Investment in Art Pays Rich Dividends to Community

Times Staff Writer

Virginia Wyper is a professional artist who took up printmaking a few years ago and spends some of her time teaching that skill to others.

Mildred Walker helped start the El Camino College art department in 1947 and taught art history and drawing until she retired in 1980.

Don Fitzgerald, a retired Navy commander, was an insurance man when a heart attack four years ago prompted him to "quit everything" and become an amateur oil painter.

All have found something to draw them--as teachers or students--to the Palos Verdes Community Arts Assn., which has been making its mark on the Peninsula art scene since 1931, when it was founded in a single room at the Malaga Cove Library in Palos Verdes Estates.

Built Decade Ago

More than a decade ago, the association began building its hillside center at Crestridge Road and Crenshaw Boulevard. The facility is part art museum, part art school and part social center with a spacious patio, restaurant-caliber kitchen and panoramic view. "The people of this community decided that arts were part of their lives and that it should have an art center that is community supported," said Maudette M. Ball, executive director.

On a random visit to the center, one can observe a small group studying French, an art teacher in earnest discussion with a student, a roomful of students sketching a live model and a few people leisurely browsing through the gift shop, where ceramics and fabrics crafted by students are among the items on sale.

The more than 50 classes range from ceramics, painting and drawing to languages, classic films, photography and cooking--everything from Mexican and Southwest food to chocolate. There are special Saturday seminars covering such subjects as marketing art and producing videos.

In the "Art at Your Fingertips" program, trained volunteers take art to classrooms on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, as well as Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach. School teachers are also brought to the center to learn more about art so they can incorporate it into their teaching.

Need for Program

"There is a need for this because schools can't afford to teach the arts the way they would like to," Ball said, adding that an information packet is being prepared in response to about 60 inquiries on the program.

The school arts program always has a theme, and a recent one was art in nature in which youngsters painted their favorite animals. An annual children's art show fills the main gallery with vividly colored, primitive and amusing images of reality as a child sees it.

Ball said the center tries to gear itself to the interests of Peninsula residents, and to reflect changes--including the growth in the Asian population. This is a high-tech community, she said, and the center recently staged an exhibit of neon art. A current show, "Print In/Print Out," presents traditional prints alongside techniques utilizing computer graphics. Next spring, there will be a Japanese folk art exhibit.

The kitchen, which would do justice to the best of restaurants, has permitted the center to attract the Peninsula's growing foreign population through events built around the foods of different countries. Some of these people have returned to enroll their children in classes. "Foods are a non-threatening and comfortable way to get a real cross section of the community," Ball said. "The women are corporate wives and they have no, or limited, English. They enjoy sharing their native cultures and dishes."

Accomplished Artist

Wyper, a professional artist who has had shows in the center gallery and had a painting accepted last year in national competition, first came to the center four years ago and took classes. She went on to teach printmaking, which she continues to do every Friday. She said the equipment in the print studio is first-class and teaching there is exciting. "The students are doing some very interesting work," she said.

When Walker started teaching at the center two years ago, she said it was easy to pick up where she left off at El Camino. Walker said most of her drawing students are older adults who pursue art as a hobby, although many have had professional training and have come back to renew their skills.

"They work very hard," she said, and some are outstanding. Their painting styles are fairly conservative. "At that age, you don't find way-out people," she said. "They do landscapes and figures."

Fitzgerald, who just turned 70, gives credit to the Palos Verdes center for turning him into an oil painter, although he said he had been interested in art since he was art editor of his high school newspaper.

Oil Landscapes

After a naval career, Fitzgerald went into the insurance business. But his heart attack convinced him that he "didn't have to make money anymore" and he discovered the art center and a new role as a amateur landscape painter.

Long-time association board member Bob Norman, a Palos Verdes Estates developer, said the center's budget is now about $325,000. About 30% comes from tuition for classes and the rest from donations and fund-raising, including $30 annual association membership fees from about 1,700 people. There also is a strong emphasis on volunteers and securing donations of equipment and supplies.

One volunteer is Oonagh Boppart of Rancho Palos Verdes, who drove by the center two months ago, wondered what it was, found out and volunteered. "I would not have expected anything this good so close to Los Angeles that has everything," said Boppart, who works in the gift shop and greets people at the front desk as they walk in.

Norman, who was instrumental in the association's acquiring land and building the center a decade ago, said $850,000 was raised for it at that time, including about $500,000 from shopping center developer Ernest Hahn and from Ken and Harlyne Norris.

Norman said the center would not exist without the wealth of Peninsula residents who are interested in the arts.

No Government Aid

"It takes money," he said. "We do not get contributions from any government source, ever, and I hope it stays that way."

Ball said the center, which was built in phases, now represents a $1.5-million investment. Although its major drawing power is on the Peninsula and in the South Bay, the center also attracts people from Orange County and Los Angeles.

According to association reports, about 2,500 people, from children to retired people, enroll in classes every year. More than 500 subscribed to this year's film series and the school arts program reached about 4,000 students. On top of that, 1,500 children were brought to the center's art galleries.

Preparations are being made at the center for a holiday sale of prints, ceramics, jewelry and paintings by students, as well as an exhibition of life-sized carved wooden sculpture by Barbara Spring, an artist from Big Sur.

Exhibitions Committee

A 10-member exhibitions committee decides what art to display based on visits to artists' studios and galleries, among other factors.

"We work two years ahead and we try to have a balanced program of sculpture, painting, assemblage, drawings and ceramics, said Pat Cox, an assemblage artist from Palos Verdes Estates who is on the exhibitions committee. "We try to bring in something very far out every now and then, just to show local people what's going on out there."

Cox acknowledged that the center plays to a largely conservative audience when it comes to the arts, and that shows felt to be inappropriate have been turned down.

Cox said she believes there is an ongoing debate within the center about whether it should be more like a museum focusing on exhibitions or if the emphasis should be on classes. "All of us on the exhibition side want that supported, but those in the classrooms want that," she said. ". . . What everyone is hoping is that we can have both worlds."

Ball said the center was a museum when it was started years ago by artists and community people but it later was decided that it would be a better community resource if it were a comprehensive arts center . "We really are an umbrella," she said.

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