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Walter Pomeroy Is San Diego’s Everyman Art Collector

Above: A portrait of San Diego collector Walter Pomeroy in his home with a slice of his art collection behind him, March 9, 2016.

Aired 3/11/16 on KPBS News.

A new exhibit at downtown San Diego's Central Library features the mid-century art collection of San Diegan Walter Pomeroy, who amassed the collection over years with little money.

Walter Pomeroy points to some of the abstract paintings hanging in the living room of his Pacific Beach apartment.

"That wall is all Guy Williams," said the 82-year-old Pomeroy. Williams was an abstract painter living in San Diego in the 1950s and '60s. He and Pomeroy were friends.

Pomeroy points to another wall covered in artwork by La Jolla-based artist Richard Allen Morris. Pomeroy has 44 pieces by Morris, who is considered one of San Diego's most prominent artists.

It's not just two walls. Every inch of Pomeroy's wall space is covered in art.

"See, I’m not buying them because they’re famous. I’m buying them because I like the art," Pomeroy said.

He's had the same rule for more than 60 years: never spend more than $500 on a piece.

"I didn’t’ spend a lot of money," Pomeroy said. "I never thought I was collecting art. I bought a painting. And then I bought another painting. And before long, my walls were covered."

Photo by Angela Carone

A portrait of Walter Pomeroy, who has an extensive collection of paintings and drawings by San Diego artists from the 1950s and '60s, March 9, 2016.

Pomeroy's collecting habits are broad. He also collects LPs, CDs, DVDs, books, perfume bottles and swatch watches. But it was the artwork and need for wall space that forced him to expand into two adjacent apartments (he owns the small complex where he lives).

His art collection runs the gamut from low to highbrow, from a Paris thrift store find to photography to works by star artists like David Hockney and Sam Francis.

In the 1950s and '60s, Pomeroy started hanging out with up-and-coming San Diego artists, like Williams and Morris. Some of those artists had studios in Balboa Park's Spanish Village so Pomeroy would go and hang out there on the weekends.

"If I saw something I liked and I had money in my pocket, I would buy it," Pomeroy said.

He also bought the work of National City-born artist John Baldessari, now one of the luminaries of the art world.

"Walter has collected the most extensive slice of what painters and drawers were doing in San Diego during the 1950s and '60s," said Dave Hampton, an expert in San Diego mid-century art and curator of the exhibit "Portrait of Pomeroy," which opens Saturday in the art gallery at downtown San Diego's Central Library. It highlights that local mid-century period represented in Pomeroy's collection.

Pomeroy bought art on a modest salary. He worked as a computer programmer at General Dynamics for 33 years. He always loved art, music and books, but he didn’t come from an art loving family.

"My stepfather was a marine and my biological father was a sailor," Pomeroy said. "I grew up downtown on Union Street near Ash. It was sort of a tough neighborhood."

His mother worked as a cocktail waitress.

Gertrude Stein, right, and Alice B. Toklas in 1922 in their art-filled apartment in Paris.

As he got older, his musical tastes broadened. His bedroom was by the kitchen where his mother often spent time. Pomeroy would listen to records, especially operas. He was especially fond of "Four Saints in Three Acts" by composer Virgil Thompson, with a libretto by poet Gertrude Stein.

"There’s a wonderful refrain, 'Pigeons on the grass alas, a magpie in the sky,'" Pomeroy said. "I would play that often and she heard that."

For his birthday, she made him a round cake and wrote "pigeons on the grass" on the cake.

"She had no idea who Gertrude Stein was or anything," Pomeroy said. "That was kind of a touching moment, and we didn't have many of those in my family."

Gertrude Stein remained a prominent influence on Pomeroy. He hangs his paintings salon style, just as she did in her Paris apartment.

"But in her case, there were Picassos and famous people," Pomeroy said.

Pomeroy actually owns an etching by Picasso. It hangs a little crooked on a wall close to the floor.

"The Picasso is a good example of how I’m not a good preserver," Pomeroy said. "When I got it, I just went out and bought a drugstore frame and the backing and the mat are not acid free. Now you can see how dark it is."

Photo by Angela Carone

Walter Pomeroy points to the holes in his art collection since pieces have been moved to the downtown library for a new exhibit, March 9, 2016.

Curator Hampton appreciates the lack of formality in how Pomeroy presents his collection. He was overwhelmed when he walked into the apartment for the first time and saw all the art.

"It was so accessible and unpretentious," Hampton said. "I don’t think there’s a pair of white gloves in this place to move a painting around, period. There was an immediacy and sincerity that was so refreshing."

Pomeroy almost always bought straight from the artists and built relationships with them.

"I’ve had more than one person tell me ... they use this same word, that Walter was a hero," Hampton said. "That he kept them going at times when it was tough. Walter just went right to the artist and supported them decade after decade after decade."

These days, Pomeroy collects less and gives more. He’s donated works to the Oceanside Museum of Art and the city of San Diego. But he still enjoys the hunt.

"I still enjoy going to thrift stores and finding something wonderful," Pomeroy said. "It doesn’t have to be a great artist. Just something wonderful."

The exhibit "Portrait of Pomeroy" opens Saturday in the gallery space at downtown San Diego's Central Library. A documentary about Pomeroy will be on view at the exhibit. It was produced by Hampton and filmed and edited by Bill Perrine, whose most recent documentary is about the San Diego's underground music scene in the 1990s.

Evening Edition

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