Celebrating Flight in Lancaster

Anita Thomas, Denis O'Connor Studio, and MosaicArt di D.Colledani, Home Savings, Lancaster, 1986-1987. Photo by James Daniel of Daniel Designs

Anita Thomas, Denis O’Connor Studio, and MosaicArt di D.Colledani, Home Savings, Lancaster, 1986-1987. Photo by James Daniel of Daniel Designs

As promised a few weeks ago, we are back with the details about the other space-themed Home Savings mosaic, in Lancaster, California, in the Antelope Valley.

Here the “triptych” design is not chonological, but shows a farmer and a rancher, an orange tree and some cow grazing, flanking the central image of Edwards Air Force Base, with test pilots and planes from many eras, spanning the twentieth century. (Lancaster also has an Aerospace Walk of Honor, profiling pilots and displaying aircraft.)

This is the only Home Savings design by Anita Thomas, a Scripps and Claremont Graduate School graduate who was married at one time to Denis O’Connor. As she described it, “The process was fairly straightforward. The history of the area was simple to track down, then it was a matter of deciding how to organize it.” After input from Denis and Sue Hertel, the mosaic was fabricated by MosaicArt di D.Colledani in Milan, Italy, near the heart of world mosaic-smalti production and instruction.

When the mosaic was installed, the space shuttle reflected the current state-of-the-art in aerospace exploration; now, with the shuttles retired and making their way to museums around the country, this image reflects nostalgia for that recent past as well.

Thanks to Shel Weisbach, James Daniel of Daniel Designs, Kevin O’Connor, Alba Cisneros, Anita Thomas, and the Denis O’Connor Papers at the Huntington Library  for helping to confirm information about the mosaic. (Even a short post can require a lot of research!)


Yesterday I enjoyed interviewing Marlo Bartels about his work for Home Savings and other corporate public-art clients, and I came back via a second tour of Orange County Home Savings locations, along the coast in Newport, Long Beach, Rolling Hills Estates, Redondo Beach, Torrance, and South L.A. More images from those locations will appear here soon, along with updates to the definitive list. Be in touch with any tips on others to interview or unique stories to tell.

Millard Sheets’s Passion for Ceramic Tile

Hilton Rainbow Tower, Honoulu, Millard Sheets Interpace ceramic mural, 1968. Photo via Flickr Creative Commons by coconut wireless, 2008.

Hilton Rainbow Tower, Honolulu, Millard Sheets Interpace ceramic mural, 1968. Photo via Flickr Creative Commons by coconut wireless, 2008.

On September 9, 1963, ten years into his nearly-30-year career of working for Home Savings, Millard Sheets resigned. “No designer in America has had greater opportunity to express himself than I have had…working with you,” Sheets began his letter to Howard Ahmanson, but now “I would like to resign from my present contractual arrangement with Home Savings,” Sheets wrote. “Let’s be friends apart from…irritation or tenseness, that now seems insoluble.”

Ahmanson and Sheets were both large personalities, and their working relationship was full of both trust and, at times, disagreement. But this resignation was less about that than another opportunity for Sheets: to become corporate design advisor for Interpace, the successor company to California ceramics leader Gladding, McBean & Company.

(Despite attempting to resign, Sheets stayed on with the Home Savings work, though handing more responsibility over to other members of his studio and the outside architectural firm of Frank Homolka and Associates. It seems the financial aspects of the arrangement were reworked as well.)

Millard Sheets thought of painting as his true passion–watercolors, mostly, and things that could fit on an easel. But in 1953, his frescoes, murals, interior design and architectural work had garnered Howard Ahmanson’s attention, and Sheets found himself at the head of a studio doing remarkable architectural, mosaic, painting, and stained glass work–making him even more prominent, though taking him away from the painting.

So in 1963 he sought to resign, and dedicate his efforts to a new venture: managing artists-in-residence designing ceramics, with uses from dinnerware to household decoration to large-scale architectural works.

As the recent American Museum of Ceramic Art show and essays by Hal Nelson, James Elliot-Bishop, and others describe its wonderful catalog, Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California, 1945-1975, explain, Sheets had highlighted these uses in his Arts of Daily Living show at the LA County Fair and in the resulting House Beautiful special edition, where the work was praised by Frank Lloyd Wright as a continuation of his ideals. Sheets hired Harrison McIntosh, Rupert Deese, Francis Chun, Dora De Larios, and others to hep design the work.

In memos, Sheets discussed the possibility of asking a remarkable range of artists to participate, naming Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Andrew Wyeth, David Alfaro Siquieros, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, Willem De Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Joan Miro, and Stuart Davis as artists to approach. To approach such artists for avant-garde designs for commercial ceramics demonstrates how Sheets, ever at the intersection of fine arts and commercial applications, foresaw the kinds of top-designers-for-Target/Walmart/etc. blurring of categories we experience today.

To Sheets, it must have seemed like a perfect marriage of traditional arts, top design, and commercial applications, as these tiles were uniform, mass-produced yet hand-colored, and perfectly suited for anything from a home wall accent to the massive projects they accomplished. This flexibility and modularity seems to fulfill some of what Frank Lloyd Wright had attempted with his textile-block designs, such as the Alice Millard House in Pasadena and the Ennis House in Los Angeles.

Millard Sheets, Nancy Colbath, Sue Hertel, Millie Horlach, Sheridan Stanton and Mildred Downing, Los Angeles City Hall East ceramic-tile mural, detail, 1972.

Millard Sheets, Nancy Colbath, Sue Hertel, Millie Horlach, Sheridan Stanton and Mildred Downing, Los Angeles City Hall East ceramic-tile mural, detail, 1972.

The Sheets-Interpace collaboration led to the creation of the Franciscan tiles used to accent Home Savings buildings, but also the large-scale ceramic-tile murals of “The Four Elements” for the Interpace headquarters lobby in Parsippany, New Jersey (1966); two murals for the Coco Palms Resort on Kauai (1968), which has been closed due to hurricane damage since 1992; a pair of mosaic murals, one for each side of the Hilton Rainbow Tower, in 1968; and a final ceramic-tile mosaic done for Sunset Magazine offices in Menlo Park (1973).  (Mary Blair designed two murals at Disneyland, “The Spirit of Creative Energies among Children,” (1966), since hidden in place; one for the Disney World Contemporary Resort; and the It’s a Small World exhibit — see great pictures here. Another mural for the Coco Palms was designed by Sheridan Stanton.)

In 1967, Interpace chief executive Allan Hirsh resigned, and Elliot-Bishop argues this was the beginning of a significant change in Sheets’s involvement. Letters express continued frustration on all sides that the architectural and dinnerware tile work could not be done quicker and cheaper; Sheets eventually spent less time on Interpace work, downgrading himself to a mere consultant to the line before resigning outright in 1973, once again to “spend most of my time painting.”

This time, with his house in Gualala completed and work for Home Savings, Interpace, and others in good hands, Sheets mostly succeeded, but he kept a hand in these large-scale public artworks as well. And despite Sheets’s interest in emphasizing his paintings, these works of art and architecture seem destined to be an important part of his legacy of art as well.

Amateur History in Northridge

Denis O'Connor and Sue Hertel, Northridge Home Savings, 1986

Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel, Northridge Home Savings, 1986

As promised, I present the Northridge mosaic “triptych.” — the same format on a similar building that we saw last week in Downey. And, again, these late O’Connor-Hertel creations stretch from the very earliest of local history up to the present day.

In Northridge, the imagery stretches from a native Tongva man at an oasis to symbols of Anglo settlement, including the Hawk Ranch and the Southern Pacific Railroad, and walnut farming; to the claims to fame for twentieth-century Northridge, including Montie Montana at the annual Chamber of Commerce stampede, the local hospital, and some of Cal State Northridge‘s buildings.

The span of time and the effort to include such easily recognizable, present-day figures  furthers the long-standing Home Savings goal of integrating HS&L  seamlessly into new communities, and using the art to make a claim about their rootedness and permanence there.

As was common, the research files are filled with pictures photocopied from history books and historical-society brochures, the sources the studio used to find authentic figures to include. The notes often include captions or text not included in the final work, in this case:

Water was Welcome from the Beginning / Hawk Ranch • Farming • Walnut and Fruit Orchards • Housing • Trains • Commercial Development • Northridge Hospital • cal State Northridge / Chamber of Commerce Stampede and Barbeque

Kashaya Pomo by Il'lia Novsensky, 1843But despite labels and accuracy in many cases, a nice iconographic figure could fill in for the extensive research needed to get local conditions right at times. For example, the Native American in the files that is most closely reproduced here is a Kashaya Pomo warrior drawn by scientist Il’lia Voznesensky in 1843, in northern California near Fort Ross, as reproduced on page 307 of the (unidentified) book the studio consulted, rather than an actual Tongva image. (I have written about the importance of Fort Ross in the image of California in Ansel Adams’s photograph of a eucalyptus tree there; read it here.)

Such substitutions happen elsewhere as well — for example, an image of ice skating in Marquette Park, Illinois, draws on an 1872 sleighs and skaters in New York’s Central Park by Jules Tavernier for Harpers.

It’s a reminder that these artists are interested in history and community, but not always perfectly faithful to it. But of course we can forgive them, right?

From History to the Planets in Downey

As a 19th-century urban historian of the American West by training, I first returned to the art and artwork of these Home Savings and Loan buildings to see what they said about California history. But I have been happy to have been pulled fully into the business-history, art-history, built-environment, and urban-studies questions the Home Savings and Loan buildings can answer for the 20th century, investigating not just historical topics but art with subjects such as family, festivals, and local landmarks.

Given the recent transit of Venus and the successful docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the International Space Station, I will focus this week on when Home Savings art encountered the great beyond of outer space.

The planets, with their companion image of the space shuttle in Lancaster (to be featured here soon), are seemingly a break from the traditions of Home Savings art under Millard Sheets. But celebrating outer space is celebrating local community in Downey, where the former aerospace and NASA facility is now the Columbia Memorial Space Center, a hands-on learning center for space science and national living memorial to the lost space shuttle crew.

And its format shows a signature Denis O’Connor/Sue Hertel design: a timeline triptych, to be read left to right from the natural/pre-Columbian origins of the area, through a typical scene of late-19th-century American settlement, to an image of today. The pattern works on a similar building in Northridge, from Native Americans to Monty Montana, that I will discuss next week (see the center panel here).

All the full image reveals, there are birds flying up there, with the planets; a nice reminder that we can dream far away, but keep our familiar surroundings in sight as well.

Go to http://socal-bank-art.blogspot.com/  too see Downey and other locations.