Fred Setterberg’s most recent book is Sam Maloof: 36 Views of a Master Woodworker, published by Heyday. Critical Blast likened the book to “a clinic on biographical narrative.” Feathered Quill deemed it, “Fun, lighthearted, beautiful stories, this memoir is one to be savored.” Fred is also the author of Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel and The Roads Taken: Travels Through America’s Literary Landscapes, winner of the AWP prize in creative nonfiction, and co-author of Under the Dragon: California’s New Culture, along with five other books. He has received an NEA creative writing fellowship and numerous journalism awards.
Sam Maloof: 36 Views of a Master Woodworker
© Fred Setterberg 2016
Excerpted from chapters 13 and 14.
13. PEACEABLE KINGDOM
Harrison McIntosh and the interviewer from KCET, the local PBS affiliate, position themselves on Maloof chairs at the Maloof table. Behind them hangs a large abstract painting by Karl Benjamin. Just out of the camera’s eye you can spot another abstraction by James Hueter, his oil on wood, “Grey, Flush, and Setback.”
While the four artists spent many, many hours in one another’s company (along with Rupert “Rummy” Deese, with whom Harrison shared a studio for fifty years, and whose ceramics are similarly assembled slightly off camera), this particular arrangement of their artwork serves as a kind of mockup, a symbolic recreation of mid-20th century creative life in the Pomona Valley. The occasion is Harrison’s 100th birthday party, marked by a grand commemorative exhibition at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California.
Four hundred friends and associates mill through the galleries, pausing at Harrison’s early terracotta torso, the glazed stoneware illustrated with mishima circles and lines, the vases and plates, lidded jars and footed bowls, the bottles and chrome-base sculptures. A balance of pattern and movement characterizes each display. “I always had classical music playing on the radio when I was working,” said Harrison. “I feel my work was close in kin to music, especially Bach.” The exhibition confirms this notion: the repetition of line and figure, the potent compact of entwined energy and serenity, the precision of detail culminating in a state of tremulous equilibrium.
Harrison’s admirers span the globe, his ceramic vessels collected in more than forty museums, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to the Smithsonian, the Louvre, and the National Museum of Art in Tokyo. Over the course of a half-century, he has been the focus of forty-three solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Wichita, and beyond. A generous portion of this achievement Harrison attributes to the happy accident of moving to the Pomona Valley at a moment when a contingent of like-minded artists had caught a similar drift.
By 1945, the war had ended and the possibilities of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act – the GI Bill – were just beginning to dawn on young veterans returning from Europe and the Pacific. The GI Bill covered tuition and a living stipend, making it possible for individuals who had never considered the possibility of higher education to enroll in the university and radically alter the course of their lives.
After being discharged from the Army, Harrison entered the newly-established Claremont Graduate School as a “special student,” a non-matriculating resident specializing in ceramics. Other fledgling artists joined the ranks, some earning degrees, others spending months and then years in workshops and studios until their benefits ran out. Students included Paul Soldner, recently discharged from the Army after helping to liberate Mauthausen concentration camp, later to become a pioneer of American raku pottery. The sculptor John Svenson, an Army Air Corps aircraft mechanic and native of the Pomona Valley who studied with English-born Albert Stewart. Former B-24 turret gunner and painter, Roger Kuntz. Harrison’s close friends, painter and sculptor Jim Hueter, a former Army camouflage artist, and ceramicist Rummy Deese, an Army Air Corps mechanic. The veterans brought to their studies an intensity and highly compressed ambition, reshaping the campus culture. “An 18-year-old out of high school,” observed Navy vet and painter Karl Benjamin, “is a lot different than a 21-year-old with three years of being shot at.” Studios remained open twenty-four hours a day and the young vets with vivid memories of the European front and the South Pacific poured themselves into their work like beneficiaries of a mortal reprieve.
The indispensible man behind all this activity proved to be Millard Sheets. Under his leadership, the Scripps art department had attracted a distinguished faculty, including painters Phil Dike and Henry Lee McFee, designer Jean Ames, ceramicist William Manker, and Albert and Marion Stewart in sculpture and weaving. Millard seemed to be everywhere. He oversaw the commission of a 100-foot campus mural by Alfredo Ramos Martinez, one of the era’s leading practitioners from Mexico. He organized first-rate art exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Fair, bringing to the region 670 pieces from Egypt, the Middle East, Greece, Rome, and the Etruscan age for “6,000 Years of Art in Clay.” His “One World of Art” show controversially displayed work from the ex-belligerent nations of Japan, Germany, and Italy shortly after the war. In 1953, the fair, under Millard’s direction, exhibited the advance guard of nonrepresentational art with canvases by Robert Motherwell, Hans Hofmann, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt, and William Baziotes.
Millard also designed and executed a series of mosaic exteriors for local and regional branches of Home Savings bank, hiring assistants from the pool of Claremont vets. Harrison participated in the project – along with Sam Maloof, who had served in the Army, but never used the GI Bill to enroll in college. Sam benefitted in other ways from Millard’s presence. For four years, Millard employed him as his assistant, collaborating on a myriad of construction projects at the Sheets’ residence, making signs, and building picture frames. Most important, Millard introduced Sam into the university art scene where the gregarious young man threw himself into the task of making friends.
Claremont was then a small town of 3,000 people – a village suffused with bucolic intimacy and buffered by distance and tradition from the surging population of central Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs. In contrast to the dominant New York art scene, where the blistering urgency of the abstract expressionists’ new paintings often matched their frantic, disorderly conduct, the young Pomona Valley painters, sculptors, ceramicists, and woodworkers struck a more conciliatory, balanced tone. “We learned a lot from abstract expressionism,” said Harrison – though he and his friends rejected their design for living. Many of the young vets were married, starting families, preparing themselves for careers. On the heels of history’s great nightmare, in an act of will and forgetfulness, they immersed themselves in a vigorous creative discipline to achieve a kind of frontier bohemian normalcy. If they adhered to any discernible aesthetic philosophy, it might have aligned with Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Order brought freedom. Harrison, Sam, Rummy, the entire corps of young artists, enjoyed the autonomy to devise their own interpretations of the artist’s life. No school or method prevailed; there wasn’t a Claremont style. Under the shield of Millard’s entrepreneurial zeal (his character seemed better suited to a field general than department head), all approaches to art could gain a foothold, as long as they registered exacting and true. Disciplines mixed freely. Ceramicists, painters, woodworkers, and weavers relished the camaraderie, exchanging perspectives, techniques, and materials – eventually trading among themselves their own creations: a painting for a pot, a chair for either. Friendships ignited and burned on for decades. “We all felt like we were doing something new,” said Harrison. “We enjoyed seeing the results of what each of us was attempting. We supported each other, admired one another’s work.”
Harrison and Sam began eating lunch together at Walter’s in downtown Claremont, a weekly routine that persisted for fifty years. They discussed painting, wood, children, money, family, problems, peers, galleries, aesthetic movements of the past and present; the business of making art and the art of living.
“Much of the time we’d be talking about his furniture,” acknowledged Harrison, “and who was the latest collector. Who was going to pay $30,000 for this or that piece. He wanted to make sure that people knew the value of his furniture. He was the best salesman I ever met.”
Fellowship did not eradicate struggle. Each artist continued to grapple with his personal vision, pulling together disparate elements of craft and intuition to assemble something striking and fresh in their studios as daily life unfolded with its pressures and conventions. Harrison branched out into industrial design, fabricating tile patterns two days a week over two years for Interpace (where Millard also served as company consultant). Over ten summers, Harrison, along with his wife, Marguerite, designed crystal and ceramic dinnerware for Mikasa, first in Bavaria, then Japan, but the ceramicist always longed to return to the solitude of his own studio. Claremont proved the perfect site for a quiet life of prodigious output, free from distraction yet filled with colleagues, collectors, opportunity, appreciation.
Sam continued turning out his chairs, tables, and cradles while sculpting his woodworker’s compound by hand.
“He never wanted any company to try to reproduce his furniture,” remembered Harrison. “Sam insisted that the only pieces going to be sold had to be made by him and his crew. He had some very good offers, some rather large companies that wanted to buy his designs so they could be mass produced. He could have made a lot more money. But he turned them down.”
The two artists found room to differ. Claremont’s lack of a prevailing aesthetic ideology, and the absence of scrutiny by the national press and its critical apparatus, conferred on them a spaciousness. The adamantly miscellaneous artistic community resisted both conformity and jealousy; work was less like competition than parallel play. The former citizen-soldiers each year more emphatically assumed the role of citizen-artists.
The vignettes assembled for Harrison’s 100th birthday exhibition speak to the enviable state of this peaceable kingdom. Harrison and Sam and Jim Hueter and Karl Benjamin and Rummy Deese, along with so many other artists, constructed a blissfully leaderless artistic enclave that could not be duplicated today without corresponding upheavals and adjustments of history to assemble in one place a like number of talented, motivated people and afford them the time and isolation to engage in the joint project of becoming themselves. They needed one another. They helped shape each other, if only by reflecting a common aspiration to make a life of art. In the process, perhaps they improved one another. (Said George Frideric Handel, Bach’s counterpart, musing on his writing The Messiah: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them, I wish to make them better.”) Sam and Harrison proved particularly attuned. Harrison, so keen on and influenced by architecture, even in his youth persuading his parents to commission a house designed by Richard Neutra: what better friend and colleague across Walter’s lunch table than Sam, the master builder? And Sam, the devoted collector of mid-century ceramics, his home filled with beautiful pieces, Harrison’s most numerous of all – wasn’t he fortunate to have a friend whose strength and delicacy, judgment and hunger for work confirmed his own suspicions about what the good life contained?
“First of all,” intoned Jim Hueter, his soft voice murmurously patient and measured, “I want to say that I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t think any artist really knows.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Henri Matisse in the catalog to Hueter’s 2009 retrospective at the Claremont Museum of Art.
“In art,” proclaimed Matisse, “truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed.”
Fortitude and reserve drive creative energy. And time. Years spent in the same place learning what’s worth portraying, training one’s eye to perceive the deep structure of physical space before discovering how to paint it. Since 1942, Hueter has made Claremont, California, his home. Along a gravel road close to the suburban tract developments that long ago mowed over acres of citrus groves and chaparral, he designed and built a house and studio advantageously removed from the busy sprawl. A modernist compound influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra where he could study the world’s shape and color in privacy and reinterpret it with utmost feeling.
“The best word that I can hear from anybody about my work is that they were ‘moved,’” he said. “What the work is, I don’t know. But the sense of being moved is something that has to be there.”
Over the decades, Hueter’s paintings have wound through realism, surrealism, and abstraction, employing an array of perspectives and techniques in a questing spirit. His more recent work combines oil on wood with shellac, glass, mirrors. They’re beautiful and mysterious, puzzling and inviting. “Some people say, ‘Oh, that work is so precise with the mirrors.’ But those paintings are put together by luck. By trying and pushing and pulling so they look as if they’re all finished.”
Less luck, perhaps, than persistence. Hueter recalls a Halloween party a half-century ago at the home of his colleague, the painter Paul Darrow. The host’s son was being introduced to another guest who playfully quizzed him about Hueter.
“Is he a good painter?”
“No,” the boy replied. “He isn’t now. But he will be.”
A smile ripples across Hueter’s tightly-drawn lips. “That’s what my friends thought about me at that time. I was working on it.”
Mostly, he endeavored in solitude. “I’ve always been a loner,” he admits. “Some people would be happy working in a studio. Sue Hertel, Paul Darrow, Doug McClellan, Roger Kuntz. They were in a studio together and had a wonderful time. Joking, having a lot of fun. I’d be in another studio by myself working on these tight little still lives. But I didn’t mind it.”
Solitude did not signify isolation. In the midcentury beginnings of his career, Hueter could count on the company of more than a score of dedicated artists drawn to the Pomona Valley. “Milford Zornes was around,” he recalled, “and Milford was a good painter, a good draftsman. And a very nice person.” Frederick Hammersley, whose hard edged style Hueter admired, taught for a decade at Pomona College. “We had something going together, we felt the same way about making paintings.” The dominant presence of Millard Sheets, then assembling the art department at Scripps, provided to a great extent the impetus for Hueter to return to the Pomona Valley after being mustered out of the army. “Millard talked to me as if he had known me all my life,” he recalled of their first meeting. “He was the most agreeable, most interested person.” Hueter caucused regularly with painters Darrow, Kuntz, McClellan, Tony Ivins, and Karl Benjamin. “We would get together once a month. We were busy with our careers, working and showing. It was a very influential time for me. For each of us.”
Later, Hueter joined what local observers referred to as “the artists’ group” that regularly met for lunch at Walter’s in downtown Claremont. “The group was two people,” he corrected. “Sam and Harry McIntosh. Rummy Deese sometimes. I got invited somehow. Freda would ask, ‘What can you all talk about for two hours?’ Sam did a lot of the talking. He had good stories about the famous people he had done work for. We’d talk politics sometimes. Rummy was a very strong believer in Israel. Rummy had facts, he knew dates, names, everything. I thought, My gosh, this guy is very bright. Sam thought what had been done to the Palestinians was terrible. Sam had emotion. But they never got really mad. They just came on kind of strong at times. Then I’d kid Sam about going to the bank across the street to loan the bank money. He was getting pretty famous.”
When Hueter had a show scheduled to open at the Tobey C. Moss Gallery in Los Angeles, he supplemented his paintings with an assortment of working drawings, and then started thinking about Sam. “Sam was the one who made beautiful working drawings. Why not have Sam in the show? I talked with Tobey who said, ‘Why not have Harry and Rummy, too?’ I was in Aptos on vacation. Tobey called and said, ‘Everybody’s on board. What do you think would be a good title for the show?’ Right off the top of my head, I said, ‘Four Friends.’ People thought that was the name because we all went to Walter’s. But it wasn’t.”
With years and proximity allowing acquaintance to develop naturally into friendship, small favors and unremarkable services could be rendered without fuss or notice. Sam made frames for many of Hueter’s early paintings. Hueter’s mother purchased a large chair and end table from Sam and made a present of the furniture to her son. “For the two pieces, she paid an outrageous sum of five hundred dollars. She thought that was awfully high. This was in the early Fifties.” Sam admired a drawing of Hueter’s at a Scripps exhibition and agreed to trade it for a rocker specially designed to fit the painter’s small frame. “It’s an unusual one in that it’s a small size. One of a kind. It was the one hundredth chair that Sam made in 1974, the last one of the year.” When the Huntington opened its 2011 show, “The House That Sam Built,” Hueter’s beguiling oil on wood, Thin Figure Rising, joined the work of thirty-six other Pomona Valley artists associated with Sam Maloof.
Still, Jim Hueter balks at the notion that he has spent the past half-century as a member of an “artists community.”
“When I think of community, I think of my close friends. And people outside of the arts who worked with and for us. Plumbers, the heater man, the air-conditioning fellow just down the block who will come anytime to help, practically for nothing. Other people, too, who are very good friends.” Assumptions about the lively gratifications of a regional artists community mildly rile Hueter with its idealized vision of languid productivity and predictable reward “where everybody’s an artist and they’re all very good.”
What Hueter and his peers most certainly did possess – nurtured by steadfast effort and freshened over the years with innumerable conversations, questions, viewing, and use – was a standard of achievement that each artist felt obliged to pursue.
“We all respected each other’s work,” said Hueter. “Sometimes, I’d look at one of my paintings, and say, ‘Damn, that’s good.’ Then I would have negative feelings. I wasn’t moving ahead very fast. But I started to learn that other people admired my work. People I admired who were quite successful.”
Which, finally, might be the most important aspect of friendships configured to sustain a creative life. Without design or even conscious seeking, Jim Hueter found himself surrounded by people who made excellence the unspoken assumption of their efforts and tacitly expected an equal measure from their peers. It brought to the Pomona Valley a vivifying and enviable freedom.
“I was going through some drawings yesterday,” said Hueter. “I had one stack I called My Little Daily Drawings. I just loved to draw and see what would happen. Just making a statement. It was pretty disciplined. I might do three or four in a row. I dated them. After a year, I had close to a thousand. One group is quite geometrical. Another, I just put some marks down in the center and scratched the head, eyes, nose. It was the most wonderful feeling that I ever had in making work because I didn’t have to think about it. I’d make something, and then see what that led to.”