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URBAN HIKE

Marvelous Mid-Century Mosaics
updated: Dec 31, 2011, 9:30 AM

By the Urban Hikers, Stacey Wright & Peter Hartmann

A few weeks ago we shared with you some of our city's wonderful mosaics, murals and tile work. Readers asked to know more about one of the mosaics we showed and one that we didn't. Today we're happy to report what we've learned about each of these two magnificent mosaic murals.

When we wrote about the Evelyn Ackerman mosaic at 112 E. Victoria Street, we knew next to nothing about it. Thanks to one of our readers, who works at the law firm at 112 E. Victoria, we learned that indeed the mural is signed "EA". With a little bit of internet sleuthing and a little bit of luck, Peter was able to discover that "EA" stands for Evelyn Ackerman, and that the mural is titled "Sea, Land and Sky". We lifted this photo from her webpage, and haven't been able to figure out how to enlarge it. But it's pretty exciting because it shows Evelyn standing in front of the mural, apparently just after its installation.

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We've taken a few additional photos of this mosaic to show its incredible detail. It sure would be nice if the foliage could be trimmed away from it, both to better preserve it and to show it off a little nicer.

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Evelyn Ackerman and her husband Jerome Ackerman have a website that tells in great detail about all of their mid-century modern works, and includes quite a lot of biographical information about the couple. They are amazing artists, designers and visionaries, and their website is worth a look. When you go to the site, you'll find that their work is currently being featured in three Los Angeles exhibitions; one the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (October 1, 2011-March 25, 2012), one at the American Museum of Ceramic Art (November 12, 201-March 31, 2012) and one at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (September 25, 2011-January 8, 2012). To learn more, go to their website at ackermanmodern.com.

In a nutshell, Evelyn first became interested in mosaics in 1955, after seeing an exhibition in San Francisco. At Jenev, the design studio she and Jerome had opened in West Los Angeles, Evelyn began designing mosaics for tables and wall panels. Many of her designs were featured in magazines and shown at local exhibitions. Afraid she would be unable to keep up with the demand for her mosaic work, Jenev established a mosaic workshop in Mexico where Evelyn's designs were used to create the mosaics for their design studio. We don't know for certain, but we believe "Sea, Land and Sky" was assembled at the workshop in Mexico and later transported to Santa Barbara for installation at its present location.

In 1956, Jerome reconnected with a high school classmate, Sherrill Broudy, and partnered with him, creating ERA Industries. We believe that Mr. Broudy, a local architect, was living in Santa Barbara in the late 1950's, and presume that this is how Evelyn came to design the mural for the building at 112 E. Victoria Street, which was owned by Louis Mazzeti, a designer and artist himself. In any event, the Ackermans eventually bought Sherrill Broudy out of their partnership, and Mr. Broudy went on to establish Forms + Surfaces, a local design firm that has made hundreds of one-of-a-kind doors, panels and other architectural features around Santa Barbara and elsewhere.

Our other Victoria Street mosaic is of course, the magnificent mid-century mural located at the corner of Victoria and Chapala, originally home of Safeway. As with the mosaic at 112 E. Victoria, we knew very little about this iconic piece of public art until very recently. Growing up, both of us urban hikers had occasion to see it quite often. Later, when we shopped at Victoria Vons we saw it almost daily. When Vons closed, like many other locals, we worried about the fate of this historically significant piece of public art, and truly hope it will be preserved in a way that the citizens of our town can continue to enjoy it publicly. These photos were taken on September 30, 1959, at the unveiling of the massive mural, created by local artist Joseph Knowles.

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And this is how it looks today.

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The mural, which was unveiled by Russell Bell, chairman of the city's Architectural Board of Review during a ceremony attended by hundreds of people, including Pearl

Chase, created quite a stir. It was reported to have cost Safeway a tidy $25,000, which, by our calculations, translates to a present-day cost of about $186, 376. It consisted of over 465,000 pieces of square ceramic tiles, which are in eight different colors. It depicts the history of human civilization in Santa Barbara, beginning with the Chumash and ending with the "Modern Age". Joseph Knowles Jr. noted that he is particularly proud of his father's portrayal of the Chumash, because in an age when a commissioned artist may have been tempted to sugar-coat the events depicted, Mr. Knowles preferred to present the native peoples in more realistic and representative ways.

Beginning with the Chumash

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Spanish Explorers

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Mission Period

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Rancho Period

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Arrival of American Settlers

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Modern Age

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Artist's signature

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According to Joseph Knowles son, Joseph Jr., the tiles were small ceramic tiles, not unlike those used in bathrooms, and were manufactured in Cincinnati, Ohio. Joseph Knowles recalled that his father had to grapple with how to use only square tiles to create a mural that would pleasingly represent the scenes he was trying to re-create. Unlike with other mosaics, the artist was unable to cut the "bathroom" tiles to create a design. We also suspect that in using the pre-manufactured tiles, the artist was limited in his choice of colors, hence the use of only eight.

Joseph Knowles was a local artist, known primarily for his paintings. Aside from mosaics, he also created stained glass, and was a printmaker. The chapel at the Cate

School has one of his stained glass windows. Many years ago, several mosaic panels made of cut Venetian tile hung in what is believed to have been Santa Barbara Bank and Trust main branch office, but today it doesn't appear that they are displayed at the bank.

Joseph Knowles was born in 1907, and died in 1980. He and his family lived in Mission Canyon, and Mr. Knowles was friends with other local artists including Ray Strong, and Douglass Parshall. A graduate of the Santa Barbara School of the Arts, Mr. Knowles later helped found a local art school and taught fine art at the Riviera campus of UCSB. Also close friends with local historian Walker A. Tompkins, it is likely Mr. Knowles consulted with Mr. Tompkins in creating his historically themed mural.

In speaking with Joseph Knowles about his father and his father's work, we were reminded about a video that was produced back in 2007 by the County Arts Commission and other individuals and agencies, titled "In Plain Sight - Public Art in Santa Barbara". The hour-long video is on the web and available for free viewing. A segment of the video features the Joseph Knowles mosaic and includes an interview with the artist's son, Joseph. We haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but when we get a spare hour, we'll do just that.

We hope to see you on December 31st at 2:00 pm at the corner of State Street and Canon Perdido (in front of the old Border's store) for our "Final 2" hike and celebration. And of course, as always, we encourage you to go out and explore the city, meet your neighbors, keep your eyes, ears and minds open to all that you encounter, and above all, expect the unexpected.

 

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