Periodically Curating Los Angeles (CLA) publishes guest posts that highlight an interesting facet of life in greater LA. While they can focus on people, organizations, and places, among other subjects, what I look for is an article with a Los Angeles focus that engages me personally. Today I’m pleased to present an original piece written exclusively for CLA concerning public art in the Pomona Valley. Enjoy!
Jim Gilbert – Publisher, Curating Los Angeles
Guest post by John Brantingham
I grew up in the Pomona Valley. I left because I wanted to get an education in the arts. That wasn’t a mistake. There are fine educational opportunities in that valley, but they weren’t right for me. Where I went wrong in my youth was thinking that Pomona had no significant artistic voice. I believe that’s a common misunderstanding of the area. I know that some of the other artistic centers in greater Los Angeles look down on it, but since moving back, I’ve developed a love for it. I think what I love the most about it is its public art.
Art is a centuries-long conversation about culture, and public art is the statement each community makes to the world about itself. If that is true, the public statement that Pomona seems to be making is a complex mixture of cultures and ideologies that has developed over a hundred years. The demographics of the city have changed. It began as an agricultural community, but in the twentieth century became a manufacturing center. Slowly, industry moved out leaving an urban area with too little work.
The artists who inhabited the city came from a mixture of cultures. Each made statements of self. The farming communities of the early twentieth century built monuments to their veterans or to the idea of agriculture itself. Pomona is, after all, the Roman goddess of the harvest.
The city commissioned Millard Sheets (1907-1989) to create a public image that celebrated this tradition but also suggests an identity as a cultural center in classical terms. Millard Sheets at the time was well-known for creating murals in public spaces like the Claremont Colleges and several bank branches throughout California. He has a mural on the Hesburgh Library at the University of Notre Dame and at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In four blocks of Second Street, you can see five of his mosaics both on the street and inside the US Bank building on the corner of Second Street and Garey Avenue.
The work that is most prominent, however, is the work of today’s artists. A lot of it is commissioned or at least sanctioned by the city, and much of it rests behind chain-linked fences, giving it an interesting industrial quality. Most notably there is a tribute to the artist Karl Benjamin (1925-2012) by David Flores (1972- ). Benjamin was a local artist who was known for his mid-century non-representational work and also educated many of the community’s artists. The piece honors the tradition of Pomona’s artist community, which established itself in the area when manufacturing industries left.
Gilbert “Magu” Lujan’s (1940-2011) Nuestra Madre serves as a kind of echo to Sheets’s Pomona. Both depict mythical women, but where Sheets was looking back to classical antiquity, Lujan was celebrating the Catholicism of the people who lived in Pomona during his time. With this piece and many others throughout Los Angeles, Lujan helped to establish the Chicano Movement as one of the most important artistic trends of his time. Untitled by David Rosales and others helps to continue that tradition.
If you walk through Pomona and are attuned to the work of its artists, you become aware of the intellectual life of the city, which is vast. Pomona takes the artistic and cultural life of its citizens more seriously than so many of the surrounding cities. Each artist represented the values important to their times, making the public art that they produced a kind of open history book.
John Brantingham is an English professor, author and director of the creative writing program at Mt. San Antonio College (Walnut, CA), the writer-in-residence at the dA Center for Cultural Arts (Pomona, CA), and the president of the San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival.