MILTON QUON lines up more than a dozen sketchbooks along a ledge in a gallery of the Chinese American Museum in downtown L.A. Inside, drawings and paintings detail the adventures of his 92 years. Trips to New York, London and Xi’an, China. Visits to Stockton, to see the family of his wife, Peggy. The special at the Hof’s Hut restaurant in Torrance.
“I was on a kick there for a while of painting every meal I had,” Quon says, giggling, as he leafs through pages of watercolors depicting entrees and salads. “It doesn’t matter where I am. In a bank, I’ll sketch the people waiting in line with me. On buses, I’d do sketches of the driver.
“One time I was on a cruise, and after we had had a day ashore, I was sketching the boat from the dock. The problem was, it was leaving,” he says, still describing that day in 1988 as vividly as if it were last week. “I had to jump, otherwise I would have missed the boat. But I left my little sketchbook behind, so somewhere is a sketchbook with an unfinished boat in it.”
Quon’s desire to record his daily experiences is the basis for the exhibition “Impressions: Milton Quon’s Los Angeles.” The show at the Chinese American Museum contains more than 50 pieces, mostly watercolors, as well as a smattering of sketchbooks, Christmas cards and commercial work he did at Disney, the ad firm BBD&O; and the packaging company Sealright.
Though not by the artist’s intention, the paintings provide a history of the city he has called home his entire life. One, from 1952, shows a grocery store at Chavez Ravine a decade before Dodger Stadium was built. Another, from 1983, depicts a downtown train yard with the L.A. skyline in the background -- a view considerably changed today. A third presents a now-shuttered factory on the Eastside in 1989. Still, much of Quon’s work revolves around more-tranquil scenes along the coast: Malibu at twilight in 1992, Santa Monica Pier in 2002.
If you can spot a trend in Quon’s work as he’s aged, it’s that the earlier pieces use pen lines to create a structure into which bold color is applied, whereas his more recent work tends toward the abstract and pastels. “Now I’m more of the mind that less is more,” he says. “When I was in school, I took architecture -- a lot of drafting, a lot of line work.”
QUON was born Aug. 22, 1913, in a house at 10th and San Pedro streets. His parents, who emigrated from Canton province, had seven more children after that, all girls. As the eldest and the only son, Quon concedes, he was spoiled. But he was also pressured to be a breadwinner, especially during the Depression, and after his father died midway through Quon’s education on scholarship at Chouinard Art Institute. To make ends meet, he worked nights and Saturdays as a produce clerk, and walked to school rather than ride the Red Car.
Upon graduation, he joined Disney, where he worked on “Fantasia” -- including scenes such as the Waltz of the Flowers and the Arabian Dance -- and served as first assistant animator on “Dumbo.” But World War II intervened, and Quon’s service was deferred to a job at Douglas Aircraft illustrating parts catalogs for attack and transport planes. After the war, he rejoined Disney in the publicity department, promoting “Make Mine Music” and “Song of the South.”
Though this and his subsequent commercial work were very much public, he never gained the recognition of his contemporary Tyrus Wong, who rose to fame for his work on “Bambi.” And Quon’s private creative endeavors remained just that: private. They have been put on display only once before, as part of a group show at the LMAN Gallery in Chinatown in 2002. So the current exhibition is, as Quon puts it, “the first solo show, the retrospective, the whole thing wrapped into one.”
“Milton has put a priority on his work as a means of cultivating himself,” says museum curator Sonia Mak, who co-curated the show with Cynthia Woo. “He doesn’t do it as a way to make a buck.”
Quon is proud of his heritage, and his work is at the Chinese American Museum, of which he is an active supporter, but when asked to reflect on whether his paintings are in any way shaped by ethnicity, he pauses uncharacteristically. “I suppose going to Chinese school -- learning the characters, brush painting with its discipline and posture -- that discipline helped a lot,” he says. But the bottom line is “no”; in fact, Quon’s story remains quintessentially L.A.
He and his wife of 60 years live in the Crenshaw district, in a house packed with his work, and he’s quick to point out where you can get some great barbecue and cobbler. Come college football season, the rivalries break out, as three of his four children attended USC and one UCLA.
Besides his stints at Disney, he also has had a Hollywood career that would make some waiters jealous: On TV’s “NYPD Blue,” he portrayed a Korean grocery store owner, and in movies he has been a Korean clerk and a Chinese mafia boss. But the crowning role came in 1994’s “Speed,” in which he was “the token Asian on the bus.”
These days, Quon keeps busy with fishing, gardening, walking, tai chi and, of course, sketching and painting, all the while hunting for new subjects and locations. His drive seems as sharp as ever, as does his sense of humor.
So it is that he recounts how he first landed in the pages of The Times, in 1928, when he was rescued from a riptide. The story didn’t even identify him by name. “Seventy-seven years later, Milton Quon is in the L.A. Times again,” he says. “In the swim again -- as it were? Ouch!”
Milton Quon’s Los Angeles
Where: Chinese American Museum, 425 N. Los Angeles St., L.A.
When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
Ends: Jan. 15
Price: Suggested admission $3 adults; $2 seniors and students; 18 and younger, free.
Info: (213) 485-8567; www.camla.org