History of the Art Department
The leading proponent of Southern California Regionalism was Millard Sheets. As early as 1930 Sheets’ work received national recognition; critic Merle Armitage, writing in The Art Digest, said of Sheets: “Here is a man who can paint Southern California without banality and sentimentality, who gives you the strength and brilliance which the landscape of Southern California really has.” (Merle Armitage, Record, L.A., n.d.)
And critic Arthur Millier said in The Los Angeles Times, “At 22, Sheets is an unparalleled phenomenon in the art world of Southern California… He paints in oils, is an consummate watercolorist, etches, makes lithographs, does… murals, and is in demand as an architectural renderer… a host of youthful artists and students look to him as their ideal and example…” (Art Digest, October 1930, p.7)
During this period Sheets formed his ideas as a Regionalist. On a trip to Europe in 1930 he confirmed his view that art should be a public rather than a private expression, and his taste inclined toward representational over abstract art. Although he came into contact with Cubism and German Expressionism, what he admired were the paintings of the Early Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Baroque masters. In New York, where he stopped on both ends of his trip, he was impressed by the nineteenth-century American realist paintings of Winslow Homer and the new Regionalist works of Thomas Hart Benton. Like Benton, Sheets was interested in painting the rural world he knew in a style that the public could understand. During this time Sheets also developed the belief that the artist has a social responsibility to educate the public. This idea had been expressed in the twenties by the art critic Merle Armitage (who in 1935 wrote a book on Sheets) in an essay entitled “The Aristocracy of the Arts.” In this essay Armitage said that artists belonged to an aristocracy whose calling was to service.
In the next twenty years Sheets put his Regionalist beliefs into action as an artist, arts administrator, and educator, displaying a combination of ambition and energy that was formidable. During the thirties he exhibited his sumptuous landscapes celebrating the idyllic beauty of Southern California in exhibitions throughout the East and Midwest. In 1934 he served as a Regional Director of the Federal Art Project in Southern California, organizing artists to produce paintings, sculpture and crafts as part of a national artists’ reflief program during the Depression. At the same time he developed a career as an educator. After teaching in the late twenties at Chouinard in Los Angeles, he moved to Claremont in 1932. This move was, in effect, coming home for Sheets, who had grown up in the rural Pomona Valley. The Depression was a compelling reason for him to take a steady job, but Scripps was attractive to Sheets for other reasons. Encouraged by his high school art teachers, he has chosen Chouinard over Pomona; so his faculty appointment was a way to return to the academic environment he had missed in art school. At Scripps he built an art department and fostered the development of an arts community in Claremont.
Claremont was one of several arts communities that flourished during the Depression when Regionalism shifted attention from America’s cities to its outlying towns. In California the artistic community in Laguna Beach, which had formed in the teens by artists in the “Eucalyptus School” (the local artists who painted the arroyos and beaches of Southern California in pastel hues), expanded in the thirties. But Claremont did not emerge as an art center until the thirties when Sheets arrived. David W. Scott, Director of the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington D.C. from 1964-69, who studied under Sheets at Scripps in 1933 and later returned to teach art history and head the art department, said of this period:
There was an explosion of art activity in Claremont during the thirties, forties and early fifties which had a great impact throughout Southern California and, in addition, some significant effects nationally. Two forces, in particular, set this in motion: first, the liberal, humanistic philosophy which brought a unique spirit to Scripps at its founding and was embodied particularly in the creative enthusiasms of Professor Hartley Burr Alexander, who influenced the young Millard Sheets; secondly, Millard himself, amazingly dynamic, enthusiastic, gifted and versatile. (letter to Mary MacNaughton from David W. Scott, 21 June 1987)
Art Department Beginnings
Soon after his arrival at Scripps in 1932, Millard, who was only twenty-five years old and the only art instructor, began to build the art department. At the suggestion of Scripps President at the time, President Jaqua, Sheets organized a foundation to support the fine arts at Scripps. At the second meeting of the Fine Arts Foundation Sheets’ plea for a new art building attracted the attention of Florence Rand Lang, who later sent a certified check for $38,000. This was the first installment of funds for an arts complex of studios and galleries, which was built in three stages between 1937-39 (now where the Mallot Commons is located).
The Early Faculty
Sheets attracted a faculty to Scripps that made Claremont into a lively arts center. In 1935 he brought William Manker, a successful potter, to set up a ceramics department at Scripps. During the war years, architecture was taught by Charles Brooks and Whitney Smith; after the war, they were succeeded by Ted Criley. In 1939, Albert Stewart, a prominent sculptor from New York, joined the faculty in sculpture. In 1940 Jean Goodwin Ames, an accomplished muralist, began teaching design. In 1943 Sheets added Henry Lee McFee in painting and, in 1948, Richard Petterson in ceramics. Sheets also set up a program in weaving, first taught by Mary Easton Gleason, then by Marion Stewart. In 1950 Phil Dike, another leading Southern California Regionalist painter, joined the faculty in painting. Sheets also attracted other Regionalist painters, such as Rex Brandt and Phil Paradise, as visiting artists. In addition, he brought in other artists, such as James Chapin and Sueo Seriwasa, for short-term appointments. During this time there were also the talented typographers and book designers Ruth Thomson Saunders, Ward Ritchie, and Joe Foster, who were not on the art faculty but who contributed to the arts at Scripps.
Sheets expanded the awareness of art not only among college students but also the general public. From 1931 to 1956 (with a break during World War II), he organized major at exhibitions for the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona, which each year introduced thousands of Southern Californians, many of whom had little exposure to art, to the works of some of the finest artists and craftsmen in Southern California.