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In Praise of Alma Mater : Proud of their art school's legacy and impact, Chouinard alumni will celebrate the institution with reunion events.

April 30, 1993|NANCY KAPITANOFF | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Nancy Kapitanoff regularly contributes to The Times.

One of the great names in Los Angeles art history is Chouinard. It belongs to Nelbert Chouinard (1879-1969), the woman who in 1921 started the art institute that bore her name with money from her World War I widow's pension.

The school closed in 1972. But it lives on in the hearts, minds and talents of alumni, many of whom have been recognized around the world for excellence in their fields. They include Millard Sheets, Emerson Woelffer, Ed Ruscha, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin and Joe Goode in the visual arts; Edith Head and Bob Mackie in fashion design, and Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini in music.

"Between 1945 and 1972, more outstanding artists and people truly famous in their different areas of art came out of that school than any other school we can think of," said Leo Monahan, who attended the school from 1954 to 1958. He became an illustrator and is known for his three-dimensional paper artwork.

Monahan has been working with the Chouinard Reunion Committee to plan "The First Chouinard Reunion," which takes place tonight at the Universal Hilton Hotel in Universal City. Former students will perform, and a plaque will be unveiled recognizing the institute's building near MacArthur Park as a Los Angeles historic and cultural monument. The building served in the early 1970s as the Woman's Building.

Alumnus Gary McKinnon has produced a 45-minute video compilation of photographs, contributed by alumni, reflecting life at the school throughout its 51-year history. The video will run continuously throughout the evening.

Saturday at noon, there will be a picnic immediately south of Johnny Carson Park at Riverside and Bob Hope drives in Burbank. G. L. Stevens, who attended Chouinard in 1936, will be there. Stevens remembers applying for a job in Disney's animation department and being told that he would have to take a course at the school. He signed up for a special pre-animation course, which covered the study of movement, with noted instructor Don Graham.

Jeff Leader, a reunion organizer who studied fine arts and film at Chouinard in the late '60s, said: "We wanted to invite everybody who has ever been involved in the school." He has nothing but warm memories of his Chouinard days.

"Nobody got into Chouinard based on grades or where you came from," he said. "Your portfolio was judged by artists who were the faculty." Once there, he said, "you learned how to think."

"Chouinard singularly affected my life more than anything," said Jim Childs, who majored in film in the '60s. "An innovative philosophy and style came out of that school. They wanted you to look for concepts, develop ideas, use your heads. Never mind how good your technique is if you don't have anything to say."

That philosophy stemmed from Chouinard, who studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, taught at the Batchelder School of Design in Pasadena, Throop Polytechnic Institute--which became Caltech--and Otis Art Institute before opening her school in an old house in 1921.

"She set the tone," Monahan said. "There was no pressure at all. Everybody was so interested in learning how to draw and paint. It was very competitive, but an extremely happy kind of competitiveness. There was no rancor."

According to a 1959 Times article, 40,000 students had come to study at the school by that year, when Chouinard was 80.

"The joy of going to Chouinard is you can go into any museum in the world and see the work of its faculty and its students," Leader said.

Where and When Event: First Chouinard Reunion picnic. Location: South of Johnny Carson Park, at Riverside and Bob Hope drives, Burbank. Hours: Noon; bring your own picnic. Price: Free. Call: (310) 288-1696.

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