Hidden no more, this art collection is a beautiful gift

The Arts

September 28, 2023

An exhibition in Blowing Rock provides a rare opportunity to view works by southern California painters from the early 20th century. 

by Cathy Martin

There’s no better way to celebrate the start of fall than a trip to the North Carolina mountains. This season, travelers bound for North Carolina’s High Country have good reason to visit beyond the spectacular fall foliage. GIFTED: Collecting the Art of California at Gardena High School, 1919-1956, debuted at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum (BRAHM) this summer and will remain on view through Dec. 30.

If the title sounds a little esoteric, don’t let that discourage you from taking a closer look. The exhibition features 48 paintings chronicling the southern California art movement during the first half of the 20th century. While the works themselves are impressive, the story behind the collection is just as compelling.  

Located in a then-rural area 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, Gardena High School served children in grades 6-12 from the local farming community, including white, Japanese American and Hispanic families. Plein-air painting was in its heyday in southern California, and in 1919, principal John Whitely came up with the idea for seniors to select, purchase and donate a work of art to the school as a class gift. The tradition continued until 1956. Over time, artists, along with other groups and individuals, began donating additional works to the school’s collection. Many of these impressionist painters went on to achieve national or international acclaim.

Left: Richard Carver Haines, Fogbound, c. 1956, Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. Gift of Class of Winter 1956. Right: William Wendt, Along the Arroyo Seco, 1912, Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches. Gift of Class of Summer 1924. Photographs courtesy the Gardena High School Art Collection LLC

“These are artists who became not only important in their time, but they are artists who are still very much collected today,” says Stephan Dragisic, executive director of BRAHM. The Los Angeles newspaper reported on the selection each year, so there was some publicity associated with being a part of the collection, Dragisic adds. As a result, some of the artists gifted paintings “far more valuable than the students could afford.” The collection comprises works by dozens of artists, including Maynard Dixon, known for his iconic depictions of the American West; landscape painter William Wendt; and modernist painter Agnes Pelton.

“It not only enriched the lives of the students, but it enriched the lives of the entire community,” Dragisic says. The school even designed an auditorium to house the paintings — the first public art gallery in southern California showcasing regional art. “So, it is hard to imagine that in 1956, when the high school moved into a new building, that they didn’t make a provision for putting these paintings on view.”

Instead, the paintings ended up in a janitor’s closet until about 1999, when a group of alumni began inquiring about the collection. It took another 20 years — until 2019, the 100th anniversary of the school’s first gift — to stabilize and conserve the works, determine who owned them (they’d been gifted to the student body), and prepare the paintings for public viewing again.  

Over the years, 72 works were donated to the school, and the result is a lasting legacy of the community during a tumultuous 37-year period, beginning just after WWI and the 1918 flu pandemic and spanning WWII and the Great Depression — significant global events with an impact well beyond southern California.

Dragisic cites a “rather haunting” painting by Frank Tenney Johnson of a cowboy on a horse, looking out over the valley. “This painting was purchased for the school in 1937, and you know that there [had to be] conversations about how that way of life — cowboying in California — is going away.”

Clyde Eugene Scott, Mirror of Summer, c. 1939, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Gift of Class of Winter 1939. H. Raymond Henry, The Storm King, c. 1937, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Gift of Class of Winter 1937. Photographs courtesy the Gardena High School Art Collection LLC

Another piece, “Cranes Under a Giant Fern” by Jessie Arms Botke, joined the collection in 1943, during the Japanese internment that incarcerated some 120,000 people of Japanese descent. In Japanese culture, cranes symbolize hope and good fortune. “The cranes are a real symbol that I think would have been incredibly poignant at the time, just thinking about the Japanese internment and what that meant having a third of your high-school cohort removed,” Dragisic says.

A traveling exhibition of the works debuted in May 2019 in California, only to be stalled by the pandemic. Thanks to the connections of a local Blowing Rock art collector, the exhibit made its way to BRAHM in June. It’s the first time the exhibition has been shown on the East Coast, and the first time outside of California. 

“It’s an inspirational opportunity for us,” Dragisic says. “It’s a great opportunity for families to have discussions around art and art appreciation that they would not necessarily have.”  SP

WANT TO VISIT? BRAHM is located at 159 Ginny Stevens Ln. in downtown Blowing Rock, about an hour and 45 minutes from Charlotte. Admission is free, and GIFTED will be on view through Dec. 30.

Left: Loren Roberta Barton, Day’s End, c. 1947, Oil on canvas, 36 x 40 inches. Gift of Class of Summer 1947. Right: Clarence Hinkle, Quiet Pose, c. 1918, Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches. Gift of Class of Winter 1929. Photographs courtesy the Gardena High School Art Collection LLC


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