Art through the ages
A local painting club that started in 1921 is still going strong
A century ago, Reno had around 12,000 residents, about 5 percent of its current population. But it did have an art scene.
“There were definitely people painting in Reno, and there had been for a long time,” said art appraiser Jack Bacon. He used to own Jack Bacon & Co, a gallery and framing shop on South Virginia Street, where the restaurant Feast is now.
In 1916, a landscape painter and teacher from San Francisco named Lorenzo Latimer showed up on the scene and made marks that last till this day.From the redwood forests …
Latimer was big in San Francisco in the 1890s, known especially for painting outdoors.
“As a painter constantly studying nature firsthand, Latimer demonstrated a versatility sometimes lacking in works by artists who painted mostly in their studios,” wrote Alfred C. Harrison Jr., in a 2005 monograph published by his North Point Gallery in Berkeley.
Latimer was also noted for his outlook on nature—a balance of reverence and familiarity that still defines much of California and Nevada landscape art—and his knack for accurately depicting redwood trees. By all accounts he was a well-liked teacher, and he often brought students outside to paint with him.
Eventually, his influence spread across the state line. In 1914 he forayed to a resort at Fallen Leaf Lake, near Lake Tahoe, which led to a regular practice of painting on location in the Sierras. In 1916, according to Harrison’s book, two budding painters from Reno, Dora Groesbeck and Nevada Wilson Reilly, persuaded him teach a class here.
“Almost every year for the rest of his life, Latimer would teach in Reno, usually in the early autumn,” Harrison wrote.
“It is entirely different, both very fine and a good change,” Latimer wrote to a friend about Nevada. He painted views of local landmarks such as Peavine Peak, rendering the complexity of sagebrush and desert peach with as much attention as he’d paid to the redwoods.
In 1921, his Reno students formed the Latimer Art Club.
“He would mail a painting to the club,” said Eileen Fuller, who joined in 2003 when she retired from banking and is now the club’s president. “They would have homework—to try to copy it.”
In 1931, the club joined a couple of other entities in an effort to start the Nevada Art Gallery, which would later become the Nevada Museum of Art. In the 1960s, the club and the museum parted ways. There are a few different versions of the story on record, but it’s clear that the club continued to value its traditional approach to painting, and the museum wanted to become more cosmopolitan.
Fuller put it this way: “I think in the ’60s there was a big fallout between the museum and the club. They didn’t want the local yokels running the [place] anymore.”
Today, club members still largely produce traditional landscape paintings—but not exclusively.
“We encourage all forms of painting,” said Fuller. Members work in watercolor, oil, acrylic or pen and ink. Some use a Bob Ross type of abstraction. Others draw on influences from mid-century Californians, borrowing, say, the hazy abstract expressionism of Richard Diebenkorn or the pop realism of Wayne Thiebaud. Throughout the years, the biggest influence on club members’ work has been Latimer himself.
“You can really tell the influence of Latimer when you look at the paintings of the students,” said Bacon, who is working on a book about the painter and his protégées. “Once you know it, you can recognize them a mile away.”Lasting influence
One modern-day club member whose compositions, color palette and high-desert foliage still bear Latimer’s influence is “Lady” Jill Mueller. A club member for at least a decade and a full-time painter for 40 years, she lives in Washoe Valley with a border collie, two horses, a view of Mount Rose, and a good story about how she got her nickname.
“It started back in the ’70s, when I was down in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area somewhere and was talking with a gallery owner,” Mueller said. “He said I needed to sign my name ’J Mueller.’” The implication was that paintings signed with a woman’s name would not be taken seriously in the market. Not only did Mueller disagree, she’d recently read in Ms. Magazine about Lady Jane Digby, a 19th-century British aristocrat. Digby’s lovers included two kings and a president, and she was, gasp, divorced—unthinkable in her time.
“She was out of the box in an era when women didn’t get out of the box,” said Mueller. “I went, ’Wow, I’m impressed.’ … It’s been Lady Jill ever since.”
Mueller described what it’s like to be in the club.
“I think it’s a nice venue for growth, for camaraderie among artists,” she said. “The people, we all care about each other. It’s not ’My work is better than yours’ or ’I’m selling more than you.’ It’s got a different camaraderie to it.”
While some arts groups value inclusion and others prioritize mastery, the Latimer club has struck a balance between the two. Members need to be voted in, and they find encouragement once they join.
“If someone’s work is too immature, we might vote them in as an associate member,” Fuller explained. In that case, a new member would hold off on participating in exhibits, but they’d be welcome at painting sessions and expected to polish their craft. Fuller said she only remembers that happening once in her tenure, though.
Several of the club members exhibit their work together a few times a year. Right now, the group has a few dozen pieces on display at the Sparks Heritage Museum.
The artists occasionally gather with their supplies at Galena Creek, Hidden Valley, Bowers Mansion or other outdoor spots to paint together.
“After we spend the morning painting, we’ll have a critique of what we’ve done so far, with a sack-lunch picnic kind of thing,” said Fuller.
The club also puts some efforts into professional development, that of both the University of Nevada, Reno art students to whom they provide scholarships and the members themselves.
“We’ve had art experts come in, retired teachers,” said Fuller. Examples include Ron Arthaud, a celebrated landscape painter from Tuscarora, and Howard Rosenberg, a University of Nevada, Reno professor who’s not known for being soft on students.
“We brought in paintings for him to critique,” said Fuller. “That was pretty fun. You have to have pretty thick skin. Sometimes you have to be pretty open-minded. It’s a learning process.”A long legacy
“Obviously we don’t have any original members,” said Fuller, of the 97-year-old club. There are about 60 altogether. Around half of those meet on a regular basis. The longest-standing member is Maxine Cook, who’s 99. (“She doesn’t attend meetings because she isn’t in good health,” said Fuller, “but she can still paint.”)
Paintings by Latimer and his first generation of students can be found in several archives, including those at the NMA, UNR and Brewery Arts Center in Carson City. The club owns some as well, and the work has enjoyed some recognition and exposure lately.
“A lot of Latimer paintings are highly collectible,” said Fuller. “So are his students’.” They’re listed on several art auction sites.
A selection of Latimer’s landscapes was featured in the 2015 NMA exhibit, Tahoe: A Visual History, and Harrison, the scholar and gallerist from the Bay Area, came to town to give a related lecture.
As the club approaches its first century, one thing its members hope for is to return full circle to the embrace of the museum.
“Probably about 15 years ago, the club did an exhibit at the NMA,” said Fuller. “We’d like to do that again when we turn 100.”