Home of the proto-hipster high school ... Silver Lake or Gardena? A new art show's surprising answer


Forget Silver Lake — a new art show at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park helps make the case that the home of the proto-hipster might have been Gardena. Consider that in the early days of the 20th century, even Gardena's high school encouraged its students to become art aficionados.

In April of 1932, a Los Angeles Times reporter wrote that Gardena, "through its high school, has won national fame as a place where one can live close to nature and raise a few chickens and salad greens without sacrificing the contact with art which is one of the compensations for life in the roaring metropolis." (All that's missing is the single-drip coffee!)

The school was home to an impressive art collection, amassed by none other than its students. For almost four decades starting in 1919, Gardena High students each year would pick a new painting to add to their school

They included canvases of crashing surf, twilight views of the desert, images of cowboys working their way through the High Sierra — some of it by quite notable California painters, such as Edgar Payne (1883-1947), who was known for his impressionistic landscapes, and Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), who approached Western scenery with a Modernist eye.

Now a number of paintings from that collection are on view in a new exhibition at the Autry titled "California Impressionism: The Gardena High School Collection." The show features nine works — mostly landscapes — from the school's inventory of roughly 90 pieces, though human figures do make an appearance in some of works, such as Dixon's striking 1931-32 canvas "Men of the Red Earth," which opens the show and features a pair of indigenous figures standing over a typical Southwestern arroyo.

"No other high school in Los Angeles collected on this scale," Autry chief curator Amy Scott says of Gardena High School's museum-worthy paintings. "Other schools have art collections, but nothing, to my knowledge, that was the result of something as concentrated and focused as Gardena."

The program, launched at the suggestion of then-principal John Whitely, was a veritable community event for Gardena. Students would visit art galleries and meet with artists as part of their research and the student body would then vote on which works would be acquired. Once a work had been chosen, it was exhibited along with other pieces from the collection, as well as others the students had seen along the way. The annual exhibition was such an event that in 1930 California's lieutenant governor showed up to give a speech.

The tradition, unfortunately, came to an end in 1956, when the high school moved to a new building and the collection was put in storage, where it languished for years.

But in recent years, works from the collection have begun to turn up at different exhibitions. In 1999, a grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation helped restore many of the works and put them on show for the first time in decades. That show, "Painted Light: California Impressionist Painting," was first shown at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, and later traveled to the Irvine Museum, as well as the Autry.

Though the collection still belongs to the students of Gardena High (see the collection's Web page), a number of the paintings are on long-term loan to the Autry. Scott says they help complement the museum's own collection of Western paintings.

"It fills a gap in our collection," she says. Plus, the museum can also help maintain them in a climate-controlled environment, thereby better preserving them.

Though not every painting has withstood the test of time, some of the works ended up being quite significant.

"The painting by Maynard Dixon, it's one of the more adventurous choices the students made — it's quite modern," explains Scott. "And it's one of Dixon's best paintings. He was quite a force in the history of California painting."

On the whole the collection represents an interesting slice of California history, of a community that took great pride in the art of the region at the time when much of the state was considered a cultural backwater.

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