At the Autry: Making an impression on high schoolers


Desert Twilight by John Frost

John Frost 1890–1937 Desert Twilight

In 1919, Gardena High School Principal John Whitely had a novel suggestion. Rather than have the graduating class buy a bench, trophy case, or some other traditional parting gift to the student body, why not purchase a painting? Senior class members that year visited major art galleries and studios in Southern California and eventually selected “The Valley of Santa Clara,” by Ralph Davison Miller. The following year Jean Mannheim’s “On the Road to San Gabriel” was selected, and an inspiring tradition was established.

Head Winds by Joe Duncan Gleason

Joe Duncan Gleason 1881–1959 Head Winds, (Storm at Sea)

The gift of art became an annual rite at Gardena High School, and from 1919 to 1956 Gardena seniors took part in selecting, buying, and donating to the school a work of contemporary art of their time. By 1956, when the school relocated, the collection—built with gifts from winter and summer graduating classes, artists, and faculty —contained 104 valuable paintings, nineteen watercolors, six etchings, two lithographs and three pastels. The collection reflects the state’s scenic diversity and the Impressionist movement that flourished in California during the early part of the twentieth century, long after its heyday in Europe.

Lingering Snows by Jack Wilkinson SmithJack Wilkinson Smith 1873–1949 Lingering Snows

Now through October, the Autry Museum is featuring California Impressionism: The Gardena High School Collection, a small paintings exhibition that includes major works by artists Maurice Braun, Maynard Dixon, John Frost, Joe Duncan Gleason, Mannheim, Edgar Payne, and Jack Wilkinson Smith. To get to the exhibition, stroll through the Autry’s permanent collection galleries that feature Hollywood memorabilia reflecting the life of the museum’s founder, entertainer Gene Autry, aka America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy. There are numerous enjoyable displays of costumes, props, posters, and more from famous movies and television Westerns.

A Cool Drifting Fog by Franz Bischoff

Franz Bischoff 1864-1929 A Cool Drifting Fog

California Impressionism follows in its own gallery, where you can experience nine of the paintings that caught the eyes of Gardena High School student-collectors, including several quintessential landscapes of the coast, desert, and mountains. Gleason’s dramatic painting of sailors battling a stormy sea was a gift of the class of 1935. Be sure to turn the corner to view Dixon’s portrait of two Native American men, Men of the Red Earth, which draws the viewer in with its earthy pigments and the way the folds of the men’s blankets echo the terrain of the valleys and mesas in the background.

Two Men of the Red by Maynard Dixon

Maynard Dixon 1835-1844 Two Men of the Red Earth 

In choosing what work of art to purchase and donate to their school, participating Gardena seniors attended an art exhibition, a dinner, and a series of teas and studio talks with artists, alumni, students, faculty, and advisors. Many students engaged directly with artists and their works, inspiring some of the students to become artists themselves. Others credited this collecting experience with instilling in them a lifelong appreciation for art. Certainly they developed keen instincts; many of the students’ selections are now recognized as emblematic examples of California Impressionism.


While you are there, head downstairs to the newly renovated Cowboy Gallery on the Autry’s lower level. This section of the museum has just reopened with new videos, infographics, and hands-on activity stations. A highlight is the full-size chuck wagon—loaded with cooking provisions and other supplies—which helps tell the story of what cowboy life was like in the West. There are also saddles, spurs, and ropes galore, plus a comprehensive firearms gallery and a saloon featuring a beautiful wood bar and authentic gambling tables.

Autry Museum of the American West //  4700 Western Heritage Way Los Angeles, CA 90027-1462  323-667-2000

The Autry, located in Griffith Park, is open Tuesday–Friday, 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m. and Saturday–Sunday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for students and seniors, $4 for children ages 3–12, and free for children under 3.

Written by Stacey Ravel Abarbanel