Happy Centennial, The Huntington

hundred years ago, Henry and Arabella Huntington signed a trust agreement that left the buildings and grounds of their San Marino estate, plus their remarkable collections, to the public.

They were both extremely wealthy when they married in 1913, and both were serious collectors. Arabella had been married to Henry’s uncle, Collis Huntington, one of the Big Four of Western railroading who founded the Central Pacific Railroad (later called the Southern Pacific), part of the first transcontinental railroad.

After Collis died in 1900, Henry spent several years courting Arabella. It may have appeared scandalous, but Henry and Arabella were actually closer in age than she to her former husband—and Henry seemed genuinely smitten with her.

He collected rare books, while she was fond of European paintings, jewelry and antiques—and soon enough he became interested in the fine arts, also. He became especially enamored of 18th century British portraiture, and today people travel from all over the world to see two romantic full-length portraits, Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” and Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Blue Boy,” hung in the British gallery of the mansion. A few of the exquisite Medieval and Renaissance paintings she owned, including Rogier van der Weyden’s “Virgin and Child,” are on display elsewhere in the same building.

Since Henry and Arabella’s time, the library and art collection have expanded by leaps and bounds, and in recent decades the museum has begun to collect and exhibit American art, as well. They started collecting American art only in 1979, with a gift of 50 paintings from the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation. Five years later the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art was created, with a major expansion in 2009. The library is in its own building and has exhibition galleries for the public and research facilities for scholars.

Of course, many visitors also come to see the gardens with different blooms at different times of the year. They are themed, including the Japanese garden, the rose garden, the camellia garden, the desert garden, and the newest one, still under expansion, the Chinese garden.

Celebrating 100 years, the Huntington is presenting several new exhibitions and programs—and a name change. Formerly, it was known as the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

“Our art collections are more than a group of cataloged objects; they are carefully curated, interpreted and exhibited,” says Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence during a recent presentation to announce their centennial year.

“An added benefit to this change is that we become more discoverable, particularly in online searches. This is important as we work to widen our audiences and accessibility.” 

Christina Nielsen, director of the art museum, adds later in an email, “Simply put, the word ‘museum’ more accurately describes our mission in today’s vernacular. It conveys that this place, which does hold some 42,000 art objects in its collection, is not just a repository.”

The pivotal exhibition will be “Nineteen Nineteen” (September 21 to February 20) in the Boone Gallery, an exhibition looking back to the landmark year when the Huntingtons signed the document creating what is now popularly known as The Huntington.

Using 275 objects from their own collection, curators James Glisson and Jennifer Watts tells a story about what else happened that year—a lot, as it turns out. Europe was trying to recover from a World War, American soldiers returned, women fought for the right to vote, the flu pandemic struck down millions, violent attacks were inflicted upon African Americans, and high inflation fueled labor unrest. Glisson calls it “an inflection point for world history.” 

In theory, they had millions of objects to choose from—the library alone has 11 million objects. However, Glisson says, “The show’s based on a constraint, and that is, everything had to be made copyrighted, altered, exhibited, acquired, the list of verbs can go on, in the year 1919.”

It took three years to narrow down that checklist, and as they did they formed five key themes to organize the material around—“Fight,” “Return.” “Map,” “Move” and “Build.” 

The opening section “Fight,” for example, features the expected—a look at the devastation of World War I. However, some of the objects may be unexpected, such as a sketch by John Singer Sargent of soldiers suffering a mustard gas attack. The struggle for women’s suffrage is shown through a photo of National Woman’s Party members burning “President Wilson’s Meaningless Words on Democracy,” at a time when women were denied the right to vote. The exhibition uses the breadth of Huntington’s holdings, including photographs, handbill and posters, books and documents, objects and art.

“Maps” has maps, of course, but as Watts says, maps also tell a story. There will be a map of the city of Los Angeles in 1919, done by Laura L. Whitlock, L.A. County’s official cartographer. At that time, Watts says, our electric train system was the most extensive in the world, and the centerpiece of this section will be a 37-foot long, hand-drawn map to be displayed flat in a showcase. Done by the Pacific Electric, it details sections of the electric train system in 1919 and the parcels of land around it.

“It goes from Old Town Pasadena all the way to the edge of downtown, to Soto Street,” says the curator. “That map is really incredible. It not only shows transportation networks but real estate domains…additions and redactions over time.”

The story of Henry Huntington, who invested heavily in that network, is pulled in here, as in a number of other places. “It makes the interesting point that Huntington is selling off and investing in a lot of lots of adjacent to the streetcar lines,” Glisson says. “He’s kind of a quintessential Californian because he’s really making his money in real estate.”

The “Build” section focuses on the Huntington’s, and the institution they founded. For years Henry had kept his library in New York, but in 1919 he started building one on the San Marino estate. When it was finished in 1921, he shipped his books here. The Chicago Tribune heralded the event with the lines, “One of the largest and most extensive private libraries in the world is being built at San Marino…and when this is completed it also will be conveyed to the public.”

For the centennial, the library offers an exhibition in two parts, “What Now:  Collection for the Library in the 21st Century” (Part I: October 19, 2019, to February 17, 2020; Part II: May 1 to August 24, 2020). It will show more than 100 acquisitions representing areas in which the library has grown.

With 750,000 visitors a year, the Huntington is one of the most popular destinations in Southern California.

“Today we take a moment…to think about our future,” says Lawrence during a centennial presentation, “and the future and the ideas that will propel us all for the next 100 years. For an institution turning 100, a centennial is a moment to be like Janus, looking back and forward at the same time. Today we’re celebrating how far we’ve come, and reflect on where we want to go.”  

Pasadena philanthropists Carol and Warner Henry are guardian angels for L.A. Opera and LACO.

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arol and Warner Henry are two of the biggest supporters of classical music in Los Angeles: She’s chairman of the executive committee of L.A. Opera’s board; he’s one of five board vice chairmen. When they met, he was already a huge fan of classical music, inspiring her to love it too — love it so much that she joined an early support group for opera, the Opera League, and then helped to found L. A. Opera in 1986.

Carol was born in Baltimore; her family moved to Chicago before heading to Sacramento when she was nine. “My main memories of growing up are of Sacramento,” she says during a recent afternoon in their dining room in Pasadena. The view out the window is of the lush green Arroyo, with the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. Warner, in contrast, is a native Angeleno, born at Good Samaritan Hospital downtown and raised in Hancock Park. 

As a young man he had been a serious jazz fan. While a Stanford student, he often went to San Francisco to enjoy the lively music scene. “I’d listen to Turk Murphy and Bob Scobey, they were Dixieland jazz people,” he recalls with a smile. “And there were a couple of new guys getting started — one named Dave Brubeck, another one named George Shearing. I started hitting the bars they were playing in. A professor said, ‘If you’re interested in them, you should take Music 1.’” So he did. “When I heard Bach, it was all over — he was the original boogie-er,” Warner continues. For him, listening to classical music is “a spiritual experience. It reaches a part of you that isn’t reached in any other way.”

After college, he served two years in the Navy before returning to Palo Alto for Stanford’s business school. Carol attended Stanford at the same time, but their paths didn’t cross until after both moved to Southern California. Warner returned in 1963 to join the family business, a glue and roofing products manufacturing company started by his father in 1933, and Carol settled in Manhattan Beach, teaching elementary school — “We taught every subject, including P. E.” The two were introduced by Warner’s cousin.

“When Carol and I started dating I was going to about 50 concerts a year, about one a week,” Warner says. “She just got on the train and came along with me.” He laughs, as Carol looks on with an approving smile.   

“Growing up in Sacramento, the music that I knew was musical theater,” Carol recalls. “We had very good musical theater, and we would also go to San Francisco for musical theater. And I loved it. Then I met Warner, who had studied classical music at Stanford, and I discovered this art form that was both wonderful musical theater and also beautiful music.” That art form was opera, and in the 1980s Carol became an early member of the Opera League, along with fellow Pasadenan Alice Coulombe and Lorraine Saunders of San Marino.  In the early days, they were a presenting organization, hosting touring opera companies, such as the New York City Opera. But they believed L.A. deserved its own opera company, and in 1986 L.A. Opera was born.

The Henrys’ longtime support of the acclaimed company is well known in the classical music community. “Carol and Warner are pioneering and visionary founders of L.A. Opera; they helped create a world-class opera company where none had existed before,” says L.A. Opera President/CEO Christopher Koelsch. “They’ve been an essential part of the company ever since those formational early seasons, and they’ve been incredibly generous with their time, wisdom, inspiration and philanthropy throughout it all. The company would be simply unimaginable without them.”

These days the opera presents a full season, with the prominent tenor Placido Domingo as general manager. The Henrys are quick to point out they don’t do the programming — “It’s totally up to the professionals,” Carol says — but they have created the Carol and Henry Warner Production Fund for Mozart Operas. “We both feel that Mozart’s music is the most beautiful of all,” she says.

L. A. Opera’s upcoming season includes two Mozart operas underwritten by the Henrys — The Magic Flute (Nov. 16 through Dec. 15 ) and The Marriage of Figaro (June 6 through 28, 2020), but the uninitiated should expect some surprises. This highly popular production of The Magic Flute, which originated at Berlin’s Komische Opera and returns for its third run here, uses original animation to provide the backdrop and the fantastical creatures. The singers are made up and dressed in costumes mimicking silent-era black-and-white film.

Also of particular note this season is a world premiere of Eurydice (February 2020) with music by Matthew Aucoin and libretto by Sarah Ruhl, which will retell the Orpheus myth from the heroine’s point of view. And of course there will be opera greats treading the boards. Renowned lyric soprano Renée Fleming stars in Adam Guettel’s Tony-winning musical, Light in the Piazza (October), about an American woman who takes her grown daughter on tour of romantic Florence in the 1950s. And in February and March 2020, Domingo sings the prominent role of the Duke of Nottingham in Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux

For those put off by opera’s stuffy reputation, Carol points out that there’s no formal dress code anymore, and there are special programs with relatively affordable pricing. The Aria Package for people under 40 also offers special events for socializing and the Newcomer Package includes backstage tours, preshow discussions and even easy payment plans.

While L. A. Opera declines to reveal how much the Henrys have donated, and the couple themselves are not boastful people, it’s fair to assume their contributions are generous. The Henrys helped set up the Founding Angels program for donors who give at least $1 million over a four-year period. They were also early supporters of Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), and in 2017 they donated $1.5 million to the group to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It was the largest gift in LACO’s history.

It’s certainly money well spent, given the wealth of musical talent available in this area, including those versed in the more “serious” arts. “We discovered that more than 50 years ago when Neville Mariner was auditioning musicians for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra,” says Warner. “He said, ‘I’m overcome by the quality of musicians in this city! Not in London, not in Berlin, not in Vienna, not even in New York are there musicians of such uniformly high quality.’ And it’s [because of] the studios that they were playing for, as well as the USC [Thornton] School of Music, and now, the Colburn. We are awash in great orchestral musicians.”

Echiko Ohira’s stunning paper sculptures go on view at L.A.’s Craft Contemporary this fall in the Pasadena artist’s first one-woman museum show

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aper is Echiko Ohira’s medium of choice. Not only does she draw and paint on it, as many artists do, she dyes it, cuts it, tears it into pieces, crumples it and assembles it into sculptural configurations that can look like a giant rose or, when compacted, an oval stone. She learned how to do all this pretty much by herself, through experimentation with inexpensive or found material. Some of her early works were made from paper shopping bags.  “We had so many of them,” she says, during a studio visit, “and I thought they shouldn’t go to waste.”

This month, Echiko, who lives in Pasadena with her artist husband, Minoru, will have her first museum exhibition at Craft Contemporary in midtown Los Angeles. Finding the Center: Works by Echiko Ohira opens Sept. 29 and runs through Jan. 5, 2020, showcasing some 40 artworks of hers from the last three decades. “I love the density and layering she creates in her pieces,” says Holly Jerger, the museum’s exhibition curator. “I personally love works using paper. It’s a material most people think of as a flat surface, but she can layer it so dramatically.”

Jerger had seen her work at several group shows, including one at the now-shuttered Offramp Gallery in Pasadena and in Paperworks, a 2015 group show at Craft Contemporary, when it was known as the Craft & Folk Art Museum. In recent years the museum has been moving away from folk art and traditional craft in favor of contemporary art at the exciting intersection between craft and design — thus the name change.

Echiko grew up in Tokyo, where her architect father would bring home scrap blueprints for the kids to draw on. (She is the youngest of six.) She later studied graphic design at the prestigious Musashino Art University. Shortly after graduating, she attended an art opening where she met Minoru Ohira, a successful young sculptor who was
already getting gallery shows and winning commissions. They married, and in 1979 they moved to Mexico. “I wanted to see the world. Japan is a small island,” says Echiko, who still speaks English haltingly. “I was very curious. And we were both interested in pre-Columbian art.” The low cost of living also helped them stretch out Minoru’s earnings.

In 1982 they decided to return to Japan, so they packed up their things, put them in a van and drove across the U.S. border to Southern California. “We wanted to look around,” says Minoru, who joined us for part of the interview. “We saw we could do something here, [different] kinds of possibilities,” Echiko adds. “It was more free.”

They had planned to stay just a few months, then ship their things back to Japan. But they ended up settling in L.A. At first Minoru made a living doing carpentry, then began to show some of his sculptural pieces in commercial galleries and museums. They lived downtown when downtown was more affordable, but when they decided to buy a house, they turned to Pasadena, where they found a bungalow in 1987. Echiko started making art in the mid-’80s and says she may have been influenced by all the arts and crafts they saw in Mexico. “The materials they used were so simple.”

Today the couple shares a studio in San Gabriel, with Minoru’s workshop and machinery in the front, and Echiko working in rooms on the side and in the back. They’ve been there for more than two decades, and work is stored everywhere, propped against tables and walls, and of course in flat metal files. A petite woman with an elegant demeanor, Echiko gives me a tour through her area, filled with drawings and collage on flat paper, as well as sculptural works on the wall, a table or the floor.

Three of her larger works are on the floor, and she gingerly removes the protective plastic sheets so I can see better. Part of her Red Whirl series, the paper sheets were painted deep crimson before being assembled. They look like giant roses, their “petals” gathered densely around a center. The artist likes to work with a limited palette, mostly white, red, brown and sometimes black. White is the paper’s natural color, and she uses a watered-down acrylic for the red and black; sometimes she stains the paper with tea, which yields a soft beige and brown.

From a flat file, Echiko pulls out two albums from the late 1990s. She opens them and randomly begins to pull out one sheet at a time. “I made one every day,” she says. On the middle of each sheet is a drawing or collage or combination thereof. “It was a kind of diary,” she notes. Some individual pages may be in the Craft Contemporary show, but it hadn’t been finalized as of our interview.

Working with paper came naturally to Echiko, she says. There was always plenty of it around, and some early work was made with recycled material. She has also used newspaper, cardboard and craft paper. It’s no coincidence that several early sculptures seem to refer to the torso or the spine — she was having chronic back problems then. Untitled (Torso) (1995), measuring nearly six feet tall, is made from hundreds of pieces of tea-stained cardboard stacked horizontally, wider at the top and narrower at the bottom, like a person’s back. Nearby on a rear wall is a more columnar piece, Black Torso, made seven years later and painted in gray-black acrylic.

More recent work in the show will include the “globes,” stone-like shapes the size of ostrich eggs sitting on a table. She made them by wetting paper and forcing it into round plastic containers — she shows me a storage container she used. Then she lets them dry and paints them, at some point coating them with beeswax. While her techniques may not be complicated, they are very time-consuming.

Fortunately, her back is much better now, Echiko tells me. How did she do it? Through exercise — yoga and “every morning walking in the neighborhood.”

Finding the Center: Works by Echiko Ohira runs from Sept. 29 through Jan. 5, 2020, at Craft Contemporary, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. the first Thursday of every month. Admission costs $9, $7 for students, teachers and seniors 65 and up; free for members and children under 10.

The Return of Memphis

The postmodern design dialect from the ’80s lives on in colorful, fanciful furnishings and home décor.

 

Memphis can mean different things to different people. For some it’s the city in Tennessee where strains of blues, soul and rock ’n’ roll were born; for others it’s the ancient Egyptian city of the dead. It can also mean a colorful design style that sprouted in Milan, Italy, thrived internationally in the 1980s and is having something of a revival today.

Two years ago the Met Breuer in New York helped launch the revival with a major retrospective on Ettore Sottsass, the key founder of the Memphis Group. Last year Nordstrom’s flagship store in Seattle threw together a Memphis Milano popup store, featuring various home accessories and furnishings from greeting cards and toothbrushes to colorful tables and chairs, including Peter Shire’s fanciful “Bel Air” chair. Los Angeles–based Shire was the only American among Memphis’ original members, designing for the group’s line throughout its seven years of existence. Loyal followers of Memphis design included David Bowie and Karl Lagerfeld. The latter, who died in February, bought key items in the collection for his apartment in Monaco. He had Ettore Sottsass’ multi-colored “Carlton” room divider, George James Sowden’s plump red “Oberoi” chair and Masanori Umeda’s “Tawaraya” square lounge or “conversation pit,” resembling a boxing ring with striped sides.

The Nordstrom pop-up was initiated by Nordstrom’s VP of Creative Projects, Olivia Kim. “I’ve been a huge Memphis fan since I was a child,” she told Adpro, an online offshoot of Architectural Digest. She herself has a collection of Memphis objects, still being produced through an Italian company.

Furthermore, young designers today are being influenced by Memphis. “There is a lot of revival going on,” says David Mocarski, chair of graduate and undergraduate environmental design at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, “around the world with the younger generation — in Los Angeles, New York, Berlin and everywhere else.”

Memphis design was born some four decades ago. Many see it as part of the postmodern movement in design and architecture. In December 1980 Sottsass — a veteran designer who had worked with modernist George Nelson and in the electronics division of Olivetti, where he designed the famous red “Valentine” typewriter — gathered together other young designers for discussion and brainstorming. During the meeting they listened to Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” Thus the name, Memphis Group, coined by Sottsass’ wife, Barbara Radice; Shire credits her with a lot of the group’s organizing and success.

The next year they debuted their first collection of clocks, lamps, cabinets, sofas and tables at Milan’s famous annual furniture fair, the Salone del Mobile, where they caused a sensation. “The night we launched Memphis, during the Salone del Mobile, we could not believe that the road in front of the showroom had to be closed after an hour because so many people were on the street,” designer Matteo Thun told Wallpaper in 2011. Suzanne Slesin reported in The New York Times, “Billed as the New International Style, Memphis is an outrageous collection of bizarre colors and shapes designed by Ettore Sottsass, the genial guru of Italian design, and a group of international architects and designers… An effervescent, seductive and undeniably sympathetic group, it appalled some and amused others but put everyone attending the fair in a state of high excitement.”

American Peter Shire, who had studied ceramics at Chouinard Art Institute, was already making unusual, angled teapots. “I was making pots and attempting to make something I hadn’t seen before, and nobody else had seen before,” says Shire during an interview at his Echo Park studio. Having heard about the young Los Angeles artist, Sottsass visited him here and invited him to join the group. “He had an approach that wasn’t design-centric, it was art-centric,” says Shire. “It was about emotions and impact, it wasn’t about solutions and dictating a lifestyle. The other thing was that he spoke English and he spoke it well.”

A lifelong Angeleno, Shire was influenced by his father, an illustrator who was also a carpenter. They made furniture together, so he was familiar with the field. He did travel to Italy to work with Memphis but did most of his work for them by remote. “They’d tell me which things they’d be interested in,” Shire says.

In his studio we are surrounded by geometric ceramics and sculpture that reflect the colorful, whimsical Memphis style, though of course each designer in the group had his or her own personal style as well. “I sent them in the mail — drawings, thumbnail sketches. The first year they asked for a vanity, and I sent [a design for] a table, also. The table was a better fit, so they did something they didn’t even ask me for. I took that strategy and would send 60 or 70 designs at a time, I sent dozens on a sheet.” He became known for several pieces of furniture, including the “Bel Air” chair, with a tall back in the shape of a quarter-circle, and arm rests in two different colors. Also iconic was his “Brazil” table with its elongated triangular top in canary yellow — a piece that was in Lagerfeld’s collection.

Shire’s pieces were emblematic of the Memphis style, with its bright colors — often in sharp juxtaposition to another in the same piece — squiggles and stripes and shapes that emphasized geometry. The very titles of the pieces offered at the group’s first Milan show reflect the exuberant eccentricity of their aesthetics: Sottsass’s “Beverly” cabinet and “Tahiti” lamp Sowden’s “Oberoi” armchair and de Lucchi’s “Oceanic Lamp.” A number of critics and design historians have likened Memphis furniture to children’s toys and building blocks.

Design trends are not accidental — they are often a response to something in the sociopolitical fabric. “When Memphis started, it was a really, really serious time for modern design,” says Mocarski via telephone from Milan, where he was attending this year’s Salone del Mobile. “It had been a period of extremely modern design, ultra minimalist to the point where everyone was wondering, What happened to humor, to fun in design? What happened to color? Everyone was living in a super serious world, with all the nasty stuff going on. We had just gotten through the whole Vietnam War thing; there had been a lot of social unrest, just like we have now.” Mocarski adds, “Memphis, postmodern design was very influential on graphics, too. We began to see more fonts, more colors used.”

Due to limited and highly customized production, Memphis items were always expensive, beyond the means of the middle class, and some pieces were impractical — the chairs were comically uncomfortable. The group disbanded in 1988, but new Memphis pieces are still being manufactured in Italy. You can purchase them directly from memphis-milano.com, or visit the authorized American distributor in New York, Urban Architecture (there is no official distributor in California, alas). Auctions occasionally offer vintage Memphis pieces, or you can check out various online sellers such as 1stdibs.com, chairish.com and pamono.com.  


Los Angeles pop-up gallery Furth Yashar presents a special exhibition, Peter Shire: Good Taste, from May 7 through 11 at the new Farrow & Ball La Cienega Design Quarter showroom, 741 N. La Cienega, L.A.

The Legacy of Nelbert Chouinard

The name Chouinard has a special place in the cultural history of Los Angeles, and that is because of Nelbert Murphy Chouinard, a dedicated arts educator who in 1921 founded one of the city’s earliest and most respected art academies, the Chouinard Art Institute. Its prominent alumni include such artists as Don Bachardy, Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha; animators Mary Blair and Chuck Jones and costume designers Edith Head and Bob Mackie. The school hasn’t existed as a separate entity since the late 1960s, when it was absorbed into California Institute of the Arts under the guidance of Roy Disney, executing a plan approved by his late brother Walt.

As a young woman, Nelbert (1879-1969) herself had received art training and had at least one gallery show in the Pasadena area, where she lived most of her adult life. Yet few have seen the art she made. Recently, her extended family generously gave the Pasadena Museum of History five of her artworks — three landscape paintings and two preparatory sketches — along with personal effects including old photographs, dresses and her diploma from The Pratt Institute in New York. The paintings are typical of early 1900s California landscapes; one, for example, showing a tall, stately eucalyptus towering over a cluster of plants on a gentle slope, all framed against the background of clear blue sky.

“We’re very excited to get this gift,” says Jeannette O’Malley, executive director of the museum. “It’s especially important because Nelbert was an influential educator. Many people have no idea she had roots in Pasadena.” Currently, the works are part of the exhibition California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960 curated by Maurine St. Gaudens and Joseph Morsman. The show has been extended to April 13.

Chouinard was born Nelbertina (or Nelibertina, the family’s not certain) Murphy to Ruth Helen Lawrence Murphy and Dr. Francis Lea Murphy on Feb. 9, 1879, in Montevideo, Minnesota. When she was very young, her older brother, Lloyd, shortened her name, and it stuck. “She was always Nelbert,” recalls Karen Laurence, Lloyd’s granddaughter and Nelbert’s grandniece, who now lives in New York. Her parents had met at Chouinard, and she also attended the school as a child. “Aunt Nelbert was what we were supposed to call her back in the day.”

In the early 1900s, Nelbert’s parents sent her off to New York to study at the Pratt Institute — apparently, according to Laurence, to prevent… what they regarded as an unfortunate marriage to a local Episcopalian minister, Horace Albert “Bert” Chouinard. In 1904 Nelbert received a diploma for a “Normal Art and Manual Training course of two years” from Pratt; that diploma is part of the gift to the museum.

When Dr. Murphy retired, he and his wife moved to the bucolic little town of South Pasadena, settling in a house on Garfield Avenue. In 1909 Nelbert also moved west, to a house at 917 San Pasqual St., Pasadena, which was very convenient since she taught studio art at the nearby Throop Polytechnic Institute (later the California Institute of Technology).

Nelbert was also painting in her studio and had at least one show at a Pasadena gallery, in 1916. At some point, and here the story is murky, she remet Chouinard, by then a retired U. S. Army chaplain living in El Paso, Texas. He married Nelbert in 1916 but, sadly, fell ill and died only two years later.

Nelbert returned to California to live with her parents and teach at the newly opened Otis Art Institute, then the largest art school west of Chicago. With Otis getting very crowded by 1921, the 42-year-old artist decided to open her own school, the Chouinard Art Institute, in a rented two-story house on 8th Street near downtown L.A. Assisting her were Frank Tolles Chamberlin, a painter and sculptor, and Donald Graham, a recent Stanford University graduate. In 1929 she managed to move the school into its own building, designed by the firm of Morgan, Walls and Clements, at 743 S. Grand View St., near MacArthur Park.

Her San Pasqual house is no more, but the Garfield Avenue house still stands, though it’s hard to see from the street. “My mother remembered the originally much smaller house sitting on two and a half acres of land surrounded by empty fields,” recalls Laurence. After World War II, Laurence’s family moved to the area when Nelbert offered her artist/animator father, Harry O. Diamond, the job of directing “The School,” as the family called the art academy. “My mother desperately wanted to go home to California, so Nelbert’s offer to run Chouinard seemed ideal,” Laurence recalls. “But by the time my parents had pulled up stakes, packed up the family and arrived back in Los Angeles, Nelbert, as she often did, rescinded the offer.” The strong-willed woman had second thoughts about sharing control. But Diamond ultimately taught there, on and off, for 18 years. During that time Laurence and her family paid regular visits to Aunt Nelbert. “She was beloved by our family,” she says. “I would describe her as fearless, passionate and completely committed to the importance of art education.”

Nelbert firmly believed in teaching students the three basics: drawing, color and design — with drawing the most important.  She managed to attract highly talented teachers such as Don Graham, who taught drawing to Walt Disney’s animators. “Don was a very educated guy, and in his classes we learned art history along with drawing,” says Laurence. In the 1950s the school became accredited and added academic courses to its raft of studio classes.

Despite its success, the school was running on a shoestring. With Nelbert’s declining health and the school’s diminishing financial resources, the Chouinard board sought out Walt Disney’s help. Nelbert herself passed away in 1969 at age 90, and the last class to graduate from Chouinard was in 1972. Some graduates went on to art-related careers, others did something completely different, but many came away with fond memories of their days at Chouinard. “She wanted to show people the possibilities,” Laurence says. “And she would say this to anyone: ‘No matter what you do later in life, you will all be the better for having studied art.’” 

Chouinard’s artwork can be viewed in California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960, which runs through April 13 at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. Exhibition hours are noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Admission costs $9; members and children under 12 are admitted free. Call (626) 577-1660 or visit pasadenahistory.org.

The Jamestown Settlement tells long-lost tales of diverse women — and much more — in colonial America

The role of women in early American history is being re-examined in a new exhibition at the Jamestown Settlement museum in Williamsburg, Virginia. Through documents, artifacts and interpretative text, Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia (through Jan. 5, 2020) is part of a movement by many cultural institutions to take a broader and more inclusive look at history, one that tries to encompass the participation of women, American Indians and African Americans.

Take the case of Pocahontas, the only woman from that period whose name most of us know — a museum display tells us how important she was, yet we also realize how little we know about her. That account by colonist John Smith about her saving his head from the chopping block? Probably just yarn-spinning on his part. And no, she did not marry Smith, as the Disney cartoon tells us; she married a tobacco planter named John Rolfe. Unfortunately, she left no firsthand accounts of her life and times.

For history buffs — or those who like to combine education with their vacay — this part of Tidewater Virginia offers a bounty: Three major sites of early American history are contained on one peninsula, bounded by the York River on one side and the James River on the other. Together they make up the Historic Triangle — Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg, named one of the top 15 U.S. cities in Travel +Leisure’s 2017 World’s Best Awards. First came Jamestown, named after King James I, who in 1606 granted a charter to the Virginia Company to found a colony on North American land claimed by the crown. After its three ships landed at Cape Henry in 1607, Jamestown became the first permanent English colony in North America. After Jamestown, the capital of the Virginia Colony moved a few miles inland to Williamsburg from 1699 to 1780; the 18th-century capital was resurrected into a full-scale historical restoration in the early-to-mid 20th century, thanks to the Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin of Bruton Parish Church and his benefactors John D. and Abby Aldrich Rockeller. Not far away, Yorktown was the site of the final great battle of the American Revolutionary War, when the Continental Army forced the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis and his Redcoats in 1781.

The Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation runs two of the important museums here — Jamestown Settlement and American Revolution Museum at Yorktown — and both have family-friendly galleries filled with fascinating documents, maps, artifacts and videos. The new show, Tenacity, is at Jamestown Settlement, and it highlights the roles of English, Native American and African women with illustrations, text and 60 artifacts, many borrowed from other institutions.

The native population initially had fairly harmonious relations with the new English settlers. Pocahontas was the favorite daughter of Powhatan, the chief who oversaw about 30 tribes in the area. Her story has a prominent place in the permanent galleries, which are being revamped, as well as at the museum at Historic Jamestowne, which is on the original site run by the National Park Service. (More about that later.) Much of what we know is probably myth — John Smith, one of Jamestown’s first colonists, didn’t write about Pocahantas “saving” him until after he left the colonies. However, historians agree that she served as an important emissary between the colonists and her people — a display at the Historic Jamestowne museum calls her “Mother of Two Nations.”   

Her participation didn’t come about willingly. In 1613 she was kidnapped by the English during the first Anglo-Powhatan War, and during that time she learned English and was converted to Christianity.  She later married tobacco planter John Rolfe,  an alliance that contributed to many years of peace between Indians and colonists. A Jamestown Settlement museum display features various depictions of Pocahontas, mostly done after her death and highly imaginative. One painting is based on the only portrait made during her lifetime — Simon van de Passe’s 1616 engraving of Pocahontas, whose English name was Rebecca, splendidly dressed in a tall hat and Jacobean court attire with a semi-circular lace collar. The portrait was commissioned by the Virginia Company as propaganda for the colony, after having brought her and her husband to England in 1616. Pocahontas was reportedly treated like royalty, especially since she must have been quite a surprise to the English, who thought all Indians were uneducated savages.

Tenacity covers some other, lesser-known stories, including three that are highlighted. One concerns Anne Burras Laydon, who arrived in 1608 at age 14 as a maidservant, only one of two women on that second voyage (there were none in the first).  Another tells the story of Cockacoeske, an Indian woman called “Queen of the Pamunkey,” who ruled the tribe until her death in 1686. There’s also Mary Johnson, an African woman who arrived in 1623, working on a Southside Virginia plantation until she was able to gain her freedom and her own plot of land. Artifacts include the clothing they might have worn, household items they might have used and a page from the records of the Virginia Company (known as the Ferrar Papers), borrowed from Magdelene College, Cambridge, which lists the brave women who came over
in 1621.

Like the 90 women who’d arrived the previous year, these 56 women were purposely recruited to become wives and helpmates for the Jamestown men. While the page is faded, one can read the full list on a nearby interactive screen, which includes each woman’s age, parentage and references.  For example, on the ship the Marmaduke came Allice Burges, “Age 28 borne at Linton in Cambridgeshire her father and Mother are dead, hee was a husbandman.”

One outstanding feature of both Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum (ARM) are the outdoor “living history experiences.”  The former includes a full-scale reproduction of the original Jamestown fort, which was actually rather small, and the primary buildings within. Actors play the parts of soldiers, blacksmith, etc., and relay the story of the buildings and their work roles. ARM has recreated part of a Continental Army encampment, and one can witness an actual cannon being loaded and fired (into the woods, fortunately) — a multi-step procedure that involves three soldiers and an officer to bark out the commands. The encampment is worth as much time as the museum, as costumed actors demonstrate and explain how an army on the march would function.

The cook, for example, stands in a circular trench where stoves have been built into the earth. During my visit, the “cook” tells us, “Soldiers were given daily rations, including a portion of meat, hardtack, dried beans.” She shows us a sample of hardtack: a thick, unappetizing-looking biscuit that was easy to carry and long-lasting. “You can imagine how difficult this was to eat — soldiers might soak the hardtack in water or stew to soften it.” The medical tent displays a sample doctor’s kit with metal tools, and the “doctor” tells us about medical treatment on the battlefield — fast and crude. Further along is a Revolution-era farm based on the farm of Edward Moss
(c. 1757–1786), where interpreters describe agricultural and domestic life in those times.  Although not a landowner, Moss leased 200 acres and owned six slaves to help him work them — a grim reminder that slavery quickly became an institution in early America.

While in the area, be sure to visit Historic Jamestowne, the actual site of the first settlement, excavated and run by the National Park Service. The perimeters of the triangular fort are marked by posts, and you can see how it was situated right by the James River. You will also walk through some swampy areas that illustrate why many early settlers fell sick and died soon after they arrived — the location chosen was far from ideal for human habitation.

Buildings were eventually erected outside the fort, and they can still be seen as ruins and outlines as you walk around the park; only the small Memorial Church next to the fort has been rebuilt. Don’t miss the Voorhees Archaearium Archeology Museum where the excavated objects have been collected and displayed with excellent explanations.

Life in early Jamestown was hard, very hard — especially during one period when the English were at war with Powhatan and settlers were so starved and desperate they succumbed to cannibalism, evidence suggests. The museum is frank about the troubled relationship between the English and the Native Americans. While at first Powhatan seemed welcoming and traded goods, he must have eventually realized these foreigners were not going away. A tour through the actual landscape brings all this history alive in a most compelling way.

Jamestown Settlement is located at 2110 Jamestown Rd., Williamsburg, VA. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily until June 15 through Aug. 15, when it closes at 6 p.m. (Closed Christmas and New Year’s.) Admission costs $17.50, $8.25 for visitors 6 to 12; children under 6 are admitted free. A combination ticket that also includes the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown costs $26, $12.50 for 6 to 12. Visit visitwilliamsburg.com.

Mark Saltzman programs an eclectic array of concerts at Boston Court Pasadena

Many people know Boston Court Pasadena as a terrific place to catch theater — less well known is its lively and ongoing program of music ranging from classical to jazz to experimental. The upcoming winter/spring season promises to be another eclectic and exciting one, programmed by the energetic Mark Saltzman, the arts center’s artistic director of music for the past seven years.

Meeting in the venue’s sunlit lobby one afternoon, Saltzman talks about his background, how he got this dream job and what he has planned for next season. He’s dressed casually in a striped T-shirt, jeans and very spiffy sneakers. His smile is particularly dazzling, and he exudes a charisma that makes you understand why he was so successful as a performer, before becoming an administrator.

Born in Berkeley, Saltzman grew up, as he says, “in the middle of the Mojave Desert” — in Barstow. Even though it might have been remote, “at that time there were a lot of public school music programs. This was back in the ’60s, and they would provide an instrument for you at your school.” In the fourth grade he decided to take up the cello. “I thought the cello was a great instrument,” he says. “It sounds the most like the human voice.” He also studied piano but later, as an undergrad at UC Irvine, he majored in voice partly because he was so impressed with the head of the choral department, Maurice Allard. “He was handsome and erudite, and he had a beautiful baritone voice,” he says. “He was filled with spirit and life.” 

After graduation, Saltzman pursued a professional singing career — he is a tenor — and performed in opera and concert halls throughout the world. He eventually expanded into writing, directing and producing for companies such as the Los Angeles Opera, the Long Beach Opera, CalArts and the American Conference of Cantors. From 1983 to ’86 he lived in Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, where he joined the Music Theatre Studio Ensemble; the company was charged with creating “this new form called ‘music theater,’” which incorporated performance, readings and dance with music. 

After a tour of Europe, he came back to Los Angeles and was perturbed by his daughter’s reaction to his absence. “When she was about 4½ and I came home, I could tell she had a hard time recognizing me. So a job was offered to me to cantor by a synagogue in West Hollywood,” he says. “I was about 40 then, and I thought, it’s about time to settle in.” For 20 years he was the cantor for Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, where he is now cantor emeritus. It was a part-time job, which left him time to do other things, like compose music and write.

Eight years ago, Saltzman wrote a piece that interwove the story of human rights activist Elie Wiesel with the story of Job’s wife, to be presented at a special remembrance of the Holocaust sponsored by the City of West Hollywood. Jessica Kubzansky, Boston Court’s artistic director of theater, was hired to direct. At the time, the venue happened to be launching  a music series and, Kubzansky says, “It became clear that his many talents and skill sets were just what Boston Court needed to bring our music programming to the next level.” She invited him to come by to check out the facilities.

“I went to the concert hall, and I fell in love with it,” Saltzman says. In a few days, he drew up three years of programming, which he presented to their then–executive director, Michael Seel. “That space is really only good for acoustic music,” he told Seel. “We can do some electronics, but we can’t do rock and roll, it doesn’t work for that.” Seel was duly impressed and gave him the job. 

Boston Court has two theaters, and the music programs take place in the wood-paneled Marjorie Branson Performance Space, which seats 80. “This is a very special space, designed for music,” says David Lockington, the musical director of the Pasadena Symphony, who himself will be performing there on March 24, 2019. “It’s well-funded, it’s committed to experimental repertoire and Mark is such a fantastic advocate for the arts on so many levels.”

With his ample contacts and eclectic tastes, Saltzman has been able to bring in a wide array of talent. And as the program’s reputation grew, many artists began contacting him about performing there. The music series emphasizes work by living artists, but he has no trouble programming older work as well.

Lockington first performed at Boston Court last spring and is looking forward to his upcoming appearance. “Cello is my main performing instrument,” he says in a phone interview. “I love playing chamber music, I love playing concertos.” Next spring he’ll
present several of his own pieces, including “The Violet Viola Concerto,” based on a lullaby he wrote for his granddaughter, born early this year (yes, her name is Violet). Instrumentalists will include viola, cello and piano, and perhaps flute and harp — he’s still writing the chamber music version of this concerto. That same weekend he’ll be conducting the Pasadena Symphony in a far older piece, Mahler’s First Symphony, at the Ambassador Auditorium (March 23). 

Boston Court’s upcoming music program continues to reflect Saltzman’s eclectic tastes. It launches on Feb. 14 with Storm Large — better known as the vocalist for the band Pink Martini — and continues with chamber music, duets and quartets, a salute to Scottish composer Thea Musgrave (Feb. 23), the concert version premiere of an opera about designer Alexander McQueen (March 1) and a jazz band led by Josh Nelson (March 8), all culminating in an appearance by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (March 31).

The LACC is now under the artistic direction of new arrival Fernando Malvar-Ruiz. “One of the things I’m trying to do with the chorus is to step away from certain stereotypes,” he says. “I’m trying to find other places where choral music can happen.” While he hasn’t finalized his program, he knows he will want to have two or three ensembles.  “I’m thinking of work that combines poetry and music,” he says, “music that represents a diversity of styles, that embraces the breadth of choral music.” (This winter the chorale will also perform Dec. 9 and 16 at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church.)

“I try to do mostly local, I really want to highlight local talent,” says Saltzman. “We are a local institution, and we have great talent here.” 

Boston Court Pasadena is located at 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Visit bostoncourtpasadena.org for the schedule and tickets.

A new museum show unveils dozens of previously obscure artists.

As an art conservator, Maurine St. Gaudens has spent over four decades looking at paintings both by the famous and the unknown. For some time she noticed quite remarkable work by women painters she hadn’t known about, some of whom used only an initial for their first name. “They wanted to be genderless, they’d been so discriminated against,” says St. Gaudens in her Pasadena dining room (and now office), the table stacked with books, papers and a model of the Pasadena Museum of History exhibition she is working on. That exhibition is based on the four-volume set of books she started on 10 years ago, Emerging from the Shadows: A Survey of Women Artists Working in California, 1860 – 1960 (Schiffer Publishing; 2015).

St. Gaudens makes clear these women weren’t Sunday painters. “These were professional artists,” women who had had art training, exhibited their work in public, taught art and otherwise “pursued an art career for at least 15 years,” she says emphatically. In 2012 she was joined in her work by Joseph Morsman, a collector specializing in prints and drawings who wanted to help with further research.

“When I came on board, I introduced a number of artists that Maurine wasn’t familiar with,” Morsman says from behind a computer, at the end of the dining table. “Then we went out to supplement the works that we already had, and we were talking with collectors. We’d asked them if they had A, B or C in their collection. They’d say, ‘But do you have E, F, and G in your book?’ We said, ‘Can we see images?’ Then we’d fall in love, and we kept adding.” They tracked down names and backgrounds through newspaper clippings and files at libraries, historical societies and museums — and sometimes even found surviving family members. St. Gaudens’ original list of 100 women artists eventually exploded to 320, and ended up filling four volumes.

In collaboration with Morsman, St. Gaudens has curated an ambitious new exhibition inspired by the books: Something Revealed; California Women Artists Emerge, 1860-1960 runs through March 31, 2019, at the Pasadena Museum of History. It will include some 300 works, reflecting a wide variety of styles and subjects, by 160 artists; most are included in the books, but the show will also include a few artists they’ve discovered since publication. To present more works than the intimate museum can display at any one time, they will change out about 40 percent of the work midway through.

A number of the artists, such as Ruth Asawa, Helen Lundeberg, Ynez Johnston, Agnes Pelton and June Wayne, will be familiar to art aficionados. Many others will be little known, if at all — even if some of their art may be familiar, as in the case of Ada May Sharpless. Sharpless was the sculptor who created the Art Deco–style Lady of the Lake (1934) statue at Echo Park Lake, as well as the statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (1933) at the Santa Ana Historical Museum (now the Bowers Museum). 

One of the pair’s proudest finds is Ruth Miller Kempster (1904–1978), whose painting Housewife (circa 1935) graces the cover of Volume 2 and will be a centerpiece in the exhibition. “It’s one of the greatest discoveries of the book,” says Morsman. Housewife is a sublimely painted oil on canvas of a woman in a red dress under a white apron, standing at the sink washing dishes and looking out with tired eyes at the viewer. Already the gaze of the female subject makes it unusual; for centuries women were looked upon, the passive subject of the male gaze, while in this painting the woman looks out actively. In the background is a young daughter returning a cup to the cupboard, and further back, in the dining room, is the husband reading the newspaper after dinner. It is a snapshot of 1930s Middle America after dinner — after the woman has cooked the obligatory evening meal, she has to clean up also (a scenario that persists for many women). Her universe is the kitchen and the home, her day a series of chores from morning to night, while presumably he goes out to work during the day, then gets to enjoy dinner at home and scan the newspaper — keeping him in touch with the world outside.

Born in Chicago, Kempster came to Pasadena with her family. She studied at the Otis Art Institute and later at the Arts Students League in New York City. Around 1925 she attended L’École des Beaux Arts in Paris and later lived in Florence, until she returned home with her parents in 1928. (Sounds like they had to bring her back!) Kempster painted in a spare room and submitted her painting Struggle, depicting a white man and an African-American man wrestling in an arena, in the fine arts competition for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. The judges recognized her accomplishment and awarded her the Silver Medal in Painting. (The painting was recently acquired by the Huntington Library, Arts Collections and Botanical Gardens.)

One of St. Gaudens’ favorite paintings from her own collection was once an unknown. Years ago she obtained a small painting of the Russian River, signed “C. A. Van Epps” in the lower right corner and dated 1902. “It took me two years to track her down,” says Morsman. “Epps was an Illinois artist, she was raised and educated in Illinois, and she didn’t come out here till about 1900, but I couldn’t find information about her in California. I ended up contacting a historian in Illinois. They gave me her early life, and I gave them her later life.” Epps spent the last 40 years of her life in Los Angeles, and the exquisite landscape showing a lazy stretch on the Northern California river will be included in the show.

“One of the problems is that in the time period, most of them married,” says St. Gaudens. “Sometimes they married three, four, five times, so in some cases they had three, four, five names to trace. It was maddening.” A few women even changed their names completely, creating an artist’s persona. One painter in the show is still a puzzle; her work is the large, striking Portrait of Gladys, which was painted by “Paula Zen” and exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art in 1938. It is a large painting of a woman in profile, wearing a tall cylindrical hat and a voluminous coat. In her lap is a book and behind her a building that looks to be made of children’s building blocks — it may all signify something, but what? The painting is labeled on the back with the title and the artist’s name, and the researchers managed to find the exhibition brochure listing the work. However, they know nothing more about Zen and have no other examples of her work.

“Paula Zen is a true mystery,” says Morsman. “We’re hoping someone will say, ‘I have a Paula Zen at home’ or ‘I, too, have been researching this artist.’”

“She’s the only one we can’t find,” St. Gaudens adds, “and she was exhibited in this major exhibition.”

Which just goes to show that work like this is never done. “Part of the purpose of the book is to make people think, and to discover artists they’re intrigued by and to continue the research,” Morsman says. While they cut off the book project at 320 artists, they know there are more, many more woman artists, yet to be rediscovered and commemorated.

“Something Revealed; California Women Artists Emerge, 1860–1960” runs through March 31, 2019, at the Pasadena Museum of History, 470 W. Walnut St., Pasadena. Exhibition hours are noon to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. Admission costs $9, $8 for seniors and students; free for members and children under 12. Call (626) 577-1660 or visit pasadenahistory.org.

East meets West in Stan Lai’s original new play at the Huntington.

The Huntington’s Chinese Garden, or Liu Fang Yuan (Garden of Flowing Fragrance), is the atmospheric setting for Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden, a new play by Stan Lai running through Oct. 26. Festival director of the wildly popular Wuzhen Theatre Festival staged every October in the picturesque town of Wuzhen, China, Lai takes on the occasional special project — two years ago he directed The Dream of the Red Chamber for the San Francisco Opera. That same year the acclaimed Washington, D.C.–born playwright was commissioned by the CalArts Center for New Performance and the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens to create a new play for the Chinese Garden, which would be staged around its man-made lake. Audience members would witness scenes as they unfolded in the various pavilions, terraces and bridges.
“The opportunity to do something like this is very rare,” says Lai, enjoying a moment of respite between rehearsals on the terrace of the garden tea house, dubbed Terrace That Invites the Mountains. A soft breeze is blowing across the lake, which is lined with gnarly Taihu rocks from China, and temperatures are beginning to cool. “To do a site-specific, immersive project that is real theater, not just an installation or something, this is a different thing. It’s storytelling that occurs through a garden.”
Each night’s intimate audience of 40 gathers first at the tea house, formally called the Hall of the Jade Camellia, then splits into two groups to watch various scenes being performed on the east and west sides of the lake. Both groups will see the same scenes, but in a different order.
The inspiration for Nightwalk came to Lai when he toured this garden three years ago. He shared his idea with Travis Preston, dean of the CalArts School of Theater, who’d wanted to do a project with him through their Center for New Performance. “We’re not really looking for plays, we’re looking for artists we want to work with,” Preston says in a phone interview. “Stan’s a writer and director at the same time. He’s devising the work as he’s rehearsing it; that’s very consistent with the kind of experimentation we’re interested in. There’s also a lyricism in Stan’s work I find very moving.”
Lai, who shuttles between Taiwan and China, conducted a workshop in 2016 with prospective actors and participants at CalArts and the Chinese Garden. His idea was to weave together two stories: one involving Henry Huntington, the railroad magnate whose collections and estate make up the core of The Huntington, and the other, the Chinese opera classic The Peony Pavilion.
The Peony Pavilion is a tragicomedy written by Tang Xianzu in 1598 — the original play ran for 55 scenes and took over 20 hours to perform. (Nightwalk runs about 90 minutes.) In it a young maiden, Du Liniang, enters a garden where she dreams of a handsome scholar, Liu Mengmei, and tumbles head over heels in love with him. She falls so deeply that when she awakens, she wastes away pining for him. Later, this same scholar visits her garden and has a dream about her. In the dream he’s encouraged to find her grave and exhume her body — which he does, and she miraculously comes back to life, uncorrupted.
“It’s one of the most famous Chinese plays, but not well known outside of China,” says Lai in his deep, measured voice. “It’s so steeped in the tradition that I’m very interested in and write about myself a lot, which is the reality of dreams, the reality of art, also my own interest in the creative process itself — these are the things that are blending together in the garden here.” In his play, the playwright becomes part of the story. “He’s in the midst of writing The Peony Pavilion,” says Lai, and Du Liniang becomes his imagined heroine and muse. “Du Liniang is trying to teach him how to write.”
The Western part of the story takes place in the early 1920s, when Henry Huntington acquires the Thomas Gainsborough painting, The Blue Boy, today a pride and joy of the Huntington art collection and the subject of a concurrent exhibition (see page 15). His curator also introduces him to Chinese opera, via an excerpt from The Peony Pavilion, which is performed in Nightwalk on a rotating basis by two stars of the Shanghai Kunqu Troupe. After our interview, Lai invites me to stay for the rehearsal and the kunqu performance. This takes place late in the evening, in the Clear and Transcendent pavilion, which has been equipped with seats — and the audience becomes Henry Huntington’s guests. As Du Liniang, Luo Chenxue comes from stage right, prostrate with grief and pining for her dream lover, while sending her regrets to her mother. Almost collapsing, Luo begins her plaintive aria, her eyes bright with tears — without even understanding the words, the performance is literally a showstopper. Everyone stops what they’re doing — actors, tech crew, guests — and listens. It’s a heartrending, deeply convincing performance, despite the fact that Luo is not dressed for the part, instead clad in a T-shirt and jeans.
Most of the other actors are CalArts students and alumni — Reggie Yip, a CalArts graduate, as the Chinese maid, and Hao Feng, a current CalArts MFA student, as the Playwright — the play’s protagonist. Two years ago Yip was in the workshop Lai held in preparation for the production. While most of the play is in English, both point to specific Chinese cultural elements reflected in the script. “If you listen to the language, the way the language flows, there’s a cadence,” says Yip, who was born and raised in Hong Kong. That’s also the case with certain themes: “I’m on the East side of the piece, and there’s a lot of conversation about gender roles, this hierarchy of family that’s very Chinese.” “Filial piety,” adds Feng.
During rehearsals Lai is remarkably low-key. He speaks calmly, but with authority. Asked about his directorial style, he says, “Why do you want to scare people? You want to encourage people. That’s the basis of my method — to let people profoundly understand who the character is, because maybe I don’t even know who the character is when I’m creating it. It’s not like this is Hamlet or an already created character. This is something that I’m working on together with my actor, exploring a character.”
And the Chinese Garden’s uniqueness makes it the perfect setting for that character, Lai says. “I’ve been in many gardens in China, in Suzhou in particular,” he says. “The beauty of the Chinese garden always has to do with classical poetry or classical literature. You know, the scenic spots always need a story or a reference.” That’s certainly true of The Chinese Garden — every scenic point has a poetic name — and serendipitously enough, The Huntington has just announced the final phase of its construction. “It’s all about order: In a way it’s a little strange, in another way it’s exquisite.”

Nightwalk in the Chinese Garden, written and directed by Stan Lai, is performed at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday through Oct. 26 at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Ticket prices range from $85 to $150, depending on day and membership status. The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino. Visit huntington.org.

The only university museum of art from Asia and the Pacific Islands reopens after extensive renovations.

Many have passed the two-story Chinese-style building on North Los Robles Avenue in Old Pasadena and wondered, What’s behind those thick beige walls topped with a green-tiled roof, curled up at the edges? A mural on the side wall provides clues — a large dragon with a twisting body, red stalks of bamboo and a seal-shaped sign containing the words “Pacific Asia Museum.” Now under the auspices of the University of Southern California, the Pacific Asia Museum (PAM) is the only university museum dedicated to the arts of Asia and the Pacific Islands, and it reopened in December after a year-and-a-half of seismic retrofitting and renovations.

I enter the reception area through an arched portal, and Christina Yu Yu, the museum’s director for the last three years, comes down from upstairs offices to greet me.  We start our interview in the first gallery of the current show — Winds from Fusang: Mexico and China in the Twentieth Century, running through June 10 as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time LA/LA initiative focusing on Latin American and Latino art. We talk about some of the changes that have taken place, including the most obvious one: the removal of the old gift shop — it used to be in the large space where we are now seated — to make way for exhibition space.  (But don’t worry; a smaller gift shop will be installed by the entrance desk.) 

“Our mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding, through arts and culture,” says Yu Yu, a former curator of Chinese and Korean art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “How to make it happen, I think there are different strategies: before, we were very much a community-focused museum, and that is something we are still very committed to — we want to introduce Asian arts and culture to Southern California.  Now that we are part of USC, [we want] to be integrated into the curriculum, that is something we’ve added.” One thing they’re working on, for example, is an augmented reality experience for visitors, possibly involving their cellphones. This collaboration with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Information Technology Program will be “like a treasure hunt.”

The building itself has long held a special place in the cultural history of Pasadena. It was built in 1924 for Grace Nicholson, an art collector and dealer who specialized in Native American and Asian art and artifacts. The architectural firm of Marston, Van Pelt & Maybury designed it in the style of a Chinese nobleman’s mansion, replete with a central courtyard containing a garden and a small pond.  To ensure authenticity, Nicholson ordered some of the materials — including ceramic tiles, stone and marble carvings — directly from China; other architectural details were made by local craftsmen who studied photographs of Chinese buildings. When the building opened, the downstairs rooms functioned as an art gallery and shop, while the second floor was Nicholson’s home.

In 1943 she donated the building to the City of Pasadena, retaining the right to live there until her death in 1948. Later it was occupied by the Pasadena Art Institute, which in 1954 became the Pasadena Art Museum.  In 1970 that museum moved to Orange Grove and Colorado boulevards and became part of the Norton Simon Museum.  The following year, the Pacificulture Foundation moved into the Nicholson building, starting the Pacific Asia Museum and eventually purchasing the property.

Small museums are notoriously difficult to sustain financially, unless they have a hefty endowment, and this one did not. After years of financial struggle as a nonprofit, the museum came under the umbrella of USC in 2013, a move that brought in more than $1 million to help underwrite the museum’s operating costs through its transitional period. USC also paid for an overall evaluation of the physical facilities, which led to the recent retrofitting and renovations; those cost another few million (the museum declines to reveal exactly how much).  In addition to the retrofitting, the university also improved collections storage spaces, reinstalled the permanent exhibition and began a thorough inventory of holdings. Ultimately, the museum is expected to be self-sustaining.

Visitors enter the museum building from the north wing, where the admissions desk and reception area are located. (The special exhibition galleries are in the south wing.) From there, a series of small galleries introduces visitors to Pacific Island, South Asian and Southeast Asian art, with the large galleries at the end of this wing dedicated to China, Japan and Korea. “We have 15,000 items in our collection,” Yu Yu says. “Geographically we cover all the regions in Asia, and chronologically, our oldest pieces are from 4,000 years ago. We have Neolithic pottery, and we also have contemporary art.” While museum officials will eventually pursue more acquisitions, their immediate focus is on exhibitions and programming.

There are a number of outstanding items on display in the permanent collection, and Yu Yu highlights them during a walkthrough. From India is a medium-size second-century sandstone sculpture showing a “loving couple,” as the label says. “This is actually one of the earliest stone sculptures in Southern California,” she points out.

In the Chinese section, her attention veers toward a blue-and-white plate, with a qilin, a lion-like mythical animal, painted in the center. It dates from the late Yuan to early Ming periods (i.e., the early 14th century) and reflects a Persian influence in its decorative border and use of cobalt blue. “It’s one of the most important pieces here,” says Yu Yu. In the Japan section, there are several classical woodblock prints, including the iconographic South Wind, Clear Sky by Katsushika Hokusai. This is the close-up of Mt. Fuji under a lacy canopy of clouds, part of a famous series depicting the majestic mountain from different angles.

The temporary Winds from Fusang exhibition explores a little-known topic — the interchange between Chinese and Mexican artists that occurred in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s, after China had become a Communist nation. The show was co-curated by Yu Yu and guest curator Shengtian Zheng, a veteran Chinese art scholar and curator based in Vancouver.

During an exhibition preview, Zheng explained the show’s inspiration. “Fusang is not a real place,” he said. “In Chinese mythology, it’s a mysterious place in the East.” For the Chinese in the 20th century, Mexico seemed a faraway and exotic place. In the 1930s Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias visited China twice, and several of his stylized illustrations are in the show, as well as works by Chinese artists who emulated him. Then in 1956, the touring exhibition National Front of Plastic Arts of Mexico: An Exhibition of Paintings and Prints introduced more than 60 Mexican artists to a Chinese audience, starting in Beijing. The show included works by Diego Rivera, Xavier Guerrero, Leopoldo Méndez, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. That year Siqueiros himself made a trip to China, meeting important officials such as Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, as well as a number of Chinese artists.

The exhibition shows their correspondence and pamphlets, actual artworks included in the 1956 exhibition, as well as art by Chinese artists influenced by the show. “This exhibition had a strong impact on Chinese muralists,” says Zheng. One was Yunsheng Yuan, who designed a major mural for the Beijing International Airport in 1979. Yuan had visited the minority Dai people in Yunnan Province, and his mural showed them celebrating the Water Splashing Festival, much as the Mexican muralists had celebrated the life and culture of indigenous peoples in their own country. The Chinese mural turned out to be a controversial one, since it showed nude figures.