"Your painting is a measure of your mind"-Millard Sheets
Millard Sheets, as one of the founding members of the "California Scene Painters," exerted a lasting influence upon subsequent generations of Western painters. He and the small group of painters who worked in California during the 1930s and 1940s, developed a new style of watercolor painting that was at the forefront of the American watercolor movement of the time, and that later gave rise to a subsequent generation of painters who became known as the California Regionalist school.
Sheets was born in Pomona, California on June 24, 1907. His mother died in childbirth, and his father, John Sheets, unprepared to raise a baby alone, sent Millard to Pomona, California to be raised by his maternal grandparents, Lewis and Emma Owen. Sheets's grandfather proved to be a guiding force in his life, and when Sheets's father remarried and offered Millard the opportunity to return to the Sheets household, Millard chose instead to remain with his grandparents.
Sheets's love of horses can be directly traced back to his childhood years spent living at his grandfather's horse ranch. Millard rode his first horse when he was three years old. Throughout his life, Sheets returned to the theme of horses in his paintings, as well as maintaining a private stable of horses, and raising and breeding racehorses.
His interest in art also began in childhood. When he was still a young boy, his two maternal aunts encouraged him to play with crayons and pencils. Sheets took his first painting lesson from a neighbor at the age of seven, and by 1919 he had already submitted artwork to the copy division of the Los Angeles County Fair fine arts show competition. He submitted a drawing he had copied of a tinted photograph of Lake KIlarney, California. Sheets won first prize in his division.
It was through this competition that Millard met Theodore B. Modra, a Polish artist who had retired to the Pomona area. After giving Sheets a lecture on the evils of copying art, Modra offered to give him art lessons.
Sheets continued to pursue his interest in art and enrolled in the Choinard School of Art in Los Angeles, California. By the time that he graduated in 1929, Sheets had also managed to come to the attention of Dalzell and Ruth Hatfield of the Dalzell Hatfield Galleries in Los Angeles, California. The Hatfields were one of the most influential art dealers in Southern California, and that same year, they sponsored Sheets in his first one-man exhibition in 1929. The exhibition brought Sheets to the attention of Western Coast art critics and launched Sheets on his painting career.
In 1929 Sheets also learned that he had won second place in the annual Edgar B. Davis art competition held in San Antonio, Texas. The award came with a cash prize and Sheets made plans to travel to Europe to study and paint. Shortly before his departure, however, he met an art student, Mary Baskerville, and they began a whirlwind romance. With Baskerville's enthusiastic support for European plans, and with her promise that she would wait for him, Sheets departed for New York and then Europe.
While overseas during 1929 and 1930, Sheets studied under Dorfinant, a master printer in Paris. Through his work at this studio workshop, he met Henri Matisse.
Five months after Millard returned to the California in 1930, Sheets and Mary Baskerville married. Sheets worked as the director of the Fine Arts Exhibition of the Los Angeles County Fair. In 1932 Sheets returned to school to study art and humanities at Scripps College in Claremont, California. After graduating from Scripps, school officials approached Sheets with an offer to set up a separate fine arts program and asked him to chair the new department. This was the beginning of a twenty year association with the school. In 1938, he also became the Director of Art at Claremont Graduate School.
Sheets left the school during the years of World War II to serve as a war-time artist and journalist for Life magazine, and from 1943-1944 was stationed on the Burma-India Front. His experiences in Asia appeared to affect him deeply. In contrast to his earlier works which featured backgrounds with neutral tones and brilliant shades that highlighted and punctuated the compositions, the paintings from the wartime featured somber tones. Sheets remarked of this time:
During the fighting and the time I spent in the C-B-1 theater, I was too shaken and intellectually stunned to do any complete paintings. I made many, many sketches, though, as well as a real effort to remember each scene that particularly affected me. Then, once I returned to America, I painted frantically, for months, exorcising demons. [Lovoos, Janice and Edmund F. Penney, Millard Sheets: One-Man Renaissance, Northland Press, Flagstaff, AZ, 1984]
Sheets returned from the war in 1944 and resumed his position at Scripps College until 1955 when he was approached by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and asked to overhaul the fledgling Los Angeles County Art Institute. Sheets accepted the position and spent the next five years reshaping the mission and format of the school, renaming it the Otis Art Institute. In the years after Sheets left the directorship, the school eventually became part of the Parson's School of Design on the West Coast.
In 1953 Sheets founded the Millard Sheets Designs company. He hired between twenty-five and thirty artisans for large projects, with Susan Hertel, a former student of his, serving as his assistant in all the operations of the design studio. The working staff included engineers, registered architects, draftsmen, and artists, and the projects that the firm produced included murals, mosaics, stained glass, and sculpture for private homes and public and commercial businesses.
The design studio completed several major architectural projects throughout the late 1950s through the mid 1970s, including the design and construction of Cal Aero, a flight training school for the US Air Force, the National American Insurance Company offices for the California financier, Howard Ahmanson, Ahmanson Bank and Trust Company in Beverly Hills, many Home Savings and Loan Association Buildings, private residences, and the Scottish Rite Memorial Temples in Los Angeles and San Francisco, among many other projects.
Sheets also designed and completed mural and mosiac work for numerous public buildings in the Los Angeles area, as well as across the nation. Many of the murals and mosiacs were for those buildings designed by his firm while others were done as independent commissions.
In 1968 Sheets first proposed the murals he designed for the Los Angeles City Hall. His design was approved and he was awarded a commission to complete The Family of Man murals over the two main entrances to the Los Angeles City Hall. The murals were completed in 1971 and installed in 1972. Sheets also designed mosiacs and murals for the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the Library at Notre Dame University, the Scottish Rite Masonic Temple in Los Angeles, several Home Savings and Loan Association buildings in the Los Angeles area, the Detroit Public Library, and the Dome of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
During the early 1960s Sheets participated in the American Specialist Program of the US Department of State. His first assignment was to Turkey in 1960, where he served as a visiting artist. The following year he went to the USSR in the same capacity.
During the early to mid 1950s Sheets became involved with Columbia Pictures and was technical advisor and production designer for a few years.
Millard Sheets was a member of the National Watercolor Society, the American Watercolor Society, the National Academy of Design, the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors, and the Century Association. Sheets actively promoted his own work and was a businessman, an active and prolific artist, instructor, and designer. Millard Sheets died on March 31, 1989 in Gualala, California.