In the mid 1950s, the chicken ranch that Dorothy and Joe Kushner had bought three years prior, was made illegal by a town that was trying to recast itself as a higher-class commuter community. One of the large barns, “the brooder room,” or the place where the baby chicks were kept as they grew up, had a wall of east facing windows that were glazed only with eisenglass. Those windows were down only in winter. The natural light was good.
After the demise of the chicken ranch, the barn’s partitions were removed and it became one large room. The brooders were raised to the ceiling to offer a primitive heat source in the winter. There was a small kitchen in one back corner and coffee was often brewing. The studio was the heart of Dorothy’s house. And it was here that she entertained and here that The Group met.
Dorothy loved to engage in conversation about her latest work and art in general. Sometime in the mid 1950s a group of San Gabriel Valley women abstractionists began to meet for mutual support and critique sessions. They called themselves The Group. They met on a monthly basis to discuss current trends in art and examine paintings that each member of The Group had brought for critique. It was strictly a critique and discussion group. Only women were invited. They all lived within driving distance and would gather in each other’s studios once a month on a weekday morning. Each would bring an unfinished painting, which would be put up on an easel and formally critiqued. Since they were all abstractionists, there was little talk about subject matter. The conversation centered on composition, color and line, usually following a Hans Hoffman derived discourse on push-pull, “thrust”, dynamism of form or central shaft. Many of them had studied with Richards Ruben, a Hoffman acolyte who had re-located to Los Angeles. There was not much conversation on careerism since, as middle class housewives, they felt that their career options at that time were near zero. But everyone was supportive of one another’s work. Discussion of family issues was discouraged in order to keep the focus on the art.
At first each hostess would prepare a lunch when the meeting was at her home, but after a while they felt that the focus was diverted from the discussion of their art, and so they each brought a sandwich from home which they ate after the critique session.
There was age and economic diversity, however, all of them were married and most had children. All of them painted in their homes. Ruth Codman lived in a very modest house in Monrovia. One of the tiny bedrooms was her studio, with plastic covering the floor and a single window as a light source. She liked to work as large as possible and calculated the absolute maximum size canvas that could fit diagonally through the bedroom door. Lillian Chapman’s situation was even more innovative. She lived in a very small house in Altadena. One of the bedrooms became her studio until it was filled up, at which time they built a carport to house the car and the two-car garage became her studio, and when that was too full she painted plein air in the back yard. Dorothy Lotts lived in a large house in a fancy part of Pasadena. For her, the living room, with its large north facing window, was her painting room.
Helga Hansen was the resident poet. She was Danish and the widow of portraitist, Ejnar Hansen. She was a real bohemian, wearing very eccentric clothes and always one and only one earring, usually large and dangly. She did not bring artwork, but occasionally read her poems, and she “had a good eye” and often offered provocative comments to the group.
It is not completely clear how this group initially came together. “When I first came to California [1946 or 47] I joined [the Pasadena Artists Associates]. I met Sally Glenn at a meeting of the Pasadena Artists’ Association. They asked each person who attended to bring a painting and hang it. So I did, and next to me was Sally Glenn and I liked her painting very much. Most of it wasn’t very good, and I went all over looking for Sally Glenn. She saw my painting and she liked it very much and she went all over looking for Dorothy Kushner….We found each other and that’s how we met.” Lillian Chapman and Dorothy had known each other since the late 1940s in Altadena when they lived down the street from each other. Lillian painted in a rather delicate abstract style with a lot of thrown or blown paint in thin veil-like layers. Betty Rodbard, who joined the group later, was a recent transplant from Buffalo, NY who had quite a bit of formal training, favoring a softer more pastel kind of abstraction. Katherine Skeele Dann was older, lived in Pasadena where her husband Frode Dann ran an art school. Her painting was modern but was more representational with images of Southwest landscape and stylized Native American themes. Lee Hill had some amount of local visibility incorporating marble dust and egg shell into her painted surfaces. Dorothy Lotts would begin a painting with a loosely representational still life or interior, then abstract it into squares and rectangles of flat color.
Stylistically, The Group covered many different bases from a modernistic realism to nearly complete abstraction. What linked them was their passion for painting, their embrace of modernism and support for each other as women painters.
The Group met consistently for nearly twenty years, disbursing around the time that Dorothy moved away from Arcadia in 1972. By then several key members had died, and their need for support had somewhat changed. No records were kept since they were not interested in documentation. Primarily, they were following their own individual processes and work. It is safe to say, that a re-evaluation of no one member of The Group would change art history. These were good painters, not movers and shakers. They followed the current trends in the art world and were surprisingly up to date with their practice. At a time before Feminism became a rallying cry, it is quite moving that they were working together so closely, supporting each other with commitment, confidence and good humor for such a long time.
The Group members were Lillian Chapman, Ruth Codman, Katherine Skeele Dann, Sally Glenn, Helga Hansen, Herica Hartmetz, Lee Hill, Mary Jane Kieffer, Dorothy Browdy Kushner, Dorothy Lotts, Audrey Peterson, Ann Roberts, Betty Rodbard, Esther Staeyart, Miriam Stein, Mildred Townsend, Corrine West.