The Impresario From Pomona

Millard SheetsThe American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA) chose Millard Sheets as the “glue” for the museum’s Pacific Standard Time show, Common Ground: Ceramics in Southern California 1945-1975, which runs through the end of March. Common Ground presents the work of more than 50 ceramic artists who had some connection to Sheets.

Last fall, Rody Lopez, a Pomona College graduate and former intern at the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery who serves as AMOCA’s curatorial assistant, gave a tour of the museum’s main showroom. Looking around the huge space he said, “Sheets hired, fired, or worked with everyone in here.”

Today, it is almost an understatement to refer to Sheets as a polymath. His multiple interests and mob of talents surfaced early in his life. The man who would be called “an unparalleled phenomenon in the art world of Southern California” was born in Pomona in 1907 and largely raised by his grandparents after his mother died when he was barely two weeks old. He grew up in a rural community among “soil farmers and horse traders,” according to his daughter, Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle ’57.

As a boy, he sold rabbits, rode horses, and coveted crayons. A neighbor taught him to paint, and when he was 11 he won a blue ribbon at the Los Angeles County Fair for his rendering of an Irish landscape. He was elected into the California Water Color Society while still a teenager, studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), and had his first solo art show at 22.

Sheets mastered a multitude of mediums, painting small canvases and mammoth murals, designing bank buildings and Air Force facilities. He served as an artist-correspondent for Life magazine during World War II and later created his own design company, where he hired former art students such as Paul Darrow and Susan Lautmann Hertel ’52 to work on murals and mosaics. Sheets “could do anything and did,” the sculptor and former Scripps professor Aldo Casanova recalled in an interview with the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Sheets believed that “the artist’s purpose is to serve society in the search for reasons to live.” He thought all people, not just museum-goingpeople, should encounter great art in person. Through the exhibitions he organized at the LA County Fair, he introduced thousands of visitors to art they had never seen. Sheets brought Picassos to Pomona.

Since Pacific Standard Time kicked off in 2011, Sheets has been featured in a number of shows and events, including a bus tour of some of the Home Savings and Loan bank buildings he decorated in the San Fernando Valley. Last November, AMOCA opened Common Ground in the museum’s new home, a former bank building with a 77-foot long mural that Sheets designed called “Panorama of Pomona Valley” running along the south wall of the main gallery. On the lower right hand side are two signatures, Millard Sheets and Susan Lautmann, hand-written reminders that Sheets, his colleagues, and his students have left their mark in many unassuming corners of the post-World War II Los Angeles art world.