Newport Harbor High’s paintings date back to 1930s, when a few staff members decided to make the city a hub for artists and collectors
On the walls of Newport Harbor High School’s library hang 57 pieces of California history in art form.
The valuable paintings, both oils and watercolors, were collected between the 1930s and 1960s. They were purchased by high school students and selected from hundreds in a competitive exhibit started as a way of making Newport Beach, little more than a resort town at the time, a hub for artists and art appreciation.
For years, the paintings were lost and almost forgotten, hanging in the private offices and homes of district administrators and school staff. Now, a group of school staff members and art buffs have helped to return them to their original home in the library after decades of being shuffled from storage sheds to closets to offices to classrooms, all around the school district.
“For the first time since I’ve been there, the collection is getting the respect it deserves,” said Newport Harbor High School art history teacher Joe Robinson. “The kids see it every day when they’re in the library, the teachers can take their kids on tours. It’s the way it should be finally.”
The collection dates back to the 1930s, when the school’s first principal, Sidney Davidson, thought the building could use some decoration. An art collector himself, he gave his senior class an assignment to buy a piece of art from dealers in Los Angeles.
The students were given a small amount of cash, usually from a grant or donation, and picked out the art they thought was most valuable. The seniors bought nine paintings in total, one by famed artist Edgar Payne in 1945.
As the library’s walls began to fill with the paintings, the school’s librarian Ruth Stoever Fleming decided to host an art exhibit. Only two artists would be deemed the winners by a jury of critics each year, winning reward money supported by library funds and donations. Over the years it ran, it would come to attract more than 800 artists to the high school.
The collection has plenty of the impressionist coastal landscapes one would expect from a Southern California collection. But among the sailboats and beach scenes are the hard edges and jarring explosions of color that broke barriers in modern art.
“No one collector could have assembled a better presentation,” wrote artist Rex Brandt in a book documenting the collection. Brant was one of several more well-known artists featured in the collection, which also included paintings by Payne, Millard Sheets and Joan Irving.
The artists who won the competitions would go on to become respected in their industry and some would later illustrate for Disney, said the school’s current librarian Kelly Bourgeois.
The exhibit’s downfall is traced back to a couple factors. First, by 1966, modern art had taken a risqué turn. Entries often featured nudes and concepts the high school’s principal deemed unfit for teenagers to see. The winning painting from Guy Williams was a simple line with a surge through it – similar to a heart monitor at the point of excitement, Robinson said.
“The joke at the time was that painting was the principal’s heart monitor when he saw the nudes,” Robinson said.
Another factor was the sheer size of the competition. Jim Newkirk, a Laguna Beach real estate investor and Newport Harbor alumnus remembered the exhibit. By his time, the annual gathering had become too much for the school to handle, and certainly too much for Fleming to coordinate, he said.
After that, Fleming didn’t make any efforts to get the exhibit started again because she said she had accomplished her goal of making art accessible to students, Bourgeois said. While in the 1930s, Newport Harbor High was the only place to find art, by 1966, several other art galleries had opened in Newport Beach and the surrounding cities.
In the decades that followed, the art was dispersed to Newport-Mesa’s four high schools, at first in places where students could see them. Later, they ended up in principals’ offices and secretaries’ homes. One was found hanging in a bathroom, Robinson said.
When Newport Harbor High Librarian John McGinnis joined the staff in 1983, he began learning about the collection and decided to track down the paintings and restore them. He formed a committee of art lovers to help with the painstaking process.
“We drove around all the schools and asked them where these paintings were,” Newkirk said recalled. “We found a couple that had been taken home by people, a few of the (paintings’) glass was getting broken into. But eventually we got them all together, got them all restored, we fixed the frames, got them new glass.”
The committee held a party when all the paintings were collected and vowed to keep them together at Newport Harbor. Though the school has gone through renovations since then, there has been a continuous stream of art activists who made sure the collection remained.
More recently, the district has made efforts to secure the paintings as their value increases and word spread of the collection. The paintings are locked into the walls and there are alarms and surveillance cameras in the library to prevent heists. Bourgeois hopes to hold open houses this year to showcase the collection.
Bourgeois said students who study in the library don’t pay much attention to the paintings, but she’s working on incorporating the art history into their curriculum. Fourth graders, for instance, study California history. The collection is rich in pre- and post-war expressions that could accompany those lessons, she said.
Newkirk, who went on to buy his own paintings from artists featured in the collection, said the collection is there as a lesson in itself for students – when they look up.
“The students know that there’s more to school than book learning, that painters – good or bad – leave a legacy of history for us.”
ARTISTS FEATURED IN NEWPORT HARBOR HIGH SCHOOL’S COLLECTION
Edgar Payne (1882-1947)
The Impressionist was born in Missouri. He typically painted landscapes in the American southwest. His painting, The Great White Peak, was a Newport Harbor High School senior class gift in 1945. The painting went on to be displayed in other Payne collections but has since been returned to the library.
Rex Brandt (1914-2000)
The native San Diego watercolorist often painted pieces of the California coast. After World War II, he and painter Phil Dike formed the Brandt-Dike Summer School of Painting in Corona del Mar. His painting, Light on the Jetty, was the first painting to win Newport Harbor High School’s annual exhibit in 1946.
Milford Zornes (1908-2008)
The Oklahoma native often used a technique in his watercolors that involved colored pencils. The painting that was selected as the winner of the exhibit in 1947 was an oil painting of Point Arena in Northern California. He started painting it without much luck right before he heard the news that the U.S. had gone to war. He returned to the painting with an “ominous thought” and sketched the rocks in a blood-red color, he said during a critique of the Newport Harbor collection.
Richards Ruben (1925-1998)
The oil painter was one of the major players of California’s abstract expressionist art movement, according to a profile that accompanies his work at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art. He served in World War II and taught at art schools around Southern California. One of his earliest paintings, Paper Lady, was selected as the exhibit’s 1951 winner.
Robert Irwin (1928-)
Though the Newport Harbor collection features an early oil painting from the Southern California artist, he would later go on to be recognized around the world for his installation pieces. He was the first artist to receive the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “Genius” Award in 1984 and designed one of the gardens at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, among other installations. He currently lives in San Diego.
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH JOHN McGINNISS
On how he found and recovered all of the 57 paintings
The Newport Harbor art collection is back where it started because of the efforts of John McGinnis. In 1981, McGinnis was hired as as the high school’s librarian at a time when most of the paintings had disappeared from the collection. He decided early on that he wanted to bring the art back. After three years and $40,000, he not only found all 57 paintings, but also published a book about their histories, complete with commentary on each painting from prominent local artists.
He would go on to serve as dean of the library and learning resource center at Cerritos Community College until 2008, when he retired. He is now a member of the Board of Education in the Long Beach Unified School District.
1. What made you want to take up the painstaking task of tracking down all the paintings from the collection?
I had just been hired as the school librarian, after having been an English teacher for 12 years and I was looking through old yearbooks to see who my predecessors had been. I came across photos of the old art shows that had been put on by a former librarian, Ruth Stoever Fleming, and a committee she assembled. I was able to locate her and some of the committee and learn about the extraordinary history of the art shows she hosted for 22 years.
2. How long did that process take? What did it involve?
I started in 1982. I asked a former history teacher and friend, Jim Newkirk, to chair a new committee to plan a new show. We spent the next three years finding the paintings around the district, raising over $40,000, creating a book and planning a show we hosted in 1985. After that we restored all the oils and placed them at the district’s four high schools.
3. Where were some of the more obscure places you found paintings?
The popular paintings were over secretaries’ desks. The less popular were in closets. I found one behind a cabinet on top of a heating vent. One had been stolen and wasn’t recovered until a year after the show had been put on. But amazingly every painting was eventually found and made part of the collection.
4. What’s your favorite painting from the collection and why?
I like the Strombotne self portrait. He’s the only artist with two paintings in the collection. I like the composition and the colors of his self portrait – how the tools of his craft are displayed in the foreground in an exaggerated perspective and how his hand is centered in the painting and is enlarged and red. The painting is both beautiful and reveals his self image.
5. What value might a high school student find in the collection?
The chief value of this collection, as opposed to most other high school collections from the Depression era, is that it contains an evolving representation of the art scene in California, and the United States for that matter, from the 20’s to the 60’s. It contains everything from plein air to abstract expressionism to pop art. It contains oils, watercolors and collage. This is the result of the art shows that were judged by professionals – painters, art teachers and critics. Every year Ms. Fleming chose new judges. The district purchased the winning oil and art pieces. The earliest paintings were senior class gifts. Ms. Fleming filled in some gaps with library fine money.