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The Renaissance of a Fullerton Mural

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Charles Kassler Jr. would have been overjoyed to know that the 1,200-square-foot fresco he painted more than 60 years ago had finally been uncovered Saturday.

“Charles was distressed when he found out his work had been covered up, and to know that it’s been restored would have touched him deeply,” said Barbara Kassler, the artist’s widow, at the fresco’s rededication Saturday.

Kassler, who died in 1980 and would have turned 100 on Tuesday, worked on the vivid and colorful “Pastoral California” in 1934 and was paid a weekly salary of $38.25 for 12 weeks.

The mural covered the exterior west wall of the Plummer Auditorium on the Fullerton Union High School campus and offered several rural scenes depicting early California.

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In the middle, ranch owner Jose Antonio Yorba lassos a muscular horse. On the right end is a lavanderia, where women gossip as they wash their clothes. On the other end, a larger-than-life Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor, listens to then-popular concert hall singer Laura Moya.

As a model for Moya, Kassler used his second wife, Luisa Espinel, who also was an aunt to singer Linda Ronstadt.

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As Kassler’s relatives viewed the mural Saturday, they quickly picked out Espinel’s likeness.

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“There she is,” Natalie Berndes, 82, one of Kassler’s stepdaughters. “There’s Luisa. I remember her like that. She was so glamorous, so beautiful, so romantic.”

Berndes, who saw the fresco for the first time Saturday, said her stepfather never spoke of it. He had changed careers in the 1940s and worked as an engineer until he died.

“This was a wonderful surprise for the family,” Berndes said.

In 1939, the local school board ordered the fresco covered up with a layer of plain beige paint. Kassler had painted the mural five years earlier as part of a federal public works project. The federal government paid artists to paint murals on public walls and buildings during the Great Depression.

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Only a handful of such frescoes can be found in the country today, artists from ConserveArt Associates said. The Culver City-based group was hired to oversee the $40,000 restoration project.

The project was paid for by the Fullerton Joint Union High School District, the Fullerton Redevelopment Agency, private donations and a state Historical Foundation grant.

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Experts say the colors are still vibrant after the beige paint was removed because Kassler employed a difficult technique rarely employed by artists today.

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Using watercolors, Kassler painted the 15-by-80-foot fresco directly on wet lime plaster. When the plaster dried, the painting became part of the wall.

What also makes the mural remarkable is that Kassler painted it with only one hand--his left. Kassler lost his right hand as a young boy when he was testing a model cannon.

It remains uncertain why the school board decided to cover up the mural, but many who attended Saturday’s rededication brought their opinions, including speculation that the mural was deemed too ethnic.

“The school board was very conservative, and they were very much offended by it,” said Larry Myers, 87, who was the school’s foreign-languages teacher when Kassler’s work was first unveiled.

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“It was too Mexican, that’s why,” speculated Charles Hart, 75, who was a student at the high school and remembers the mural before it was covered up. “The school board didn’t want to leave the impression that this town was anything else but Anglos. Too extreme for them, I guess.”

Hart is the son of a late shop teacher who in the 1930s had his class hand-make decorative wrought iron gates placed on both sides of the mural to keep it from being defaced.

When the fresco was painted over, the gates were taken off and misplaced. Recently, maintenance workers found the rusted gates, which have since been restored, and replaced.

Family members weren’t the only ones pleased with the restoration, which numerous community volunteers worked on all summer.

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Kendall Neisess, 77, the 1938 class president, said his classmates were “disgusted” when the mural was covered. “It was so beautiful,” he said. “We’re just so happy that it’s back.”


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