Movie House Mural Returns for a Museum Close-up

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Long-hidden and newly restored, the mural “Settlement,” a work by early Laguna Beach Impressionist Edgar Payne, takes a star turn as part of Laguna Art Museum’s current exhibition “California Mexicana: Missions to Murals, 1820-1930.”

The work is emblematic of the romanticized ambience of early California with its depiction of native flora and somber Franciscan monks overseeing indigenous villagers, cheerfully working in front of a sun-drenched Spanish-style mission.

“Settlement,” along with three “sibling” murals, represents a slice of Laguna Beach history as they were first installed in 1935 at what was then the New Lynn Theater and later the Laguna South Coast Cinema on Coast Highway. One has gone missing and has not been found, according to theater owner Leslie Blumberg in 2015 when the works were rediscovered, albeit in a sorry state.

A mural long hidden by curtains in the now-closed South Coast Cinema re-emerges for the Laguna Art Museum’s Pacific Standard Time exhibition. Photo courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.
A mural long hidden by curtains in the now-closed South Coast Cinema re-emerges for the Laguna Art Museum’s Pacific Standard Time exhibition. Photo courtesy of the Laguna Art Museum.

The work on display spent roughly a year at the Balboa Art Conservation Center being restored from the ravages of site remodeling and decades of neglect at the now-closed theater.

Laguna Art Museum executive director Malcolm Warner expressed his gratitude to Blumberg for the loan as well as the mural’s restoration. Experts “repaired damage, took off a lot of crude over-painting and cleaned the surface so the piece looks as good as it did when it was first installed,” he said.

At show’s end, “Settlement” will be returned to its owner, said historical art curator Janet Blake. “Discovery,” depicting Vasco Nuñez de Balboa’s 1513 discovery of the Pacific Ocean, is the other sibling mural, which had been stored by the museum in recent years. It, too, will be given to Blumberg as well, Blake said.

This and similar scenes might not bring Payne (1883-1947) to mind as the mountain and prairie-loving plein-air painter and co-founder of the Laguna Beach Art Association, predecessor to the Laguna Art Museum. Instead they reveal a lesser-known side as a self-taught “decorative” artist, who painted murals on commission to supplement his family income. Unlike Mexican muralists at the time, he did not paint murals directly onto a wall, but used large canvasses that were later stretched onto their intended locations. Altogether he created four panels on canvas and framed in stucco for the theater then owned by the Aufdenkamp family. The theater received fanfare at the time for its modernity, including steel and concrete construction, air-conditioning and its striking murals.

Though the murals did not garner scholarly attention, Payne did receive recognition for murals in Danville and Brazil, Ind., the Hotel St. Paul in Los Angeles and the American Theater in Chicago. The latter housed “Progress,” an enormous mural executed, among others, with help from his wife Elsie Palmer Payne, an accomplished figurative painter in her own right.

“For the most part, Payne murals were completely forgotten. He is best known for his paintings,” reminded Blake. She suggested that few of his contemporaries painted murals. Among them was Alson Clark, who received mural commissions in the ‘20s from the Pasadena Playhouse and another on California history for the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. The Circle Theater was torn down in 1969. Many other murals thus disappeared in similar fashion.

Payne was born in Missouri and criss-crossed the United States, Mexico, Canada and Europe. In 1909, he visited California for the first time and after marrying Elsie in 1912, the couple established a studio in Laguna Beach in 1918.

In 1952, Elsie created a bronze relief sculpture of her husband that is now held by the Laguna Art Museum.


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