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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Millard Sheets

Golden Gate Passage, ca. 1950's, Millard Sheets
For over thirty years, my wife and I did art shows, starting in the spring and ending just days before Christmas each year. When the crowds were good, when sales were good, they were kind of fun to do. When both those factors were lacking, they were boring, depressing, and distressing. One thing good about either type of show was that it kept me in touch with the buying (and not buying) public. It wasn't hard to realize what people liked and what they were willing to pay for in decorating the rooms of their homes (not always one and the same thing). I was fortunate in that, as a canvas painter, I was operating at the high end of the local art market. Not only that, I carried with me a relatively large inventory spread over a great variety of content areas from portraits to cute little kitty cats. In between was some depth of landscapes, genre, children being children, still-lifes, etc. Although I could have, what I didn't stock were watercolors. There were good reasons for that. Such works are fragile, framed or unframed, heavy (when framed under glass) unimpressive and difficult to display when unframed, every bit as much work as a canvas painting, not to mention technically quite challenging. The most important factor, however, was that the buying public simply did not (and I assume, still does not today) respect such works on paper as they do the more substantial and impressive looking canvas painting. Thus, prices were less.

Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco, 1965, Millard Sheets
Having said all that, I have only the greatest respect for watercolor artists such as Millard Sheets (top). Having painted with watercolors in college and gained some degree of facility in the medium, I came to know how cantankerous and unforgiving such waterborne pigments can be. It always irked me somewhat, in watching an expert in handling such a herd of cats bleeding and blending around on wet paper how easy they made it look. Depending upon the artist's style, watercolors demand every bit as much drawing skill as canvas painting, and if the artists works on location (as many still do) come laden with the baggage and environmental discomfort that entails. Give me the heated/air-conditioned, bug free, wind free, weather-controlled luxury of a comfortable, indoor studio any day. Believe me, watercolorists earn their money. Their major problem is getting paid for their efforts. I don't know if the California based artist, Millard Sheets had that problem, but I'd guess he did, it goes (as they say) with the territory.
Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco ca. 1950, Millard Sheets
Millard Sheets
However, if you're good...I mean really good (as Sheets obviously was), you rate gallery representation which takes away much of the marketing hassles...for a price, of course. Unlike myself, Sheets was fortunate to live in the Los Angeles art hotbed (as opposed to southeastern Ohio). Except for New York and possibly Chicago, there's nowhere else in the U.S. where art in general, and watercolor in particular, is so richly admired. Moreover, as can be seen by the representative sample of his work seen here, Sheets not only knew how to paint, he knew what to paint. In essence, he painted California. Having been there last year, that's a very big wonderland of content from which to draw. Sheets was born there in 1907. He had a ringside seat in growing up, especially in the post WW II years as the state exploded in population and urban development. Freeways were built, L.A. high-rises replaced orange trees, golf courses spread like algae, agriculture catapulted from a few Napa vineyards to make the state the fruit (and vegetable) basket of the nation. Sheets lived, saw, and painted all that.

Sunset Tenements, 1930s, Millard Sheets
Angel's Flight, 1931, Millard Sheets
Not all of Sheets' watercolors depict the hyperactive tourist landmarks and extreme natural beauty of the California experience. The sudden, rapid growth of the state, starting in the late 1940s, and the years since, inevitably left blighted areas such as the colorful Sunset Tenements (above). Yet, not far removed, Sheets painted passengers arriving at Los Angeles International Airport in 1951, shortly after it was designated LAX (below). His dizzying Angel's Flight (left), from 1931, hints at soaring heights the city was to reach, both physically and figuratively during Sheets' lifetime and career in painting it all. Besides Los Angeles, Sheets seems to have fallen in love with the city of San Francisco as well. (What artist hasn't?) His Golden Gate Passage (top) is one of the best artist's renderings of the bridge I've ever encountered (and I saw quite a few during just the few days we spent in the city). Fisherman's Wharf, as depicted by Sheets, in large part no longer exists. It's long been replaced with chic seafood restaurants, souvenir shops, and amusement park like entertainment.

Night Arrival DC-6 Airplane, 1951, Millard Owen Sheets.
This scene was featured in the United Airline 1951 Calendar.
Even more impressive than Sheet's calendar DC-6 watercolor was a much larger piece of airport art painted by Sheets in in the late 1980s. This one was painted on canvas glued to a sheet-rocked wall in Terminal C of the San Jose Airport. It was Millard Sheets' last work (below), completed by his assistants after his death in 1989. The work depicts scenes from early life in California’s Santa Clara Valley, including images of the Ohlone Indians, Spanish settlers, and American pioneers. In 2010, as Terminal C faced demolition, ARG Conservation Services was retained by the San Jose Public Art Program to assess the feasibility of moving and preserving the 18-foot by 30-foot mural, long a community favorite. The firm performed an exploratory investigation, removing a small section of the mural’s canvas to assess the interior of the wall. They then outlined procedures for the removal of the mural. The beloved mural was successfully removed and re-installed in a new terminal of the airport the following year.

San Jose Airport Mural, 1989, Millard-Sheets
Besides airport terminals, the largest collection of Millard Sheets' watercolors can be found inside the Millard Sheets Center for the Arts at Fairplex, Pomona, California (below). Works there feature Sheets' broad interest in locale's far removed from the big cities. Sheets' San Dimas Train Station, from 1933, captures the lonely, depression desperation rampant in the California hinterlands, but so typical of small railroad stops all across the country.

Millard Sheets Center for the Arts at Fairplex, Pomona, California.

San Dimas Train Station, 1933, Millard Sheets
Mostly, however, Sheets painted the best the west had to offer, from Sun Valley Skiers (Idaho) to concerts at the Hollywood Bowl. He even ventured to the state's "next door" neighbor to the west, visiting and painting Diamond Head Beach, Hawaii, before the state became a state. In his painting, Navajos, Sheets not only captured the stunning beauty of Monument Valley (Utah/Arizona) but that of its colorful, native inhabitants as well. And finally, what kind of portrait of California would it be without the iconic footnote featuring the states biggest tourist attraction (bottom). Disney had his Snow White and Snow White had her castle, the iconic centerpiece of Disney and his land. But despite all this, my guess is the cartoon artist/entrepreneur not only knew of Millard Sheets, but may have even envied his work.

Sun Valley Skiers, ca. 1950s, Millard Sheets
Symphony Under the Stars, 1956, Millard Sheets
Diamond Head Beach, Hawaii, 1950s, Millard Owen Sheets

Navajos, Millard Sheets
Disneyland, Anaheim, California, Millard Sheets


1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful and thoughtful tribute to my grandfather. I have been fortunate enough to have seen an amazing amount of his art. There are murals, primarily mosaic, all over southern California, and elsewhere. I hadn't realized that this was his last, and that his studio staff had completed it after his death. Thank you for that information. You might be interested to know that the mural was initially deemed impossible to remove safely, and that my uncle spearheaded it's eventual removal and re-installation.

    Millard ("Yar") Sheets III