Sunday, October 6, 2013

Connections -- and Cake

Wayne Thiebaud Boston Cremes 1962, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento CA, via Meandering Moodys

Bear with me as I go through some of these somewhat loose connections.

As I incessantly post, we now live in New Mexico's central Estancia Valley. We are out in the country, more or less equidistant from Santa Fe's and Albuquerque's original plazas, and we visit both cities relatively often. The last couple of months we've been going to one city or the other almost daily, and sometimes to both in one day, due to a plethora of fall events we've we've learned of, signed up for, know someone involved with, or have wanted to attend for ages but never did for one reason or another. Our calendar is chock-a-block at least through November. Then maybe we'll get to slow down a bit when the snows come! (Assuming they do.)

Central and Northern New Mexico where we are and its landscape -- its cities and little towns and expansive open spaces and its mountains and highways, even its interstate freeways -- strongly remind me of parts of California where I lived through most of my life. That's not to suggest they are the same; they are not.

The deserts are quite different. The air is different. The sky and the light are incomparably different. Of course here in New Mexico, we're always at a high elevation, whereas in California, you really had to climb up into the mountains from the low or very low elevations where most people lived. Few people in California live in the mountains to this day. In New Mexico, practically everyone lives at high -- or very high -- elevation. You have little choice in the matter.

Yesterday, we were up in Santa Fe for a Museum event we'd scheduled, and afterwards we decided to stop in at the Museum of International Folk Art, a destination we'd never visited before. We knew it was there, having been to the neighboring Museum of Indian Arts and Culture many times, but for whatever reason the Folk Art Museum had not been on our list of places to go to on a balmy afternoon.

Well, silly us. We should have gone long ago. It's wonderful.

And the beating heart of the Museum is the most amazing and wonderful collection and exhibit I have ever seen at any museum anywhere. It is the (World Famous) Girard Collection, barely a tenth of which was installed in the Girard Wing by Alexander Girard, the donor himself.

My doG in Heaven, what a brilliant, gorgeous, overwhelming, amazing and delightful exhibit it is, too.

It is an overflowing cornucopia of fascinating folk art from around the world, though there may seem to be an emphasis on Mexican and New Mexican folk art. We have lots of pictures which we haven't downloaded yet, as this museum, unlike most, encourages picture-taking by visitors.

The displays fill a huge room; some items hang from the ceilings and others are displayed in frames below eye level. Things are everywhere. Beautiful things. Funny things. Fascinating things. Thousands upon thousands of items, paintings, paper cut outs, assemblages, figurines, depictions of town scenes, funerals, celebrations, Dias de los Muertos, battles, and so much more. Toys, trains, santos, soldiers and snakes. It just goes on and on and on. Miniature theaters start off the exhibit, but turning from them to the main hall itself is literally breathtaking, gasp-inducing, astonishing. And what's on display is only a tenth of what Girard and his wife Susan collected.

Girard, Girard, Girard... the name was familiar. There are streets named after someone named Girard in Albuquerque and elsewhere in New Mexico, but whoever that Girard was, it was probably not the same as the Alexander Girard who collected, donated and installed the exhibits we saw yesterday. There is a very truncated biography of the man and his wife at the museum, but it doesn't really explain who he was or why -- apart from this exhibit -- anybody would remember him.

Oh but, in his day, he was very well known in certain circles, primarily for his graphic designs. He worked in the Fifties at the Eames Studios, and he designed a wide range of advertising and other distinctive graphics for many clients. His best known client might have been Braniff Airlines, which commissioned him to redesign the look of the airline, from the planes themselves to the dinnerware used on them, the uniforms of the stewardesses and the advertising copy, altogether over 17,000 separate items, in the mid Sixties.

I never flew Braniff (that I can recall!) but I flew PSA many times. I well remember their "Pink Phase" when the planes and the stewardesses (they were all women back then) and everything the public saw of the (now merged with USAir) airline appeared to be either pink or orange.

It was all very distinctive and very much fun.

PSA was primarily a West Coast airline which is why I flew it so often. That and the fact that tickets between West Coast destinations were only $13 for a time, much cheaper and faster than driving between say San Francisco and Los Angeles. Flying in those days was much less of a hassle, too.

I haven't been able to find out who was responsible for PSA's very distinctive look back in the 1960's and '70's but it's clear enough there is a family resemblance between PSA's look and that of Braniff as designed by Girard.

At any rate, as I researched some of Girard's graphic designs, I was struck by how strongly they also resembled the very distinctive graphics of a California roadside destination that I frequently visited in those days, too: the Nut Tree just outside of Vacaville.

It's hard to explain just how strong and influential the Nut Tree's graphics and overall design were in California especially but throughout the West back in the late 50's through the mid-70's or even the '80's.

There were many outposts and imitations to be sure, but the Nut Tree itself was the centerpiece of this characteristic, contemporary and very distinctive California design. There are some remnants of it at what became of the Nut Tree in Vacaville, but there is no sign that what has taken its place (a shopping center as opposed to a roadside stop/attraction) will have anything like the impact or distinctive signature that the Nut Tree did in its hey-day.

Comparing and contrasting Nut Tree graphics and design with Girard's you do notice differences, but at a glance, they are nearly the same. And I wondered if Girard had done the Nut Tree graphics as well. Sure enough, he hadn't.

No, the Nut Tree design shop was the brainchild of Don Birrell, a contemporary of Girard, the former director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (for which I wrote and directed a short play as part of the 100th Anniversary celebration of the donation of the Museum to the People by Margaret Crocker) and someone who also worked for Eames Studios for a time, but someone who did not branch out too far beyond the Nut Tree (there were some things for Disneyland, for example, and his graphics were influential everywhere) whereas Girard seemed to be all over the world.

This was fascinating, almost as fascinating as the Girard exhibit of folk art itself.

A number of students have pointed out the similarities of style between Girard and Birrell, and at least one has claimed that Birrell was the pioneer in the distinctive contemporary graphic style so well known from the Nut Tree and other examples while Girard picked it up sometime later.

But I find from others that they seemed to be working in parallel -- if not in tandem -- from very early on, indeed, almost simultaneously, beginning in the early 1950's for both.

Girard expressed his early contemporary design interests by using his own home in Santa Fe as an experimental canvas for all kinds of murals, arts, and arrangements. Birrell started his design work at the Nut Tree at exactly the same time, and the Nut Tree became his experimental canvas.

There were striking elements in Girard's Santa Fe designs of 1953 that evoked something of Birrell's influence on contemporary art in general: cake.

Well, let me explain. Birrell was an early champion of California contemporary/pop art and artists, particularly Wayne Thiebaud, whose iconic paintings of slices of luxuriant cake are among the highlights of what was considered early pop art.

Interestingly, cake slices appear as part of the wall murals in Alexander Girard's kitchen in Santa Fe in 1953; they are not identical to Thiebaud's by any means, but they certainly are evocative of Thiebaud's later work.

Of course, it's all "advertising" of a sort. That may be where the connection really lies. Of course. This is all about marketing and branding and all those things that marketing consultants think are so fundamentally important today. Things that were just beginning to be worked out back in the 1950's.

I get it.

And Alexander Girard, in addition to everything else he was doing, was also collecting a vast assortment of folk art from all over the world to wind up in an exhibit of his own creation at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, a destination that until yesterday we had never seen.

And then there is the band called "Cake" which has nothing to do with any of this directly, but without which our travels would have been much less entertaining. And they're from Sacramento where Gabe their bassist would come around to our theater from time to time to chill and enjoy.

You see it all fits together.


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