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