Calabasas Artist Is Painting the Town : Art: Stan Cline’s images depict the city’s landmarks--from Angels Flight to Dodger Stadium--with a nostalgic yearning.
Stan Cline sells more than just art. He sells memories.
His depictions of familiar--and often gone--Los Angeles landmarks such as Angels Flight, cruise night on Van Nuys Boulevard and the San Fernando Valley’s old rail system evoke remembrances of good times, of growing up in a city with a history.
“People buy these paintings because they relate to them as part of their past,” Cline said at his Valley showroom at the Valley Indoor Swap Meet in Woodland Hills. “People have good memories of their past, and looking at these pictures gives them a good, happy feeling.”
One of Cline’s longtime patrons is Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, whose 12th District includes much of the West Valley. Bernson fell in love with the nostalgic look of the artist’s work at a showing about 13 years ago and has collected five prints since. Bernson grew up in Los Angeles, and the pictures “are about my childhood,” he said. “So much of old Los Angeles is gone.”
Prints of Angels Flight, Dodger Stadium, the Red Car, the old Lick Pier in Santa Monica and Los Angeles Airport, 1930, decorate the reception area of the councilman’s downtown office, and in June, 1983, he arranged for Cline’s work to be shown for two weeks in the City Hall Gallery.
Cline, 51, wanted an art career ever since he painted the sixth-grade mural in grammar school. A fourth-generation Californian and a history buff with a penchant for railroads, Cline made his living as an advertising artist.
In 1976, as the country wallowed in Bicentennial fever, Cline took a UCLA Extension class on the history of railroads and made a New Year’s resolution to do some railroad paintings. But he was sidetracked by an old picture of Angels Flight, that popular funicular that used to hoist passengers up downtown’s Bunker Hill. Researching Angels Flight, he realized how much the city had changed since his boyhood.
“I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life, and I realized there are so many things that are gone,” the silver-haired artist said in his Calabasas condominium, gazing at the picture of Angels Flight that hangs above the fireplace. “And I thought, ‘What else can I paint in L.A. that is gone?’ ”
He haunted the California Historical Society research library on Wilshire Boulevard and set to work capturing old Los Angeles. But he wasn’t ready to give up his day job until 1978, when the society asked him to do a show.
He gathered up a baker’s dozen of canvases, including Angels Flight, Broadway and Bunker Hill circa 1898 and Los Angeles County Courthouse. But when a woman asked to buy his original of Santa Monica’s Ocean Park-Lick Pier, circa 1946, tagged at $10,000, he couldn’t part with it.
Later, as he was berating himself for stupidity, she called to ask if she could buy a print of that picture, an idea that had not previously occurred to him. She really wanted that memory--her father was the Lick who built the pier.
Cline wound up painting another version for her, of the pier in 1923, and with the proceeds started his nostalgia business. And he hasn’t looked forward since.
His catalogue today has grown from the original 13 to more than 120 works, some specifically commissioned, such as a trio sought by the RTD in 1981 to trace the 80-year history of transit in Los Angeles. Cline, who served on Mayor Tom Bradley’s Committee to Bring Rapid Transit to Los Angeles, painted a variety of scenes, ranging from a 1925 Yellow Car at Pershing Square to a 1980s city skyline crisscrossed by freeways and studded with double deckers, minibuses and an articulated bus.
Today, he does sell originals for $3,500, while prints, mostly lithographs, go for $55 to $250 depending on the size, matting and frame. “Cruise Night Van Nuys/Bob’s Big Boy, 1971"--a depiction of that popular Valley date-night hot spot--was his hottest seller last year, with 150 copies sold. Other favorites include Dolores’ Drive-In (where the waitresses careened on roller skates), Santa Monica Pier, Dodger Stadium and Angels Flight.
Cline’s work is among the most popular of the 110 artists featured at the Santa Monica Crafters Gallery, according to owner Maya Swamy.
“People look at them and talk and remember,” she said. “These pictures are a part of people’s lives. They’re like photographs of their childhood.”
A limited-edition Dodger series was especially popular last year because the original was autographed by the entire 1988 World Champion team. Like much of Cline’s work, this one comes with a story.
Cline had finished the paintings of Dodger Stadium the night the Boys in Blue won the National League pennant. When the team came to City Hall for a victory celebration, the artist took the original downtown, hoping to get some autographs. Afraid the painting would be damaged in the crush of people, Cline took it for safekeeping to Bernson’s office.
A sympathetic secretary took the painting to the mayor’s office, where the entire team signed the mat board. Cline’s limited edition of 70 prints, at $325 each, sold briskly.
High schools are another hot seller; so far he has done 13, including Van Nuys High and Canoga Park High in the Valley.
Touring Cline’s gallery at the swap meet in Woodland Hills, where he exhibits and sells works every weekend, there is a thrill of recognition when a customer spies a picture of his or her alma mater, pristine as they probably never were in reality. His showplace often seems more like a high school reunion than an art store. Strangers, gazing at the same picture, stop and share memories, asking, “When did you graduate? Did you know so-and-so?”
“My God, you’ve got my whole life here,” one woman exclaimed.
Longtime Valley residents eagerly point out the Southern Pacific train barreling out of the Chatsworth Tunnel in 1950, the Pacific Electric trolley that ran down Sherman Way to Canoga Park in 1932 and the Picover Line station in Van Nuys (which became the Big Yellow Barn antique store and had been declared a historical landmark before being destroyed by fire earlier this month).
There’s “Hollywood-Burbank Airport, 1971,” showing now defunct airlines, including PSA and Hughes Air West, and the Burbank Pacific Electric Station, 1941, where today sits a carwash.
“Having grown up in Los Angeles, I’m fascinated by these pictures because all these landmarks are gone,” said Billee George of Hollywood, buying a picture of Fairfax High (Cline’s alma mater) for her husband. “These are great memorabilia.”
Val Wilke of Woodland Hills, looking for the perfect birthday present for her husband, picked up Cline’s “Westwood, 1951.”
“We grew up there,” she explained. She went to University High, “and every day after school we would go to Westwood for a hamburger,” Wilke said. “It’s so much fun to see these. They’re really authentic. This evokes such great memories.”
Detail is important in Cline’s work.
“The research is the hardest part,” Cline said. Using old high school yearbooks, snapshots and sometimes even 8mm movies, Cline painstakingly roots out the minutiae of the era he wants to re-create. He visits the site, taking pictures and quizzing tenants and neighbors. Two bookcases at home are crammed with books full of pictorial reminders of Los Angeles, trolleys, trains and cars.
It’s the little things that date his work. For example, a portrait of La Reina Theatre, 1956 (now a Ventura Boulevard shopping center in Sherman Oaks), has a marquee advertising screenings of “Some Like It Hot” with Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”
One of his favorite ways of not only dating but personalizing a picture is to use cars. For about $350, Cline will paint in the auto, airplane or boat of your choice.
Sally Levy of Woodland Hills bought Dolores’ Drive-In for her husband because, “We used to go there all the time and it is a great memory.”
She had Cline paint in her husbands’ old autos--a ’48 Lincoln and a blue ’56 Oldsmobile. “When he opened it, he said, ‘Those are my cars.’ It was great.”
Lynn McLaughlin of Simi Valley had a hard time choosing which memory to buy for her father. She loved the one of her own alma mater, Dorsey High, but was drawn to the Helms Bakery picture because her father used to work across the street.
“And after the beach, we used to stop here,” she said, pointing to the Tail o’ the Pup at La Cienega and Beverly.
“It all brings back memories,” she said, adding with a laugh: “It also makes you feel old because so much of this is changed.”
Sitting in his home studio, Cline leafs through his picture catalogue as if he were a proud dad with a family photo album sharing anecdotes about how his children were born. Take the one about “Van Nuys Cruise Night.” Cline was lunching at Bob’s Big Boy with a Van Nuys police captain who was interested in a painting for the police academy. The captain casually mentioned that he helped end “cruise night” along the street.
“I thought, ‘Ah ha!’ ” Cline recalled. “People love my cars. What an ideal way to show off the cars, by putting them at Bob’s. . . . People buy it as much for the cars--the ’61 T-bird, the Chevys, the old Studebaker--as for the restaurant.” He even has two Los Angeles Police Department motorcycle cops painted in, keeping the peace.
Cline said that, at first, selling at a swap meet, surrounded by lingerie on one side and combat boots on the other, seemed kind of seedy. But after doing the Westwood Art Show and weekend fairs, he liked the idea of being in high-traffic areas. On peak days, the swap meet gets about 3,000 visitors and Cline said he sells 20 to 25 pictures a weekend. “This is where my gallery is,” he said, gesturing at the three-booth wide space, which he’s decorated with carpeting, gallery-style walls and professional lighting.
He doesn’t even seem to mind working weekends. “How can I not like being someplace where I’m constantly getting praise and money?” he asked. “People are constantly giving me input, telling me what scenes they would like to see, sharing memories.”