By Phyllis Hansen
Two architectural gems stand in the shadow of each other on Wilshire Boulevard, the Ebell of Los Angeles Club and Theater, and the Millard Sheets-designed and adorned building originally built as the Scottish Rite Temple. Ebell Club members as well as neighbors are continually treated to the results of Sheets’ extraordinary architectural eye and his gift for mosaic artistry. These same skills are evident at numerous banks throughout the city and state, where Sheets worked
so much of his magic inside and out. But as Ebell members learned last month, there is so much more to Sheets’ artistic legacy, and as one educational experience unfolded, several more fortuitously blossomed.
It began with a recent Ebell speaker program, presented via Zoom by historical journalist Victoria Lautman, on “The Multiverse of Millard Sheets.” Lautman took her Ebell audience on a visual journey through the late Sheets’ life and prolific works, beginning with the masterful watercolor paintings that marked his entree into the art world here in Los Angeles and cemented his reputation both locally and globally. While still a student at Chouinard Art Institute himself, he was asked to teach.
More than just a painter of art, Lautman described how Sheets was an apostle of art, bringing his vision and creations right to the populace, most notably Angelenos. He was a professor, founding the Scripps College art department. He designed military training airfields. He instituted the Art Center that bears his name at the County Fair in his hometown of Pomona that remains a major draw to this day. He headed the Otis Art Institute. He was an artist-correspondent for Life in WWII. He was mentor to many, and an influence long after his passing in 1989. One might label him a polymath in the language of art.
Ebell Club records show that Sheets exhibited a sketch titled Fantasy at the clubhouse as early as 1930, while still a young man in his Twenties. That same year, he was awarded two prizes at the club, one for a watercolor of his wife and an oil painting, so it is apparent the neighborhood was familiar territory long before he embarked on the 1960-era Scottish Rite Temple.
One prominent collector who has long recognized Sheets’ stature as a doyen of the California scene painting genre, Mark Hilbert, happened upon the promotions for the Ebell presentation and joined the Zoom audience. Hilbert, founder of the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University in Orange, CA, expressed his excitement by inviting club members for a personal tour of the museum’s internationally acclaimed exhibit, since closed, titled Los Angeles Area Scene Paintings. It featured four top-tier works by Sheets.
Joining the group were two very special guests from San Diego who, in turn, had serendipitously spotted the promotion for the field trip: Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle, daughter of Millard Sheets, and her husband Tom. Carolyn, author of a biographical work on her father, Damngorgeous, contributed further insight into the works of Millard and his influence during the tour, painting by painting, and into what the couple describes as his wonder-filled mind.
Millard, guests learned, was larger than life to even his own family.
Though a devoted and loving father, his children were in awe. His childhood in rural Pomona, raised by grandparents after losing his mother Millie, his namesake, at 17 days old, was described as exceptional. The ubiquitous horses gracing so many of his paintings were a lifelong passion that began with his first pony at age three, and first horse by six. Art was an even greater passion, and success came early and often.
As his influence grew, Sheets embarked on more and more public art, bringing his work directly to the people. On view in the show was a study for a WPA mural for South Pasadena High School. He was a WPA artist himself, but also became a decision maker as to which other artists were chosen for WPA projects.
His 1956 commissioned painting of the Hollywood Bowl, Symphony Under the Stars, was a star piece on the tour…
…as was the 1933 San Dimas Train Station that Hilbert described as a brilliant example of a scene painting for its lonely and emotionally charged essence. A familiar site to Sheets in his youth, the station burned to the ground just months after the painting was done.
By 1934, Sheets’ work had made it to the White House, and subsequently the Smithsonian.
Family Flats, first done as an oil painting, was so honored, but Sheets created a lithograph of the same Bunker Hill residential scene with its tenement housing of the era that felt like the exclamation point for the entire Los Angeles Scene Paintings show.
The museum visit, taking place just days before what would have been Millard’s 114th birthday, became a celebratory occasion with toasts to art, to coincidences, and to friends able at last to enjoy socializing again. Art, as has been said often, brings us together.
Sources for further reading, and listening, on the life and the works of Millard Sheets:
- Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Mid-Century Commercial Architecture in California by Adam Arenson
- Millard Sheets, One Man Renaissance by Janice Lovoos and Edmund F. Penney
- Oral histories online:
- Archives of American Art: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-millard-sheets-12825#transcript
- Digital Library Oral History, UCLA: https://oralhistory.library.ucla.edu/catalog/21198-zz0008z9tz
Phyllis Hansen is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She serves on the Board of Directors of several local historical organizations and is currently Board Director of Programs at the Ebell Club of LA. She is a frequent speaker on artistic and historic topics.
He attended Pomona High School with my great uncle, Alphonse Fages. Al was in charge of the yearbook his senior year, and Millard did several of the illustrations. I have a copy of the yearbook!
That is so amazing! Would you mind taking photos of the book? We’d love to share them with Buzz readers.
Thank you for posting this lovely article about my father, Millard Sheets. He was truly a great man
both in creative ability and as a man who deeply loved life, others, beauty, and was passionate
about what creative imagination could do to uplift all of life.
Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle
Thank you, Carolyn. It was great to meet you and Tom. I think you inherited many of your father’s wonderful qualities, and from what you told me, your mother’s, too.