Garden Grove and the Birth of the Sheets Studio Mosaic Style

Apropos of my talk this month in St. Louis, many of March’s posts will draw upon the eye-opening information in the Ravenna Mosaic Company files at St. Louis University, which John Waide has helped me access.

The files on this mosaic from Garden Grove have helped me resolve an ongoing question raised by conversations with mosaicist and mosaic historian Lillian Sizemore: Where does the Sheets Studio mosaic style come from, and why does it change so often? We have discussed the Ameses, the role of Martha Menke Underwood, and the later innovations of Denis O’Connor, and the last mosaics fabricated in Italy, but the questions around the initial mosaics, 1954-1960, remained: Is the style the work of Millard Sheets, or the imprint of his fabricators? Were the fabricators Italian, or Ravenna Mosaic (who are actually German), or Sheets’s own studio?

Now the Ravenna Mosaic Company records can provide an answer, in the form of a complaint.

On February 29, 1960, Arno Heudeck, of the Ravenna Mosaic Company, wrote to Millard Sheets about the cartoon received for the “proposed mosaic mural for the Home Savings & Loan Association. Garden Grove,” saying “we have studied it quite carefully.” But then there is a concern:

“You have indicated…your suggestion for handling the style, size, and texture treatment of the tesserae for this mural, including large sized tesserae. Your selections of colors and shading are beautiful, but very vast in numbers. I think it is clear that you are indicating a great deal more time-consuming work for us in your specifications. All our tesserae, it seems, will have to be cut and fitted in irregular patterns and fields; even you plain gold areas are broken up in an interesting, but obviously more time-consuming manner for us.”

And so they wrote with a higher price quote–which Mary Dane, secretary-treasurer (and all-around keep-things-working administrator) for Millard Sheets accepted on April 1, stating as “I relayed to you via telephone sometime ago: It is not necessary to break up all the areas that way (refering

to your letter)….those area which are not definitely cutup into patterns may be done with regular cutting…For example, the foliage on the trees could be done with some areas fitted in regular pattern and most areas cut simply.”

On September 14, 1960, Heudeck wrote back, to ask for photographs of the finished installations, and “to ask how these last two murals we executed for you were received by you and your clients,” given “the unique manner in which you installed these mosaics into the sandblasted recessions of the marble,” and their “interpretations of the cartoons into the mosaic medium.”

Thus, it is clear that the innovations of Sheets’s design that gave it depth and life– the plane-splitting diagonal lines, the articulation of variegated color, and the contrasting colors — were innovations for the Ravenna Mosaic Company, and required a new technique (and greater cost) than their normal procedures.

Given a discussion of work for Arcadia (see my next post), it seems the Sheets Studio was already doing some mosaic work in-house–likely including the small paintings/mosaics for Compton. But by 1961, with the arrival of Martha Menke Underwood and then Denis O’Connor as  members of the Sheets Studio, they began to do all this work themselves, beginning with the Scottish Rite Temple in Los Angeles. But this letter — its surprise, its wonder, and its admiration — demonstrates when Sheets’s new style for mosaics began to emerge, despite the difficulties it left for his fabricator.

9 thoughts on “Garden Grove and the Birth of the Sheets Studio Mosaic Style

  1. As I have mentioned before, Dad did extensive research about the history of mosaic through many cultures until he was knowledgeable enough to design them the way he wanted them to look. He took me and Mom to Europe in 1958 when he was a guest of the German government on an exchange program of Art School Directors. We took several side trips so he could look at mosaics to get a better feel for them. It was also a learn by trial situation for him, which led to frustration for many a fabricator of the mosaics. When Dad was no longer involved in the mosaics and Dennis and Martha took over the design and technique changed quite a bit.

  2. Millard still had his hand in controlling the style of cutting in the mid-70’s.This was especially true in the transition period after Nancy Colbath’s death in ’74. The operation of the mosaic studio was in flux, and Millard had to step back in to ensure production.

  3. This is interesting news from Tony and Brian. These early mosaics in particular seems influenced by a certain mosaic studio out of Venice which was involved in the Mercantile in Dallas. I would love to be part of your “formal interview” on these topics, as I’m working on the survey of 20th c mosaic transmissions of knowledge. thanks again for your contributions Adam!

  4. Hello everyone! I am hard at work on the PROCESS chapter of my book, and now working through the crucial evolution of the Sheets Sheets mosaic style and sourcing, 1954-1960. I’m so excited about what I have found I have to add it here.

    Early Sheets Studio mosaics are clear:
    1947 Mike Lyman’s – mosaic designed by Sheets, fabricated by Ravenna Mosaic Company of St. Louis
    1954 National American Fire Insurance – mosaic designed by Sheets, fabricated by Ravenna Mosaic
    1955-6 Beverly Hills Home Savings – mosaic designed by Sheets, fabricated by Sheets and assistants Ronald Gerber and James Edgar Michalski

    So are works done after 1960-1, beginning at least with the Masonic murals, when Martha Menke Underwood was running the mosaic fabrication, and working with Sheets, Sue Hertel, Andree Mendenhall Tolstoy Mahoney, and others.

    Ravenna has paperwork on the two above, plus the Arcadia and Garden Grove mosaics. Some were done in St Louis, but some were subcontracted to:

    (drum roll)

    Padoan Studios in Venice; Angelo Orsoni in Venice; and then Hans Wagner of the Wagner Studios, Berlin — I am checking, but I think this is Puhl & Wagner.

    Notably, the Germans used large tesserae “to avoid monotony in large expanses of mosaic,” and Sheets told interviewers later that some were done in Italy, some Germany, and the thought the German style matched what he wanted better.

    All along, Jean Ames and her students were doing some of the commissions locally: a small mosaic upstairs at 9245 Wilshire, and the Pomona goddess are notable, and the small exterior mosaic at the Compton and Whittier branches (Tom Van Sant worked on the former), and Bay Area Finance ceramic tiles, and the studio’s own mosaic on the front.

    The commissions that I need to source to the Italian, German, St Louis or (less likely) Claremont fabrication include:
    — the many freestanding mosaic panels at Dallas Mercantile;
    — work in this period in Lubbock, maybe at two sites;
    — exterior and vault mosaics at Ahmanson Trust in Beverly Hills (tree inside is Jean Ames);
    — the large Home Savings vault mosaics in Encino, Compton, and Whittier;
    — the original Lakewood mosaic;
    — Buena Park milkmaids;
    — the mosaics at the Valhalla mausoleum in North Hollywood;
    — the original Torrance location’s mosaic.

    Readers, what do you think?

    1. Hello Adam,

      Nice to see you on Sunday! It’s been a long time. Hey, as far as I know, if you are referring to the H.S. vault mosaic in Encino, it was done in the studio here. Is the image a large tree of life done in gold, copper and silver tile with very colorful birds surrounded by a background of purple, dark browns and charcoal tile with 2 large panels of green venetian tile that are wave-like on either side? I remember staining the grout with Brian after it was installed.

  5. Another day, and more ideas. After looking closely at the Ravenna Mosaic files, I find that they fabricated the Arcadia and Garden Grove mosaics in St. Louis, and only sent other projects (including Sheets’s work at Precious Blood Church) to Italy, and the DC basilica to Germany.

    It seems the vaults may be the first local mosaics, under Martha Menke Underwood; I am checking for records and more stylistic information. The big question marks, for me, would then be the Buena Park milkmaids, original Lakewood ships, exterior of Ahmanson Trust 9all of which seem contracted for sure to me) and front of Torrance and Valhalla mausoleum and Lubbock work.

  6. Hi Adam, I have a resource that confirms the Padoan studio executed the main Mercantile works, and were likely on site for the installation. It seems from a stylistic, materiality, and timing point of view the “Milkmaids” in Buena Park were likely also from Padoan. The Valhalla mosaics seem to be designed and are certainly influenced by the Ames, and their mosaic cut and setting style, and the way faces and drapery are rendered, is similar to the Harbour Union work (1937). So I wonder if they worked on two of the Valhalla panels? Devotion and Rememberance. The thing about the Valhalla, is that there are two distinct approaches, one with a sharper dark outline, the other without. The one without the outline is much more similar to the Milkmaids, (Hope) and in the style of Padoan, so this Valhalla work may have been a time of overlap and stylistic adjustment within the Sheets Studio within one client’s commission. I also find the small Tahitian girl, found in the Mercantile, to fit within the “Ames” vernacular of style and execution. I have a comparative study with detail examples i can show you. see you soon! Lillian

    1. Dear Lillian (and everyone),

      I look forward to talking more about these questions next week in San Francisco!

      My current thinking is in line with what I say above — after doing the Beverly Hills ones in California, Sheets realized the mosaics were too much work, and at a skill level his studio didn’t yet have, and so went back to Ravenna Mosaic Company of St. Louis to have work done, mostly via contract to Italy and possibly Germany.

      Having recently walked around the Dallas mosaics, it is clear some — the Tahitian figure, the horses in squares in the hallways — were done in California, along with the starbursts and birds that were the training mosaics for a long time in the studio. The larger figures are clearly done by others — and if you have evidence it is Padoan, I would love to cite you on that for the manuscript-in-progress.

      The black-granite-background is Sheets’s idea; the Ravenna Company files note its originality. I think they are done in St Louis, but they may also be contracted out. The innovation about the freestanding mosaics in Dallas also seem to have come from Sheets.

      From what I can tell, Martha Menke Underwood and Nancy Colbath and their assistants had worked out a sustainable way to do mosaics in California by the time they worked on the LA Masonic mosaics, both inside and out; by the time they hire Denis O’Connor, in 1960-1, they are ready to do mosaics only in California.

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