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San Diego’s Mid-Century Art Scene

Encore broadcast that originally aired March 26, 2009

Audio

Aired 4/6/09

The San Diego art scene was rich and flourishing during the middle of last century. We'll talk with local mid-century art enthusiast and Objects USA co-founder, Dave Hampton about the San Diego artists from the mid-century modern period.

Decorative design by Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman
Enlarge this image

Above: Decorative design by Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. After years of being dismissed and misunderstood, mid-twentieth century design is once again desired and fashionable. It was an art, craft and textile movement that featured sleek lines, natural materials, and bold designs. Southern California played a big role in the development of the mid-century look and San Diego was home to a vibrant artisan community in the 1950s and '60s. Earlier this year, I spoke about that rich art scene with local art historian, Dave Hampton, co-founder of the Objects USA Art Collective. I began by asking him where San Diego fit in in the design movement known as mid-century modern.

DAVE HAMPTON (Co-Founder, Objects USA Art Collective): Well, San Diego is right there in the middle of the California design world that you've been talking about. There was a lot of fantastic artists here that have been, in many ways, underappreciated. Because San Diego was a little bit further afield than somewhere like Los Angeles so there were fantastic membership organizations, there were schools that employed lots of artists here, craftspeople as well, and the California design shows that you were just talking about were full of San Diego artist craftspeople. Starting in the early sixties, when that show really expanded, there are all kinds of people that many folks in San Diego might know, people like Jim Hubbell and Jackson and Ellamarie Woolley and Toza and Ruth Radakovich just to name a few. Arlene Fisch, a prominent jeweler. And these folks were really part of a small and close knit community of artists in San Diego that drew something special from living here with our mild climate and that sense of community.

CAVANAUGH: Well, when we talk about mid-century design, we're kind of talking in the area of the late forties through the middle to late seventies. What was happening in San Diego at that time that allowed for a rich period of craft and design?

HAMPTON: Well, we're really talking about the post-war era.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HAMPTON: So San Diego had – was like a lot of Southern California, had ties to the aerospace industry and the navy, of course, and so there was a booming post-war economy here. There was also a great educational system. One of the things that's unique about California is its network of the UC campuses and then the state college campuses and then community college campuses that people, you know, way back in the sixties and – had access to. So there were places where people could go to learn about art and craft and to learn those skills. There were all the – also all these places for people to work. So education played a very important part in what you're describing as this rich period. Without that base, things would look very different. Another thing was that the climate in San Diego, Southern California overall, but San Diego as well, provided a climate where people could work out of doors all year round. It was so different from – A lot of the artists that came here came from the east or industrial centers or the midwest, and it was such a different experience. So if you were someone that was involved in pottery, you had to have a kiln, you had to be able to fire this thing, and you had to be sort of outdoors. People that wanted to work on big sculpture, they needed outdoor space that they could make noise, they could cast bronze, they could build their own foundry. People in California could do these kinds of things where it was very hard to live that way elsewhere. And even just the very fundamentals of living are more difficult in places with a severe climate and so here you really didn't have to concern yourself with a lot of those details of getting by every day and you could put all that time into your work.

CAVANAUGH: You're – What you're describing here is just putting such images of my – in my mind of the movies that you see of people working on their sculptures and the beach and all of that. It sounds like such a dynamic time to be here and to be an artist.

HAMPTON: People that – And I've spoken with an awful lot of artists who experienced that same time period and many of them share that sentiment, that this really felt like something new and special and exciting was happening. This is sort of going off on a little bit of a tangent but what we've been talking about so far is this idea of modernism. And modernism, whether it was in the arts, in painting, was really a throwing off, a reaction against what came before, so established traditions. One of the things that lots of local artists endured was people not understanding what they were doing and being downright hostile to what they were doing. So it's another thing that sort of insulated the art and the craft community here was the sense of people really didn't get what they were doing. They had to be kind of on a mission to help the public understand trends in contemporary art, in contemporary design and craft that were not the traditional kinds of elements that people grew up with.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Dave Hampton. He's a local art enthusiast, co-founder of the Objects USA Art Collective. And, Dave, tell us what was the Allied Craftsmen?

HAMPTON: The Allied Craftsmen were a group that came out of just that dynamic post-war period we're talking about. So after the war, a group of painters would hold meetings and decide to get together to – they also fell in with an architect named Lloyd Ruocco, who with his wife were super influential people in San Diego at that time for this whole modern movement, really a culture that spans architecture and design and fine arts and craft. And there was a group that these people formed called the Allied Artists Council. This was a – had many different kinds of media groups. There was dance, there was film, writing, fine arts, craft, and the craft branch of that organization was called the Allied Craftsmen. They had their first shows in the late forties in the Spanish Village. And there was just a small charter group of these folks, only about 12 original members. They included Jackson and Ellamarie Woolley, Margaret Price, Barney Reid, Phyllis Wallin, a list of other really interesting artists from that time period. And it's a group that still exists today. It has stood the test of time. So the Allied Craftsmen exists today. But one of the things that really put them on the map is that during the 1950s and '60s and through most of the '70s, they were given an annual prestigious show in what used to be called the Fine Arts Gallery in Balboa Park. It's now the San Diego Museum of Art. But they were given this context within an institution to present their craft really on a level with fine arts. They drew all kinds of people. They – There were articles in the magazines and newspapers. Everybody knew about the Allied Craftsmen. And they were definitely contemporary, they were modernist craftspeople. So these were not the kinds of things that you'd associate with average crafts, they were cutting edge, as we've talked about, interesting shapes, and they adopted lots of the trends of the larger art movements. So whether it was constructivism or biomorphism or even surrealism, these larger trends made their way into what those shapes that the people created looked like.

CAVANAUGH: You bring up a very important point because I think with – there's so much of an emphasis on design today. Even in a Target store, you'll have a name designer making everything from coffee pots to fans and yet the whole concept of a craftsman becoming more than a craftsman but an artistic designer really took shape in that time period, didn't it?

HAMPTON: It did. I mean, I think that that time period – Actually prior to that because we've talked about the arts and crafts movement.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

HAMPTON: We've talked about the Bauhaus movement. These are major design movements. So I don't know when something like the industrial designer was born but it was certainly shaped and came to a level of popularity during that time that it did not have before. And also, remember that these were often architects, too. So just like Jim Hubbell in San Diego makes everything from sculpture to jewelry to homes, there's a continuum there, so he shapes buildings just the way that he might shape a piece of sculpture and there's a relationship there. Mees Vandero that was mentioned earlier, it's the same kind of situation except it was more like an architect that would deign to design and create furniture specific to his building, a kind of a Frank Lloyd Wright trait as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now you mentioned Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley as a couple of San Diego artists working at that time. What kind of work did they make?

HAMPTON: Well, Jackson and Ellamarie Woolley are known for their enamel work. And theirs is a really fascinating story but enamel is the process of baking powdered glass, firing it, onto some kind of a backing, usually copper. So Ellamarie Packard was born here in San Diego. She was a native San Diegan. She studied art at San Diego State. In the thirties, she actually created a mural with a group of artists here on the San Diego State campus. They each contributed their own mural to what was, at the time, the library building. And her mural, that I've seen a photo of it, it was titled "Sailors Going to Hell." And – Yeah. And it was a very much a social realist WPA-type mural work which showed this grim long line of figures, of soldiers, boarding a destroyer with these giant guns, sort of oversized guns right hanging over their heads. And it's a – it really makes a social statement. But she wound up teaching at Francis Parker, which as many folks know still exists as a private school in Mission Hills. And there she met Jackson Woolley. Jackson came from the east coast, as so many folks – The wave of immigration (sic) to California is another important component of this whole picture. But Jackson came from Pittsburgh. He had trained as a Shakespearean actor and moved to San Diego right at the opening of the Old Globe Theatre to perform there. So Jackson comes to San Diego and winds up teaching drama at Francis Parker, where he meets Ellamarie Packard. They get married and after a few years of trying some different things in school – and they concentrate on making enamels in their studio in Point Loma. This is about 1948. And they start by making small dishes and plates, ashtrays, little boxes with metal enamel plaques on the top. And they would make their designs into the enamel. You could trace or draw lines in the powder so that you could create these designs and they were known for sort of stylized figures, sort of Cubist Picasso like profiles, animal designs, but their work really changed and grew over time. But that's how it started.

CAVANAUGH: And how does their work compare and contrast to Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman that we were talking about earlier?

HAMPTON: Well, they're part of the same initial wave and so they're making things initially that are – that they could create together. Part of the whole idea of this California crafts lifestyle was that – Everyone has addressed this, that is the Woolleys and the Ackermans in their statements, but they wanted to find something that they could do together, that was meaningful, that was creative, and that they could make a living by. And so it started in much the same way. The Woolleys had a tendency not to repeat their designs so they worked on a more one-off limited production capacity. But they both were making things, both couples that is, were making things that were for the home essentially. These were decorative things that were going to interact with someone's life and their – and the interior of the space that they lived. The other obvious parallel is that there was this trend at that time of the artist couple. So, really, there are lots of interesting well-known craftspeople at the time that were – acted and worked as a couple. They collaborated on some work together, they did things individually, but their life was based around this couple-creative relationship, which is kind of something typical of that time. There are big, well known potters from that time period, the Natzlers, the Heinos, people that made a big impact and they are other examples of this kind of strange phenomenon.

CAVANAUGH: We're talking about the mid-century design movement and the San Diego artists that contributed to it. My guest is Dave Hampton. He's co-founder of the Objects USA Art Collective. We do have a caller on the line right now, Charlene in Hillcrest. Hi, Charlene.

CHARLENE (Caller, Hillcrest): Hello, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

CHARLENE: Hello, Dave.

HAMPTON: Hi.

CHARLENE: Good morning. My question – And I really appreciate the topic. I love mid-century modern furniture and it's great to have the topic. My question regards one of my favorite things to do is to go to resale markets and to thrift stores and to browse and hunt for treasures of mid-century pieces. And I've gotten pieces in the past, most recently this sort of vinyl chair comes to mind. And how would I go about finding – authenticating something like that? Finding the source? Where would I take that? Or what kinds of sort of – what do I look for in the pieces in order to know what the origins are and the value of it is?

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for that, Charlene.

HAMPTON: Yeah, you're one of a lot of people that enjoys doing the kind of thing you describe. It can be very rewarding and fun, so that's cool to hear from you. You know, what I would do is just, if you don't know much about your chair, you can always search online and do some kind of basic image searches for mid-century chairs but there's a couple of great resources in San Diego that I'm sure could provide some light on this specific chair you're thinking of. There are two stores in particular that cross my mind. There's Mid-Century, which is on Park Boulevard in Hillcrest. And there's also a store called Boomerang for Modern on Kettner in Little Italy. Those should be great places where you could bring the chair or a picture of the chair and show either Jeff at Mid-Century or David at Boomerang your photos, and they would be able to answer pretty much any type of mid-century furniture question.

CAVANAUGH: I'm sure a lot of people are going to profit by that. Thank you so much. Now what was Objects USA?

HAMPTON: Well, Objects USA was a giant touring exhibition of American contemporary craft that was put together in 1969 by the S.C. Johnson Wax company. They had a Frank Lloyd Wright designed headquarters in Wisconsin, etcetera, etcetera. And they were real patrons of American art and craft, and they tapped a New York gallerist named Lee Nordness to compile a giant collection of American contemporary craft, which they spent some years doing and then this show – so it became a collection and also a traveling exhibition, which started off – it kicked off at the Smithsonian Institution, and it traveled the United States extensively, also into Europe. Objects USA is also the name of my art collective. Two friends and myself, Ron Kerner and Steve Aldana, chose that name as an homage to that period. We are all collectors and enthusiasts, and we wound up with a lot of information that we wanted to share with people as well as objects that we wanted to sell because we had collected far more than anyone needed. So we put together a website that's called ObjectsUSA.com, and the name is a way to reference that kind of period and that kind of culture that we're so interested in.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want – I do want us to be able to get in the fascinating story of another one of these artist couples in San Diego, working in the twentieth century design movement, and that's Ruth and Toza Radakovich. They really do have an amazing story. Tell us about that.

HAMPTON: Yes, they're amazing artists and they have an amazing story. They settled in Encinitas in the late fifties, about 1959, but their story is really an epic saga. So Svetozar Radakovich grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and he was a national swimming and skiing champion as a young man. He took his bachelor's and master's from the Royal Academy of Art in Belgrade. And he then did a couple of years of compulsory service in the Army. But in 1941, Yugoslavia was invaded by the Nazi forces and Toza, as he became known, was captured and wound up in a POW camp. Well, he escaped. He wound up being conscripted or pressed into service for the partisan Yugoslavian Army and was captured again and escaped again and then, after the war, the country of Yugoslavia, which doesn't exist as such anymore, is liberated from the Nazis but it falls under communist control. And in the years after the war, he meets Ruth Clark, who is an American, in Yugoslavia as part of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, and – which is whom they're both working for in the post-war years. Ruth Radakovich grew up in Illinois. She studied at Sarah Lawrence in New York, and at the University of Michigan. She was very interested in art and anthropology. She spent time traveling in Peru. She, during the war, she wanted to fly a plane. She wanted to join the Air Force. She was very into the war effort. But she was unable to do that, she wound up working at a bomber factory in Detroit, and so she was both involved in the war effort and a great humanitarian, and volunteered after the war to join this United Nations agency which put her in Yugoslavia as a secretary where she met Toza, who was working for the art department of that same agency. Well, the two of them fell in love and Ruth approached the authorities about the possibility of Toza immigrating to the U.S. Well, this was frowned upon in that era and she was expelled from the country as a result of this. And so then they had to continue getting to know each other via letters, and Toza was gradually coming under more and more scrutiny because they didn't like this relationship so they would exchange notes, tiny notes wrapped into vitamin capsules. I mean, it's really a cold war saga. And…

CAVANAUGH: Unbelievable.

HAMPTON: …and it grows and grows from there. So basically she returns, she tries to – you know, she tries to secure his release from the country and fails a second time. And I think that time involved trying to bribe government officials. And then finally they hatch a plan where Ruth is sending Toza small pieces of a small boat that he's going – piece by piece, that he's going to assemble and the plan is that he will sail across – or row, across the Adriatic Sea to Italy where Ruth will be waiting at an appointed time. Well…

CAVANAUGH: How did he get out?

HAMPTON: Well, not that way.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

HAMPTON: And that's a really amazing story. But finally the piece-by-piece boat was actually confiscated. It was caught, and Toza stole a boat, a naval boat, and got out onto the Adriatic and got within sight of the Italian coast at this appointed time when he was finally apprehended and brought back and charged, accused of being involved in an anti-communist plot. Finally, they did manage to get out but it was some years later, and then it was other years beyond that before they – he was allowed to immigrate to the United States. The twist being that the U.S. felt that he was a communist because he was coming from Yugoslavia. Anyhow, I realize that's a lot of background but they finally settle in Rochester, New York where there's a great crafts community and they're both involved in teaching there. And then a few years later, they move to Encinitas which, again, offers this kind of ideal climate. As one of your guests earlier mentioned, the idea that you could reinvent oneself, California was such a wide open, accepting place. It had its problems in the McCarthy era, to be sure, but for people like the Radakoviches, it was just tailor made. And they immediately fell into the Allied Craftsmen, they became members of the La Jolla Art Center, and they were exceptional artists that were part of this really dynamic community in San Diego. And all of them showed in those same California design shows that we were talking about earlier.

CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. Is any of their work visible anywhere in San Diego?

HAMPTON: Well, you can learn more about the Radakoviches by going to a website that their wonderful daughter Jeanie has established and that is radakovich.org. But most of their work is in private collections. They did a lot of jewelry as well as sculpture and paintings but the jewelry is, by and large, in people's private collections. The Woolleys, on the other hand, did some very large-scale works including a mural that was originally for a bank building downtown that was, over many years, eventually given to the Mingei and the Mingei installed it, once they built their Escondido satellite building, they installed this fantastic Woolley mural on the exterior wall of that building in Escondido. So when I first learned about it, friends of mine, we would drive up there on this kind of pilgrimage to see this largest Woolley piece, so you can certainly go see that piece there. Also, the San Diego Historical Society, I think has quite a collection of Jackson and Ellamarie Woolley examples.

CAVANAUGH: You know, you've described a very unique time, a very unique artistic climate in San Diego. And you've also said that it will never happen again in the same way. What do you mean by that?

HAMPTON: Well, it was a unique time. There are lots of different variables that I – I – you know, are unique to that time period, one being the educational opportunities that we talked about earlier. So many people in the post-war years and during the cold war years also had access to the G.I. Bill. There were all these opportunities for people to make their living by teaching. Whether you were a ceramics person or a jeweler, you could often find work in schools. I don't think that those things are quite the same today. Also, the way that these art – the artists and their membership organizations were really part and parcel with some of our art museums and institutions. So the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego grew out of this La Jolla Art Center, which was a membership organization. And at the time, the groups like the Allied Craftsmen, the Art Guild, and the La Jolla Art Center group really had unprecedented access to these museums as they were developing. So there were rental galleries where local artists had their work showed, there were the shows like we talked about where the Allied Craftsmen had – so – an annual show at the Fine Arts Gallery. So there was a kind of relationship there, almost an interdependence, between local artists and these institutions. And that's another thing that, just like the world of education, has simply evolved into a completely different state today. Those things will never be – There's no point in trying to recreate them but it does make that time period that we've been talking about, the late fifties – I mean, the late forties all the way up into the 1970s, it gives it a very singular quality.

CAVANAUGH: At least we can still enjoy the work that came out of that period.

HAMPTON: We can.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank so much local art enthusiast Dave Hampton, co-founder of the Objects USA Art Collective, for speaking to us about mid-century art in San Diego. Thank you.

HAMPTON: You're very welcome.

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