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How Millard Sheets Helped Legitimize the LA Art Scene and Get Bunker Hill Into the White House

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It's Sheets Week and we're celebrating Millard Sheets, the artist and architectural designer who dotted Southern California with beautiful modern Home Savings bank branches (now mostly Chases). Throughout the week we'll be looking at some particularly interesting points in his biography, starting now.

Millard Sheets was born in 1907 in Pomona; his mother died in childbirth and his father, unable to care for him, sent him to live with his maternal grandparents. They'd come out to the Pomona Valley from South Dakota around the turn of the century (his grandfather first came out to race horses at Santa Anita "against Lucky Baldwin," according to Sheets in his oral history interview for UCLA). When Sheets was only a few years old, his teenaged aunt let him watch her draw, then started giving him his own materials. He grew up in the city, attending public schools there (he graduated from Pomona High in 1925), and his uncle founded the LA County Fair (when Sheets was a teenager, the artist Theodore B. Modra noticed a copy he'd entered into competition there and took Sheets under his wing [the copy won first prize, but Modra told Sheets he'd better start doing original work]).

After high school, Sheets headed off west to Los Angeles to study at the Chouinard Art Institute (which was eventually folded into CalArts). He was especially interested in mural painting and the artist F. Tolles Chamberlain started a special night class at Chouinard's for Sheets and a few other students. According to the 1984 book Millard Sheets: One-Man Renaissance, "Sheets's introduction to architecture came through this process." Around the same time, he started teaching etching and "delineation" (aka renderings) to a group of architects.

While he was at Chouinard, Sheets started working with the dealer Dalzell Hatfield of the Newhouse Gallery (he was one of the few art dealers in town at the time); Sheets had his first solo show at the gallery in 1929 and worked with Hatfield and his wife for 46 years. Also in 1929, he won second place in a competition held by the Witte Museum in Santa Antonio, TX--with the $1,750 in prize money, he traveled to Europe on a banana boat, looping around South America (where he'd rush off and draw whenever the boat pulled into port) and up to New York. In New York, he met architect Cass Gilbert (who designed the Woolworth Building and other early skyscrapers); Gilbert encouraged him to do some architectural drawing while he was in Europe, which he did. On Sheets's return through New York, Gilbert liked the drawings so much, he called up pals at Architectural Record and Pencil Points and got them published.

When he got back to Los Angeles, Sheets married UCLA art student Mary Baskerville and in 1930 "submitted a painting to the most demanding art jury in the United States, the Carnegie International Watercolor Exhibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania." The jury had never picked a single piece from west of the Rockies, but they selected his "Women of Cartagena" (inspired during his trip around South America) unanimously.

In the first years of the thirties, Sheets got two of his biggest early commissions:

One was to design an execute a mural for a reception room in Robinson's Department Store and the other a fresco for Bullock's Men's Store, both in Los Angeles. The mural for Robinson's was executed in transparent oil paint on a toned hardwood wall; it created a strong tapestry-like effect upon the natural wood. The fresco for Bullock's was described by the store as a pure design, symbolizing work, opportunity, and progress in the manufacture of men's clothing of the future.

During the 1930s, Sheets started getting involved in the art scene in New York, but he was still inspired by Los Angeles. Two of his Bunker Hill-set paintings were high water marks; one ended up in the White House: The combination of the economic conditions of the 1930s his experiences in the East, and maturity resulted in a gradual change in Sheets's style. His usually cheerful, sunny canvasses were being replaced by somber-toned, more thoughtful paintings. Two of the most significant from this period are Tenement Flats and Angel's Flight. The first depicts a complex of tenement structures, laced into strong design by a network of rickety staircases and balconies. The buildings dwarf the human forms of the tenants. Sheets gave this painting to the Public Works of Art project, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who greatly admired it, selected Tenement Flats to hang in the reception hall of the White House. Later donated to the White House collection, today it is housed by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art. The second work, Angel's Flight, is important for two reasons: it exhibits a daring perspective, an off-beat study in vertigo, and its subject matter is rare for Sheets--a figure study of two young women gazing from their lofty perch into the dreary neighborhood below. Angel's Flight is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In 1934, Sheets was appointed (along with Hatfield and others) "to a committee to organize, select, and direct" the federal government's Public Works of Art program in Southern California. The same year, Sheets had his first solo show in New York.

· Sheets Week [Curbed LA]