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Desert Sun: Late College of the Desert student 'Kali' awarded Palm Springs Art Museum solo show

Most locals have never heard of the late Joan Archibald, a former Long Island housewife who ran away from her old life to become an artist in Southern California. She was also unknown to the Palm Springs Art Museum until recently, according to CEO and Executive Director Adam Lerner.

The details of the enigmatic and newfangled photographer — who died in 2019 — include the '60s psychedelic art movement, the beaches of Malibu, the former Palm Springs home of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, encounters with prominent names such as Frank Sinatra and supposed late-night encounters with UFOs.

She even changed her name to “Kali” after a Hindu goddess.

The experimental photography techniques of "Kali" were uncommon and extraordinary, even during the '60s. According to Lerner, she used film and Polaroid cameras to develop a process of transforming black and white prints into colorful imagines by throwing them in her swimming pool, using paint or editing the negatives in the darkroom.

But it wasn't until 2017 when she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and memory loss that her daughter, Susan Archibald, discovered the abundance of her work, which is presented in a traveling exhibition currently on display in the Coachella Valley.

"Kali, Artographer, 1932-2019" opened Sunday and will on display through April 8 at the Palm Springs Art Museum.

During a preview of the exhibition for the museum’s docents, Lerner explained that Joan was an “incredibly experimental photographer and largely self-taught,’ aside from some classes at College of the Desert to enhance her natural practice.  

Even though the exhibition includes Joan's cameras, notes and other documents written by the artist explaining her creative process, Lerner told the docents the museum doesn’t have anything other than what’s on display, and all information was provided by Susan Archibald and co-curators Len Prince and Nannette Maciejeunes.

“Unlike many other photographers or artists who have public careers and are continually interviewed, we don’t know a lot about her practice,” Lerner said.

She left Long Island for Southern California in 1962

The exact details of Joan's life are uncertain, but according to an introduction of the 2022 book “Kali: Artographer" written by by filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer, Archibald left Long Island in 1962, which meant leaving behind her marriage and family, and settled in Malibu. She then befriended Hollywood stars such as Steve McQueen and Richard Chamberlain.

At the entry of the exhibition near a self-portrait of Joan during the '60s, Lerner described her as "a socialite and very attractive," photographing a world that surrounded her. Part of her technique was to take a black-and-white portrait, crop it to the extreme and manipulate it using dyes in the darkroom and the photos would be enlarged.

According to Len Prince, a prominent photographer and Joan's former son-in-law, the children were raised by her mother — who was known as “Grandma Betty.” When Betty discovered the lifestyle she was living in a small apartment, she bought her daughter the former Palm Springs home of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee.

“Palm Springs wasn’t even built yet, and there weren’t many places to go,” he said. “She would travel around photographing landscapes and beach people at the time. Many of her models were hippies that she met on the beach and developed relationships with, her main muse being (her daughter) Susan. All of Susan’s friend’s were Kali’s models.”

When asked for the details of Joan's previous life in Long Island as a housewife, Prince said she married young after meeting her husband in an acting class in New York.

“Her husband was in the music business and wasn’t home often, and she decided she was going to follow her dream,” he said. “The kids went to California for the holidays and Susan was groomed as a young child to help Joan archive her work."

Her mother acted as an agent

Prince said Betty acted as a "secret agent” and would dress up, go to New York with the artwork and get her listed with an agency. Joan was featured in a November 1970 issue of Camera 35. The article, “Eyes by Kali,” described her as “A young woman who lives in Palm Springs, California, and creates painterly pictures for a living.” During the ‘70s, she did a solo exhibition of her work at the Pacific Grove Art Center near Monterey.

"Occasionally, she would sell a picture and it would get used for a book cover. She might have sold a couple of pictures at the show she had at the art center," Prince said. "When she would sell a syndicated picture, it would be a family celebration. Kali would always take Susan to Las Casuelas."

Prince said the iconic photographer Ansel Adams reportedly attended her Pacific Grove show and complimented her work, but there's no simplification as to why Joan didn't become a more prominent name and is mostly unknown in the art and photography world. Much of her life is a question mark to her own children and those who knew her.

"Susan knew her mom was a photographer, as a kid she saw bits and pieces, but those pictures would dry, Kali would sweep them away and put them in a box and no one ever saw them. When Susan and I were married, Kali swore her to secrecy to never tell anybody what she did. For the 15 years we were married, I never had any idea," Prince said.

This secrecy extended to the celebrities she knew, he added. Joan wouldn't let Susan ask Sinatra for an autograph and made it clear "famous people need to be left alone." This was also her personal policy in creating art, even when it came to her own family members.

"She had a great quote she gave to the kids and family, 'Artists have to be left alone to create.' When Susan would ask, 'Can I stay here all the time?' Kali knew she was getting a better education back east at a sleepaway school. There was a need to make all these pictures and there's thousands of them, she had to be in her own life," Prince said.

'Tahoe Blue'

While walking through the exhibition, many of the vibrant and psychedelic portraits and abstract art images are alluring, but one of the memorable highlights was 'Tahoe Blue." The landscape portrait was taken in the Lake Tahoe area and features her process of using ink to engineer an effect of a subject, but the appearance is dreamlike and eerie, as if there's something dark in the trees that Joan wanted the viewer to see or feel a presence from.

"Every work would be unique because she didn't reproduce the final work, only the negatives, so therefore she didn't make another version of 'Tahoe Blue'

There are about 20 vintage prints in the exhibition, but most are scans of the estate's original prints and reproduced.

"Kali wanted the images enlarged as large as they could be, so therefore (the estate) feels like it's keeping with the spirit of her work to be able to enlarge the scale, but you really get to see the intense saturation of color that interested her in so many of her works. You feel how this is on a borderline of painting and photography," Lerner said.

An obsession with UFOs

For most of her life, Joan believed in UFOs, and Prince said Susan often expressed this through a story about a car trip through the desert. One night during the late '60s, Joan woke the kids from a dead sleep and told to look at the UFOs she saw in the sky, adding "They were scared to death."

During the '70s, Joan married a lawyer in Los Angeles and divided her time between Palm Springs and the Pacific Palisades. After her husband died during the early 2000s, she was living in seclusion and set up security cameras in the backyard of the Pacific Palisades home connected to a laptop. This began a period of what she described as regular visits by UFOs caught on the security cameras.

"Imagine this, it's the middle of the night, she no longer goes out, Susan comes down from San Francisco to buy her groceries, and Kali is combing security footage and photographing the screens with her Nikon or SX Polaroid cameras, or sketching what she photographed and describing what she saw," Prince said.

A small room of these images are at the rear of the exhibition, and the sources of the lights in the photos are difficult to make out. There's also a photograph of Joan on the patio that Prince said is titled "Kali being taken."

"She claimed she was taken up in the spaceship and doesn't remember anything past that, but the proof is in the picture. It's really crazy... it's great," he said. "On top of all that, she was constantly calling the FBI and Andrews Air Force Base wanting them to come, but they never responded."

Lerner explained that including the images and documentation was a "little bit of a stretch," but he felt it was important to reflect her interests that went beyond the physical world and into the metaphysical realm, adding she was open to ideas of things entering our visible world from an unknown place. This idea is reflected in a poem she wrote that's included on one of the walls.

'No accidents here'

When Susan discovered her mother's work in 2017, she reached out to Prince. It was the first time the two spoke in over 30 years. She said her mother was sick, she was taking care of her, found all the artwork and asked if he would take a look at it. Soon after, boxes began appearing on his doorstep in New York and he was amazed by what he saw.

"I was like, 'Holy s**t, this is great, Susan. Is there any more?' and she said 'Is there more? I'm going to send you more!' For months, these boxes kept showing up."

Another item that showed up was a small flight bag that he opened and immediately zipped back up because of the strong scent of what he described as "rotten vitamins" that came out of it. A year later, he decided to open it and found 83 rolls of unprocessed film that he sent to his printer, Griffin Editions, who immediately called him to tell him "There's crazy stuff in this!" after developing them. Those photos were the UFO period in the Pacific Palisades.

Joan passed away in 2019. The Staley-Wise Gallery in New York featured an exhibition of her work in 2021 and the Columbus Museum of Art followed in 2022. For this touring exhibition, Prince hopes those who view it will realize it's quality artwork and photography with sociological value.

"She captured the hippie generation, that was the time she produced all these photographs and there are no accidents here. Nothing was spontaneous. She was a master artist, so I hope they can walk away and go, 'Wow, I've never seen anything like this," Prince said.

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