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William Pajaud dies at 89; watercolorist amassed prominent collection of African American art

Artist William Pajaud was a highly respected watercolorist, but he was better known for collecting the works of others.

Over more than 20 years — and on a shoestring budget — he painstakingly put together one of the most prominent collections of African American art in the country, with works by Charles White, Betye Saar, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and other well-known artists.

The collection became a point of pride to the African American community in Los Angeles — busloads of students toured it.

But Pajaud didn't own the collection; it was underwritten by his day job employer, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. And when the company got into financial trouble, the collection, which had rocketed in value, was quietly crated up in 2007 and sent to New York to be sold at auction.

Pajaud wasn't told until the art was gone.

"He had kind of single-handedly put that collection together," said his friend Paul Von Blum, who teaches art at UCLA. "It broke his heart."

Pajaud, 89, died of age-related conditions June 16 at his home in L.A., said his wife, June.

He was honored in 2010 at a California African American Art Museum gala, and although he had mostly given up watercolor, Pajaud (pronounced paz-HO) was still making art when he could.

"He was doing drawings on everything — paper towels, newspapers, magazines," June Pajaud said. "When the bills came in, if I didn't grab them fast enough he would draw on the envelopes."

He started the collection in 1965 when he worked in public relations at Golden State, one of the largest African American-owned companies on the West Coast. Back then, "there were some naive souls who had no idea there were black artists," Pajaud said in a 1989 UCLA oral history interview.

"You know, 'Blacks don't paint pictures. They dance and sing, and they play football and basketball,'" he said.

He felt an art collection would boost Golden State's image while helping local artists. The company approved the project but kept it on a tight budget, forcing Pajaud to find ways to get pieces at bargain prices.

He approached White, who like many African American artists had trouble getting his works widely seen. Pajaud put images of White's art on the approximately 100,000 calendars the company mailed out one year, and the grateful artist in return sold a major piece — a monumental portrait of abolitionist Harriet Tubman — to Pajaud for what turned out to be the trifling price of $1,200.

Pajaud even traded his own paintings for pieces he wanted in the collection.

By the time he retired from the company in 1987, he had amassed more than 200 works.

"It's one of the finest collections in the West in terms of African American culture and art," Samella Lewis, a professor of art history at Scripps College, said in a 2007 Bloomberg News interview. "It's like a museum."

Golden State, founded in 1925, had prospered largely because it was one of the only companies willing to sell life insurance to blacks. Its gleaming headquarters, designed by famed architect Paul R. Williams, opened in 1949.

But by the 1980s the company was struggling financially. Art historians and others expressed concerns about the art, especially after Pajaud left.

"I got the sense they didn't care about it," said Bruce Picano in the Bloomberg report. As a student he had cataloged the collection. Returning several years later, he found some works behind filing cabinets. Others were locked up and out of view.

In 2007 came the announcement by Swann Auction Galleries in New York that it was going to auction 94 prime pieces from the collection.

"It was a very exciting sale and did very well," said Nigel Freeman, head of African American Fine Art at Swann.

That Charles White portrait of Harriet Tubman that Pajaud bought for $1,200 — a bidder took it home for $360,000. Many others went for five or six figures.

Several Pajaud paintings in the collection were sold at the auction, including one titled "My Father's Funeral."

"He was a great painter," Freeman said.

In all, the pieces sold for more than $1.5 million. But that didn't save Golden State, which was seized by state regulators in 2009.

Pajaud was born Aug. 3, 1925, in New Orleans. His father was a jazz musician whose chief source of income was playing at funerals. "He'd say he'd rather play a funeral than eat a turkey dinner," Pajaud said in an interview for a planned documentary on his work and art.

His mother was university-trained in pharmacy, but as an African American woman she had difficulty finding work in that field.

Pajaud's work life followed a similar path. He earned a fine arts degree from Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans in 1941, then moved to Chicago. But his work there consisted of painting signs and freelance designing.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1949, where he took a job at the U.S. Postal Service while studying at Chouinard Art Institute, the forerunner of CalArts. As the only full-time African American student, he endured racist comments and felt he had to work harder than other students.

"I was damn sure that when I got out of there, they knew I had been there because of my work," he said in the documentary interview.

He befriended many local African American artists and later bought some of their works for the collection.

Pajaud was hired in 1957 by Golden State Mutual as an art director, designing brochures and other materials, eventually working his way up to head of public relations.

No matter what his job, he always worked at his art in his spare time, and his works were included in exhibitions across the country. Advanced age didn't much slow his artistic output.

"My wife thinks I work too hard, sometimes, but what the hell does she know?" he said in the interview.

"No such thing as working hard," he added, "at what you love to do."

In addition to his wife of 19 years, Pajaud is survived by daughters Gayle Waller and Anne Pajaud; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com
Twitter: @davidcolker

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