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.


  1. Those "tapas" look like Mexican food to me. Are those taquitos?

    1. Clockwise from the top in that pic, we have Datiles con Bacon (dates wrapped with bacon and grilled); Crepas de Cangrejo (crepes stuffed with chilled crab and topped with a creamy avocado sauce); and Rabo de Toro (oxtail stew with onions, carrots, beans, red wine, and herbs).