The Giants of Seal Court

by Susan Warmbrunn

Phil Dike in Seal Court

Last summer, Carolyn Ditte Wagner ’72 began compiling a list of artists connected to Scripps College who were to be featured in at least one of the Pacific Standard Time shows slated for that fall. She tallied up people who had trained or taught at Scripps: Millard Sheets, William Manker, Jean Ames, Albert Stewart, Marion “Hoppy” Stewart, Richard “Rick” Petterson, Betty Davenport Ford ’46, Susan Lautmann Hertel ’52, Phil Dike, Paul Darrow, Paul Soldner, Samella Lewis. The names read like a roster of all-stars.

As a member of Scripps’ board of trustees and a consultant for the Getty-sponsored Pacific Standard Time initiative, Wagner was familiar with most of the players. She was still stunned by the number of Scripps artists who were being shown at venues ranging from the Huntington to the Hammer.

“It’s very impressive to me that such a small college had such a big impact on the art world of Southern California and beyond,” Wagner said. “Pacific Standard Time really highlights Scripps’ enormous historic and ongoing contributions to the arts.”

Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, the Getty’s collaboration with more than 60 cultural institutions in Southern California, has been called by The New York Times “a cacophonous, synergistic, sometimes bizarre colossus of exhibitions.” Scripps’ own Pacific Standard Time show, Clay’s Tectonic Shift: John Mason, Ken Price, and Peter Voulkos, 1956-1968, opened at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery on January 21 and runs through April 8. But the College showed up as a major player as soon as the project kicked off its six-month celebration of Southern Californian art.

One of the first Pacific Standard Time shows to open last fall was The House That Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945- 1985, at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Hal Nelson, the curator of the show and of American decorative arts at the Huntington, spent hours in the basement of Denison Library when he began doing research for the exhibit.

“In large part, our exhibition is about the community and the relationships between the artists who lived and worked in the Pomona Valley,” Nelson said. “Central to all of that is Scripps College and Claremont Graduate School, and central to all that is Millard Sheets, who began to build an art department with a great vision for Scripps and for Southern California in general.”

Two of the pieces in the Huntington show are by Betty Davenport Ford ’46. She finished Running Boar, a terra-cotta creature with a huge torso and tiny leaping legs, a year after she graduated. At Scripps, she took classes with the now fabled faculty, studying sculpture with Albert Stewart, ceramics with William Manker, design with Jean Ames, and painting with Henry Lee McFee. At the time, the College’s entire student body numbered less than 300. There were painting studios in the space now occupied by The Motley Coffeehouse and a kiln, instead of a restroom, in the southeast corner of today’s Malott Commons. Now in her late 80s, Ford vividly remembers her impression of the artists who taught in the art department around Seal Court.

“You felt they were giants,” she said.

The Ripple Effect

Millard Sheets with studentBeginning with the end of WWII and ending with the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s first term, the Pacific Standard Time period encompasses more than two generations of Scripps’ artists and also includes the present day: Susan Rankaitis, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Studio Art, was part of a Pacific Standard Time show in Santa Monica.

But the story of the art department really begins in 1932, when the first president of Scripps, Ernest J. Jaqua, hired a very young artist named Millard Sheets as the College’s only art instructor.

Fiercely talented, the 25-year-old Sheets had already established a career that one critic called “the most remarkable in the history of American art.”

Within a couple of years, Sheets and Jaqua began enlisting other virtuosos, starting with Manker, who established the ceramics program and the exhibitions that eventually became the Scripps College Ceramics Annual. Nelson, of the Huntington, said Sheets used his “extraordinary contacts” in the art world to recruit leading figures in various fields to Scripps.

“Sheets’ belief was that the best people to be teaching students were practicing artists,” Nelson said.

When the English-born Albert Stewart came to Scripps in 1939, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had already acquired one of his bronze sculptures. Sheets also persuaded Stewart’s wife, Hoppy, to teach weaving. He hired Ames, McFee, and Petterson, who took over the ceramics department in the late ’40s. Dike joined the faculty of Scripps and Claremont Graduate School (CGS) in 1950 after working in various capacities for Walt Disney Studios, where he had a hand in Fantasia and Snow White.

“Sheets created a department that was distinguished from the beginning,” said Mary Davis MacNaughton ’70, associate professor of art history at Scripps and director of the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery.

The Scripps administration also showed amazing foresight and flexibility during that period, said Judy Harvey Sahak ’64, the Sally Preston Swan Librarian at Denison Library.

“Hiring people was not as stringent and organized and ‘legal’ as it is now,” Sahak said. “I think Millard Sheets may have heard about somebody and said, ‘Hey, can we bring him here for a year?'”

Marion Hoppy StewartTalent seemed to be Sheets’ main prerequisite for identifying new faculty and students. Graduate students pursuing an MFA at CGS (now Claremont Graduate University) took art classes at Scripps. Sheets became the director of the art program at the graduate school and made sure gifted students like the sculptor Jack Zajac — who was 16 and working in a steel mill when he first contacted Sheets — could take classes even if they hadn’t gone to college.

“We weren’t sticky about the number of units that they might have behind them,” Sheets once said.

Scripps students such as Ford and Hertel worked alongside male graduate students from CGS, a number of whom had served in the military during WWII and had gone back to school on the G.I. Bill. Among their remarkable ranks were ceramicist Harrison McIntosh and painters Paul Darrow, James Strombotne, and Douglas McClellan. Some, including Roger Kuntz, Robert E. Wood, James Hueter, and Rupert Deese, did graduate work in Claremont after attending Pomona College. Sheets described the excitement of the graduate work that was going on as “so stimulating to the undergraduates as well as to the staff” that it lifted everyone’s artistic performance and production.

During those years, creativity was a kind of caffeine. Both Ford and Darrow made arrangements with the night watchman to work afterhours in the art studios. “People were there all the time, all hours,” Darrow recalled. “It was a way of life. It was another home to us.”

This second home fostered a mix of formality and informality among the teachers and the students that created a sense of camaraderie from their common calling.

Manker dressed like a banker, Sahak said. “In all of the photographs we have of William Manker, he’s in a suit, for heaven’s sake. How do you make pottery in a suit?” But the well-dressed Manker happily fired the figures Ford sculpted out of the red clay she dug up from empty fields in Claremont.

Darrow said that Jean Ames “scared me to death, but we got to be pals.” Ford remembers inviting Ames and her husband, Arthur, also a prominent artist, to join her for dinner in the dining room. She described the company — and the food — as fabulous.

Phil Dike teaches in front of triptychMcFee, who had a beard like Freud and the manners of Emily Post, was a “very sweet, gentle, darling man — everyone adored him,” Ford said. McFee always called Darrow “Doctor.”

“He would say, ‘Well, Doctor, I’m not going to try to shove anything down your throat,'” Darrow said. “‘You just do whatever you’re doing, and I’ll give you a benevolent B-plus.'”

For the most part, the art instructors didn’t force a single trend or technique on their students. Sheets was once asked if there was a discernable “Scripps style.”

“I don’t believe so,” he answered. “We emphasized the importance of [students] knowing how to express themselves. We didn’t try to turn out little Picassos; we didn’t try to turn out little Matisses.”

“The nice thing about the school was that everybody was allowed to be themselves,” Darrow said. “And that was very rare.”

It still is, according to Nelson.

“Often in art communities you have one art form, and everyone follows that prevailing style or aesthetic,” he said. “Scripps was a disparate community of people working in widely varied fields. You had abstract painters, enamelists, wood turners, furniture makers, sculptors. That is something to be admired.”

Sheets has been called a visionary and a prodigy, but he was also a brilliant bureaucrat. With the support of an administration headed by Jaqua, he not only amassed talent in his department, he created an organization to support fine arts at Scripps and sketched the original plans for the art building that would be funded by Florence Rand Lang.

The colleges and graduate school drew artists to Claremont, and many stayed. A number of the students from the ’40s and ’50s became the next generation of teachers. Darrow taught painting and mixed media at Scripps for more than three decades. McClellan became the chairman of the College’s art department in the ’60s. Hard-edge painter Karl Benjamin studied at the graduate school in the ’50s and later became a professor of art at Pomona and CGS. The department also attracted outside artists such as the ceramicist Paul Soldner, who taught at Scripps from the late ’50s to the early ’90s, and sculptor Aldo Casanova, who won the prestigious Rome Prize before teaching at Scripps from 1966-99.

Paul DarrowLooking at the list of creative luminaries, it may be surprising that they all ended up in a small college in a town where orange trees seemed to outnumber people. Sheets gets much of the credit, but Sahak, who is often described as Scripps’ unofficial historian, says one shouldn’t discount the appeal of California in general, “particularly as a place for a new beginning, a steppingoff point to the rest of the world.”

MacNaughton characterizes Scripps and Claremont as “an irresistible combo” after the war: the intellectual environment of the colleges, the allure of a town that was petite but not provincial, the sunshine.

“Scripps was for many years such a lively center of creativity,” MacNaughton said. “It really was the choice for people who were looking for grad school experience or just a place to live and work as artists.”

After the war, the G.I. Bill allowed young men to pursue higher education; some veterans welcomed the open spaces and relative optimism of the West, where they could find both freedom and solace in their studios.

“This is a generation that came back from WWII and wanted to affirm life through art,” MacNaughton said. “Art was a tonic to the trauma of war.”

Gorgeous Years in the Golden State

Motley drawing-spacePaul Darrow turned 90 last October, but it’s not hard to imagine him as the young man who stayed up all night painting with McClellan, Kuntz, and Hertel. On a warm day, he’ll still wear a t-shirt and cut-off jean shorts, soaking up the sun at his home in Laguna Beach, taking impish delight in the small wonders of the world. Darrow still paints and makes mixed media collages out of “things I couldn’t quite throw away, things you fiddle with,” like old Polaroids and rain-ruined album covers. He still loves to talk about art and life and his sailboat, Gleam.

He easily recounts how artists hung out at Walter’s Restaurant in Claremont and chased rabbits among the citrus trees around Scripps. A bunch of grad students formed a makeshift band called the Orange Grove Orioles. They didn’t have much money — “even at 69 cents a pound, coffee was expensive” — but they had their art and bartered their work. He remembers the master woodworker Sam Maloof “making this funny stuff in his garage. He’d say, ‘I’ll trade you that table you like for that painting, Paul.’ I’d say, ‘OK.’

“Those were gorgeous years,” Darrow said. “Everything was there — all the friendships, all the knowledge. The joy was built into the work and the work never seemed like work.”

Maybe that’s why the Huntington’s exhibit felt like a reunion. A watercolor Sheets painted during a trip he and Maloof took to Mexico hung just to the right of a lamp made by Manker. There was a still life by McFee, a tapestry by Hoppy Stewart, bowls by Rick Petterson, and an image of Korean fisherwomen painted by Phil Dike on a stoneware plate. Ford’s Running Boar stretched its dachshund-sized legs near a vivid Darrow painting called Harbor Scene. Near the exit, visitors encountered Susan Hertel’s Night Group, an oil painting with horses facing a dark horizon. The gallery was full of artists who didn’t belong to one school but found a home at one college on the eastern fringe of Los Angeles County during an era when giants taught in the studios around Seal Court.

 

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