Florence (Flossie) Arnold and A.B. (Buck) Catlin worked the crowd like a longtime vaudeville comedy team, but their act was as new as their friendship is old.
Catlin, the mayor of Fullerton, was at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center Sunday to present a key to the city to Arnold, whom he has known since 1947. The presentation was part of a birthday party that included clowns, a magic act and the opening of an Arnold retrospective: 25 paintings that span her 35-year artistic career. (The paintings will be on display until Nov. 1.)
As the mayor gave Arnold the key, mounted on a plaque with the city seal and the inscription, "The Key to Our Hearts . . . in appreciation for your dedication to the advancement of cultural arts in Fullerton," he mentioned Arnold's 85 years.
But "we're all the same age," Arnold said, waving her hand toward some of the 162 people who had come to the open-to-the-public party.
"By ordinance, we're all the same age," Catlin pronounced as the audience laughed.
He was not giving her a big proclamation, Catlin said, because "you told me one time . . . "
" . . . I have all the whereases I need," Arnold finished for him.
When the plaque was in her hands, Arnold looked it over and said, "Oh, lovely. Does it (the key) open all the doors down at City Hall?"
"It'll do everything except fix a ticket," Catlin assured her.
Arnold gave a short speech in which she mentioned that, "speaking of birthdays," the Muckenthaler Center she helped start is now 21 years old. Then she tackled her birthday cake. Appropriately enough, the cake was a reproduction of one of her "hard-edge" paintings, two-dimensional abstract works composed of blocks and curves of color.
Over the years, Arnold's paintings have won her some international recognition. She's had shows around Southern California and outside it (her paintings have traveled to exhibits in Madrid, Copenhagen, Florence, Rome, Milan and Venice), and she's listed in "Who's Who in American Art" and the "Dictionary of International Biography." Her papers and memorabilia were sent to the Smithsonian Institution a dozen years ago.
But while Arnold is "recognized, all right, I think she's under-recognized," said Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, a Laguna Beach artist and art historian who wrote the book, "American Women Artists," published in 1982.
"She really doesn't go out and push her work, although it gets bought anyway," Rubinstein, an Arnold friend since 1970, said in a telephone interview. "She has a delight in color, in light, in feeling harmony in the world . . . her (art) has a kind of buoyancy or delight in it. It's very pristine, clear, bright."
Yet, Rubinstein added, while Arnold is a good painter, "she refuses to hole up in a garret. She cares just as much about community and helping people" as about art.
"She's Mrs. Fullerton . . . she's there if you need her."
Many of those who turned out to wish "Mrs. Fullerton" happy birthday Sunday were old friends, although some of them--including a few toddlers--were new acquaintances. After Catlin presented the key to the city, they watched Cal State Fullerton music department head David Thorsen, a private art student of Arnold, perform magic tricks. Then four members of California Clowns, a group of volunteer entertainers, put on a show.
Taught in Schools
It was all in keeping with the spirit of the woman who taught music, art and social studies in Orange County schools between 1923, when she arrived in Fullerton, and 1966, and who helped start a Fullerton Children's Art Festival in 1975.
In an interview last week, Arnold said she wasn't surprised to be getting a party from the Muckenthaler, or recognition at a Friday evening Friends of Cal State Fullerton picnic. "It's pretty hard to surprise me," she claimed. "I'm not surprised, I'm delighted--that anybody wants to look at anything that's 85."
Sitting in the house she's inhabited since 1948, Arnold projected a kindly presence frequently quickened with humor. Within the last decade she's undergone both a heart bypass operation and cataract surgery, but her handshake is firm and her walk fairly steady, while the eyes behind the thick glasses don't seem to miss much.
Her house is a gracious place, full of comfortable furniture, decorated in the style of another era. There are even ruffled curtains on the living room windows.
"When people come and see the ruffles on the curtains and the traditional furniture, they're surprised," she laughed, because they expect more modern furnishings from a modern abstract artist. "I tell them, 'I had the house and all my surroundings long before I started painting.' " Some of her oils decorate the walls. "I think they fit in very well," she commented. "They're the quiet spot" in each room.
Married 60 Years