he did. But there was something about the ceremonies in particular that he found very moving and, and he wrote some things about it. The extracts from letters and so on. You know, for a while he had this feeling of nobility about the Native American.
Green: Maynard Dixon’s family came from the South originally, and you’ve mentioned in your writings that many of his attitudes were that of a Southerner. Was he a southern rebel?
Dixon: Well, you know, his father, my grandfather was a confederate army officer, a cavalry officer. I believe he served under Jim Stewart. And when the civil war was over, our family lost their plantation in Virginia. So they were southern aristocrats and they moved to California along with other southern, southerners who were pretty much in the same fix. And they settled down in Fresno where my grandfather became a landholder and a speculator and was in and out of all kinds of businesses. He and I think a couple of other guys owned a steamboat that they ran up from San Francisco to Sacramento and at one point he owned Union Square, the land in the heart of downtown San Francisco, which is now worth an incalculable amount of money, which somehow slipped through his fingers. And there was a colony of people there, around Fresno, these southerners, disenfranchised southerners, but still loyal to the confederacy and I think that there was a hope among that colony that they could establish a new confederacy in California. And Fresno at that time was a rip roaring frontier town with train robbers and lynchings and, and range wars, but the range wars not over grazing rights, but over water rights. My father, my dad told me once about how his father used to go out with a shotgun at night and sit there all night long by the irrigation ditches to make certain that the water wasn’t being stolen.
Green: It was still the Wild West.
Dixon: Yeah. But they and another family, the Mordecais down there, they put together a ranch of 6,000 acres and my dad - it was called Refuge and he got quite a little bunch of paintings that he did down there in the early 1920s.
Green: You were telling me earlier about what an amazing artist he was, how he could sketch like no one else. What was it like to watch, watch him draw?
Dixon: Well, it was very instructive to me because first of all when I went into the desert, you know, it was, we traveled long distances without, without very much of interest to a young boy between one stop and the next, just desert, but every once in a while we would stop and he’d get out and take a sketch box and he’d go out. And these were drawings in paint. I mean he had a little sketch box with cardboard and he would take his notes and he’d just do these things in color and oil, but there in just a matter of twenty minutes.
And also, another example of it was when he came to visit me in school and later the same thing with John. He would come and pay his respects to the teacher and find out whether we were misbehaving and then always found a way to the blackboard and a piece of chalk and he would draw. He would take requests from the audience. Said, “What do you want? You want the cowboys? You want the Indians? You want…” “Do me! Do me!” the kids would yell and so by god he would do them. He would take, do little portraits of them. And the chalk would travel over the blackboard. And then he would leave. He was usually dressed in his San Francisco brigade, you know, the black suit, the black Stetson hat, the black cowboy boots, the ebonese silver-headed sword cane. Then he would be gone and I would be a hero. Nobody else had a father who could do that. Nobody.
Green: And what was it like just to watch him? You were saying there was no separation between his mind, his eyes, and his hands.
Dixon: Not that I could see. Of course this is all…I didn’t, I didn’t reflect on that at the time. That’s an act of memory, so as I brood about how he was, then I begin to, I begin to understand things that I didn’t understand then. All I knew was that he, I came to understand, even as a child, that he was a really remarkable person and personality, and unlike the other fathers. John said that it was quite a while before he understood that everybody didn’t have a father like that.
Green: Not every father could draw.
Dixon: No, or perform feats of magic, because that’s really what it was. It was sorcery. And I used to, like every kid, I used to make drawings, which my mother kept, god knows why, because they were without merit, without merit and…but quite early I stopped making any drawings. I knew very well I wasn’t in that class at all.
Green: You got that lesson early in life. Of course, with two parents like yours that would be tough.
Dixon: What did I do instead? I learned to master the semi-colon. That’s what I did.
Green: You became a great writer. So what do you think, in watching your dad draw and seeing the desert in a different way, what do you think his role as an artist was?
Green: I know there’s the big question that art historians pose about your parents, about Dorothea Lange and Maynard Dixon, is who influenced whom -- or what was the impact they had on each other’s art?
Dixon: Well, I think there’s been a lot of highbrow hokum and certainly speculation on that subject. My mother, at the time they met, and certainly by the time they married was a fully formed professional photographer and she developed her own methods and some of which she really had no control over because she was crippled and she was, she worked with heavy cumbersome equipment in the studio. She became San Francisco’s foremost portrait photographer among, particularly among the wealthy, the merchant princes and so on. So she had, her portrait studio was the place to go if you wanted to have your portrait taken or portraits of your children. And then she began to attract the same kind of patrons in Seattle and Los Angeles, and she learned the art of patience in that studio. She would wait and wait and wait and sometimes a whole sitting would go by and she was looking inside this black cloth over the top of her head and a muffled voice would come out. She’d talk to her clients and not take a single exposure because they weren’t ready for it yet. She always felt that the subject was as much the photographer as the photographer herself, that they were partners in this, in this. So, and she also practiced the art of patience in the same way once she went to the streets, and I don’t believe that my father had very much influence on her at all and likewise I don’t think that her work had any influence on his to speak of. They did sometimes share the same subject matter, especially after, when the depression hit. He did some work in San Francisco and she did, at the same time she was working in the streets and the subject matter was the same, but I don’t believe there was very much, there was really an exchange of instincts about this. She went one way, he went another and sometimes they found themselves on parallel tracks and sometimes not. And they were both very forceful personalities. I never heard them quarrel ever. Never heard a sharp word exchanged between them ever. But they lived in some ways apart, apart.
Green: And your Dad was gone on trips a lot.
Dixon: Oh yeah, he was gone a lot, but so was she. So was she. They were divorced in 1935. Starting in 1934 she was, she was started to work in the field, in the street, and she was always in the dark room, you know, she might just as well have been 1,000 miles away. She’d go in there early in the morning; she’d come out late at night.
Green: Seems like it would be difficult to have a family and an artistic career.
Dixon: Well, that’s just the way it was. I remember when her hands always smelled faintly of darkroom chemicals. She’d put your hand on her face and I could smell, always. And there was always around my father, the faint, faint smell of turpentine. It was the last thing he used when he, when he cleaned himself up at the end of the day, you know, he’d bathe his hands in turpentine.
Green: Your Mom, Dorothea Lange, most people know who she is. But few people know what she was like. Can you describe her?
Dixon: Well, she was, she was short, not diminutive, but she could fill a room. She was quiet, but when she spoke, everybody else shut up. She was an immensely powerful person, original. Original in the way she dressed, original in her manner of speech, slow, deliberate. She had it in common with the way she photographed, slow and deliberate.
In a lot of her work people looked straight into the camera. That’s because they had a chance to prepare themselves. She wanted to wait until they were ready and when they were ready they’d look straight at her and then she’d get the signal. And she was the same way when she talked and she, you know, she finally had to give up answering the doorbell or the door gong, we had a big gong that people hit. And she’d open up the door and there’d be somebody there with big cameras draped around their neck. They didn’t call and make an appointment or anything, they just found out where she lived. So she’d take them out into the garden and give them a cup of tea and talk to them about photography and two or three days later the phone would ring and some hysterical woman would say, “He just quit his job! We’re going to go to New York! What are we going to do?” She had no intention whatever or producing this effect on people, so I remember the gong would ring she would, she’d say, “Go see who it is. See if they have any cameras.”
Green: Your Mom and your Dad, what do you think they saw in each other? What was the attraction?
Dixon: Well, you know, both of them were intoxicating personalities and you know the story of how they met?
Green: Tell me.
Dixon: Well, my mother had this studio, this portrait studio and it was in a beautiful little building in the heart of downtown San Francisco. It was an architectural gem and her darkroom was down in the basement and the upper portion of it was where she took the photographs and entertained her clients and had a big brass Russian saddle bar and her assistant prepared tea at the end of the day and it became a kind of gathering place where the artists and some writers of San Francisco. And over on along wall was a great big couch which was covered in black velvet which came to be known as the matrimonial bureau, because so many courtships had been conducted there ending in marriages. And my mother one time was working down in her, in her darkroom. This was in about 1920. And she heard a kind of a click, click, click, click, click on the floor above, which were the heel of my father’s cowboy boots. And she asked somebody later on who was wearing those shoes. She didn’t even know they were cowboy boots. And her friend said, “Oh, that was Maynard Dixon. He’s a most interesting fellow, you’ll have to get out of your darkroom and meet him sometime.” Which they, which she did and then began this courtship. It didn’t take them very long to figure out that they were going to get together and like about, it was five months later that they, they actually got married.
Green: They marry in 1920, and in 1923 they travel to the Hopi village of Walpi. Why was that important for them?
Dixon: Well, this turned out to be a real excursion because they just didn’t go with the two of them. They went with Anita Baldwin who was a patron of my father’s. The daughter of the famous speculator and businessman, Lucky Baldwin, he was called. The guy who built Santa Anita Racetrack and he owned an immense amount of land up around Lake Tahoe and Anita Baldwin was a very peculiar woman. She could be seized by enthusiasms and my father was one of her enthusiasms and she loved his work and so she said. She put up the money for this trip to Walpi and they went by way of private railroad car to Flagstaff I think it was, and then they built a spur out toward Walpi from Flagstaff and my mother said it was something like an oriental potenti with silken pavilions and all sorts of supplies that were sent in from England, coming from the same suppliers, provisioners, that served the Indian rajas on hunting expeditions, when they’d go on hunting expeditions, when they’d go and hunt for tigers and things. And all this stuff was shipped out into the desert and camped, they set up these pavilions at the base of the mesa there in Walpi and the Indians would come down every night and perform for them and, and be paid, but then Anita Baldwin found out that white sand, pure white sand, had a very high ceremonial value to them. So what did she do? She had bags and bags and bags and bags of pure white sand shipped in from the beaches of California and therefore based the currency. Because white sand no longer had the same value that it used to have.
Green: What did your Dad think of all this?
Dixon: Well he and Anita Baldwin had a very singular relationship. He liked her and in his own he admired her. She was a unique creature although she roamed around on a different planet really, but he liked her and she really admired him. She got him to do some stuff for her house there in southern California, unlike anything else he ever did. They were, looked like medieval German cartoons, kind of a mural that you would never know that that was the work of Maynard Dixon, but she, that’s what she wanted him to do and so he did it for her.
Green: And Walpi, your dad, it seemed like that was an important time for him. The letters he wrote back…
Dixon: Well there was something about that place that he, he used again and again and again. Over there there’s a little drawing that, of what he called the Grand House at Walpi. And it later became a larger drawing and then it became a painting and finally it wound up over there, same place, because you could see the evolvement, but the work itself was done, that was done on the spot, that little drawing, but this was done in the studio years later. Just, that place penetrated him somehow and stayed with him. I don’t think there’s any other piece of architecture, except the one painting that he did in Taos of a house, of an adobe building which is a beautiful painting, which is a reverent painting. And he had the same feeling about that Grand House at Walpi, a feeling that never left him, I don’t think.
Green: What was that feeling?
Dixon: If you can’t see it for yourself, I guess why should I try to describe it? I think he saw there something that was more than a habitation and more even than a church. It was man and his dwelling and the land all wrapped up in one, one experience. That’s what I think he felt.
My brother owned that painting up there until not too long ago and then sold it. I thought, I never thought he would, but he did.
Green: Your family doesn’t have much of his art anymore, do you?
Dixon: Well no, most of his big studio paintings were not among my favorite work, you know. I liked more of the spontaneous things so I held onto some drawings.
Green: Besides Walpi, Taos, New Mexico was also an important place for your father and his work. What was Taos like?
Dixon: Taos at that time was a rural village with a world famous pueblo and also a world famous church, the Ranchos de Taos, which my mother photographed. My father may have been the only artist who ever visited Taos, not to paint that thing. I think he just flinched away from it, but Mabel Dodge Luhan, the heiress to the great automobile fortune, had a place in Taos and she made a working place available for him, kind of a studio, there, and he became friendly with her husband who was a Taos Indian, named Tony. And we were there for almost a year. And it was then the depression. My mother told me how people lived there on the barter system. There was almost no money, but there were weekly swap meets and they traded foodstuffs for services and I don’t know whether my father swapped any paintings for other things we needed. I don’t think so, but then later on we did. I don’t think he ever paid a doctor or a dentist bill. He always found somebody who would swap drilling and filling for a sketch of something and he built a house in Tucson almost exclusively by the barter system. He found a guy next door who ran a hardware store; a big hardware store and that guy would up with about twenty paintings. His name was Ronstadt, he was Linda Ronstadt’s father.
Green: That’s a great story. In Taos, your dad’s work was different there. Why do you think that was?
Dixon: Well, I think it’s partly because instead of being on the move, as he was so often, he was a kind of pilgrim in his journeying around and through the west, but at Taos he actually put down some roots. We lived in a house, we developed some neighbors, he formed friendships with the Indians there. He did portraits of those friends and they are clearly portraits of friends, not just strangers. They’re not at all symbolic, they’re intimate and personal and that’s because he knew them in a different kind of way and didn’t turn them into symbols as he sometimes did. Even in his drawings things are highly symbolic. Not the work he did in Taos. And I think, personally, overall that it’s, it’s the most eloquent work I think he ever did. And it’s quite considerable. It’s what, 40 paintings, and lots and lots of drawings and so I think only twice, only twice at other times did he ever pause as he did. The stay in Taos was not a pause, it was a real, it was a real prolonged visit, but he went to stay with my mother in Walpi in Arizona, in 1923. They were there for a couple of months. And he went to visit, to Montana, when the Blackfeet up there. I guess he was there for a few weeks anyway. And that work too has a kind of an intimacy about it that some of the other work, much of the other work doesn’t have. I don’t think there’s any other explanation for it. Not that I’ve found.
Green: Do you have any memories of Taos -- of going to Native American ceremonies?
Dixon: Well I remember particularly going to the pueblo on, for their Christmas ceremonies, which are part Indian ceremony, part Christian ceremony.
Green: Describe that. What was that like?
Dixon: Well I remember it started late in the afternoon, or we got there late in the afternoon and then came evening, then came darkness and the ceremony went on and on and it was all done by torch light and dancing and cold, boy it got cold. That winter it got to be 25 degrees below zero up there. And figures dancing, drums, my father looking and looking and looking. I wanted to go home. I was cold and he didn’t want to leave. “We’ll go when this is over,” he said and that’s what we did. We stayed there until it ended. But I was only six. And that’s the only ceremony that I can recall ever having gone to.
Green: Another important place for your father was Zion, Utah.
Green: What was that like, going out with your dad?
Dixon: Well it was fun until I got sleepy. Then we slept up on the canyon, on a ledge up there and it was beginning to get cold and we lit a fire and it attracted the rattlesnakes, the heat attracted the rattlesnakes.
I remember that we had to climb up a trail and, and on a ledge my dad set up his easel up there. And it was bright, bright moonlight, but it got cold, so we lit a fire and apparently the rattlers were attracted by either the warmth or something or other, which was, made my dad nervous, but…so we were there for, I don’t know, six weeks or something like that. And while we were there he did some exploring around the countryside and made some friends down in Toquerville. So when my mother went back he stayed up there, still working and John and I stayed with him until it was time to go to school or something. I’ve forgotten exactly what the sequence of events were. And when it came time, when he was thinking about getting a summer place to live, he liked that part of the country and started to explore for a site where he could build a summer house or buy one and that’s how he wound up in Mount Carmel.
Green: Do you have fond memories of that area?
Dixon: When we moved to Mount Carmel, you know, he was a stranger when he came and most of the people that he came to know up there came as a result of his building of the house because it was done all with local labor and that’s how he got acquainted with the community, such as a community it is, but you know. But he was a, he became a well known figure there as he was, as he was wherever he went. But he didn’t have any black suit or black cowboy boots. He had his desert costume on, which was all brown. And no cowboy boots at all. Just the shoes that he wore, ladies shoe store.
Nancy: By this time he was married to the artist Edith Hamlin. How was she important to Maynard?
Daniel Dixon: If there’s a heroine in this piece it’s certainly is Edith Hamlin Dixon…best friend my father ever had. And of all the people who, after he died, who passionately believed in the permanent value of his work, it was Edith. And she above everybody else, I think, is responsible for his reputation having been maintained, preserved, and enlarged.
Nancy Green: What was she like?
Daniel Dixon: Oh, she was terrific. She was a…for one thing, impeccably honest. She was energetic. She was affectionate and she was noble. And she was also voluble. She talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and talked. And always moving. And she was some kind of gal.
Nancy Green: Do you think she really enabled him to live out his last years?
Daniel Dixon: I mean he was in declining health from the time he married her so she, he was greatly dependent on her for all kinds of routine day-to-day chores, you know. She was his chauffeur. She handled his medications for him and did all kinds of stuff, kept his household running, but also she did something else. She was a very handsome woman, beautiful in her way and 25 years younger than he and she made him feel desirable, which is a nice thing to happen when you’re in your 60s and 70s and she loved him. And he wasn’t always easy to love.
Nancy Green: Why not?
Daniel Dixon: He was…I’m not to say that he was never ugly. I never saw any ugliness in him, but I saw, my mother described it, she’d say she couldn’t ever get in touch with his vitals. He was obstructed and he could be, wicked. I don’t mean immoral. I mean he was sometimes careless in what he said about things and about people. And sometimes he was intentionally slightly malicious, not only with his tongue, but with his drawings-- he did cartoons. He did a whole portfolio of drawings about dude ranches and what he considered to be shameless vulgarity and pretension and they’re very unsettling to see and there’s a body of work because he detected nothing admirable either of the dude ranches or of the people who came to spend their time there.
Green: He hated pretension.
Dixon: He hated pretension. He hated pretension in the art world. He wrote a whole book full of aphorisms about art and the phoniness in the world of art. Did you ever see this thing? It’s called The Book of Wisdom.
Green: I’ve read about it. Getting back to Mt. Carmel, do you think he found it a peaceful place?
Dixon: Oh yeah. Yeah. But, when they were, they split their time between Tucson and Mount Carmel and in Tucson Edie worked in the defense factories. That was a hard time for my father financially. He always managed to make it, but in his time in San Francisco was easier for him and partly because my mother’s portrait studio was very successful financially. She was able to help out. As a matter of fact, take, I think the lead on the financial end of things. But up there at that time, the ‘40s, that was a tough time for my dad, you know. He felt the pinch. And it would not have, neither of them would ever have believed that their work would fetch the prices that they do now. A print of my mother’s, one of my mother’s images, sold at auction for $888,000. One print.
Green: Looking at your dad’s life and looking and looking…I mean he obviously had financial struggles--he had many struggles.
Dixon: Well that one period. That one period, I think, was the most painful for him financially and you add to that the fact that he was really sick and weak, and weakening. So he was having, he had a tough time of it.
Green: It would have been hard. I’m just looking over your dad’s life and thinking about it and wondering, in your eyes, what do you think his times of greatest struggle were? Do you think they were personal, artistic?
Dixon: Well, I know that the break up of the marriage was very painful to him. And there were photographs of him that make that very clear. You could see the pain and the melancholy. But then along came Edie and that was a rescue mission, but you know, in general I think that my father had a pretty good time of it. He did what he wanted to do mostly. He did it well. He was respected. He was highly visible. And he did not live an impoverished live of want. He was married to two quite remarkable women, very different, but each people of real quality. Didn’t have much luck with his son, Daniel. You know anything that I’ve done that might have made him, might have satisfied him I did after he was gone. So I don’t think anybody needs to mourn my, you know, any really black periods of my dad’s life although it was just after the break up of the marriage, or approaching it, that he did these wildly surrealistic paintings, which nobody ever would identify as his work, I think. And I think nobody will ever know the real story of those paintings, but you want to speculate about something, go speculate about those.
Green: What do you speculate about them?
Dixon: Well they clearly, he even signed them with an outlandish false name, but then, you know, they’re not whimsical paintings. They’re serious stuff in there and they, they suggest turmoil and rage and agony, so…
Green: Do you think they were an inner expression very much like his poetry?
Dixon: Oh, well I think, I think they’re much more interesting than most of the verse. I think my father’s, a few of my father’s poems are eloquent and a lot of them I don’t like at all. I think, I think he said, he said what he wanted to say a lot better at the easel than he did with a pen in his hand…at least in poetry.
Green: Yes. With your Dad, I’m thinking most of your memories are childhood memories. Are there particular moments that stand out for you?
Dixon: Well, sitting in those classrooms watching him draw on the blackboard is something I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget the, the two old saddles that he nailed on the front, front yard fence for the neighborhood kids and myself to use, you know, in our, for our imaginary posses and things like that. And then he also had this, put up a real Indian teepee in that same yard. It was our clubhouse. And these are things. And he could do things with his hands. His hands were very sensitive instruments. He’d do Christmas tree ornaments. Make them out of nothing. Take some wood and pinecone, but he’d take his brush and color them. Suddenly, suddenly you’d have something, you’d have something beautiful, you know…out of thin air really. And did that in Taos when we…that Christmas we, my dad and I went up and cut down a juniper tree and brought it back to the house and then he made these, made these ornaments. And when we got back to San Francisco he made a lot of household furniture, didn’t go to the furniture store. He made chairs and tables and things like that and he used to read to me. He read, he was a southerner and he read, he read the story of Uncle Remus and did it in dialect and he must have heard somewhere, in his memory, he must of heard his memory speaking because he could become the voice of Uncle Remus. And he read stories from his own book, Injun Babies. He’d read those a lot. He gave me books always on my birthday and Christmastime. And they were always beautifully illustrated. He gave them to me as much for the illustrations as he did for the text so I had the all the books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pile and the other great American illustrators. And I’m giving them one by one to my grandson. They always have pretty much the same inscription. “To my old friend, Dan. From Dad.” That’s what that was.
Green: What was it like in your household; was there a typical day, having Dorothea Lange and Maynard Dixon as you parents?
Dixon: Well you know…actually I only, I remember of course, Taos, and I have memories of what, how it was to live with them, in San Francisco before we went to Taos and then came an interval when John and I were, were apart here and there, while they were getting resettled in San Francisco. They were then living, my dad was living in his studio and my mother was living in hers. They were only half a block apart, so it was like, it was like the same place except that they, I can’t tell whether they slept together or whether they didn’t, but then finally we had, we had our own place on Golf Street and something peculiar happened there because my mother then moved her studio in, from downtown into that house. It was an old Victorian house and it had a backyard, which we, John and I and the neighborhood kids turned into a moonscape. It was lunar. Nobody, neither my mother or my father paid any attention to that in my yard at all and that was quite uncharacteristic. It was a signal, I think, that something was going wrong, but there was no attempt to make it into a garden or to control going on in…it was a real mess. Inside the house it was pretty much the way it always was. My mother was very fastidious. When I say fastidious I don’t mean neurotic about being tidy, but she really had a unique kind of touch. So, looking back on it, the fact that that kind of neglect and inattention was aloud can only have meant that it was building up to some, some crisis. And I was told about it on a Sunday morning. I’ll never forget this and church bells were ringing outside and there were my mother and Father lying naked in bed. And I was told that they were going to get a divorce and on a Sunday morning and I went outside. This was a neighborhood where there were a lot of Catholics and Catholic kids. And I told some of those kids on that Sunday morning that my mother and father were going to get a divorce, knowing that it was going to produce a sense of shock. In their families people didn’t get divorced and there was a way that I think I had a chance to, I found some way to manage my grief about this thing.
Green: Your father, at the end of his life, you were saying he was having a really hard time. He was having a really hard time physically? What was life like for him?
Dixon: Well, he lived a very limited life. There wasn’t much social, social life at all, but then I don’t recall at any point when there was much of a social life. I don’t recall that…he was always gasping for breath. He had this oxygen tank which he frequently had to, you know, get the breath of life from it. He used to cough a lot, but he did not complain. He was not a whiner, but he spent a lot of time writing. I remember that, one of those last summers he spent a lot of time doing magazine covers, potential magazine covers for the Saturday Evening Post, on spec…something he never did before.
Green: He would have visitors too?
Green: Were they good friends, your father and Ansel Adams?
Dixon: Yeah, but you know, my father was in the desert and Ansel was in the mountains. They were good friends, but they didn’t see much of each other.
Green: What do you think drew them together?
Dixon: Well, I think, each of them was a worshipper of the landscape in his own way, you know. That’s the one thing. And my father fit Ansel’s notion of what an artist should be, you know, he was theatrical, he was principled, and he was faithful to himself. And they were very different kind of personalities, but they did share some of those same characteristics in common. Also they entertained each other. When they got together it was a, it was a celebration of outrageous hilarity. So there was a lot of whooping and hollering and laughing, not much drinking. My dad was not a drinker and neither was Ansel, but they really did enjoy each other. And Ansel was not, in my opinion, a very successful photographer of human beings, but he took some good photographs of my father, especially there near the end.
Green: At the end of your Dad’s life, would he have other visitors?
Dixon: Other people would come. There’d be a day or couple of days of reunion of some sort, but then long, long periods of time when there was, there was just the two of them and an occasional little painting trip. By painting trip I mean a day’s excursion. And then Maynard began to work from his home, look out down at Tucson. They had a window facing out the mountain ranges, the mountain range to the South. He would paint through that window. He wouldn’t paint the glass, but he painted that mountain range in all of its moods because that way he could, didn’t have to drag himself around and he did the same thing in Mount Carmel, he painted the white and pink bluffs right across the valley. And then I was inducted into the army where I, I was in the army for a year and a day and nine months of that I was in the stockade. They couldn’t keep me on the reservation. And while I was in the stockade in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I got a message one day that the Red Cross had arranged with my step-mother, had arranged for me to be reprieved and I was to go to, I was to go to Tucson to see my father. And I went there and I spent about a week and then I went back to Fort Bragg and the stockade and within weeks, a week or two, he was gone
Green: You did get to say goodbye to your dad though.
Dixon: Well, I thought, I thought that it was just a kind of precaution, you know, that he might at any moment slip away. And he said to me, he said to me, “Goodbye son. Do good.” Those were his last words to me.
Green: Is there anything that you feel is critical to know about your dad?
Dixon: Oh, I don’t, I don’t think so. I think my dad is able to speak for himself and I think he does. I think, I think that the fact that his work continues to be important to people and increasingly important is evidence of that. So, I don’t think any message from me is going to make any difference about his importance. But I’d like to think that, how long has he been dead now? 60 years. I’d like to think that in another 60 years people will still be gathering in living rooms and cameras will be running and they’ll still be thinking and talking about it, looking at his work trying to figure out what kind of a guy he really was. That’d be a comfort to me to know that that was going to happen. I’m sorry about one thing thought. My father and I never really became friends. We didn’t have time enough together, especially, we never had a chance to become friends as adults. And that did happen with my mother. I mean over the course of years, little by little, I became, first I became a colleague. We worked together before we really became friends. And little by little, little by little, towards the end of her life I was, we were on entirely, occupied entirely different territory than we had before. And she’s a person that I feel very much more comfortable talking about than I do about my father for that reason. I think I understand her probably, if I can say this without sounding arrogant, I think I understand her as well as or maybe better than anybody else because I’ve done more thinking about her. I’ve been thinking of her for…not a day passes that I don’t think about her. Not true about my father. I mean I have plenty of reminders here of him, but my mother I really sometimes, every day I sit down and I find a reason to think about her and ask questions about her.
Green: Do you feel you understood your father?
Green: Do you think anyone really got to know him?
Dixon: Well I think Edith did. I think my mother did, but my mother too felt like could not get to the vitals of that and she was a woman who, who was, who was much more successful than most people at getting in the vitals. They were accessible to her when they’re not accessible to other people. There was something about him, some little portion of him that he always kept in reserve.
Green: Thanks, Daniel.
Maynard Dixon: To the Desert Again is a production of KUED in Salt Lake City, Utah.