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A Hard-to-Label Lifestyle : Gordon McClelland's Career as Artist, Collector Is Steeped in Orange Country Lore

August 09, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Is this a postcard-quality vision or what?

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In the late '60s, a teen spends the afternoon surfing by the Huntington Beach Pier. Later, waiting for his mom to pick him up in front of the Golden Bear nightclub on PCH, a car pulls up and two men he recognizes as massively legendary grizzled bluesmen John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed get out. They find the club door locked, so the two bluesmen stand on the sidewalk shooting the breeze with the wet suit-clad surfer in the glow of the late afternoon sun.

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It might be hard to recall amid the present-day hail of bullets and bills, but scenes such as that are our legacy, the sort of everyday serendipity that set Southern California apart. Here are two more distinctly SoCal vignettes:

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A 15-year-old kid goes to a rock club, interested in seeing the light show, which was then the new psychedelic rage at concerts. He's disappointed to find the light show guy hadn't shown up that night, but gets the inspiration to tell the club owner he has a light show and can fill in. He runs home, gets his family's slide projector and somehow bluffs and improvises his way into a job. When the club owner's poster artist winds up in jail, the kid also tells the owner, "Sure, I do posters," and spends the next couple of years doing light shows and posters for shows by the likes of Chicago and the Mothers of Invention.

A 12-year-old boy gets a work permit to pick and pack oranges in the orchards near his Villa Park home. He falls in love with the labels used on the old fruit boxes, paintings depicting California in an idealized Maxfield Parrish glow, an agrarian utopia with mission-style buildings, rosy-cheeked beauties and lots of fruit rolling around. He begins collecting the labels, which no one else seems interested in. Three decades later, he's making an enviable living as the foremost expert and dealer in the now-hot collectibles.

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The kid in all these instances was Gordon McClelland. If the title Mr. California wasn't associated with a muscle pageant, but, rather, was awarded for lifestyle and attitude, McClelland would get my vote.

Now 43, he still surfs three or four days a week, and would surf more days if the waves were better. He lives with his wife and 12-year-old son on the outskirts of San Clemente, and commutes in the early afternoon to the Santa Ana business complex where the publisher of his several books on fruit labels and California artists has given him space to work on his projects. McClelland's wet suit was drying on the business' door handle when we spoke there last Thursday.

Three of the walls inside are decorated with some of McClelland's 14,000 different fruit box labels--one wall devoted to oranges, another lemons and one apples--while strewn about elsewhere are surf-related paintings, boxes of old maps and travel brochures, concert posters, surfboards, record albums, and a '60s vintage pinball machine titled Surf Champ.

Bearded, tan and wearing shorts and a knit sport shirt, McClelland noted, "The link basically between anything I do is that it all relates to California history or culture. That, and I've noticed that just about everything I've ever done has been something I was involved with before I was 13 years old."

McClelland was exposed early on to the work of California artists because his mother had taken painting lessons from some of the same painters he later wrote about in his book on watercolor artists, "The California Style, 1925-1955" (he collaborates with other authors on most of his titles). He had been into surfing and music since he was a kid, and he traces his interest in fruit labels to the "Dobie Gillis" TV show.

"It started for me with an interest in signs. There was an episode of 'Dobie Gillis' where they showed where Maynard G. Krebs lived. I thought beatniks were the coolest thing in the world, so I was paying attention. And when they showed his place, the walls were covered with signs. I went right across the street, took a Sunkist Growers sign and put it up on my bedroom wall," he recalled.

When he got his work permit at 12 and began working in the groves and at the Olive Heights packing house in Orange, he fell in love with the labels and started collecting them.

It's a curious notion, isn't it, an Orange County with actual orange trees growing in it?

"It had a particular kind of character, the way we lived then," said McClelland. "It was a real nice mixture of agriculture and suburban living, not really a rural agrarian place anymore, sort of in the middle. We lived right next to a big stand of eucalyptus trees and there were orange groves right behind my bedroom. It always smelled good and we could go out and play in there, build treehouses, run wild. And there would be the old-style bums, hobos, hanging out camping in the groves. It was great."

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