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Old frescoes would love to see the light

Once-stunning Italian Renaissance-style murals by acclaimed California artist Millard Sheets are buried beneath layers of paint and plaster on an exterior wall at South Pasadena Middle School.

June 05, 2010|By Alison Bell, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Buried beneath layers of paint and plaster on a seemingly bare exterior wall at South Pasadena Middle School is a hidden art treasure more than three quarters of a century old.

Although you'd never know by looking at it, three highly detailed and colorful frescoes by acclaimed California artist Millard Sheets grace a wall of the school's auditorium. Because of a series of blunders, the once-stunning Italian Renaissance-style murals haven't seen the light of day for decades.

Today, construction is in full swing at the campus. A new gym and administration building are among the planned improvements at the school, which was built in 1928. However, one building that is not slated for renovation is the auditorium. But some locals would like to see the frescoed north wall restored.

"These are priceless treasures, and it's a shame they're covered up," said Lori Fuller Rusch, an adjunct professor of art history who lives in South Pasadena and has studied Sheets extensively.

Rusch and other residents have formed a committee to raise funds to restore the murals and several other period artworks scattered around the campus. Of all the pieces, the Sheets murals are the most important and valuable.

Born in Pomona in 1907, Sheets was an influential art instructor, watercolorist and oil painter. He designed and executed more than 150 murals, including mosaic panels for Home Savings of America buildings throughout California, from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Sheets' work is enjoying renewed appreciation. The Pasadena Museum of California Art recently wrapped up an exhibit of his early paintings and drawings. A large oil painting of his can fetch as much as $200,000, according to the exhibit's curator, Gordon T. McClelland. And one company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring one of his mosaics on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

So how did a small-town middle school end up with a work by such a celebrated artist?

In 1932, Sheets, who was already an established painter at the age of 25, took a class on fresco painting at L.A.'s Chouinard School of Art. He and other classmates collaborated with the instructor, renowned Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, on a mural called "Street Meeting," Rusch said.

Around the same time, students at the middle school — back then, it was a junior high — were working on their own murals. When Principal G. Derwood Baker, an enthusiastic supporter of the arts, learned of the Chouinard mural, he invited Sheets to the school as a guest speaker. Sheets accepted and was so impressed with the students' work that he offered to paint murals for the school, according to Rusch.

Such generosity was classic Sheets, McClelland said. "Throughout his career, Sheets felt he should contribute art to society to make society better. He was a big promoter of helping people to enjoy art."

It was also a smart career move for the young artist. "These were some of his earliest murals," Rusch said. "This was a way for him to practice his technique without the pressure that comes from having a paid commission."

Sheets and an assistant worked nights and weekends for eight months to create three 10-by-14-foot "wet" frescoes, a technique in which artists paint on wet surfaces. cement. The triptych depicted three aspects of Southern California life: The Harbor, The City and The Farm.

Sheets even drew himself into the City panel — as an unemployed worker.

The frescoes were dedicated in 1934. The Times called the coloring and rendering of landscape on The Farm panel "magnificent," adding that all three panels "represent a great forward step toward a native type of wall painting." Sheets himself said they were some of the finest he did during that period.

The panels didn't last long. In the 1940s, a misguided maintenance man seeking to preserve the City panel used too powerful a waterproofing solution, coating it milky white. It was later painted over.

Ironically, it was Sheets who told the man about a special waterproofing formula, combining Castile soap and water, that was used by the old masters. But the janitor put in too much soap.

During a remodel in the 1960s, the two remaining panels were painted out and plastered over, supposedly because someone signed the wrong work order.

When Sheets visited the school in 1969 and learned of the loss, he was quoted as saying, "It was like finding an old friend walled up. We worked long and hard on those frescoes, and suddenly there was nothing there but a blank wall."

Rusch and her committee have had two experts visit that "blank wall." "They say it's well within the realm of possibility to restore" the frescoes, Rusch said. "In the future, we hope the conservators can peel away some paint and plaster to reveal a portion of one to get a further idea of how restorable they are."

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