Martha Menke Underwood Dies: Pomona Valley Artist and Crucial Home Savings Mosaics Link

Martha Menke Underwood

Martha Menke Underwood

I was sad to learn that Martha Menke Underwood died on February 15, 2012. I had the chance to visit her in November 2010, on a day she was at work in her painting studio; like so many of the Pomona Valley artists with whom Millard Sheets collaborated, she had achieved renown in a number of media, before, during, and long after her time working for the Sheets Studio. She was especially known for her tapestries and other “stitchery” works.

Martha Menke Underwood, "stitchery," 1970

Martha had studied with Jean and Arthur Ames; Arthur had overseen her master’s thesis, and shared an interest in the revival of tapestries as a fine-art form. After graduating from Scripps and Otis, Martha was briefly employed by Wallis-Wiley Stained Glass (the contractor the Sheets Studio used as well) before working directly for Sheets. Some of her tapestries hung in the first major Sheets bank commission, for Mercantile National Bank in Dallas; she also became essential to the design, installation, and  construction of the early Home Savings mosaics.

Martha left the Sheets Studio soon after she was married, to the Sheets Studio architect S. David Underwood, in around 1960; they later divorced. But, in those busy years, Martha Menke Underwood was instrumental to the creation of the Sheets Studio style of mosaic work.

Though mosaics were essential to the new look of art and architecture that Millard Sheets was providing for Howard Ahmanson beginning in 1954, Sheets and those around him had no expertise in how to create them. Initally, the mosaics were designed in the Sheets Studio but sent to Italy or, Martha said, to Mexico for fabrication, but Sheets grew frustrated with a process out of his control, sending back versions of his designs stylized against his wishes.

According to Martha’s account, she was tasked with figuring out the process. After more frustration with imported mosaics–she specifically remembered having to piece together the outline for the Arcadia Home Savings and Loan mosaics on the spot, as the concrete backing for the installation waited–she took charge of ordering smalti and creating a tile-cutting and -setting procedure in the Sheets Studio.

Martha Menke Underwood tapestry behind freestanding Sheets Studio mosaic, Mercantile National Bank Building, Dallas, 1959

Martha Menke Underwood tapestry behind freestanding Sheets Studio mosaic, Mercantile National Bank Building, Dallas, 1959

Martha remembered how exhilarating but stressful work for the Sheets Studio could be. As the timing for completion of the Los Angeles Scottish Rite Masonic Temple mosaics was tight,  various sections of the four-story-tall exterior mosaic were taken for installation before she could be sure the colors and lines could match up. But I think the resulting mosaic (below) demonstrates how it worked out!

Finally, Martha decided to hire an artist who would take over the details of the mosaic operation, from ordering to installation. Her search led to the Studio’s master of mosaic fabrication, Denis O’Connor, whom Martha helped to train. Martha continued working for the Studio, part-time, and contributed to the iconic mosaics at Sunset and Vine, the Garrison Theater, and Notre Dame, among other projects.

Martha Menke Underwood followed the pattern of many Pomona Valley artists in finding the time working for Millard Sheets as invigorating but ultimately distracting from her own art interests. She credited Millard Sheets with arranging for her large-scale tapestries to be woven at the historic looms in Aubisson, France, and she stayed close to many of her fellow artists; she also taught art for 27 years at Chaffey College..

Her website holds many of her last works, as well as a picture with a wide smile, much like the one that welcomed me. She will be missed.

Millard Sheets, Martha Menke Underwood, and others in the Studio, Scottish Rite Temple exterior, 1963

Millard Sheets, Martha Menke Underwood, and others in the Studio, Scottish Rite Temple exterior, 1963

11 thoughts on “Martha Menke Underwood Dies: Pomona Valley Artist and Crucial Home Savings Mosaics Link

  1. thank Adam for the thoughtful memories of Ms. Menke Underwood. The Scottish Rite Temple Mosaic is a tour de force, and must be one of the largest exterior smalti installations in the country. it is absolutely unique and stunning, one sees her interest in textiles and attention to pattern and color in the exquisite interpretations of the robes and clothing. This one is worth preserving and I hope it will be. thank you

  2. I am so glad that you interviewed Martha and have offered this wonderful account of her work with Millard Sheets. The memorial gathering for Martha will be held Wednesday, Feb.29, 1:30pm at the Padua Hills Theatre in Claremont.

  3. I spent a lot of time with Martha in the studio. At the time,she was only coming in to “help,” and, I think, for some diversion. She was much busier with other pursuits. I knew her earlier involvement had been more extensive, but not the details. Interesting to know how important she was in getting things started. Also, like Nancy Colbath, another talent Millard snatched from the Ameses. She was a fun person and will be missed. Her involvement and contributions to art in the Pomona/Inland Empire area were extensive.

  4. I remember seeing Martha working in the Sheets Studio when I was a child and being amazed by the whole process, what an impression!
    And later going to a (eye opener!) after Fair Fine Arts party when I was about 12 years old at artist Jirayr Zorthian’s estate in Alta Dena, my parents brought me along and had a good dialog with Martha in later years about that event…!
    She was a great teacher when I was a student at Chaffey and became a warm and wonderful friend with great enthusiasm for life in her later years. I will miss her smile as well!

  5. Adam, you are to be commended for the historical comments. Our love affair began at CMC and Scripps, although we knew each other in High School at Hoover High in Glendale, CA. Then, to reconnect 8 1/2 years ago were memories I will cherish forever. All her past friends in the world of art I met through her enriched MY life like nothing ever did. I could go on and on but again I want to thank you and all those with these wonderful memories!!!

  6. This is a wonderful articlae — thank you! I will miss martha’s cheery attitude and smile. I appreciated her history, her art practice, and her participation in art events.

  7. Thank you for the insightful comments and historical details about our friend Martha. She was a valued and loved supporter of the Chaffey Community Art Association, serving as the exhibit chair and supporting us throughout the years creatively and monetarily.
    She was my friend and I miss her. My love to you, Tom, and to Martha’s family.
    Ruby Leavitt
    President, CCAA

    1. Ruby, you were probably one of the first persons Martha introduced me to within the art community. She loved you more than you can believe. She loved working with you in the Recording for the Blind, as it was called. You and Wayne, always the camera at ready, embraced Martha and me and really made me feel welcomed. Just when I feel I’m getting it I type this and get the lump in the chest and the tear in the eye. I do miss her SO much. But, thanks for your wonderful words about her Ruby. Love ya….. Tom

Leave a Reply