Monthly Archives: September 2010

Image of the Week: Panorama of Pomona Valley, in the new home of AMOCA

AMOCA future location
Millard Sheets mural "Panorama of Pomona Valley," 77 feet long and 7 feet tall, in a former Pomona First Federal becoming the new home of AMOCA. Photograph courtesy of Christy Johnson

I am proud to be part of a big announcement in Pomona arts! Here are excerpts from the letter from Christy Johnson, director of the American Museum of Ceramic Art:

I have great news! Mr. David Armstrong, AMOCA’s Founder, and his wife Julie are buying a nearby building in Pomona that David plans to make into a new home for our museum. The building is the former home of Pomona First Federal Bank at 399 N. Garey Avenue. The building itself is historic, exuding a mid-century modern décor, and the pièce de résistance is a Millard Sheets mural in the main room, “Panorama of Pomona Valley,” 77 ft. long & 7 ft. high, portraying a 100-year span just prior to the founding of the city. When the structure has been renovated to meet AMOCA’s needs, the Armstrongs will make the space available to the museum just as they have at our current location, for the last six years.

As a way of introducing this project, AMOCA is holding an open house at the new building on Sunday, October 17, from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. This is your opportunity to get a sneak peak at the spacious building, before the renovation begins. Wine and refreshments will be served.


AMOCA educates by presenting, collecting, and preserving significant ceramic achievements, past and present. To meet its objective, AMOCA has amassed a 1000-object permanent collection. The museum’s educational program stresses the unparalleled, cross-discipline value of ceramics: it is an art; a science; and a key to interpreting history.

And now, AMOCA will be able to expand their display space, develop ceramics studios, and more, in the expansive, prominent new space on Garey Avenue.

As Christy mentions, the museum’s move will benefit fans of Millard Sheets Studio art because this massive mural will be accessible to the public once again. Pomona First Federal was one of Sheets’s first bank clients; if my sense of the situation is correct, his artwork for the local chain predated his work with Home Savings. But Pomona First Federal was closed by the FDIC in 2008, as a “failed” savings and loan; hence when I drove by the Garey location in August with Brian Worley, we could only see the outside of the locked and empty buidling.

The location is a prominent one in Pomona, between the downtown mall and the freeway (and train) access points; it will helpfully expand the revitalization of Pomona’s downtown area around its vibrant arts history — and present, and future.

I have not been able to see this canvas mural in person, so I will comment on the image you see above, and some crosscurrents with other Sheets artwork. As Christy states, the mural depicts the hundred years of change before the opening of the bank (my records suggest 1957 for this location). The two centuries from the arrival of Junipero Serra and the mission system, through Mexican independence, the U.S. acquisition of California, the gold rush, and further town-building and modernizing is a favorite Sheets Studio time period.

As I will discuss in coming weeks, there are figures seen as representative and beloved that appear again and again — vaqueros, American Indians, Victorian ladies — but this mural (at least the section above) seems very engaged with the native peoples of the region, their customs and rituals, and how the establishment of the mission (at the center-right of the image above) brings change, for better or worse, to the native patterns of the region.

Sheets grew up in Pomona and loved horses — and his love for the region, and its specifics within the general history of California, come through here. Sheets also collected “pre-Columbian” Native American art, something I am learning more about. But clearly the influence of such ceramics and other artwork is on display in the colors and choices Sheets makes in depicting indigenous people — always with dignity and distinction, in the artwork I have seen, equal partners in the encounter of civilizations that marked the “discovery” of the Americas by Europeans.

I do look forward to celebrating with AMOCA in the coming months and years, and I am glad that David Armstrong will be securing its future!

Image of the Week: Murals and Paintings in San Francisco

Millard Sheets, section of frieze-like painting at the Lombard branch, San Francisco, 1977
Millard Sheets, section of frieze-like painting at the Lombard branch, San Francisco, 1977

The last medium to discuss is painting. Millard Sheets and Susan Hertel both had careers as painters; indeed, they met in the painting studios of the Claremont Colleges, where Susan was a student and Millard was teaching.

Because the paintings are mostly inside the banks, images of them can be rare to find; trust me, nothing attracts the eye of a bank manager like a camera inside a bank! (I must say, though, that both the Washington Mutual and the Chase bank managers I have met have been very interested in this project, and sympathetic of its need for documentation. Those images are for reference, rather than publication, right now, though.)

Lombard branch WaMu
The entrance in the Washington Mutual era. Note the stained glass in the rear.

I do happen to have some images from the Lombard branch in San Francisco — an explosion of art, with stained glass, mosaics (though mostly hidden by trees now, the slides in the Denis O’Connor Collection at the Huntington Library reveal their true beauty and sophistication), and a long, frieze-like painting inside. The Sheets Studio paintings are not truly murals; even the largest, as far as I can tell, is on canvas, and hence can be popped off, rolled up, and removed as needed. (This is what Tony Sheets did to the massive painting in the San Jose airport terminal recently, much to the surprise of the conservators who had thought about cutting out the piece of wall to save it.)

This frieze is truly astounding: a whole history of San Francisco, from Native Americans to Spanish to ranchers, gold-seekers, Chinese workers, Victorian ladies, the 1906 earthquake, and the city’s status as “a community both international and unique.” In the weeks ahead, I will have more images and do more research on the community aspect of this art, but I thought this image provides a nice peek at the interior paintings, and connects to the urbanist ambitions of the artwork and the Home Savings bank — defining and promoting its community.

It is signed by Sheets and dated 1977; I am not sure who fabricated the image, but I am told he chose the wording. In terms of the art’s aesthetics, what comes to mind is A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884), George Seurat’s masterful, sun-filled pointillist work, on a grand scale. Sheet’s work here predates Sondheim’s musical based on the image, Sunday in the Park with George (the 1985 Pulitzer-Prize-winning play), but it does make me wonder how influential that image was in considering cultural nodes like San Francisco in the late twentieth century.

The painting’s San Francisco history does stop with the earthquake — sailboats and petticoats remain at the end of the image, not Haight-Ashbury or the then-current administration of the ill-fated George Moscone and Harvey Milk, among others.

The Sheets Studio artwork in general held images already old — a sense of nostalgia, but one informed by local history. Nostalgia is often seen as a reactionary force, but I think it is hard to say that here — so buoyant and optimistic, these images remembered happy times in the past, in order to encourage investment in happy futures.

Image of the Week: Stained Glass at Laurel Canyon

Stained Glass at the Laurel Canyon branch
Stained glass at the Laurel Canyon branch

I have been providing an initial tour through all the media of the Sheets Studio artwork, and today we have arrived at stained glass. These can be some of the hardest images to photograph — even before we consider the banks’ restrictions on taking images only from the outside.

Millard Sheets and Susan Hertel were the primary designers of the images, and, in the case of stained glass, all the fabrication was done offsite; Denis O’Connor created the mosaics, working from gouaches and inverted cartoons and cans and cans of tiles. That was about all the labor they could handle in-house. Update: Brian recalled that the Pasadena stained glass firm was John Wallis Stained Glass, still active as John Wallis & Associates in Sierra Madre. Rufus Turner also indicates that Judson Stained Glass did commissions as well. Carnevale and Lohr, the Bell Gardens, Ca., firm recently involved in restoring the Rancho Palos Verdes mosaic working mostly in the iconic granite and travertine of these banks.

Both Hertel and Sheets had a lifelong love of horses, and here is yet another image where it shows: horses at the corral, young men and women out for a ride, and children being pulled toward fun by a woman at the reins. Other animals join in the fun — lots of dogs, and a few cats — and the bright, contrasting colors accentuate the theme of fun.

As I mentioned last week, these artworks could do a lot to set a happy mood in the bank — and of course the use of stained glass suggests the sense of awe inspired by walking into a darkened cathedral. The 1960s also saw the interest in Color Field painting, watching how one bright color would play off another; I see influences of that style and interest here, with the green moon, purple dog, bright green reins, and dappled blue- and orange-and-white horses.

These are commercial products — artwork sold to banks, that helped the banks’ bottom line — but they are also exemplary period pieces, valuable artworks from the time, which, as I have mentioned elsewhere, also tend to tell a story of California history. One hopes that JP Morgan Chase, as their current steward, understands the power and significance of these artistic bank assets.

Image of the Week: Home Savings Sculptures

Sculpture in Pasadena
The Home Savings artworks included sculptures as well as mosaics and murals.

The Pasadena bank at the corner of Lake and Colorado has been a focus of Home Savings art conservation in the last year, as Chase’s makeover of the location — new color palette, new entrance, new thick Plexiglass over the tellers’ windows — changed the experience of the bank radically.

http://avenuetotheskylakeavenuepasadena.blogspot.com/2009/12/home-savingswamuchase-millard-sheets.html
The Pasadena branch as constructed.

The much-loved painting by Millard Sheets of Pasadena’s iconic Tournament of Roses parade was taken down, and as of last report, it is still seeking a permanent home in Pasadena where it will be both secure and on public display. (This report suggests the Pasadena Convention Center — as my history of this work will consider the interplay of public art and commercial spaces like banks, it says a lot about how society has changed that new venues being considered have to be public or nonprofit spaces, to guarantee the artwork, even despite the California law forbidding such artwork from being destroyed, regardless of location; see some discussion here.)

But sometimes lost in the discussion are the elements of the original Home Savings artwork that almost always remain on site: the sculptures. They are heavy, they tend to be more tall than wide, and hence even new arrangements seem to welcome them easily, even while divorcing them from their original context.

I have yet to figure out where (or if) the sculptures were signed, but I am told by Brian that the sculptors involved were John Edward Svenson and Albert Stewart. Some further information about them can be found here and here, respectively, but I must say they seem the most unsung part of the collection of artists and architects working in the Sheets Studio.

What to make of the sculpture? They are almost always family scenes, with some animals (dolphins on Santa Monica Blvd., for example). Men, women, and children enjoying one another’s company, normally in a nondescript way — walking, embracing, singing maybe. But not, say, driving, working, shopping, or, obviously, banking.

Like all of this artwork and architecture, the Sheets studio was working to create a welcoming space, with art that ennobled the experience of banking, and celebrated life — not in the means of the transaction, but in the life of that community, its history, and its pastimes. For a bank to endorse and pay for such work seems a throwback — though, I gather, these artworks paid for themselves in increased attention, increased deposits, and increased bank loyalty. Like the ongoing discussions of Mad Men‘s popularity and meaning suggest, perhaps it is this present-reality/past-ideals contrast that feeds the work’s unflagging popularity.

This week more individuals motivated by the cause of saving and understanding the art and architecture of the Home Savings banks have been in touch, and I appreciate it! I look forward to continuing to learn about this remarkable work, and sharing images and insights here on the blog, at the Urban History conference in October, and onward from there. Keep getting in touch!

Update: Thanks to an email from John Svenson’s son David, I have learned that the work above is Albert Stewart — and that his father, 87, is demonstrating his craft and signing books at the Millard Sheets Center at the LA County Fairplex this month.) He also noted that Paul Manship did the sculpture in front of the Hollywood bank. Thanks again for everyone who is adding information!