Few can claim that cleaning out grandma’s attic serves as a life altering experience. Even so, for Laguna Beach resident Lorraine Passero, rummaging through dusty mementos proved to be just that.
When she unearthed a long forgotten box filled with letters, poems and water color drawings by Clara Mason Fox, a distant relative by marriage, Passero realized she stumbled into a treasure as well as a kindred spirit.
“When I looked at watercolor paintings, sketch books filled with drawings, poems and many photographs, I felt an immediate connection to Clara. It was as if she was reaching out to me,” said Passero, a recently retired middle-school teacher transitioning into becoming an artist.
It so happens, that Clara, too, had been a school teacher in Silverado Canyon after graduating high school, a rare feat for women in the 1890s, and whose love for learning had propelled her into writing and drawing what she observed. The young woman is the great-great aunt of Passero’s husband, Laguna Beach sculptor Jon Seeman.
“The creative gene seems to run in my family; many were artistic and innovative like Clara Mason Fox,” wrote Seeman via email, adding that his own sculpture seems to perpetuate the legacy of relatives who put down roots in Laguna more than a century ago.
Born and raised in New York City, Passero learned that Mason Fox, at age 23, ventured solo across country by train to study art at New York’s Cooper Union in 1896 and stayed a year.
Passero, 62, a novice writer who had honed her writing skills journaling to assuage grief over her mother’s death, began to delve
into the minutiae of Mason Fox’s life. The resulting self-published biography adds another chapter to local history in, “Clara Mason Fox: Pioneer, Painter and Poet of Orange County, California.”
As part of her research to make sense of the new-found memorabilia, Passero discovered a sketchbook labeled “Arch Beach, August 1984” bearing Mason Fox’s signature. Its pages contain charming sketches of Laguna’s beach denizens testing the waters in the heavy woolen swim attire of the day, children frolicking, a likeness of the John E. Seeman house on what’s now Pearl Street and poems on beach life including plein-air painters whom she immortalized in a poem titled “Laguna Painters.”
Judging by Passero’s descriptions, save for the bathing attire and that a stage coach trip to the beach from Silverado Canyon took four hours and risked hold-ups by roving bandits, not too much has changed.
Mason Fox was the youngest of three children born to farming parents in Ohio in 1873. When the family moved to Silverado Canyon in 1897, Clara attended high school in Orange. Eventually, she and relatives also established lasting roots in Laguna Beach.
The house that contained the seminal memorabilia is a Craftsman style bungalow designed in 1925 by Mason Fox for her niece Marge and husband Ed Seeman, grandparents of Jon. Still located on Glenneyre Street, it remained in the family until 1991 when it was sold for roughly $100,000, said Passero.
Besides being an artist and amateur botanist, Mason Fox wrote poetry books, “A View of Life and Nature” and “In Pleasant Places,” and “A History of El Toro,” the town in which she had lived with her husband George Fox.
Passero writes for readers of all ages, sometimes weaving together vignettes of the life and times of Mason Fox with a few comparisons to present day New York and Laguna. For example: Even though Laguna abuts the ocean, it was quite a feat to obtain fresh water, with pumps spaced widely or a barrel selling for 50 cents. People spent evenings by candle or lantern light and indoor plumbing was non-existent.
As it turns out, Passero is not alone in acknowledging accomplishments by a visionary who not only fostered women’s education, but held out for marriage until age 33.
Paintings and illustrations by Mason Fox and early California painter Milford Zornes, among others, are part of a current wildflower heritage exhibit at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
“The show is more scientifically oriented than artistically but the works are fascinating. Some artists rendered plants more impressionistic and others, like Clare Mason Fox, more illustrative. Her renditions of poison oak are particularly fascinating in their beauty,” said James Folsom, a co-curator of the exhibit that runs March 9-June 10.
Mason Fox persevered despite frequent moves and a parental separation (nearly unheard of then), expressed herself through art and poetry, and left a legacy for women who came after her, said historian Janet Whitcomb, a docent at the Helena Modjeska Historic House and Garden in Santiago Canyon. “She was properly self-effacing but she was also gutsy in looking out for herself as well as her family,” she said.
The book should be available April 1 from the author, available at [email protected].