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Behold Frances Gearhart

The late, once-popular color-block printmaker's work is revived in a show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, thanks to devoted admirer Susan Futterman.

December 26, 2009|By Deborah Netburn

After seeing "Behold the Day: The Color Block Prints of Frances Gearhart," showing at the Pasadena Museum of California Art through Jan. 31, one may wonder why Gearhart isn't better known. Back in the 1930s, at the height of her career, she became one of the top color-block printmakers in America, displaying her work at the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum, as well as at numerous shows on the West Coast. Even if her fame faded in the East, where her mountainous landscapes may not have resonated as much, one would expect her continued popularity in California, where she lived and worked until her death in 1958 at age 89.

Over the course of her 30-year career, this Pasadena artist -- one of three sisters, none of them married, all of them teachers in the public school system, all of them artists and travelers -- became her own compelling, uplifting portrait of female achievement and independence.So why did she drop out of public consciousness for so long?

Perhaps it is because Gearhart never published an instructional book or articles, as did some of her better known contemporaries. Or perhaps it is because she and her sisters never had children, so she has no heirs with a vested interest in keeping her legacy alive.

But Gearhart now has an advocate in Susan Futterman, a Gearhart researcher and the person responsible for bringing the retrospective to the Pasadena museum. Futterman, a former director of standards and practices for ABC, first encountered Gearhart's work six years ago at an arts and crafts antique show in San Francisco where the boldness of Gearhart's colors stopped her in her tracks.

"The ones I love most are those where she leads you through a rocky path up in the mountains," Futterman said. "She takes you to the wilderness, and she plops you right in the middle of it. It's not like some landscape artists where you feel it is very distant. It's as if I have been hiking myself."

Futterman, who has lived in Pasadena for 35 years, sat on the board of Friends of the Gamble House and chaired the Pasadena Heritage Foundation's annual Craftsman Weekend, had never heard of Gearhart before that day. She vowed to the vendor, prints dealer Roger Genser, that when she retired she would find him and together they would do something with Gearhart's work and her story. The two ended up co-curating "Behold the Day."

"It is something of an anomaly for us to work with someone who is not an artist or who doesn't have a background in curating," said Emma Jacobson-Sive, a spokeswoman for the museum. "But Susan came in with a ton of research, and the minute the work was actually shown, it was so beautiful and such a specific Pasadena story, so it was a perfect fit."

"Behold the Day" consists of about 100 Gearhart prints set up mostly chronologically, starting with some of the artist's watercolors followed by her linocuts, her preferred medium. Gearhart's early prints are darker, more clunky and flatter than her subsequent work. As she grows as an artist -- thanks to classes on the East Coast and in Santa Barbara -- her canvases tell a deeper story. The images grow more complex, the perspective deepens, and the colors practically glow.

One wall of the show is filled with prints of kids at play, images that were part of a children's book project that the three Gearhart sisters worked on together. The book itself was never published, but Futterman found illustrations, poems and a book cover in a box at the Princeton library during a research trip. Because of her persistence, "Let's Play" was published this year by the Book Club of California.

On another wall are 19 prints that Gearhart showed at Grand Central Art Galleries in New York in 1933. These images of the Eastern Sierra, Monterey and Big Bear Lake offer a glimpse of the Western wilderness that Gearhart wanted to show her growing East Coast audience.

For two years, Futterman has treated her study of Gearhart and the planning of "Behold the Day" as a full-time job. She has traveled across the country to university archives, found the essayists who put together the exhibit catalog, and worked with the PMCA to raise money to stage the show.

But her journey with Gearhart is not done yet. Futterman wants to see for herself the natural landscapes that inspired Gearhart and put the artist's work in a geographical context. She wants to know more about the artist's personality by finding correspondence with her contemporaries. And she believes there is a larger book on Gearhart that could be done.

"I'm retired, but I've started a new life," Futterman said. "It feels very much like Gearhart to me."

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

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