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Valley Life | SPOTLIGHT

Family Crafts Its Heritage in Art Supplies Business

September 01, 2000|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

The atmosphere in Continental Art Supplies is electric with possibilities.

As students from CSUN and others browse through the Reseda shop, they see more than brushes and paints and acid-free watercolor pads. Like chefs, they know these raw materials can be turned into wonders--works of the imagination that may outlive their creators. As a young man with an armful of supplies says while waiting to pay: "Happiness is a blank canvas."

Continental, the first independent art-supplies shop in the West Valley, will celebrate its 40th anniversary Sept. 9. Today it is managed by 44-year-old Steve Aufhauser, who took over the family business in 1982, after his 29-year-old brother Larry died in a scuba-diving accident.

But Continental was started by Steve's parents, Robert and Greta Aufhauser. Heir to a family bank in Munich in the 1930s, Robert sensed there was no future for a Jew in Germany and fled first to Belgium, then to England, where he worked for British intelligence during World War II. In 1947, he fell in love at first sight with Greta, a young artist who had waited out the war in her native Amsterdam.

The Aufhausers married and moved to Los Angeles and, once they were established, decided to go into business for themselves. The family legend is that Greta was reading The Times classifieds one Sunday when she saw that an art supplies store was up for sale. Robert's response was: "Oh, look, Ringling Bros. is looking for a tightrope walker."

"I don't know the first thing about being a tightrope walker," Greta said.

"I don't know the first thing about selling art supplies," Robert countered.

Robert never enjoyed banking, but he knew business. Greta, a painter and educator who caused a major stir when she introduced nude models to her adult education classes in 1949, knew what artists needed and was able to make suggestions about what to stock. Robert jokes that they founded the store "as a cheap way for her to get art supplies."

The Aufhausers were living on the Westside when they started their business, a small store up the street from the current shop at 7041 Reseda Blvd.

"To make a living in art supplies, you have to have colleges and industry," Robert explains. "In the West Valley, there was no competition. That's why I moved out here."

Today the business still depends on a steady stream of art students from CSUN, Valley, Pierce, Moorpark and other local colleges. "We try to be an extension of the learning process," says Steve, who works closely with the art faculties and sometimes lectures on such topics as the toxicity of various materials.

But the store also attracts people who have discovered an inner artist--one who suddenly wants to paint or do collage with surprising urgency. The top floor of the shop is filled with handmade and other specialty papers, and there you see customers lovingly running their hands over the samples. You can almost see their finished projects in their eyes.

In addition to students, Steve says, the typical customer "is a 54-year-old housewife with children out of the house." He also sees lots of professional artists who work all day with computers (in animation, for example) and who come in because they still feel the need to create the old-fashioned way on nights and weekends.

How does a family art-supply store survive in a world of art-supply chains? Steve tries to offer something extra, like an extensive collection of books that both teach technique and pique the imagination. The shop also expects its clerks to give customers informed advice as well as ring up their purchases. And Steve tracks customers' purchases and makes sure that the oil painters aren't inundated with ads that only a water colorist would be interested in. "Nobody wants to get junk mail," he says.

In addition, Steve and four of his fellow independents formed a buying cooperative almost three years ago. Calling itself I AM ART, the group now has 12 members nationwide. The cooperative has nothing like the power of the giant chains, which can even influence which art-related products are manufactured. But 12 retailers have more clout than one, and the group is able to negotiate deals with suppliers that make some discounting possible.

The cooperative is also able to support small suppliers who make what the members see as superior products. For Steve, one of the things that makes art and art supplies interesting and "cool" are all the unusual niche products that allow a person to be uniquely creative.

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He gives as an example the artist-quality paints produced by the M. Graham Co. This tiny firm consists, Steve says, "of six people in the woods of Oregon dancing around caldrons of color." The cooperative not only boosts the firm's income, it reinforces the company's vision of making the highest quality paints in ways that protect the environment.

Steve gets excited when he talks about new galleries, such as Northridge's VIVA, coming to the Valley. Artists need to have places where their work can be displayed, and the public needs to be exposed to art, he says. "In the San Fernando Valley there should be more than one arts district," he argues. "Maybe it will be Canoga Park, maybe it will be Reseda."

Since Steve is a person who waxes eloquent about natural willow charcoal and tubes of the highest quality gouache, you have to wonder what medium he chooses to express his own creativity.

He grins and confesses: "I cook."

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Spotlight appears every Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at valley.news@latimes.com.

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