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Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings from the Gardena High School Los Angeles Unified School District Collection

January 19 - April 23, 1999

A virtual treasure trove of "plein air" paintings by California Impressionist artists were unveiled on Jan. 19, 1999, in a major cultural event at the University Art Gallery, California State University, Dominguez Hills. The "Painted Light" exhibition, and its associated educational component, are presented courtesy of a $300,000 grant to the university from the W.M. Keck Foundation. The exhibit will continue through April 23,1999.

Dating from the 1920s, the prestigious collection of 31 California landscapes had rested in storage for three decades. Its re-introduction to the public is an opportunity to view works "representative of one of the most remarkable and distinctive schools of regional American art," according to guest curator Jean Stern, executive director, The Irvine Museum.

Artists described by Stern as "the cream of the California style" are represented in the exhibit. Drawing on the French "plein air" ("open air") methods, the artists stood apart in their "use of color to portray the intense light of the Southern California landscape," said Stern.

Right: William Wendt, Along the Arroyo Seco, 1912, oil on canvas, 40 x 58 inches, courtesy of the LAUSD Collection

The collection was born in 1919 at Gardena High School, when then-Principal John Whitely proposed that each graduating class purchase a painting for the school. By the 1950s, the school had amassed more than 90 works. In the process, students visited art galleries and studios of important artists of the era, sometimes purchasing the very canvas an artist was creating during their visit. The Class of 1956 was the last to contribute a painting to the school.

Major partners in the effort to restore and exhibit the "Painted Light" works are CSU Dominguez Hills, the Torrance Unified School District, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the City of Carson Fine Arts and Historical Commission and The Irvine Museum, where the works will be shown from May 8 through Sept. 25, 1999.

School children who come to see the artworks will be well-prepared for the visit: the Keck Foundation grant has provided special training on the sources and influences of the California Impressionists to nearly 200 teachers from the Torrance and Los Angeles districts. Aided by a "Painted Light" curriculum resource guide, teachers have been able to help their students understand the collection's historical context and the finer points of art criticism. After visiting the gallery, students will be guided into the spirit of the period, creating art projects that relate to the vision of the Impressionists.

Left: Maynard Dixon, Men of the Red Earth, oil on canvas, 36 x 41 inches, gift of Class of Summer, 1944, courtesy of the LAUSD Collection

"We want them to feel an affinity for the paintings that are part of their California heritage," said Kathy Zimmerer, director, University Art Gallery. When the students are brought to view the actual works, "they'll see why the artists preferred the state's magnificent landscapes and rural settings over the urban subject matter of French Impressionists. They'll see how the Californians painted solid forms rather than the dissolving forms of Monet and Manet."

Three public lectures by Stern and two other experts, Susan Anderson and Janet Blake, authorities on "plein air" painters, will highlight related exhibit activities occurring throughout the spring. The lectures, scheduled for Feb. 25, March 11 and April 15, will focus on California Impressionism and American Scene painting and will be held in the University Art Gallery at CSU Dominguez Hills.

An active force in the "comeback" of the paintings, the Gardena High School Alumni Association for years has kept alive the dream of seeing the valuable paintings again on public display. Alumna Mary Warshaw recalls vividly the canvases of Dean Cornwell (1892-1960), Maynard Dixon, (1875-1946) and many others on the walls of the school library and auditorium, "a whole series of California coastlines, wildflowers, mountains, gray dawns and eucalyptus trees..." Many of the artists represented in the exhibit were part of a group, schooled in Impressionist methods and principles, which migrated to Southern California in the first 10 years of the twentieth century. Their style dominated the state's art world into the Depression years and beyond, until World War II and the Modernists brought the "plein air" era to a close.

Right: Franz A., Bischoff, A Cool Fog Drifting, 1924, oil on canvas, gift of Class of Winter, 1925, courtesy of the LAUSD Collection

On exhibit are works by Franz A. Bischoff, Jessie Arms Botke (1883-1971), Maurice Braun (1877-1941), Benjamin Chambers Brown, Alson Skinner Clark, Leland S. Curtis, Maynard Dixon, Victor Clyde Forsythe, John (Jack) Frost, Joe Duncan Gleason, Armin Carl Hansen, Sam Hyde Harris, Clarence Kaiser Hinkle, Frank Tenney Johnson, Emil Jean Kosa, Jr., Jean Mannheim, Peter Nielsen, Edgar Alwin Payne, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, John Hubbard Rich, Carl Clemens Moritz Rungius, Walter Elmer Schofield, Clyde Eugene Scott, Jack Wilkinson Smith, James Guifford Swinnerton, Marion Kavanagh Wachtel, William Wendt (1865-1946) and Orrin Augustine White. The return of their paintings to the public eye, said curator Stern, "is a minor miracle."


Descendants of Artists Recall and Reflect

"My father, " says Evelyn Payne Hatcher of Minneapolis, Minnesota, "had a great spiritual feeling for the outdoors." Hatcher's father was "plein air" artist Edgar Alwin Payne, and the "spiritual feeling" she describes is conveyed through breathtaking California landscapes, such as "Sierra Trail," chosen for the title page of the Painted Light: California Impressionist Paintings catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. In that canvas, a lone packer on horseback leads a team of mules across a glowing desert terrain, a towering range of blue mountains in shadow behind him.

A young Evelyn was along on the trip during which her father painted "Sierra Trail." She recalls the arduous expedition: "It took a good amount of time to get across the Mojave Desert. We followed two ruts in the sand, the only path we had. It took three days just to get to the Owens Valley. I remember on occasion having to put sagebrush under the tires of our automobile so (we) wouldn't get stuck in the sand." To continue their journey into the mountains, they had to load their packs on horseback.

According to Hatcher, Payne was the first of the artists "to go to the Sierras," a source of continual inspiration for the prolific painter "He and his work were well known among the packers during those times," she says.

An only child, Hatcher accompanied Payne and her artist mother Elsie Palmer on painting sojourns around the world. They would travel half the year, sketching in Chicago, Los Angeles, Westport, Conn., Rome, Paris and New York, as well as in and around their home in Laguna Beach. "I attended 12 schools before I even got to high school," she recollects.

Payne, says his daughter, was a proud man, largely self-taught. His early experiments with color led him to the cheapest, most readily available media. "He got 'whupped,'" says Hatcher, "for stealing his mother's bluing to use as paint."

But despite a mere six months of formal schooling under his belt, Payne's works have garnered prestigious awards, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the National Academy of Design. Much of his knowledge about outdoor painting and its dramatic portrayal of color and light, Hatcher explains, came from his work as a scene painter for early Hollywood productions. "That's where he built up that terrific facility of his."

Her father did not paint marine canvases after the 1920s, Hatcher says, so the "Painted Light" exhibit includes a "quite rare" Edgar Payne marine work titled "Rockbound." In fact, she continues, very few "plein air' artists painted marine works at all, and of those, "very few people painted the tidepools, this kind of surf, with the water running off the rocks."

Left: Edgar Alwin Payne, Rockbound, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, courtesy of the LAUSD Collection

"Rockbound," created in Laguna Beach, is an arresting tidepool panting in which crashing waves and swirling pools of water are in contrast with still, sunlit rocks. "I think," says Hatcher, "my father was a world-class marine painter."

Often asked as a girl if she would become an artist like her parents, Hatcher preferred her own creative path: she became an anthropology of art professor. Now 85, she maintains a busy lecture schedule and writes about art from her home in Minneapolis, Minn. Her book, Art as Culture," is in its second edition.

"I believe," says Hatcher of the "Painted Light" exhibit, "the new interest in the environment is one of the reasons why representational art has made such a comeback. We are beginning to appreciate things just when we've begun to destroy them."

Sara Blatterman of Corona del Mar, stepdaughter of artist Hanson Duvall Puthuff, believes the educational component of the "painted Light" Exhibit is "wonderful." It is encouraging, she says, to hear that art instruction is once again being given much-deserved support in the public schools.

"1 expect that the students at Gardena High School had very good art instructors," she says of the graduating classes' careful research and purchase of California Impressionist paintings. As a young girl, she visited the high school to see the heralded collection. The paintings she saw were hung in a "huge auditorium" with "velvet curtains." It delights her that some 8,000 schoolchildren soon will replicate her experience, seeing the "plein air" paintings up close in the CSU Dominguez Hills gallery.

Blatterman occasionally saw her stepfather at work, recalling one afternoon curled up on his studio sofa, watching as he painted and cut canvasses to fit frames. Although she did not accompany him on many of his outdoor painting expeditions, she recalls that he loved to paint the area near his home in La Crescenta.

"Morning at Montrose," a sun-washed landscape, probably depicts the view "looking down towards Tujunga Wash" in the Glendale area. Puthuff's paintings, she reflects, give us "a lost view of another time," when the mountains still were relatively untouched.

A frequent visitor in their home was fellow "plein air' artist Sam Hyde Harris, whose "Desert Design" canvas is included in the CSU Dominguez Hills exhibit. She recalls the hilarious, mostly raucous stores he would tell at their dinner table, none of which ever were finished. Harris would come to the punch line, remember there was a young girl present and cut the story cold. Despite the frustration that would cause, she says, Hyde was "an utter delight." Like Hatcher, Blatterman's artistic heritage influenced her life. A former employee of the Newport Mesa School District, she spent years putting together art programs for the students. She currently is a board member of the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum. Puthuff did not paint many marines, she says, but many Californians are familiar with one that often appears in association with the Monterey area: a landscape with coastal cypresses. "He was," Blatterman says, "a very versatile painter."

The "Painted Light" catalogue, illustrated with more than 30 color plates, is available with an introductory essay by Jean Stern, guest curator, and director of The Irvine Museum.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the California State University, Dominguez Hills Art Gallery in Resource Library.

Editor's note: see this related video:

Visiting...With Huell Howser #726 - GARDENA ART is a 28 minute video by Huell Howser Productions. "Beginning in 1919, the graduating classes of Gardena High School bestowed gifts of paintings upon their beloved school. This program lasted until 1956, and amassed more than 90 works. Soon after the program ended, many of the paintings were stored away and forgotten about. Along with several Gardena High School Alumni, Huell visits the Irvine Museum to see an exhibit of 31 fully-restored paintings from this important collection." Text courtesy of Huell Howser Productions.

Additional editors note dated 3/24/10: From January 31 through April 4, 2010 the Amarillo Museum of Art is exhibiting An Uncommon Dream: The Amarillo High School Collection of 19th & 20th Century American Works. In an article titled The Amarillo High School Art Collection in the March-April, 2010 issue of American Art Review, Amarillo Museum of Art executive director Grazziella Marchicelli describes a high school collection in Amarillo, TX. The collection was started in 1945 under the direction of the high school's principal, R. B. Norman. In her article Dr. Marchicelli also mentions the Gardena High School collection as well as other high school collections. She notes that "The Hughes High School in Cincinnati began its collection in 1895 with the works of Cincinnati artists and the Salt lake City School District has a distinctive collection of Utah artists." In a 11/12/09 article article in the Amarillo.golocal247.com Web site, the Amarillo Museum of Art exhibit is critiqued by a reader.

For biographical information on artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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rev. 5/9/07, 3/24/10

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