Artist made mosaics for Home Savings

Times Staff Writer

Denis O'Connor, a mosaic muralist who executed massive portraits of idealized California life at many Home Savings of America buildings in the 1960s and 1970s as part of an ambitious public art program, has died. He was 74.

O'Connor, who lived in Anza, Calif., died Dec. 26 of a heart attack at a friend's home in Ontario. His family announced his death last week.

"The volume of work that he did was pretty much unprecedented, except for the Italian masters," Lillian Sizemore, a mosaic historian and artist, told The Times on Wednesday. "Certainly, in the U.S., he was definitely a master."

O'Connor, a British immigrant, was a foot soldier in a unique American campaign to bring art to the people.

The grand-scaled bank buildings -- with marble exteriors and interiors featuring colorful tile murals, stained glass and sculptures -- turned the Home Savings branches into instant landmarks in California communities that often lacked distinctive structures. Many of the buildings and artwork were designed by Millard Sheets, an artist and architect who often signed the murals, although assistants did most of the actual work.

"Millard was a master visionary, and he would find people to execute these architectural visions. He was a big personality and because of that . . . Denis wasn't always given the credit he was due," said Sizemore, who studied with O'Connor last year.

Over 19 years, O'Connor produced about 80 mosaics for Home Savings, Sizemore said. Washington Mutual took over Home Savings in 1998, but many examples of O'Connor's exacting artistry still stand. The murals were meant to reflect California history, family life and local landmarks and often were specific to a bank's geographic location.

"Everyone seems to love the one he did at Sunset and Vine," said Sizemore of the Hollywood-influenced work that features Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins among the dozen scenes of movie characters.

Near Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park is a piece that depicts Native Americans, cowboys and the railroad coming through in "gorgeous colors," Sizemore said. Embedded in the work is O'Connor's tile signature, a "CD" inside a circle.

His mosaic for a Santa Monica Home Savings featured dolphins jumping out of the waves. When the building was torn down, he was resigned to the fact that he had no control over the artwork, said Suzanne O'Connor, his daughter-in-law.

"Someone had commissioned him to create it and after that, it belonged to them," she said.

The alliance between art and money paid dividends for Home Savings, Denis O'Connor told the Riverside Press-Enterprise in 2001. "They kept using murals because the banks that had murals on them got more new accounts than those that didn't have murals," he said.

The Home Savings murals made up the bulk of his work, including original mosaics he made and installed at the bank's branches across the country. But he also designed and installed mosaics for a number of churches, other public buildings and private clients that included Cher and Bette Midler, his family said.

His last major project was a 25-foot by 15-foot mural of angels installed in 2001 at St. John Vianney Catholic Church on Balboa Island. The work took him two years to complete.

The only child of a coal miner and his homemaker wife, O'Connor was born in 1933 in the English coastal town of Seaham Harbour. His mother died when he was 11. He earned a degree in drawing and sculpture from the Royal College of Art in London.

With his wife and son, O'Connor came to the United States in 1959.

From New York, the family drove to California, a cross-country trip that inspired O'Connor's love of the desert. They settled in Claremont, where his in-laws lived.

An exhibit of O'Connor's work at Scripps College caught the attention of Sheets, who hired him as an assistant mosaicist in 1960. O'Connor opened his own mosaic business in 1963 but continued to work with Sheets, who died in 1989.

O'Connor moved to his five-acre spread in the desert in Anza in 1994. A three-building compound allowed him to continue to work and give the occasional mosaic workshop. Mainly, he tended an extensive garden filled with cactuses and native shrubbery.

As a hobby, O'Connor collected antique bottles that he dug from the ground in Tuscarora, Nev., a ghost town where he visited his friend, potter Dennis Parks.

Suzanne O'Connor said her father-in-law "had a delicious sense of humor" and often turned his Claremont backyard into a piece of art by pouring Mr. Bubble soap into the Jacuzzi and turning on the jets.

He is survived by his son, Kevin O'Connor, a web designer; and a granddaughter.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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