Ousted for a few days by the landslide and evacuation of the Bluebird Canyon area, Pam Hagen met her neighbor, Al Trevino, at a quickly organized Bluebird Park breakfast.
Having narrowly escaped a landslide in 1978, now the Madison Place home Travino built with his own hands and where he and his wife raised 11 children, hangs precariously over an edge.
Hagen and her husband, David, volunteered to help Travino and his youngest son scavenge what they could of the family treasures in 30 minutes.
It was a fateful occasion for Trevino, 74, a master planner who served stints as an assistant cabinet secretary for Presidents Nixon and Bush. His neighbors helped fill trashcans fitted with rollers and rolling them down the street for unloading. The Hagens also took to their home for safekeeping a Trevino family portrait and another painting of a mission.
It didn’t take long for Pam Hagen, an amateur painter, to make a guess that the 33 by 42 mission painting was by one of the most sought-after California Impressionists.
Sometimes it takes a landslide to unearth hidden treasure.
As Hagen studied the painting and its signature in her living room, both seemed familiar. It was more than just her recognition of the subject, the Mission San Juan Capistrano, where Hagen, her daughter and granddaughter had been baptized.
She confirmed her suspicion on the Internet that the painting was likely by Joseph Kleitsch. “I knew his name from my own stuff,” said Hagen, who made copies of works by some plein air artists to try to replicate their technique.
She called Travino and asked about the painting. “I recall having large white
walls and looking for a suitable painting,” he said. “Others weren’t attracted to it because of its size.” It hung beside the piano in his home for 20 years. It was left on the floor only recently, removed to allow the wall to serve as a projection screen in April for a 50th anniversary party.
“He couldn’t believe it was valuable,” Hagen said. “I was thrilled my guess was correct.”
She consulted Ray Redfern, an expert in historical plein air paintings. He confirmed the painting’s authenticity, estimating collectors would pay as much as $500,000 for the work today. “I uncover them all the time,” said Redfern. Impressionists’ popularity was eclipsed by the rise of modernists, and only in the last two decades returned to favor.
Redfern said the painting is “Evening Shadows,” an original work painted in 1923 and sold in an estate sale by Kleitsch’s heirs.
Kleitsch moved to Laguna Beach in 1920. His best known pictures are of the town’s ramshackle structures, humanized in both their scale and homely appearance, says “Masters of Light: Plein-air Painting in California 1890-1930,” published in 2002.
Besides serving as a hidden treasure, the painting also holds a mystery. In the foreground is a statue of Father Serra and an Indian child, which is presently installed at the mission, but not in the location painted.
“It’s the first one I’ve ever seen with the statue in that location,” Redfern said. “I can’t see him moving anything for artistic license. Chances are it was where he painted it.”
The painting now sits in the Laguna Art Museum for safe-keeping, the same institution that Joseph Kleitsch (American. 1885-1931) helped to found in 1918. It needs $1,500 worth of restoration work. “It has never been cleaned and will change dramatically,” Redfern said.
He is donating his services to assist the family in selling the artwork, the proceeds of which will help in their efforts to rebuild their home.