Thursday, March 29, 2012

Millard Sheets

A couple weekends ago, a friend and I got to learn about 20th century American artist Millard Sheets via the Los Angeles Conservancy's Millard Sheets:  A Legacy of Art and Architecture, a special retrospective tour and panel discussion spanning Sheets' oeuvre, focusing primarily on numerous examples in Pomona and Claremont. 

Millard Sheets began his artistic career as a prodigy and gained prominence as a prolific painter, mosaic artist, architect, and teacher.  Born and raised in the Pomona Valley, Sheets also lived and worked in Southern California for the better part of his adult life, both as a commissioned artist but also as an educator, teaching at Chouinard Art Institute, Otis Art Institute (now Otis College or Art and Design), and Scripps College, among others.

The tour was organized such that participants had to drive to a half dozen tour locations within these two cities, and docents were on hand at each location to offer guided tours of mostly in situ examples of Millard Sheets' art.  This itinerant format, though unusual, provided a nice opportunity to view a decent portion of both cities.
The first stop of our tour was American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA) in Pomona.  Inside the museum, we found some ceramic craft works by Sheets as well as the main attraction, a 77-foot wide mural titled "Panorama of the Pomona Valley," painted by Sheets and his protégée, Susan Hertel.  One of the interesting aspects of this mural is that it resides in the original building for which it was painted--the current AMOCA building is a renovated bank branch, and the mural remained a fixture after AMOCA acquired the structure.
AMOCA interior
mural inside AMOCA
In fact, the most prominent examples of Sheets' art are displayed in the more than 50 former Home Savings and Loan branch bank buildings which Howard F. Ahmanson, Sr. commissioned Sheets to design during the span of a couple decades, from 1953 through the 1970s.  We were able to see a few examples of these buildings during this tour.

Sheets was also commissioned for other private and public buildings throughout the U.S.  Though he wasn't a licensed architect, he is credited as the architect for these structures, as he was responsible for every aspect of the buildings' designs and embellished each structure with his signature mosaics and sculptures on the exterior and murals in the interior.  In fact, I learned from this tour that two structures--the Scottish Rites Masonic Temple in Los Angeles and a bank in Anaheim--which I'd driven by countless times and whose exterior art always caught my eye were Millard Sheets works!  

After our tour of AMOCA, we drove downtown to Pomona Mall which Millard Sheets designed.  Here, we examined Chase Tower (formerly Home Savings and Loan) building, which anchors the mall.  Though tarped for renovation, we were able to examine the bank's architecture for some of Sheets' stylistic traits.  We also peered into the bank interior (the building wasn't open for visitation) to admire another Sheets/Hertel mural.
Chase Tower
mural inside Chase Tower
Other areas of the mall also offered some Sheets' mosaics, such as this fountain:
fountain in Pomona Mall
We took a break after Pomona Mall to have lunch.  We chose Kickback Jack's in Claremont since the rest of our tour stops were in Claremont.  The joint was hopping, but my companion and I snagged a couple of open counter seats so our wait wasn't long.
We both opted to order a breakfast meal for our lunch--the ham steak and eggs for me which come with three ginormous pancakes, two of which I didn't touch because it's so much food, even for this healthy eater.  The ham and eggs, though good, weren't anything to write home about.  The pancakes, however, were fantastic, fluffy and crisp on the outside because they were so fresh off the griddle.  Service was also exceptional.  This place is a winner.

After lunch, we drove over to a U.S. Bank on Foothill Blvd.  Unlike Pomona's Chase Tower, which was tarped and closed for renovation, this building is an active commercial structure.
U.S. Bank
mosaic on U.S. Bank exterior
Being a Sunday, the bank wasn't open for business; however, tour groups were allowed entrance to view the interior design and mural.  No photos were allowed inside, but what's interesting to note is how U.S. Bank, in honoring Millard Sheets' original design for the structure, preserved not only the mural but also the decor and fixtures.  For instance, mosaic logos that read "PFF" (for Pomona First Federal, the original bank that commissioned Millard Sheets) were peppered throughout the bank lobby.  We were amused to learn that these logos are discreetly covered with well-placed signs during business hours but are revealed again when there are tours such as ours.
mosaic on U.S. Bank exterior
Indeed, a common theme throughout this tour is the civic pride that these Pomona and Claremont businesses have, recognizing the significance of Millard Sheets' contribution to their communities' heritage and so they preserve and bring awareness to his art by freely opening their doors to thousands of tour attendees every year. 

From U.S. Bank, we drove to Garrison Theater at Scripps College where Sheets was Professor Emeritus for a number of years.  Sheets designed the theater stage area as well as the façade where mosaics depict scenes from Shakespearean plays.
Garrison Theater at Scripps College
Garrison Theater at Scripps College
Garrison Theater at Scripps College
The last stop of our tour was Claremont Eye Associates that used to be the site of Millard Sheets' design studio.  This was the location where Sheets and his assistants designed and executed their commissioned murals and mosaics which were prepped at the studio before final application at the designated buildings and sites. 
Claremont Eye Associates retained Sheets' design studio placard
exterior former Millard Sheets design studio
interior former Millard Sheets design studio
The current owner of the medical building represents a great example of the aforementioned civic pride.  After purchasing the property directly from Sheets, the landlord kept many parts of Sheets' studio and ceramic kiln unaltered and opens his business during off-hours for conservancy tours.

Finally, we attended a panel discussion of Millard Sheets' life and work, held at Claremont United Church of Christ which Sheets also designed.  The panel consisted of two of Sheets' children, both artists, plus associates who worked with Sheets. The discussion started off slow but soon got interesting.  It was very enlightening to hear from people who worked with Sheets who provided insight into Sheets' inspirations for his wide range of artistic styles and mediums.
Millard Sheets panel discussion
By the time we were done with our Millard Sheets day, it was around 7:00pm, a long day since we'd started at 10:00am.  We capped our Claremont visit with dinner at the local Viva Madrid, a self-described "authentic Spanish tapas bar & restaurant."  It was good, but the tapas we ordered weren't anything like what I'd had when I visited Spain.  Plus, it was pretty pricey.  Between the two eateries we enjoyed in Claremont that weekend, Kickback Jack was the winner which deserves a return visit.
This graces Viva Madrid's interior
We headed home after dinner.  It was a long, educational, and satisfyingly full day--we definitely got our money's worth on the tour.  I am pleased that I learned about an artist whose ubiquitous work I'd seen and admired around SoCal but never identified until this week.  I also liked Claremont, a very pretty city that begs a return visit, if only for Kickback Jacks.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


I spent a few hours a couple weekends ago checking out the city of Fullerton, a city whose proximity--as I live somewhat close--invited exploration.  It was long overdue; though I'd occasionally pass through Fullerton to dine at a choice restaurant, I hadn't spent any substantial time in the city.

I started out late on a Sunday morning, destined for Tranquil Tea Lounge located in "historic" (self-proclaimed) downtown Fullerton for an energizing brunch with which to fortify myself for the day's excursion.  Tranquil Tea Lounge has a high Yelp rating, and I love tea so it was a win-win prospect.  I wasn't disappointed.  It's a great little eatery with an extensive tea selection and delicious food.  I ordered from their Tranquil Tea Trio option after which I indulged in their scrumptious flourless chocolate cake for dessert.  SO good.  I definitely plan on returning.
roast beef sandwich, organic greens, and lychee black tea
dark chocolate flourless cake w/ ganache & ice cream!
After my meal, I walked around the neighborhood a bit.  Fullerton is a university town, being home to CSU Fullerton as well as Fullerton College, so it has that college vibe, with eateries and bars abounding.  Yet downtown wasn't that bustling that morning; in fact, it was fairly dead.  Not that I minded.

I hung out a short while, and then I drove over to nearby Fullerton Museum.  The museum is part of the Fullerton Museum Center, a plaza with a park and a children's playground.  When I arrived at the museum center, I saw that it was likewise pretty subdued.  There were a dozen or so people in the park and playground, but I was the sole patron in the museum while I was there.
Fullerton Museum Center park
The museum's featured exhibition is Citrus: California's Golden Dream, an interesting retrospection on the "2nd California Gold Rush" which refers to the citris boom that dominated California's economy from the 1880s till the 1950s in which Fullerton played a part.
The museum isn't large, but in addition to the featured exhibit, there is a permanent exhibition in the Leo Fender Gallery, which features the life and career of Leo Fender, a lifelong Fullerton resident and the founder of Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.  I'd heard of Fender guitars but know nothing about them, yet I found the gallery pretty cool.  I can imagine that a guitar enthusiast would find it much more so.
Creepy Keith Richards poster greets visitors at the Fender Gallery.
A few fascinating factoids I learned about Mr. Fender:  1) he himself did not know how to play the guitar despite his name being synonymous with the instrument; and 2) the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Fender in a non-performing capacity, PLUS he was awarded a Grammy for his technological contributions to the music and recording industry.
My next stop after the museum was the Fullerton Arboretum.  This 26 acre botanical garden is in fact part of CSU Fullerton.  It's a wonderful park in which to stroll and picnic.  Streams and ponds dot the landscape, and I spotted cranes, ducks, and turtles.  Best of all, the arboretum is free to the public, though donations are welcome.
Mr. Turtle
It had been a tad too uncomfortably sunny when I was downtown, but the arboretum's lush landscape suited the day's weather.  I lolled at the park for about an hour, meandering through the verge and lounging on choicely located benches on occasion.  It was super relaxing.
Bodhi Tree planted in honor of the Dalai Lama's visit in 2000.
sitting under the Bodhi Tree, waiting for enlightenment
I slowly made my way to the pictured bench where I had the chance to observe this gorgeous crane.
When at last I left Fullerton Arboretum, I hunted down what I'd been anticipating all week, Oahu Shave Ice!  To preface, I've lately become slightly obsessed with Hawaiian shaved ice, ever since my day at OC Great Park, when I had the glorious shaved ice from the Tropical Shaved Ice truck.  Since that day, I found a couple of other great shaved ice joints so I had high hopes for Oahu Shave Ice.
Alas, unlike the tea lounge, this was a disappointment.  My ideal shaved ice treat has ice shaved so finely that it has a powdery consistency.  This day's example was not like that.  Though tasty, the ice was coarse and clumped together as it melted.  Thumbs down and not worth a trip back.

I headed home after my dessert.  It wasn't a heavy day of exploration, but I got a decent feel for Fullerton, and I plan on returning for Tranquil Tea Lounge and Fullerton Arboretum.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Echo Park

I went on another Los Angeles Conservancy walking tour this weekend.  This is the third of eight tours that the conservancy offers, and I'm determined to go on all of them before the end of this year.  This one was of Angelino Heights, a neighborhood within the Echo Park district of L.A.  A few friends joined me on this day's excursion.

Angelino Heights isn't large, but it has a distinct identity, particularly known for its Victorian homes.  The 2.5 hours tour focused on Carroll Avenue, a picturesque street that's often used as backdrops for movies and t.v. shows.
Among the featured houses are three that were used for the t.v. show Charmed, Michael Jackson's Thriller video, and the recent movie, J. Edgar.
Halliwell residence
Many of the houses in Angelino Heights look like fairy tale cottages, highlighted by turreted architecture and pastel exteriors.  The residents of these houses take obvious pride in their homes, pouring money into renovating and upkeeping the standard for which the historical district is known. 
There are some houses, however, that are sadly neglected, if not decrepit, and clearly showing their roughly century-old age.  Being part of the Historic Preservation Overlay Zone--part of Angelino Heights' preservation plan--the zoning rules require strict adherence when remodeling in which any improvements must resemble original architecture in design and materials.  No doubt, these rules make for costly renovation and possibly explain the sorry state of some of the houses.
Still, for those residents who can afford renovation, their houses are super impressive.  Indeed, a couple of them (one of which is the aforementioned Charmed house) are open for Conservancy visitation.  The interiors of these homes are gorgeous.  Unfortunately, the owners of these homes requested that I don't post any interior photos, which I am respecting.

It was a very good tour.  Our guide, Janis, is extremely informative and friendly.  The only bad part of the tour was the very warm day.  Ideally, I like to book these outdoor walking treks on overcast days, but the Angelino Heights tour is only given once a month, so I had to prebook this weeks ago and take a chance with the weather.  I wasn't lucky this time, obviously, and the glaring sun was oppressive on some parts of the walk.  What made it worse is that though my friends and I brought water, we didn't allow ourselves to drink any since there are no bathroom breaks during the 2.5 hours tour duration!

After our tour, my friends and I headed over to nearby Taix, a restaurant specializing in French country cuisine, for lunch.  I found this place on Yelp, and it looked promising.  It was an excellent choice.  Unlike many French restaurants in L.A., this place isn't froufrou and the prices are super reasonable.  But more importantly, everything tasted delicious.  This restaurant is a keeper.  However, traffic in the area is horrendous so for that reason alone, I'd have to make sure I'm in a very good mood to visit Taix again.
I had the portobello mushroom risotto--so good!
After lunch, we walked a bit down Sunset Blvd (the same street where Taix is located) to check out this place I'd read about in my guidebook:
Whenever you are, we're already then.
Echo Park Time Travel Mart sounded intriguing so I had high hopes for this shop.  Yelp ratings are also high.  Yet, though cute and clever, the shop is SUPER tiny.  I didn't expect it to be so tiny.  But we had a good laugh at the gag merchandise in the short time were in the shop. 
As we walked back to Taix to pick up our car, we poked our heads into a couple other shops in the area but didn't linger long nor did we purchase anything.
Sunset Blvd.
That concluded our day.  Surprisingly, though our day began early at 10am with the tour, our Echo Park visit ended around 3:30pm.  We didn't realize that so much time had passed--a sign of a good, productive day!