On the Road Again

California Heritage Museum presents a new exhibition, “Road Trip LA—NYC, 2021” by visual artist Marco Pallotti, who documented his 40-day journey from the Los Angeles Area to New York City, passing through large bustling cities and small sleepy towns along the way. (California Heritage Museum/Submitted)

Santa Monica’s California Heritage Museum showcases two new exhibits

According to Tobi Smith, executive director of California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica, the museum’s biggest problem is that they’re a well-kept secret. And with two new exhibits running through the end of October, low to no entry fees, and “the only free parking in Santa Monica,” there’s no reason not to go. 

The exhibits on display in the 1894 Historic Landmark Roy Jones House in Santa Monica are “Road Trip: LA - NYC, 2021,” and “California Water Color Society: The Firsty Fifty Years (1921-1971)." Both are distinctly different in time and medium. 

“The First Fifty Years” is located upstairs and is on loan from the Hilbert Museum of California Art at Chapman University. 

“It's the first show the museum has ever taken from another museum,” Smith said. “In the decades that I've been here, we've always produced our own exhibitions.”. 

The society’s stated goal at the time was to " to elevate the watercolor medium to the dignity it enjoyed under such great cultures as those of China and Persia.” 

Elevate because at the time, watercolor was not valued. 

“There was a time and I actually almost remember it where you could buy watercolors [cheaply] because people sort of looked their nose down on them,” Smith said. 

Dubbed “illustrators”, many artists featured in the exhibition such as Phil Dike, Emil Kosa, Jr. and Ralph Hulett made a living in movies, animating in watercolor groundbreaking motion pictures like Disney’s “Snow White,” “Bambi,” “Dumbo” and “Fantasia.”

Others were self-employed like Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel, who earned a reputation as one of the greatest watercolor artists of her time. 

“We have four Wachtels in the show and they’re extraordinary,” Smith said. “The first thing I see when I walk up the stairs to the office is this wall of her work, and seeing that there may be been a number of female watercolor artists from the '20s and '30s but not as well-known as her, I think there's a very good reason that her watercolors are stunning.”

Smith is also excited the exhibit ties into the history of the Automobile Club of Southern California, one of the first automobile clubs in the country. Many of the watercolor landscapes from this period are the same size and feature similar locales. 

“During Prohibition, [the Automobile Club] built roads from San Francisco going down south to Tijuana, because in Mexico you could drink,” Smith said. 

It was difficult to stop off along the road and complete a painting with traditional oils because the paint takes too long to dry. Watercolor on the other hand dried fast and the pages were consistent sizes (half or full sheets). 

“They would say that the piece was a full or a half sheet because traditionally those were the sizes that these artists painted, and they could stop somewhere on the route, do a beautiful painting and stick it in their car without worrying about it getting ruined because there was enough room,” Smith said. “These weren't gigantically large paintings, but they weren't teeny either. And you could paint these and keep traveling south.”

Speaking of creating art on the road, downstairs is Marco Pallotti’s “Road Trip: LA - NYC, 2021” which documents his 40-day journey from Los Angeles to New York City with many detours along the way. The exhibit includes 125 prints out of 7,000 photos that Pallotti took on his trip which included detours to Death Valley, California; Memphis, Tennessee; and the Mississippi Delta. 

“During that time, a number of us were lucky enough to receive day by day photographs of his progress, real time across the country and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Smith said. 

Pallotti’s pictures include sprawling landscapes, detailed cityscapes, quirky signage along with a curious lens on the peculiarities of “normal” things like a road sign in the Mojave National Preserve that says “Rough Roads May Exist” or a picture of a roadside billboard surrounded by fields and an ominous sky that reads “Never Worry Again!” 

“I think you'll see some things that other people maybe didn't see when they visited those same cities and small communities,” Smith said. 

The hardest part was narrowing down the exhibit to 125 photos. 

“There were a lot of these quirky photographs and he has a very interesting look at things,” Smith said.

Pallotti also printed the photographs himself, which allowed him final creative control.

“Because of the fact that he created all of this in house, it's not like it had to be sent out, he did all of it,” Smith said. “He had all the equipment to produce it. We could make subtle little changes, he could tweak the exposures, he could do all of this.” 

These various manipulations on an individual photograph made the exhibition less expensive to produce, and it allowed Pallotti the ability to show the original photographs as he meant for people to see them. 

As Smith stated that's not always the case.

 “Marco said, ‘I have this paper that's 24 inches wide,’ and I said, ‘What I'd like to do is take that and wrap it around all the galleries as you walk around,’” Smith shared. “Ultimately, everything fell into place in a very short period of time.”

Would they have done it any differently? 

“I think not,” Smith said. “People that come to the museum will get to take this journey. A journey that doesn't take 30 days, maybe 30 minutes, and they get to go across the continent from Santa Monica to New York. It's quite wonderful.

Smith added, “Museums provide a very inexpensive means of adding this history, this colorful part of iconic art, giving you something you didn't have before you walked in the door. That's what I like to pick up on is the visual information that you see every day. When you come to a museum, you're fortunate it's presented to you. You get to take what you want and leave the rest behind, but I can't imagine you not taking something. People come to enjoy the shows here.”