Jean Goodwin Ames and Arthur Ames: Ancestors of the Sheets Studio Mosaics

Jean Goodwin (later Ames), “Three Women Gathering at the Sea Shore,” Federal Art Project mosaic for Newport Harbor Union High School, 1937.

When Millard Sheets first designed mosaics, he sent them off to be fabricated by the Ravenna Mosaic Company of St. Louis, run by the German Heudeck family.  It was only after he crossed paths with Jean Goodwin Ames and her husband Arthur Ames that Sheets could imagine fabricating mosaics in California.

Jean and Arthur met in a MFA ceramics class with Glen Lukens, at USC, where Jean created her first majolica tile mural in the Science building, Youth and Science, as her MFA thesis (image here).

Arthur Ames, “Three Fisherman,” Federal Art Project mosaic for Newport Harbor Union High School, 1937.

 

 

Goodwin and Ames both were involved in the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, and Jean, in an oral history, said that Arthur’s professor at the California School of Fine Arts, “Ray Boynton…inspired me to do the work in mosaic and so we were one of the first to do mosaic work in California and it was through his expression we did that.” (They also mention the influence of Dr. Robert King and the help of Bob Vohe.)

Bruton Sisters, “St. Francis” mosaic, San Francisco Zoo, 1934. Image via Vicki & Chuck Rogers on Flickr.

The Ameses were part of a veritable movement of artists, especially in California, learning the art of mosaic in the 1930s. According to the research of Lillian Sizemore, mosaicist and mosaic researcher, as well as Sharon Musher, a historian of the New Deal arts projects, Maxine Albro and the Bruton Sisters were employed through the Federal Arts Program in the Bay Area (including at the San Francisco Zoo), where, in the words of the Ameses, they acquired mosaic skills from “imported workers” from Italy who had come to work on mosaics at Stanford, among other locales.

The mosaics that the Ameses produced for Newport Harbor

Union High School were likely among the first public mosaics fabricated by Americans in the state of California. The preponderance of square tiles; the heavy, dark lines; and the massive, static feel of the figures do not bear the mark of the later Sheets Studio mosaics, reflecting more the large figures of the contemporaneous Mexican muralists, and Soviet Socialist-Realists.

The material is also different. As Jean later said, “at that time it was almost impossible to get the Byzantine [glass] mosaic [tesserae] that is used in Italy, and we used native material,” hard, high-fired matte vitreous (clay) tiles from scrap heaps as well as tile from manufacturers such as Gladding McBean. But the interplay of colors to create depth, and the cut tiles that provide hints of motion—in the women’s hair, in the pelican’s feathers—show the promise of how their technique evolved.

Jean and Arthur Ames were married in 1940, and Millard Sheets recruited Jean to the faculty at Scripps College, while Arthur became Professor of Design at Otis Art Institute.  Their artwork moved progressively through a number of media—paintings to mosaics to woodcuts to copper enamel to tapestries, and, in most cases, from figurative to abstract compositions.

Jean and Arthur Ames, tree mosaic for Ahmanson Trust, 9145 Wilshire, 1959-1960

The Ameses did a few mosaic commissions for the Sheets Studio – at Claremont United Church of Christ; at the Mercantile National Bank building in Dallas; at Ahmanson Trust in Beverly Hills; – as well as enamels and a lion for the first Home Savings, at 9245 Wilshire.  Their interview also mentions a majolica tile mosaic for Guaranty Savings in Fresno, and work for “the Pomona Loa,” under the direction of Millard Sheets — but I am unsure what exactly that was, and its fate.

The influence of the Ameses at the Sheets Studio was mostly through the skills endowed to their students who worked in mosaic – Martha Menke Underwood and Nancy Colbath most prominent among them. The mosaic at the first Home Savings mosaic, completed 1955, is signed with the names Millard Sheets, J.E. (likely James Edgar) Michalski, and Ronald Gerber—and I am still trying to track down who these last two individuals were.

Millard Sheets, J.E. Michalski, and Ronald Gerber, mosaic for Home Savings, 9245 Wilshire, Beverly Hills, 1955. Photo via Vickey Kalambakal.

From Millard’s encouragement and Martha’s skill, the Home Savings mosaics emerged—small in size and intricacy at first, and then ever larger and more complex. After 1961, when Denis O’Connor came into the studio, Lillian Sizemore has described to me that this shift marked “a more modern trend in the Studio’s handling of the mosaic surface.”

In 1999, Newport Union demolished the building where the mosaics were, outside facing a patio—but, thankfully, their wall was preserved. They now occupy pride of place in a hallway at the entrance to the school, with a plaque describing their history.

Next week we will look at what happened after the grand era of Denis O’Connor mosaics for Home Savings — when his smaller operation could not handle the timing demands of Home Savings, expanding across the nation.

Putting (Home) Savings of America on the Map

Savings of America maps, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

Savings of America maps, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

Happy 2013, everyone!

On Monday, I had the opportunity to interview Larry Upham, who worked for nearly three decades on the construction of new Home Savings branches. (He even got his start, after Korean War service, in rock work at Millard Sheets’s Claremont studio via Arlen Eddington – and later did the same at Barking Rocks, in Gualala.) Upham’s career at Home Savings spanned the expansion throughout the LA Basin, on to San Diego and San Francisco, and then to other states, where Upham oversaw the construction of branches in Missouri and Illinois.

Savings of America New York locations on road map, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

Savings of America New York locations on road map, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

He had an album of great photographs of these more farflung branches, where artwork was designed and fabricated under Denis O’Connor and Sue Hertel after Millard Sheets had retired from the Home Savings artworks. More of these to come — but today I will highlight something I had not seen: Home Savings road maps.

As I mentioned in posts about Home Savings/Savings of America in New York, the bank had to introduce its traditions to a new audience across the nation, often doing so through its ongoing commitment to public artwork about a community and its history.

Savings of America Illinois map, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

Savings of America Illinois map, 1990s. Courtesy of Larry Upham

But these maps demonstrate another element of that connection: literally putting Home Savings locations on a local map, and integrating the bank’s generosity (in this case with directions) with its local presence — and its prominence on key street corners, for an ever-expanding automobile culture. As one (at right) declared, “Wherever you may live or visit in Illinois, you’ll not be far from Savings of America,” and the map “is best carried in your car for ready reference.”

The Auto Club of Southern California maintains great archives, demonstrating more than a century of reorienting Americans to the view from the driver’s seat. And a raft of great books describe the growth of roadside architecture.

My scholarship on the art, architecture, and urban context of the Home Savings buildings will tell part of that story, of roadside postwar America — and these maps are just another reminder that Home Savings’s influences on the cultural, economic, and urban landscape were part of an intentional strategy.

Here’s to another year of great contacts, interviews, new sources, and more writing — and, as always, I welcome your suggestions of people to speak with and sources to see.

Rare Bird: Sheets Studio Art on a Wells Fargo location in Redondo Beach

Sheets Studio, bird, mosaic detail, Redondo Beach, before 1961

Sheets Studio, bird, mosaic detail, Redondo Beach, before 1961

The Home Savings branches were expertly sited — placed on prominent corners, so drivers could know, instantly, which financial institution it was. The original branches had gold tiles and brightly colored mosaics, like these birds. (The mosaic seems to involve less sophisticated cuts, and the location has no file in the Millard Sheets Papers, suggesting it was completed before 1961.) Funny to see the gold tiles replaced by the brown-and-red colors of Wells Fargo!

Sheets Studio mosaic and building design, Redondo Beach, before 1961

Sheets Studio mosaic and building design, Redondo Beach, before 1961

Of course, other banks and savings and loans understood the value of a location on a prominent corner as well. The rounded-square signs over rounded-to-the-corner buildings  mark the former Crocker National Bank locations. Even though Crocker was acquired by Wells Fargo, I find that many of their former locations in Los Angeles are now Bank of America, a result of the waves of bank expansion and consolidation that have shaped banking since the 1980s.

This is a similar story: though Wells Fargo also owned the American Trust Company, and hence has a connection to other Sheets Studio artwork, I think this location is the only former Home Savings that is now a Wells Fargo, and the only location with artwork completed before 1980 that is a financial institution other than JP Morgan Chase.

Louis Macouillard (design) Alphonso Pardinas – Byzantine Mosaics (fabrication), Bank of America Mosaic in San Mateo. Photograph by Franco Folini, 2010, via Flickr.

I assume Wells Fargo and Bank of America had internal conversations about the Home Savings commitment to art, history, and community, and whether their banks needed to do similar work to compete — the San Mateo branch of Bank of America honors the bank’s founder, A. P. Giannini, with a front facade covered in mosaic designed by Louis Macouillard. But, despite their more public archives, I have yet to hear about records of these conversations. If you know of any, do let me know!

*

Happy Holidays! The blog will return with new posts in January.

Hiding Art to Protect it – Santa Monica

Sheets Studio and Wallis Studio, stained glass, 1970; as covered by a translucent screen, 2012

Sheets Studio and Wallis Studio, stained glass, 1970; as covered by a translucent screen, 2012

As promised, I am back this week with another case of Sheets Studio work covered to protect it. The Burbank zoo mural is supposedly encased for its protection, and the Long Beach Home Savings mosaic is painted over, so still there but hiding. Now the treatment comes to stained glass, at the Santa Monica Wilshire location.

Now, windows are for light, so a walled-in solution would not work well (and would have to be applied on two sides, which would get messy). But what if the new business does not think a joyous Sue Hertel / John Wallis creation, described in the Sheets Papers as “a continuation of the theme…pleasures of swimming, beach games, figrues with animals, all designed to to give a kaleidoscope of beach activity,” will fit the mood of the stores, or seem dated?

The translucent screen seems like an intriguing idea, bringing in that multicolored light while hiding (but not damaging) the stained glass behind it.

But, to me, it just begs for the viewer to peek back there and say what are they hiding, anyway? It just sends more people to the parking lot, to consider it from behind.

Sue Hertel and John Wallis Stained Glass, Santa Monica, 1970. Photograph by Peter Leonard, 2011, used with permission.

Sue Hertel and John Wallis Stained Glass, Santa Monica, 1970. Photograph by Peter Leonard, 2011, used with permission.

Come back next week for the last post of the year — another case of Sheets Studio Home Savings artwork re-imagined for a new owner.

Home Savings on Wilshire in Santa Monica: Love it or Hate it?

Millard Sheets Studio, Home Savings branch at 2600 Wilshire, Santa Monica, 1970. Image thanks to Pete Leonard.

Millard Sheets Studio, Home Savings branch at 2600 Wilshire, Santa Monica, 1970. Image thanks to Pete Leonard.

It’s a busy time of year, but I noticed that I have not posted about the iconic Home Savings branch at 2600 Wilshire in Santa Monica — one of the best known and, depending on who you are, loved/hated branches.

Do you love it? You have lots of company — it is routinely the first branch mentioned to me, especially by LA Westsiders. And so discussions about other Sheets Studio work in Santa Monica and the lost Denis O’Connor-Sue Hertel mosaic that was on the Third Street Promenade tends to start with a glowing conversation about this branch.

John Edward Svenson, Girl Riding Dolphin sculpture, Santa Monica, 1970. Image thanks to Pete Leonard.

John Edward Svenson, Girl Riding Dolphin sculpture, Santa Monica, 1970. Image thanks to Pete Leonard.

John Edward Svenson has a soft spot for the sculpture of the girl riding the dolphin, over the parking lot door; his daughter served as the model. And the Ahmansons seem to as well: in a visit to the Ahmanson Foundation offices, I saw the small maquette of this sculpture prominently displayed.

And I think the building owners (MetLife, I assume, managed by CBRE) and their tenants after Home Savings — a mattress store, a cell-phone store, and now New Balance — have maintained the artwork in great condition. (More next week about how it is hard to see one element, though.)

But what if you hate it? Some love the Richard Ellis family group in front; others don’t understand the connection. Most who dislike the building focus on the mosaic, disliking the fabrication, by Denis, Sue, and others on a team led by Nancy Colbath – especially of the sunbathing youth (probably a girl and a boy, but because it is hard to tell, that adds to the grumbling).

Sheets Studio, "Pleasures Along the Beach" mosaic, Santa Monica, 1970, detail. Image courtesy of Pete Leonard.

Sheets Studio, “Pleasures Along the Beach” mosaic, Santa Monica, 1970, detail. Image courtesy of Pete Leonard.

If you do dislike it, you have company — in this case, Millard Sheets himself. Check out this quote, from a Smithsonian Archives of American Art oral history:

Interviewer Paul Karlstrom: I know the one, for instance, on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. I used to live right nearby. That’s I think at 25th or around there.

Sheets: I think that’s one of the poorer buildings.

Karlstrom: Yeah?

Sheets: Now that’s my feeling. I always felt that I. . . . I didn’t like the way that one’s _____ was done.

Even more critiques from Sheets about this locale appear in a UCLA oral history. Just a reminder that the best artists can use their aesthetic sense to criticize problem art and architecture — even when it is their own.

Thanks to my colleague Pete Leonard for the images. Stay tuned for more about changes to the blog and more work on the book version ahead in 2013.