Museum to honor art history author with award

Renaissance woman and Newport Beach resident Ruth Westphal, 80, is a self-titled, life-long "gallery hopper."

Though her professional trajectory placed her in a teaching career and at the helm of her own successful business, her passion for art has carved out a significant place in her life.

The results of her artistic investment went on to enrich countless art history projects and helped raise the bar for chronicling artists and their work. Westphal compiled three books on California artists in the '80s and '90s that laid the groundwork for a comprehensive examination of early California Impressionism and scene painting.

For her efforts, Laguna Art Museum will honor Westphal on Saturday evening with the first California Art Award, created by the museum to recognize contributions to the study and increased awareness of California art.

Westphal's fascination with early California art stemmed from her initial exposure to Laguna Art Museum's 1979 exhibit "Southern California Artists: 1890-1940."

When she learned from the museum's then director, Tom Enman, that information about these artists was lacking, Westphal made it her personal goal to document and archive their substantial body of work. And because he was well-connected and familiar with the subject matter, Westphal hired Enman to help her with the project.

"That exhibit was just not enough for me," Westphal said in an interview. "It featured just one painting from each artist, but I could tell these artists were accomplished and not just Sunday painters. I wanted to put this together, because seeing one painting from a painter is like trying to eat only one potato chip out of a bag. You just really want more. So I dove in."

After extensive research and with the help of several friends, Westphal self-published "Plein Air Painters of California: The Southland" (1982), and after much success, went on to produce "Plein Air Painters of California: The North" (1986), and "American Scene Painting: California, 1930s and 1940s" (1991).

Skirting the Angeles National Forest, Westphal was born in Glendora in 1932, Westphal spent her childhood in the mountains, on the beaches and along the deserts of the Golden State.

She was a self-starter in many regards. She put herself through UCLA, graduating in 1958 with a bachelor's in education, and proceeded to teach in Los Angeles for a decade. In 1968, she earned a master's at Chapman University that focused on systems-based education.

For the next 31 years, she was the president of Concept Media, a production company she founded that specialized in educational films and pamphlets for the healthcare industry. As the company was prospering, she took a sabbatical from what she called her "real job" to fully invest herself in the research of a subject she adored: Early California Impressionism.

"I love the loose brush of the California Impressionists," she said. "The attention to light, the unusual high horizons and the simple strokes — it took me back to scenes I had seen throughout my childhood on this coast. And it has been very rewarding to find that my love for it has helped people better understand it, even to this day."

Janet Blake, curator of collections at Laguna Art Museum and a longtime friend of Westphal's who also contributed to the books, described her as a "driven individual."

"She's a person who literally just fell in love with the artists who painted in California in the late 19th and early 20th century," Blake said. "Once she became aware that there wasn't a lot of scholarship on them, especially published in color at the time, she just decided to do it herself. She's been that self-motivated as long as I've known her."

Describing the significance of the award that Westphal will receive, Blake noted noting that it was designed after the logo of the Laguna Beach Art Assn., founded in 1918 by artists who transformed that section of the coastline into a vibrant art enclave.

Blake will be speaking on Westphal's behalf Saturday, in addition to the museum's Executive Director Malcolm Warner, art collector and friend Gene Crain, Irvine Museum Executive Director Jean Stern — who Westphal said was also of great help assembling the books — and Historical Collections Council President Bob Ehrlich.

Though retired now, Westphal still keeps herself occupied, currently volunteering as a financial counselor at Camp Pendleton once a week.

"Staying active keeps us from fading any faster than we already are," she said, adding that she doesn't play bridge or golf like a lot of her friends, but does work out with her trainer twice a week to keep her muscles up to snuff.

When asked if she'll be publishing more art books in the future, she said, "No, I don't think so. It takes awhile to relax when you have a strong work ethic. It's very hard to lay everything down, but I'm enjoying not having that responsibility anymore.

"I'm very happy to be receiving this award, but museums and others have taken on the task of publishing accounts of artists, and I feel like I've passed the baton.'"

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