Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Answer: Who made the mosaics?

Once upon a time...

...banks and lending institutions really wanted to make a pro-social mark in the landscape.  To that end, they commissioned lots of public art, sometimes placing it in civic spaces (parks, city centers, etc.), but most often they enhanced the banking spaces with architectural statements, sculptures, murals... and mosaics. 

I've collected a few images of mosaics I'd seen in California and asked my SearchResearch Challenge for this week: Who dunnit?  

(Remember you can click on any of these to see the full-size image.)  

Today's Challenge is a simple one: 

1.  Who made the mosaics, and what's the story behind them?  

Somewhat to my surprise, the very basic query: 

     [los angeles banks mosaics]

gives a surprisingly good set of results.  The first five results all give parts of the story.
1.  "How LA banks got their midcentury mosaics" (a hyper-local news site from Curbed),
2.  "Home Savings Bank Art Project" (by Adam Arenson, a professor of Urban Studies at Manhattan College in New York, who is also writing a book on the art and architecture of Millard Sheets),
3.  "The art of Home Savings in San Fernando Valley mosaics, sculptures," by the LA Daily News, 
4. "Artist made mosaics for Home Savings" by the LA Times newspaper, and 
5. "The Cultural Civil War," another blog that's mostly about these works, again by Adam Arenson. 

When read together, these articles make a nearly book-length compendium of how & why the mosaics were built.  

As you read these articles, you'll find that the mosaics are mostly the the work of the Millard Sheets Studio, which made more than 100 pieces of artwork for the Home Savings and Loan company.  An LA banker, Howard Ahmanson Sr., bought Home Savings and Loan in 1947 and was successful in growing the business during the 1950s and 1960s.

Millard Sheets was an artist who became well-known in the thirties for his paintings. In 1952, according to the Daily News, Ahmanson wrote to Sheets: "Have traveled Wilshire Boulevard for twenty-five years. Know name of architect and year every building was built. Bored ... Need buildings designed?I want buildings that will be exciting seventy-five years from now."

And so began a long relationship between Ahmanson and Millard Sheets, who designed Home Savings & Loan buildings along with their mosaics, murals, and statues.  Ahmanson wanted long-life from his buildings, and Millard Sheets wanted art and architecture to be designed and built together, each reinforcing the other.  

Sheets was one of the artists whose work became known at the California Style of watercolor painting, primarily because of it's bold new look and innovative approaches.  Starting as a watercolorist, he quickly expanding the range of works he was doing--watercolor was just the start, and he ended up designing buildings, murals, large mosaics, and stained glass as well.  

In essence, he was part of a movement to bring an integrated approach to design, melding architecture with fine art as a way to make the city a more livable place, and uplift the lives of the citizens.  As he wrote in 1962:  

...“Beauty in the downtown part of a city is a necessity, not a luxury. People will always respond to beauty if we make it intimate and personal and related to the charter and integrity of the city.” 

You can see a collection of his work in a pamphlet that was assembled for the Los Angeles Conservancy.  Including many wonderful mosaics that I'd never seen before, such as this one, commonly known as "Touchdown Jesus" at the University of Notre Dame.  (Actually known as The "Word of Life," it's a large mural on the side of the Theodore Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame.)  

P/C Wikimedia

And now for something completely different.... 

This isn't the approach I took at all!  

Instead, while looking carefully at the mosaics, I saw two makers' marks.  A clear "MS" in some of them, and a clear "CD" inside of a circle on others.  

What's up with that?  The style was clearly the same--where there TWO mosaicists at work here?

So my first query was to search for: 

     [ CD mosaic california ] 

which led me to the  story we saw above: "Artist made mosaics for Home Savings and Loan." That article told me what was going on.  

The CD mark is that of Denis O'Connor (this the way he put 3 letters together, CDO, with the O on the outside as a perimeter circle.  He was the guy who actually BUILT mosaics using designs from Millard Sheets.  As the LATimes article tells us, "Many of the buildings and artwork were designed by Millard Sheets, an artist and architect who often signed the murals, although assistants [including Denis O'Connor] did most of the actual work."

Search Lessons 

I learned something from this:  A general query, like  [los angeles banks mosaics]can often be enough to find really useful documents on Google.  Even a VERY open-ended query like   [ banks mosaics] can work, although not all of the time (because sometimes the results you want will be buried deeply in the results list). 

On the other hand, my query also worked, although it took a bit more reading to get to the key idea.

So the lesson for me is: 

1.  Always try the simplest query first.  You never know--it might just work!  (And if it doesn't, then you haven't lost much time.)  

Yours in pragmatism!  

Search on! 

1 comment:

  1. Hello Dr. Russell

    Thanks for sharing CD and MS marks. When doing the Challenge found CD mentioned and tried to find a photo without a good one. Now I (we) can see it. Dennis had great idea. MS of course stands for Millard Sheets. I didn't read about that mark in my SearchReSearch. Therefore, new knowledge and more information.

    Like the Search Lesson