Leona “Lee” (Thomas) Griner was a child of the High Desert. Her parents moved from Pasadena to Lucerne Valley in 1938 to find relief for her mother’s asthma. Between helping her mother with chores on their 80 acre farm and exploring the new homestead filled with livestock, vegetable gardens and rocks with her brothers, Leona grew to be an artistic, nimble and inquisitive young girl.
She became an artist who worked with native plants, rocks and wood, and “found” objects. Lee learned how to work with glass from her father, and she would study metallurgy in high school. Her works in glass and ceramics would gain the attention and admiration of collectors throughout the Victor Valley and Southern California.
In 1942, Leona’s parents moved her and her brothers to the Bell Mountain community which was steadily growing as a safe place for African Americans moving to the High Desert area. Here Leona was surrounded not only by the native materials that would inspire her artistic endeavors (she’s said to have often carved her name on the rocks), but also by closely knit families who encouraged her and each other to thrive in their individual pursuits. The community was composed of homeowners. They were self-supporting as farmers, artisans, and miners. Her mother, now relieved of the worst of her asthma symptoms, operated a store while managing her home. Leona’s father worked at the Army Air Base near Bell Mountain. Leona and her artistic talents thrived.
Another benefit of living at Bell Mountain was its proximity to Murray’s Overall Wearing Dude Ranch, at the time, the only dude ranch open to African Americans in the High Desert and in California. Racial segregation drove dozens Black celebrities to the Murray Ranch for rest and recreation. Several Black cowboy western movies were filmed at the ranch.
Leona, a horseback rider along with her older brother, was delighted to demonstrate her trick riding skills to the guests of the Murray Ranch. So impressed was Mrs. Lela Murray with Leona’s poise and maturity—and her excellent penmanship—that she hired Lee to be her secretary.
Leona continued to thrive in the Bell Mountain area and graduated from Victor Valley Union High School where she had studied metallurgy. She attended college in Pasadena for one year before returning to Bell Mountain to marry Charles Bazile, a son of a Bell Mountain family. Together they had four children.
Lee, who died in September 2012, was a first year DVL Honoree whose legacy is of art and love for the people and land of the High Desert.