Obituary: Margaret Crawford Gates

Beloved grandmother, prolific artist, adventurous, creative ‘yes’ girl
Margaret “Margy” Gates, the only child of Ruth and Bill Crawford, died May 30 at the age of 89.

Born two months premature on May 6, 1932 in Huntington Park, California, Margy’s early months were a challenge, but from the very beginning she showed stoic strength and thrived.

Her mother, also a strong woman and ahead of her time, was an art administrator for the Alhambra School District, and always surrounded her daughter with art and materials. As an only child with working parents, she spent much time alone, and art kept her occupied.

Her father was in construction, and loved to tinker and build things. He often included her in his projects in the garage, where she became skilled with tools. She graduated from high school early, and at 16 was a freshman studying art at Pomona College with the help of three scholarships.

She graduated from Claremont Graduate University in 1954 with a master’s degree in fine art. Her early days as an artist afforded her opportunities to learn from and work with Claremont painters Millard Sheets, Milford Zornes and Phil Dike, and ceramicists Rupert Deese and Rick Petterson.

In 1955 she met Charlie Gates, who was working on his master’s in psychology at USC. They were married in July of that year.

After spending a year traveling around Europe, which included living in a barn on the island of Ibiza and in Spain for six months, the couple returned to the states and were in a terrible car accident in the snow. She went through the windshield, lost most of her front teeth and suffered cracked ribs and abrasions. While in the hospital with her jaw wired shut, she learned she was pregnant with her first child.

“Two recently married college graduates with no money and no jobs discover they are pregnant: this could have been enough to throw most people into a tailspin, but Margy just shrugged her shoulders and got on with life, which typified her courage and quiet resilience,” her family shared.

Alison Kelly was born in August of that year, followed 18 months later by Susan Kirsty and then 22 months later, by Jennifer Elena. After Jennifer was born the family moved from Bell, California to the citrus groves of north Claremont. They raised their children surrounded by animals: a goat, a dog, horses, chickens, ducks and cats. In 1974 the family grew to include Charlie’s niece and nephew Caroline and Frank Lofland, and often included his son, Chris Peck, from North Carolina.

She welcomed them all into the home with inclusive grace. In addition to managing the houseful of kids, throwing pots, firing kilns, and painting, she taught art at the Claremont Collegiate School on Padua Avenue, where she sometimes rode her horse to teach class.

In 1971, while the family was spending a weekend on their sailboat in Marina del Rey, the house caught fire and was mostly destroyed. This tragedy was met with her usual spunk, and became a giant art project. Many items were resurrected from the ashes and reused, or displayed in a post-fire art show she held at Claremont Collegiate School.

She acted as general contractor and managed the rebuilding of the home on its’ remaining foundation, with the help of architect friends Janette Rothman and Rufus Turner, and some wonderful tradespeople in the Claremont/Upland area.

She scrounged end cuts from the two-by-fours during the framing stage and made expansive 3-D wallcoverings. Other reclaimed and repurposed materials were incorporated in the build, and the resulting two-story home was finished within the year. It was perfect for their growing family of teenagers.

During the 14 years she lived in Claremont, she largely focused her talent on ceramics, often making pots and glazes from locally sourced materials, including clay that she dug from the foothills near her home. “I think if I had not focused on art, I would have been an archeologist,” she said. “I love digging things up and wandering around in ancient caves. Working with clay relates to that part of me.”

She was also a talented painter in oils and acrylics on canvas and burlap, and later became an acclaimed watercolor artist.

An avid traveler, she would accompany her mother Ruth on annual six-week trips where she sketched and painted from balconies, boats, fields and cafes in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

In the early 1970s she and Mr. Gates became partners in a 300-acre property in the Fiji Islands, which became a beloved spot for her. She went as often as she could, and ultimately became the managing director, making annual trips of three to four weeks.

Many hours were spent underwater on the remarkable coral reef in front of the remote property, or hiking in the nearby forests and jungles, and her work reflected that tropical influence. “At the edge of the barrier reef is a magic place, a tropical coral reef where I go, lost in wonder, for many hours a day,” she said. “How to paint coral reefs and palm trees, and really do them justice, has been an ongoing challenge.”

In 1977 the couple sold their Claremont home and moved aboard a 39-foot Taiwanese-built sailboat in the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, California. They named her “Malua” (“slowly” in Fijian) and lived the boat life for 26 years.

She initially painted on the dock box next to the boat, anchoring her paper with jars and stones to avoid losing her work overboard. An accidental drop in the ocean one day yielded some very beautiful effects as the salt interacted with the paint, and thereafter she often incorporated salt in her work.

But painting on the dock box got old fast, so she opened a tiny but delightful studio gallery in the Channel Islands Harbor. Over the almost 40 years she ran her art business, the location changed three times. Her final spot was a skinny slice of space wedged between two buildings on the beach next to the Rudder Room bar.

The view of the Channel Islands from her studio inspired many paintings, as did her frequent trips out to the islands. She developed a devoted following and became an icon of Hollywood Beach, with people regularly dropping by after surfing or on their morning walks to see her latest creations or paw through her shell collection.

One of her specialties was boat portraits, and many local boaters have “a Margy” immortalizing their favorite boat. She also continued to work with ceramics, with a special interest in cave paintings. For several years she studied the images of caves in France, the cave art of the local Chumash Indians, and other indigenous cave art, and recreated these images on rustic pottery pieces.

After several heart surgeries, Mr. Gates’ health made it difficult to live on the boat, so in 2002 the couple moved into a mobile home park on Hollywood Beach, just up the street from their boat. He died in 2004, at age 80. She continued painting and making ceramics in her beach studio gallery until 2015, when she finally closed up shop and moved her studio home.

Always stretching a dollar to make ends meet, she was quite adept at bartering art for services. To this day her work can be found on the walls of numerous local businesses. She is also represented in private and corporate collections worldwide, including the Kailia Tower in the Hilton Hotel in Waikiki.

“Margy loved life. As one of her friends says, she was a ‘yes’ girl,” her family shared. “She loved trying new things, and had little fear of the unknown. She lived life on her terms, doing what she loved to do: travel and make art. Few people are lucky enough to find their true calling; she was one. Her impish grin that always hinted at the mischievous will not be forgotten by the many who knew and loved her.”

“Art has always been an integral part of my life,” she said. “I have never really understood what ‘art’ is, and sometimes I think that I should know that, but it has never mattered to me as long as I was happy doing it. That was an issue for the art critics. My husband said that the artist ‘defined contemporary culture.’ I thought it sounded sort of cool, but frankly I have never much cared about defining the culture. I just like to put lines and color on paper. Kids mostly all do that, I just never stopped doing it.”

She is survived by her three daughters, Alison Kelly Gates Gabel of Oxnard, Susan Kirsty Gates Alcaraz of Claremont, and Jennifer Elena Gates of Oxnard; stepson Christopher Peck of St. Bonnet-Elvert, France; grandsons Scott Swanberg of Las Vegas, and Brian Swanberg of Federal Way, Washington; and grandchildren Kate Swanberg and Justin Stickland.

A celebration of life is planned for late summer. Condolences may be sent to

Donations in her name may be made to any charity that preserves our oceans and sea life.


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