Film documents changing Claremont art community

To say Claremont’s artistic legacy is unique would simply be an understatement. The city emerged as an important center for the visual arts in the years following World War II, due in large part to the GI Bill and the inspired efforts of artist and educator Millard Sheets.

Painters, sculptors, ceramists, enamel and mosaic artists, woodworkers and fiber artists devoted themselves to their creative pursuits with great imagination and energy, creating works that expressed the spirit of Postwar Modernism in California.

Design for Modern Living: Millard Sheets and the Claremont Art Community 1935-1975, a documentary film two years in the making, celebrates these artisans and tells the story of this remarkable artistic community that took root at Scripps College and made Claremont an important center of Mid-Twentieth Century Modern design.

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Paul Bockhorst had always been compelled by art history. The veteran writer, producer and director has produced dozens of network and cable programs as well as completed a series of four major documentaries on Arts & Crafts-era architecture in California.

In 2012, the storyteller became inspired by the exhibitions Pacific Standard Time: Art in LA 1945-1980 and The House that Sam Built: Sam Maloof and Art in the Pomona Valley, 1945-1985 at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, and set his sights on documenting Claremont’s rich art history.

“I had thought about making this film for years. The idea sat on a shelf with information getting plugged into research materials.” Mr. Bockhorst told the COURIER. “When Karl Benjamin passed in July 2012, it was a signal that it was important to get this project moving.”

Through archival photos and interviews with postwar artists, the one-hour documentary provides its audience with a vivid account of the important art community that emerged in Claremont under the leadership of Millard Sheets.

Betty Davenport Ford, John Svenson, Paul Darrow, Harrison McIntosh, Barbara Beretich, Martha Longenecker and James Strombotne share their memories of a time and place where artisans forged friendships and celebrated the diversity in their work.

“I was concerned about James Strombotne’s reaction,” Mr. Bockhorst says of his work. “In the film, I showed his powerful views of the war at that time and he has gone on to do work that‘s not as alarming, but I felt it was important to show the range of art going on at that time. I wasn’t sure what he would think, but his response has been very positive.”

Other artists featured in the documentary include William Manker, Jean and Arthur Ames, Albert Stewart, Henry Lee McFee, Phil Dike, Milford Zornes, James Hueter, Jack Zajac, Karl Benjamin, Roger Kuntz, Rupert Deese, Susan Hertel and Sam Maloof.

“Sam was really a key figure socially,” says Mr. Bockhorst. “He was the man who would get the artists out of their studios. He was the pied piper of the bunch.”

Additional insights and perspectives are provided by Tony Sheets, Carolyn Sheets Owen-Towle, Christy Johnson, Harold Nelson, James Elliot-Bishop and Claremont Museum of Art board member Catherine McIntosh.

“As s filmmaker, you tell the story as you are moved to tell,” Mr. Bockhorst says. “It’s not easy to weave it all together in a picture that’s moving on so many levels. I couldn’t contain it all in one film so I’ve decided to make two. The second film, Claremont Modern: The Convergence of Art + Architecture at Midcentury, is being done in collaboration with Claremont Heritage. The depth and richness of the artistic heritage of that period, the constellation of talent, such magnificent work in that time,” he says. “I look forward to when both films can be shown in one evening.”

Design for Modern Living: Millard Sheets and the Claremont Art Community 1935-1975, produced by Mr. Bockhorst in partnership with the Claremont Museum of Art, will premiere at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 22 at Garrison Theater at Scripps College, a structure designed by Millard Sheets in 1962 featuring his distinctive mosaic murals.

Sponsored by the Claremont Museum of Art, the Clark Humanities Museum and Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps College, the event will include an introduction by the filmmaker, a Q & A session and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception to benefit Claremont Museum of Art programs.

“It’s wonderful to have this film shown at Garrison Theater, a building that Millard Sheets had so much to do with,” says Mary MacNaughton, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery director and Art History professor at Scripps College. “That era was one of those magical moments when a number of very talented artists came together and Millard was a magnet that drew them to Claremont. He not only helped support art in southern California but brought wonderful art to southern California.”

Garrison Theater at Scripps College is located at 231 East Tenth St. in Claremont.

Advance tickets are available for $20 online at or you may make your reservation by sending a check to Claremont Museum of Art, PO Box 1136, Claremont CA 91711. Admission will be $25 at the door. For more information, contact Catherine McIntosh at (909) 626-1386.

—Angela Bailey


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