Simi Dabah – 50 Years in the Desert
By Katie Nartonis and William Savage
Driving along HWY 62, one can’t help but notice the massive iron sculptures which blend seamlessly with the desert landscape. For 50 years, locals and tourists alike have passed by Simi Dabah’s property near the corner of Sunfair and 4th, gazed at the hulking steel forms and wondered, “What is that place?” The answer is the Simi Dabah Sculpture Garden & Foundation.
The artist is known for his large-scale metal sculptures, which can be seen all over Morongo and Coachella Valley. In his career, Simi has completed nearly 2,000 documented sculptures. Simi Dabah is a quiet man, but his good deeds in the Hi-Desert speak volumes. He has quietly given most of his sculptures away or donated for display and those he has sold he has asked for the check to be made out to a local Hi-Desert charity instead of payment. “I never sold my sculptures for money,” Simi says. From then on, Simi enjoyed giving the pieces away. He notes, “It was just a lot of fun, not only building the sculptures, but what they were able to do for other people.” Simi’s wife Julie recalls the first donation they made, “Some folks from the Veterans Park in 29 Palms came by. They said they would like a sculpture and Simi told them to take whatever they wanted. Later, they invited us to the dedication, and we went. They picked out this little sculpture and mounted it on a rock. I believe that was the first donation of consequence.”
Simi Dabah has been involved in art since childhood. He recalls taking classes at the (Frank Lloyd Wright designed) Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles and experimenting with ceramics and painting. Eventually, he arrived at his favorite medium: welding metal to make sculpture. Simi recalls, “I had a friend who had an oxygen/acetylene welding setup. I saw what he was doing, and I asked him to show me and he did. There was an old toolbox there. I cut it up, put it back together and I gave it to my friend. That toolbox was my first sculpture. He gave it away to someone who had a house in Beverly Hills. That was the very first piece, one of many.”
“I initially thought I was going use the living room as my welding workshop. It’s an old Craftsman style house, with all this wood, so probably not a good idea,” – Simi laughed. Bitten by the metal bug, Simi had his whole backyard cemented in so he could build his sculptures, and “it really allowed me to do my work. Back then I had an old Cadillac. I turned that Cadillac into a tow truck! I added a tow hitch, and I bought a 20-foot trailer and used it to haul all the scrap. Then I bought a forklift. At first, all the neighbors out there thought I was doing some sort of voodoo because the stuff was so strange,” laughed Simi.
In the early 1970s Dabah acquired an eight-acre parcel in Joshua Tree after having been involved in some real estate transactions in the desert. He was initially attracted to the area by the magic of the land, and the warmness of the people of the Morongo Valley. The artist was even able to visit with the famed sculptor Noah Purifoy a few times. He really enjoyed Purifoy as a man, in addition to his work.
He recalls, “We used to go to all the second-hand stores. And the swap meet – we went to the swap meet a lot! We made a lot of friends, and we had a whole group of people that we spent time with. We used to go dancing at a hotel in Yucca Valley! We used to go to Pappy and Harriet’s up in Pioneertown for dinner and dancing, too. If it weren’t for my age, we’d still be going! It was a wonderful life in Joshua Tree. It still would be if I wasn’t such an old fart,” Simi joked.
In describing his process, he notes, “The scrap itself held the vision. I could just look at a piece of scrap and I knew that I could make something with it. Coming up with the designs was a piece of cake. It just spilled out of me when I looked at the steel. I finally learned how to use an arc welder, too. It was much better for me than the oxy/acetylene set-up.” After installing many sculptures on his JT land, he felt that he had to do something with them, so he set up the Simi Dabah Sculpture foundation. Simi notes, “They’ve been doing a fabulous job.”
Retail sales of his remaining work continues to benefit his favorite Hi-Desert charities through the Simi Dabah Sculpture Foundation. To date, the SDSF has donated more than $1,000,000 to the people and animals of the Morongo Basin.
The Simi Dabah Sculpture Garden and Foundation is located at 5255 Sunfair Rd in Joshua Tree, CA. Open during HWY62 Open Studios, Saturdays and buy appointment. (760) 501-1718