Silent Teachers

By Susan M. Anderson, Curator

Valley of the Santa Clara, by Ralph Davison Miller, The Gardena High School Collection

In 1919, Gardena High School Principal, John H. Whitley, embarked on a program for students in the senior class that was devised to lend crucial support to their cultural foundation. He encouraged the students to acquire works of art for the walls of the high school as their senior gifts, describing them as “silent teachers”. The students’ first selection, made as a result of a visit to the artist’s studio, was Valley of the Santa Clara, by Ralph Davison Miller. The moody painting of storm clouds hanging over a rocky outcropping is of the lush agricultural river valley in Ventura County, running from the San Gabriel Mountains west to the Pacific Ocean. The students likely selected Miller’s painting both for its aesthetic properties and because it was a landscape of a rural farming area not unlike the Gardena Valley.

The valley—the only fertile, green spot between the sea and what is today’s Los Angeles during the long dry season in Southern California—attracted Gabrielino (Tongva) Indians who hunted and fished centuries ago in a slough that wound its way to San Pedro’s mud flats. The Dominguez Slough, which fed a lush oasis and inland freshwater lake, took its name from Juan José Dominguez, a Spanish soldier. In 1784, after receiving a Spanish land grant, Dominguez established Rancho San Pedro, which encompassed the Gardena Valley. Ranchers and farmers settled there during the Los Angeles housing boom of 1886-1887, made possible by the city’s first railway lines. Civil War (Union) General William S. Rosecrans bought and developed fourteen thousand acres between Los Angeles and the sea, playing a key role in the foundation of Gardena. Japanese immigrants were also instrumental in establishing the city. They started farms that raised alfalfa, barley, and tomato crops, and planted extremely productive berry fields that gave rise to Gardena’s nickname, “Berryland.”

Valley of the Santa Clara is also an excellent example of California plein-air painting (works painted en plein air, or outdoors). The rationale for collecting a plein-air landscape would have been easily made by Principal Whitley, who seems to have strongly influenced the selection of paintings in the early years of the collection. After all, Gardena High School (GHS) was in a rural setting surrounded by fertile farmland, and the school was nationally known for its agricultural program.

Miller’s painting was also within the students’ budget. Principal Whitley “suggested that the students find a good-hearted artist who would part with a good picture for the small sum the class had raised.” This method was followed for the next few years, with “funds laboriously earned by class plays and other projects…[that] paid for pictures concerning whose worth the pupils ‘were more or less foggy.’”

Groups of senior students visited artist studios and art galleries to familiarize themselves with regional art and artists in order to make a final selection of paintings from which to choose. Many artists lived in downtown Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art had opened in 1913. The Blanchard Music and Art Building was a leading hub of activity, with its art studios, Blanchard Gallery, Art Students League, and Ruskin Club. Across the street, in the Copp Building, were more artist studios, the Daniell Galleries, the Sketch Club, and the Los Angeles Academy of Art. In 1919, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times was Antony Anderson, an artist and writer from Chicago who founded the Art Students League with artist, Hanson Puthuff. Regional artists were also active in the California Art Club, which had formed in 1909, bringing together the leading artists of the day to exchange ideas and exhibit their work. Artist William Wendt was elected president in 1911, lending his considerable prestige to the club.

Two commercial galleries, J.F. Kanst and Steckels, were also situated downtown. On February 9, 1919, around the time the GHS students were visiting studios and galleries in preparation for their first purchase, Kanst had an exhibition of the Ten Painters Club of California. It is possible that the GHS students saw this show, which featured some of Southern California’s most prominent California Impressionist artists. The students also visited artists’ studios in the Arroyo Seco area of Pasadena and eastern Los Angeles, the vast wooded canyon and dry wash that served as a conduit for rainwater flowing from the San Gabriel Mountains during the brief rainy season. Beginning in the 1890s, artists, writers, and craftspeople had settled in the Arroyo Seco, attracted by the inexpensive land on the wild eastern bank, then considered dangerous to health and personal safety. Several of the first works the students selected were by painters who lived or had studios in the Arroyo, including John Mannheim, Puthuff, Elmer Wachtel, Wendt, Orrin White, and Miller. Over time, GHS students collected numerous works by artists who embraced “Arroyo Culture,” as it was later called. As a result, a number of the paintings in the GHSAC are scenes of the Arroyo and the bordering San Gabriel Mountains.

In an effort to lure people out West, civic, real estate, citrus industry, and railroad boosters were promoting California as a healthful, unspoiled land of plenty and opportunity was one of the most impressive and longest-running advertising campaigns of all time, beginning in earnest in the 1880s and continuing through the 1930s. The boosters’ advertising efforts, and those of national magazines like The Craftsman, House Beautiful, and Ladies’ Home Journal, extolled the region’s art as well as its climate and natural beauty, bringing an influx of new residents—including innumerable landscape painters—to Southern California at the turn of the twentieth century.

The region attracted a population driven by a utopian yearning for a life of simplicity and harmony, exemplified by the informal cultural community living in the Arroyo Seco. At the turn of the century, the untrammeled Arroyo was the cultural heart of Los Angeles and of the regional Arts and Crafts Movement, which loosely bound together the like-minded community of artists, craftspeople, architects, and others. As architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson has written, the Arts and Crafts Movement in Southern California “was expressed not in a specific style but as a mood, an attitude, a sensibility. At its core, the Arts and Crafts Movement advocated a search for a way of life that was true, contemplative, and filled with essences rather than superficialities…Process or how a thing was made, and its contribution to life were as important as the appearance of the object.”

Susan M. Anderson is a seasoned museum professional and a specialist in 20th century American art with a focus on the art of California. 


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