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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.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 COMMENT 244927 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-31 09:53 AM

Urban Hikers here - We messed up in identifying the mosaic mural behind Evelyn Ackerman. That 1956 mural is called "Fantasy Landscape" and was commissioned for an apartment building in West Los Angeles. We apologize for our mistake, but we were just so thrilled to have a photo of the artist in front of her work...


 COMMENT 244930 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-31 10:00 AM

Really appreciate all the photos you have submitted. I lived here all my life and still haven't seen a lot. The old photos of Safeway are cool as well as the mosaics. Local history is very interesting to me, have fun on the last leg of your journey.


 COMMENT 244940 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-31 10:15 AM

I will now have a new appreciation of every mosaic piece of art I see in SB thanks to you!!

How many times have I passed both those murals and hardly glanced at them much less stopped to marvel at their beauty or had any idea of the history behind them.

Thanks Urban Hikers!!


 COMMENT 244960 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-31 11:41 AM

I walk past Mr. Knowles' mural nearly everyday. One day, not too many months ago, I finally studied it. I was surprised at the depth and meaning I saw in it. Since then I have wondered about its history. I had no idea that it was created in the late 50s - my guess had been the 80s. He did a wonderful job and I do hope it doesn't disappear with whatever new development that is going in that space. Thanks again Urban Hikers!


 COMMENT 244970 agree helpful negative off topic

2011-12-31 12:17 PM

I have always loved the segment of the Safeway mosaic entitled "Mission Period". It could also be titled "The Padres Teach the Chumash to Play Golf"...


 COMMENT 245084P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-01-01 06:46 AM

Very nice, thank you so much for all of your work and insight into SB. I, too, am inspired to look further and more closely at our urban art.


 COMMENT 245121P agree helpful negative off topic

2012-01-01 10:30 AM

I haven't been able to find the actual video on the city site. Is a link available, or does one need to buy the DVD from Tower?


 FLICKA agree helpful negative off topic

2012-01-01 10:43 AM

If I had a dollar for every time I went past the Safeway mural my husband and I could eat dinner at the Biltmore. NEVER took a good look; thank you for showing me what I've missed. You truly have made us all more aware of our surroundings with your hiking photos and historical information. Thank you, hope a book is in the works.


 MOARTS51 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-01-01 01:23 PM

Excellent capper to your series. Have enjoyed the entire journey vicariously and I do know more about the city by way of your urban hikes. Thanks Edhat for making it happen too. @Capt. Haley - you got me on the golf comment - LOL


 COMMENT 245221 agree helpful negative off topic

2012-01-01 07:19 PM

Thank you both so much for showing off our town as the unique and wonderful place it is! You have inspired me to do something - just don't know what that will be yet!!


 SB FAN agree helpful negative off topic

2012-01-01 11:55 PM

The mosaic mural by Joseph Knowles will be preserved in the new project which will replace the Von's. However, it will be moved and will face onto Chapala Street instead of Victoria.


 COMMENT 684469 agree helpful negative off topic

2016-02-08 12:06 PM

Hi! Cartasbolg cites SB Urban Historian Jake Jacobus as saying the mosaic uses 260,000 tiles, which challenges your number of 465,000. Can you cite your number? Doing rudimentary math (ie. counting how many tiles per inch when laying a ruler on the monitor screen, then multiplying accordingly), I estimate Jacobus is probably closer in his figure, but hey, I don't want to start a controversy:). The truth is, I regularly have my students write on the mosaic and expect them to be correct in their research, so I'd like to know where the 465,000 number came from. Thanks!


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