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Beach mural by Millard Sheets washes up at Hilbert Museum in Orange

After five years in storage, the Millard Sheets mural “Pleasures Along the Beach” is again seeing the light of day.

The 1969 mural had been on the facade of a former Home Savings in Santa Monica for 50 years. In 2019, with the building facing demolition, the mural was painstakingly removed, in sections, and crated up.

Reassembled, it’s now been installed outside its new home, the Hilbert Museum of California Art in Orange.

When I visited in late January, at the museum’s invitation, the mural was in place but largely obscured behind three tiers of scaffolding.

“It’s been quite a project,” Brian Worley, the restoration artist, told me.

As careful readers will recall, I visited Worley last August as he made repairs to the mural. The Claremont artist had laid out the 41-foot-by-16-foot artwork on the expansive floor of what was once the Claremont High gym. There, I saw only enough of the mural to get a sense of it.

In Orange on Jan. 25, I met up with Worley and Mark Hilbert, the museum’s founder and namesake. Hilbert explained how he’d come to acquire the mural.

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In Palm Springs, his wife, Janet, saw watercolor versions of several murals by Sheets, including “Pleasures Along the Beach,” which she’d liked best. Wouldn’t it be great, she suggested, if the real mural ever became available?

Hilbert phoned Tony Sheets, the artist’s son. Serendipitously, the mural was coming down imminently and needed a home.

Hilbert could provide one. The museum, which was established in 2016 and which is owned and operated by Chapman University, was starting a major expansion that is adding a second building, with a plaza in between.

Visually linking the two buildings, the mural is held aloft on a steel structure.

“This mural weighs 12 tons or thereabouts,” Worley said. “You need a lot of steel to support it.”

Anyone visiting the museum will walk under the mural. Orange’s Metrolink stop is within view of it. “I suspect this will become a landmark in Orange County,” Hilbert said.

The mural’s theme ties in perfectly with the theme of the museum, which is a showcase for California art, particularly narrative works, Hilbert said.

“People having fun on the beach, families having fun on the beach. It’s so California,” Hilbert enthused. “It represents California so well.”

Sheets, whose work is in the Smithsonian, lived and worked in Claremont, where he painted watercolors, designed buildings and produced mosaics. He might be best known for the striking series of Home Savings and Loan branches he designed from the 1950s into the 1980s with murals and other art that reflected the community.

Worley, now 74, is one of the last surviving artists from the studio of Sheets, who died in 1989.

“He was a genius. There are people at the time who likened him to Walt Disney,” said Worley, explaining that Sheets was a savvy businessman as well as an artist who thought big.

“He believed art was for the public. It should be everywhere,” Worley said. “It was like air.”

Hilbert, who made his millions as a real-estate investor, was a latecomer to art. He bought his first piece, a California scene painting, in the early 1990s. Paging through a book on California art, he realized he liked almost all of it.

“I thought, I want to collect this,” he recalled.

The museum is largely drawn from Hilbert’s personal collection of 5,000 artworks. Hilbert, 79, likens the museum to the Norton Simon in his hometown of Pasadena.

Hilbert walked me through both wings of the museum, then still under renovation or construction, but almost ready to welcome the public. The opening is Feb. 23. Most of the art was in place, but without labels.

With 26 galleries and 21,000 square feet, and free admission, “I think we’re going to be one of the most popular museums in Southern California,” director Mary Platt said.

One of the nine exhibits focuses on — who else? — Millard Sheets, a retrospective of 40 of his paintings from over a half-century. I was especially pleased to see the original of the evocative “San Dimas Train Station.”

“A Matter of Style: Modernism in California Art” is a survey of postwar painting. Represented are Susan Hertel, who was the lead artist on many of the Sheets mosaics, and Karl Benjamin, a former Claremont neighbor of mine.

Agnes Pelton, a Cathedral City painter who was the subject of a profile-raising Palm Springs Art Museum show in 2020-21, is seen via three paintings that had been in the basement of a Silicon Valley college. “They haven’t been seen in 50 years,” Hilbert said.

Other exhibits focus on Navajo blankets, Disney art and Orange County scenes. Another is devoted to Norman Rockwell. “Here’s another unknown artist,” Hilbert deadpanned.

“Most of our paintings are upbeat, positive,” Hilbert told me. “We like for people to leave happy. We’re a respite from the rest of the world.”

Outside on a high wall is a sculpture of a girl riding joyfully on the back of a dolphin. It’s by John Svenson, who was well-known around Upland. Like “Pleasures Along the Beach,” the dolphin was also uprooted from the Santa Monica Home Savings.

Like a lot of former coastal residents, they’ve both moved inland.

A few days after my visit, the scaffolding that blocked the mosaic was removed and the mural unveiled. With column deadlines pressing, I couldn’t make a special trip. But on Feb. 3, a friend’s birthday in Santa Ana provided an excuse for me to stop in Orange.

There stood “Pleasures Along the Beach,” unfettered. The scene is a shoreline near sunset, colors deepening, as people toss a beach ball, sunbathe, walk or hold oars near a rowboat and a flock of birds careens past.

The figurework is a bit stiff, honestly. But the piece’s preservation is welcome.

It was afternoon and what sun there was — depending on your viewpoint, it was either partly sunny or partly cloudy — hit the thousands of pieces of glass.

The next day brought that deluge of rain. That’s how it goes in Southern California. But “Pleasures Along the Beach,” like the activities depicted, should be eternal.

David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, a mosaic of columns. Email dallen@scng.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.


Source: Orange County Register

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