The Enduring Arts Legacy of South Pasadena’s Nelbert Chouinard Shines Brightly in Library Collection

by Steve Fjeldsted, Library Director

PHOTO: South Pasadena Library | | Nelbert Chouinard in 1949

South Pasadena is widely known for its prominent arts-oriented culture. Not surprisingly, the South Pasadena Library collection offers a wealth of materials on groundbreaking Southern California artists of the 20th and 21st Centuries. An impressive number of the artists represented in these attractive works were associated with the Chouinard Arts Institute. The small school was started by South Pasadena resident Nelbert Chouinard in Downtown LA in 1921. She was living in a house on Garfield Avenue that had been built by her father in 1907 when she almost singlehandedly founded the arts instruction school that progressed from its humble beginnings to one that fostered the talents of internationally renowned artists in the decades to follow.

PHOTO: Courtesy | | John Van Hammersveld’s Iconic ‘Endless Summer’ Poster

Nelbert employed her groundbreaking “nurturing but firm” arts education techniques as the Chouinard Art Institute grew into the most important school of its kind on the West Coast. Under Nelbert’s steady guidance the school attracted many talented students who produced dynamic, thought-provoking works. During the art college’s historic run until it closed its doors after more than 50 years, the open progressive arts education principles developed by Chouinard empowered more than 50,000 students to become standouts in their respective fields of artistic pursuit. Graduates from the school became leaders in every major West Coast art-related movement of the 20th Century, including cinema, architecture, animation, ceramics, and watercolors. They also became standouts in the emerging colorful realms of pop, surf, and rock graphics.

In the 30s and 40s, the Chouinard Art Institute trained all of Walt Disney’s early animators, leading to a longtime partnership until Nelbert suffered a stroke in the early 50s and could no longer run the school. In gratitude for the Chouinard Art Institute serving as the fertile breeding ground that spawned the artists for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” Disney’s first full-length motion picture in 1937, Walt agreed to support the school financially. When Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles closed in 1972 after an historic 50 year run, it was sold to Walt Disney and it became the world-renowned California Institute for the Arts (CalArts).

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PHOTO: South Pasadena Library | | Larry Bell’s ‘Mirrored Black Boxes”

Chouinard Art Institutes’s impressive list of famous accomplished instructors included architect Richard Neutra, costume designer Edith Head, and Merrell Gage, the man who created the sculptures, plaques, and friezes around the outside the South Pasadena Public Library. Gage went on to head the USC Fine Arts Department and became one of the greatest American sculptors of the 20th Century.

A list of the most celebrated Chouinard graduates almost reads like a chapter of ‘Who’s Who of 20thCentury West Coast Artists.” It includes Larry Bell, one of only two still-living individuals on The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Arts Club Band” album cover; Rick Griffin, designer of dozens of famous San Francisco rock album covers and concert posters, celebrated graphic artist S. Neil Fujita, pioneering animator Chuck Jones, iconic muralist Millard Sheets, and edgy oil and acrylic painter t Llyn Foulkes. Another famed Chouinard grad, Ed Ruscha, an early leading light of Pop Art, was named one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2013.

John Van Hammersveld, widely recognized for his iconic “Endless Summer” movie poster, as well as album cover artwork for the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, is now part of a collective of Chouinardians known as the California Locos. The quintet includes performance painter Norton Wisdom, blues musician and artist Gary Wong, graffiti stylist Chaz Bojorquez, and Dave Tourje, the Executive Director of the Chouinard Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving and expanding the important arts legacy of Nelbert Chouinard, who is now increasingly recognized for helping so many of her students to make powerful, lasting impressions on art in the 20th and 21stCenturies.

The Library Collection offers the following books:

““Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge” by Cheech Marin

“Chouinard, An Art Vision Betrayed, the Story of the Chouinard Art Institute, 1921-1972” by Robert Perine

“Ed Ruscha, Photographer” by Margit Rowell

“Edith Head’s Hollywood” by Edith Head

“Llyn Foulkes” by Ali Subotnik

“Millard Sheets 1935” by Dalzell Hatfield

“My Art, My Life” by John Van Hammersveld

“Outrageous LA” by Robert Landau

“Richard Neutra and the Search for Modern Architecture” by Thomas Neutra

“Somos Locos, The Story of the California Locos”

“Zones of Experience: The Art of Larry Bell” by Larry Bell

and the following DVD:

“Chuck Jones: Extremes and In Betweens: A Life in Animation”