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by Orville O. Clarke, Jr.

(Irvine Museum, Orange County) Gazing at this stunning collection of California Impressionist art, assembled by the hard work and generosity of Graduating Seniors from Gardena High School from 1919 through 1956, one cannot help but wonder at the direction that our schools have gone and the dramatic changes the students have undergone. We now have public schools in Southern California that seem oblivious to the treasures that are hung in their buildings, painted on their walls, or in some cases the precious ones that walk in their halls.

Inspired by the suggestion of Principal Whitely of Gardena High School, the senior class of 1919 decided to select an artwork by a prominent local artist to donate to the school. It began a tradition that was to continue for almost 40 years. The first selection was The View of Santa Clara by Ralph Davidson Miller. As the collection grew, the astute young art connoisseurs selected works by some of the finest painters then working in the region, including Maynard Dixon, Franz Bischoff, William Wendt, Alson S. Clark, Edgar Payne, and Jean Mannheim. Although they were aided by professionals in the field and faculty, the selection was still the senior class’s decision. And it is an amazingly fine collection.

William Wendt, "Along the
Arroyo Seco," o/c, 40 x 58", 1924.

Edgar Alwin Payne, "Rock-
bound," o/c, 30 x 40", 1921.

Walter Elmer Schofield,
"Cornish Inn, oco, 30 x 36, 1936.

James Guifford Swinnerton,
"The Betatakin Ruins",
o/c, 60 x 48", 1927.

One of the most exciting and satisfying memories of this unusual collection was the extensive coverage that the local papers gave the student's selection each year. While conducting research in the Ferdinand Perret Papers at the Archives of American Art, I came across dozens and dozens of laudatory articles on Gardena's student collection. It was a much closer-knit, albeit more regional and isolated art community then, with all the local publications actively supporting artists and artist's organizations. Not only did this yearly exercise energetically introduce students to fine art, but it actually provided a measure of support to the art community by its purchases. Could you imagine the good for local artists, as well as the benefits to students, if graduating classes at schools purchased art (the student government at Chaffey College, for one, is investigating that possibility this year)? The story of the creation of the collection is exciting, and one that the lovely catalogue that accompanies the exhibition should have told.

Now, what about the art? Well, it is a survey of the beauty of the land and sea by some of California's leading Impressionists. One cannot help but admire the artists’ skills in works by Jean Mannheim (The Magic Moment, class of 1923), Maynard Dixon (Men of the Red Earth, class of 1944) or William Wendt (Along the Arroyo Seco, class of 1924). Here we are able to see the diversity that made the California School of plein-air painters such a dynamic group: Their wide range of styles and subjects that were able to appeal to a broad audience.

One of the best works here is The Betatakin Ruins by James Guifford Swinnerton (donated by the Class of 1927). This is a painter that I had been passionately reintroduced to by another artist, Ron Chesley, who characterized him as one of our most underrated and unappreciated artists. A painting legend in the Palm Springs region in the 1940s and ‘50s, his best work is a celebration of the Navajos and the majesty of their land. In the Gardena canvas, a giant arch dominates the composition, framing Native American cliff dwellings bathed in warm summer light at the right. In the background, an ominously approaching thunderstorm darkens the land and brings sheets of rain. Highlights of green foliage unite foreground and background in a dramatic ode to the Southwest.

Do not miss this exhibition. Neglected for years, unknown and unavailable to the public, the paintings gathered together for Painted Light not only represent the recovery of an important cache of California Plein Aire painting, but a notable chapter in the development of Southern California’s cultural identity precisely because of how this collection came to be.