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Love A Fair: tribute to fairs of the past

When Cathy Garcia was a kid, the LA County Fair was a wonderland of art, farming, crafts and livestock. Now the Claremont resident gets a chance to recreate those days as she co-curates “Love A Fair,” an exhibit focusing on “a nostalgic walk through the Los Angeles County Fair of the 1950s and ‘60s.”

The show, which also pays tribute to longtime Millard Sheets Arts Building curators Tony Sheets and David Svenson, opens today at dA Center for the Arts in Pomona. 

“When I would go the fair I had a route,” Ms. Garcia recalled. “I went first to the livestock, then to the fine arts, then usually for a hand-built ice cream bar, and then the flower building. And that was sort of it, because my mom wouldn’t usually let me go the fun zone. There was rowdiness there, and boys.”

“Love A Fair” is co-curated by Ms. Garcia and Claremont Heritage Executive Director David Shearer.

Familiar themes from those decades such as art, citrus, livestock, 4H, horse racing, “modern” interior design showrooms, the midway and the Mexican village are featured in the show, with paintings, photographs, historical artifacts and recreations of period-correct interiors all part of the mix. Works from more than 40 artists and designers will be on display. Along with the nostalgic visuals, the exhibit will include old-time fair staples such as artist demonstrations, pie baking and flower arranging competitions. 

“It’s going to be a total experience,” Mr. Shearer said. “The dA is going to be transformed into a mini county fair, with the sights, the sounds and the smells of those days.”

The intent is of course to bring back memories for folks of a certain age, but also to show younger people what it was like to stroll through the fair all those years ago. Individuals and organizations have donated myriad items, including a caché of vintage interior design magazines. David Svenson, artist John Svenson’s son, is loaning the original model for the ranchero his father carved out of a redwood tree, which still sits behind the fine arts building at the fairgrounds. The Pomona Valley Historical Society loaned Don Ygnacio Palomares’ original saddle.  A veteran horse trainer loaned his trophies, and other folks donated vintage photographs. 

If the show is a success, they hope the fair may reconsider its programming priorities, which Mr. Shearer and Ms. Garcia contend have in recent years moved away from traditional themes and toward a more commercial appeal. “This show is really about celebrating that side of the fair,” Mr. Shearer said, “hopefully with the intention that we’ll raise awareness and maybe some of these things will come back.”

“My dream is that the fair will do some adjusting,” Ms. Garcia continued. “So I hope it works well. I don’t want to build any animosity at all. It’s all in good will, but I think sometimes people have to speak out about what the love and what they miss, and what they would like to see again.” 

Ms. Garcia elaborated: “I don’t know what route to take this year at the fair. The home arts building has shrunk way down. In fact, you can hardly find a way to enter a contest. If you weren’t computer-savvy, you really wouldn’t know how to do that. The flower building is there, so that’s good, but I did notice they tore down the little corral and bleachers where you could see the barrel racing.”

The old corral was replaced by a garden.

“And my thought is, what kid is going to get excited about seeing a zucchini grow?,” she posed. “I mean, they may like video games, but what kid doesn’t like to see baby pigs?” 

The duo has addressed the piglet shortfall. A litter of rare kunekune pigs, born just a few weeks ago, will be attending the opening Friday. And on Saturday, chicks and bunnies will be on hand.

The role of protester, no matter how artfully it is being executed, is a new one for Ms. Garcia. “Normally I’m a good girl and I don’t like to make waves, but I’m passionate about this,” she said.

Mr. Shearer said the change at the fair was likely driven by economics, especially around the time of the 2007 recession, but noted another pivotal factor at play.

“I also think that when we lost the influence [the late Pomona-born artist, teacher and longtime LA County Fair director of art] Millard Sheets had, the community at large lost something, because there wasn’t somebody who was promoting that side of things any longer. Those principles and values kind of faded away, because there really wasn’t a cheerleader who was driving it and looking at it from a curatorial standpoint.”

The duo has received some cooperation from fair officials in mounting the show, which leaves them hopeful.

“I think they’ve really embraced it,” Mr. Shearer said. “And I think the fair has retained some of the values, but really the bottom line has become paramount.”

In the end, the exhibit is a showcase, Mr. Shearer said. “There’s just this incredible history of the fair. It was this kind of very unique cultural event that happened in the middle of nowhere. It was a good outlet to expose people to things that were going on locally, but also to expose them to things that were going on internationally in terms of art and culture.” 

“Love A Fair” is free and open to the public and runs today through September 24 at the dA Center for the Arts, 252D S. Main St., Pomona. Tonight’s opening is from 6 to 9 p.m. The opening weekend continues Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m., with the added attraction of live music from local treasures Squeakin’ Wheels. More information, including a full list of contributing artists and designers, is available at dacenter.org, via email at daartcenter@gmail.com or at (909) 397-9716.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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