original to The Matt Gonzalez Reader, May 29, 2019
Mel Hanson, Self-portrait, gouache on paper, 25 x 30.5 inches, 1962. Collection of Julie Wilkey Bechtel.
Mel Hanson & The Firehaus Group
By Matt Gonzalez
The story of a group of painters, known as the Firehaus Group, who worked together in Stockton, California between 1958 and 1962.
Mel Hanson died in the early 1960s, at the age of 24. His reputation as a notable post-WWII California artist has persisted due to the strength of the art he left behind, which consists of an estimated three hundred paintings, drawings, and assemblage artworks. These demonstrate an adherence to the experimentation of the era, an early use of Pop elements, and thickly-painted compositions. A native of Stockton, Hanson exhibited in two of the premiere San Francisco’s avant-garde galleries of the 1950s and 60s. He died tragically on Saturday, December 1, 1962, after being struck by an automobile while crossing an intersection.
Hanson is primarily known for his association with a circle of painters who worked together in Stockton, California and were known as the Firehaus Group. In the late 1950s, while a student at the College of the Pacific, Hanson began painting with Jack Farley, Jim Muhs, William Snyder, and Terry St. John. Bill Snyder recalled that the group met through a local frame shop they all used. “The guy who ran it, he knew us and mentioned each of us to the others. Of course, Stockton wasn’t very big and there weren’t too many of us around, so it seemed natural that we’d all meet up eventually.” [fn1] In 1958, when some of the members first met, Hanson was 20 years old; St. John 24; Farley and Muhs were both 27; and Snyder 32.
Mel Hanson, Self-portrait with Frankie Dewey’s Red Wig, fabric and felt collage on wood panel, 17.75 x 13 inches, 1961. Collection of Cedric Wentworth; formerly in the collection of Jose Ramon Lerma, Oakland. [fn2]
For about a six month period in 1958, the group rented an abandoned fire station in East Stockton, which spawned their artist group’s name. According to Jack Farley, he met Mel Hanson in a Western philosophy class at College of the Pacific, and they became friends. “When he learned I was painting, Mel showed me some drawings. I saw he had talent and I encouraged him.” Farley arranged for the two to use the fire house as an art studio, but they “started camping there.” Others joined them; specifically, he remembers Jim Muhs working on a large sculpture at the fire house, and Snyder started hanging around as well, although he didn’t stay with them. Terry St. John also visited the fire station studio to have a look at what was happening there. At a party in Oakland, Farley had told him the “streets of Stockton are paved with gold.” Fresh out of UC Berkeley, it was enough to lure St. John to join the Firehaus. [fn3]
This is very likely the fire station the group used in 1958. Located in East Stockton, it was removed from service two years before in 1956. Known as Engine House No. 3 on N. Pilgrim Street, it gave the group ample room to make art and camp there. [fn4]
Additional photos of Engine House No. 3, located at 19 N. Pilgrim Street, between E. Webster Avenue & E. Main Street.
Vintage map of Stockton, California showing major streets. The original fire station used by the Firehaus painters is in the area of Main Street (in the middle, right area of the map) and Wilson Way (which is just three blocks east of Pilgrim Street and depicted as a vertical red line that ultimately veers right towards Sacramento).
Farley recalled that he initially had city permission to use the fire station but with the passage of over 50 years he doesn’t recall how the arrangements were made. He says the band of painters were asked to leave once it was apparent they couldn’t be counted on to pay rent and had taken liberties with living in the space. As a result, the group later moved to more conventional settings. St. John recalls they first rented a house, which had water supplied via a sulphuric well, and thereafter settled on a single story house, with a regular water main system, which the group inhabited until 1962. [fn5]
St. John started living with the group once they moved into their first house. Muhs also lived with them, but at some point headed back to Los Angeles where he had previously studied at the Otis Art Institute. Snyder lived with his wife and kids in an apartment complex nearby. Other than the aforementioned artists, Farley lived at the fire station and later houses with his wife Joyce and their three children (born in 1957, 1959, and 1960).
Jim Muhs (in the foreground) and Jack Farley (in the background) working in the original fire station the group used in 1958. Photographer unknown (most likely Mel Hanson), courtesy of Johannah Muhs.
Terry St. John, Joyce [Farley] Smoking, oil on masonite, 9 x 7.5 inches, 1961. Private collection, San Francisco; and Terry St. John, Portrait of Joyce [Farley], pen and ink on paper, 10.5 x 9 inches, 1961. Private collection, San Francisco; formerly in the collection of Louis Siegriest, Oakland. [fn6]
In St. John’s remembrances of the Firehaus, the group included a couple of other members or close associates that Snyder didn’t include when interviewed in the mid-1990s. St. John states that:
“The six core members of the Firehaus Group were: Jack Farley, Terry St. John, Jim Muhs, Mel Hansen, Peter Rodriguez, and Bill Snyder. Except for Peter and Bill, we lived communally in a Stockton house and paid, with the exception of Farley, $70 per month. Most of that was gone in the first week after pizza and beer while watching [Erich] von Stroheim movies. Jack’s aunt [Agnes Farley] bankrolled much of the overhead as she loved Jack’s three children and she made sure there was food and board after much grumbling. Julio Ramos was an associate who lived in Daly City and would come down periodically for several days.”
St. John recalls that Ramos typically slept on a couch at the communal house. He met Ramos though his high school friend Henry Brandon, who was a student of Richard Diebenkorn, at CCAC in the late 1950s. Jack Farley, who also studied with Diebenkorn at CCAC, agrees that Julio Ramos, another CCAC alumnus and good friend, was definitely connected to the group. He confirms that the good-natured Ramos made himself at home in the collective house, slept on the couch whenever he was in town, and painted with them in their studio.
Julio Ramos, with Henry Brandon in the background, visiting Terry St. John in Berkeley, 1978.
However, Farley doesn’t put Peter Rodriguez, who he also considered a close friend, in the group. Rodriguez definitely “hung around a lot but he was painting in a different style. He was influenced by [the Mexican painter Rufino] Tamayo” whereas the Firehaus painters were working in a contemporary manner that was starting to emerge. Farley also remembers that Rodriguez was “a Stockton hot shot” since he had already had exhibitions of his work. Farley recalled that a couple of Rodriguez’s paintings hung in the home shared by the Firehaus painters, along with the work by the others, but he didn’t remember Rodriguez ever painting with the group.
In contrast to Farley’s recollections, St. John stands by his inclusion of Rodriguez, “Peter was proud to be in the group.” Notably, in a 1991 exhibition catalog of landscape paintings at the Contemporary Realist Gallery in San Francisco, the biographical note for St. John states: “In the early 1960s, St. John worked with Stockton painters Bill Snyder, Mel Hansen [sic], Jack Farley and Peter Rodriguez, who called themselves the Firehouse Group.” [fn7]
Julio Ramos, Still Life, oil on canvas, 14 x 15.5 inches, 1960. Private collection, San Francisco; formerly in the collection of Terry St. John.
Julio Ramos, Untitled (possibly an Ocean Beach bluff scene), oil on canvas, 13 x 15.5 inches, 1962. Private collection, San Francisco; formerly in the collection of Terry St. John.
Two paintings by Julio Ramos, circa early 1960s.
The key members and associates of the Firehaus Group included:
Jack Farley (1931-2021) was born in Stockton of Spanish-Portuguese ancestry on his mother’s side. He graduated from Stockton High School in 1949, where he excelled in athletics, particularly basketball. He attended Modesto Junior College for a year, California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) (now the California College of the Arts) in Oakland for two years, and later served in the Army in the Korean War. When he returned to Stockton he took art classes at the College of the Pacific (now University of the Pacific). After the Firehaus days he moved to Southern California where he had success working as a designer and artist for movie and television studios in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, Farley lived in Poulsbo, WA, northwest of Seattle. [fn8]
Melvin Charles Hanson (1938-1962) was born in Stockton, July 19, 1938. He was a graduate of George Washington High School in San Francisco and obtained an B.A. from the College of the Pacific in Stockton, in philosophy, in 1960. Hanson was active with the Firehaus Group throughout its duration and exhibited in every Firehaus exhibition. He died on December 1, 1962, one day after being struck by an automobile, while crossing a street in Stockton. [fn9]
James Charles Muhs (1931-2014) was born in Los Angeles and attended Otis Art Institute (now Otis College of Art and Design). After his Firehaus days, he went back to Southern California. By the early 1990s he was teaching at Southern Oregon State College (now Southern Oregon University) in Ashland. He later returned to Southern California. [fn10]
Julio Aurelio Ramos Lopez (1936-2009) was born in Caracas, Venezuela. He received a B.F.A. from CCAC in 1959 and is known to have had James Weeks as a painting instructor. In the early 1960s he attended the San Francisco Art Institute for a year. He moved to Hamburg, Germany in 1963 to join his father, a noted writer who was the Counsel there. Ramos became an apprentice diplomat but abandoned the service because of political turmoil. He thereafter returned to San Francisco. In 1965 he participated in a group exhibition with Terry St. John and Henry Brandon at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery in San Francisco and was also included in a group show at the Oakland Museum in the early 1970s. Ramos received an M.F.A. at Lone Mountain College in 1970. He later moved to the Canary Islands. [fn11]
Peter Rodriguez (1926-2016) was one of fourteen children born of Mexican parents in Stockton. He received early recognition for figurative work, exhibiting at the Haggin Museum in Stockton in 1954 when he was 28. The exhibition was the reward for winning a local art prize. He was primarily an abstract painter during the Firehaus days. In addition to working in advertising and fashion, he travelled throughout Mexico and help found both Galeria de la Raza and the Mexican Museum in San Francisco. He returned to the Haggin Museum for a retrospective exhibition in 1992. [fn12]
Terry St. John (1934-2021) was born in Sacramento. He obtained a B.A. from UC Berkeley in 1958; studied at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) in 1960; and obtained an M.F.A. from the CCAC in Oakland in 1966. From 1969-90 he was a curator of painting at the Oakland Museum of California. From 1990-98 he taught in the art department at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. St. John had a robust career as a painter exhibiting with Hackett-Freedman Gallery and Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco the last decades of his life. He died in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he had been living for many years, on March 13, 2021. [fn13]
William Snyder (1926-2000) was born in San Francisco. He attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in 1942-43. He obtained both a B.A. and M.A. from San Francisco State College in 1954 and 1957; and studied at Stanford University in 1961-63 (where he also taught drawing). Snyder worked as an art instructor in the Stockton Public Schools from 1955-61 and taught in the art department at Laney College in Oakland from 1964-84. In 1994, he was a recipient of a Pollack/Krasner Foundation grant. [fn14]
Mel Hanson, Untitled (Dog walker), mixed media and collage on cardboard, 18 x 15 inches, c. 1960. Private collection, San Francisco; formerly in the collection of Dennis Calabi, Santa Rosa; and Jose Ramon Lerma, Oakland.
Mel Hanson, Untitled (Dog walker), mixed media and collage on cardboard, 18 x 15 inches, c. 1960. Private collection, San Francisco; formerly in the collection of Dennis Calabi, Santa Rosa; and Jose Ramon Lerma, Oakland.
The house the Firehaus Group shared was about ten blocks from an abandoned corner grocery store the group rented to use as their collective art studio. The store, located at E. Ellis Street and N. San Joaquin Street, was the original market in what would become a chain of grocery stores in Stockton. It was abandoned as a commercial store when the owners opened a larger store a few blocks away on El Dorado Street.
Location (empty lot) of the original Segarini’s Market the Firehaus Group used as a studio. The market was torn down, pursuant to a Stockton city ordinance, to provide parking for tenants. [fn15]
Segarini’s Market was owned by Victor Segarini and his younger brothers who had grown up in the area. Vic excelled at high school basketball, as had Farley; and they had known “one another since grammar school” and various sports activities. According to St. John, Segarini seemed to relish the idea of renting out the space to a group of rowdy artists and liked that it would probably cause the local police some headaches. St. John remembers “everybody chipped in to pay rent.” Farley recalls they “hardly paid [Vic] any rent.”
When they first occupied the store “it was empty with cobwebs.” But after “a little white washing, we were all set.” As for a description of the space St. John remembers “it was definitely open, no stalls, just walls and a few counters.”
Bob Segarini, the son of John Segarini, one of the owners, who lived in an adjacent house remembers “A group of artists did rent that little building from my dad. I can remember seeing canvases and other detritus in there when I was 13 years old … 1958.”
Terry St. John, Mother, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches, 1960. Collection of Noel St. John.
Terry St. John, Turpentine, oil on canvas, 10.25 x 9.25, 1961. Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery.
St. John describes the supplies used by the group:
“The materials for most of us included Fuller Color in Oil. It came in quarts and gallons and was normally used to tint house paints, as they were pure color. They were very inexpensive, five dollars for a gallon of red. House painters’ brushes helped to cover canvases rapidly and large tubes of oil paint with artist bristle brushes were used for the more detailed parts of the painting. Large sticks of charcoal, black inks, colored pencils, carpenters pencils, large spatulas, and other materials and implements if needed were also employed.”
The group was eager to learn from past artists. “All of us liked a wide variety of artist books that we got from the library or occasionally purchases. Ensor, Goya, Max Beckmann, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Picasso, David Park, and art periodicals.”
St. John recalls a number of visitors stopping by to see what was happening at Segarini’s. He remembers Peter Rodriguez bringing a young Rupert Garcia to the studio. Garcia was from French Camp, just south of Stockton, and would emerge as an important Chicano graphic artist in the late 1960s and 70s. St. John also recalls San Francisco artists Manuel Neri (painter and sculptor) and Alvin Light (sculptor), who were both associated with the San Francisco Art Institute, dropping in. The artists drank beer, threw darts, and talked about the latest news in the art scene. Predictably, the police stopped by to see what kind of trouble the artists were getting into, just as Vic Segarini had suspected they would. Regardless, these artist visits were important and helped to connect the young Central Valley artists with the exciting San Francisco art scene.
Segarini’s Market would become the place in which the seminal work of the Firehaus Group was made. It’s importance to the circle of artists cannot be overstated, as St. John recalls “Segarini’s is the real deal. That is the Firehouse.”
Assemblage work: Icon to Nyla Marie by Mel Hanson and Sexagon by William Snyder, reproduced from Sculpture from Junk by Henry Rasmusen and Art Grant (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., 1967). [fn16]
THE SPATSA GALLERY & GREEN GALLERY
Farley studied at CCAC in Oakland, so he was aware of the emerging art gallery scene in San Francisco. In a phone conversation from his home in San Mateo, Dimitri Grachis, now aged 87, who ran the Spatsa Gallery in San Francisco in the late 50s, asked: “You wanted to know about those boys in Stockton? They called themselves the Firehaus Group.” [fn17] Grachis continued: “I got a hold of them from someone. Jose Lerma may have mentioned them to me. All I remember about the guys is that they walked into the gallery and wanted to do a show. I knew them casually, they would come into the gallery sometimes.”
Farley remembers that he was introduced to Grachis by artist Manuel Neri who knew Grachis from the art scene. Grachis “agreed to do a show to help me out” says Farley.
Dimitri Grachis at the Spatsa Gallery, 2192 Filbert Street, San Francisco, c. 1959.
Announcement for the first Firehaus Group show at the Spatsa Gallery, in 1960. Taken from The Beat Generation Galleries & Beyond (Davis: John Natsoulas Press, 1996).
On November 19, 1960, Jack Farloux (a pseudonym Farley used), Mel Hanson, and Bill Snyder made their San Francisco debut at the Spatsa Gallery on Filbert Street, in a show that included “Paintings and Constructions.” The three painters identified themselves as the “Firehaus Group” from Stockton, California. Snyder recalled that Muhs and St. John were not included because they had just graduated and didn’t have enough work to exhibit. The Spatsa show placed the Stockton group on the artistic map. Artists such as Bruce Conner and Joan Brown, who regularly frequented the gallery, likely saw the show. There couldn’t have been a better place to be seen by this young group of artists. As Conner said “The Spatsa was virtually the epitome of everything that was going on in the ‘50s and ‘60s for us.” [fn18]
After the Spatsa Gallery show, the Firehaus group was invited to show at Ellen Kernaghan’s Green Gallery one block away from the Spatsa on Fillmore Street. Grachis remembers seeing the show the following year “I saw the show at the Green Gallery that Ellen Kernaghan put on. It was very interesting. One painting I remember made you feel as if you were sitting in the trenches of the Second World War.” The painting Grachis recalls is likely one by Bill Snyder whose “paintings of the late 1960s [according to Thomas Albright] dealt with figures associated with World War I and the 1920s.”
Farley recalls that the Green Gallery show took place “a couple of years after the Spatsa show” and only included Mel Hanson and himself. Bill Snyder also went on to show at the new gallery, between 1961-66, but records of exhibitions at the Green Gallery are not readily available to confirm these recollections. [fn19]
Photograph of Ellen Kernaghan by Imogen Cunningham, c. 1966. Kernaghan opened the Green Gallery in 1960 and operated the space during the next several year when members of the Firehaus Group exhibited there. She presented three consecutive posthumous shows of Hanson’s work in 1964.
In a review of Hanson’s posthumous exhibition at the Green Gallery, art critic Alexander Fried noted that “[Hanson’s] assemblages bring together everything from swathed rags to tin cans.” Fried recounts that one of the assemblage’s, titled “Fertility Symbol,” which depicted a seated macabre figure “is so startlingly vivid that it set the neighbors into a burst of protest when it was visible in a show window.” [fn20] Unfortunately, Fried doesn’t go on to tell us how the neighbors’ protest was manifested.
Mel Hanson, Untitled (Toys and Birdcage), mixed media and found object sculpture, 59h x 16w x 16d inches, c. 1961. Collection of Bob Marshall, San Francisco; formerly in the collection of Ellen Kernaghan of the Green Gallery, San Francisco.
Biographical information about Mel Hanson is scarce. He graduated from George Washington High School, a public school in the Richmond District of San Francisco, in the Spring of 1955. His graduation yearbook professes his interest in painting, coins, and stamps. Just prior to graduating, Hanson won a poster art competition hosted by the San Francisco Advertising Club. First prize was $75.00.
Hanson, Mel. Reg. Sec., Eagle Sales, Rally Chrmn., S.S.P.C., Celts, Painting, Coins, Stamps, Art School. Credit: 1955 Surveyor yearbook via GWHS Alumni Association. [fn21]
“Mel Hanson, grandson of Mrs. Lucretia K. Hanson of Mill Valley, was the winner of the $75.00 first award in the San Francisco Advertising Club’s annual poster art competition. Mel is a senior at George Washington high school. He is the son of Dr. Karl H. Hanson.” WINS AWARD, Mill Valley Record, May 12, 1955, page 8.
“First prize in poster art on the subject of “Western Crossroad” went to Mel Hanson of George Washington High School.” S.F. Ad Club Awards, The San Francisco Examiner, May 1, 1955, page 47. (Hanson pictured second from Left.)
Two early watercolor or gouache paintings made by Hanson, including one dated 1953 when he was 15 years old (possibly depicting jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong & his band and the second portraying Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge cabaret). Collection of Shirley Austin, Glen Ellen, CA.
University of the Pacific has confirmed that Hanson graduated with a B.A. in philosophy in 1960 and that according to his transcript, he had some transfer credits from City College of San Francisco and San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University).
Hanson’s father, Dr. Karl Hanson was a psychiatrist working in San Francisco who taught psychiatry and was associated with Langley Porter Clinic. Dr. Hanson grew up in Mill Valley and was a graduate of College of the Pacific which may explain why the younger Hanson attended. [fn22] His mother, Margaret Jessup Hanson, who was born in Martinez, was a progressive activist in the Bay Area, connected to the First Unitarian Church and a member of the Interfaith Peace Committee in San Francisco. She was an early supporter of racial equality and gay rights and also worked in support of the farm labor movement. It is likely Mel Hanson was raised in a very progressive household. [fn23]
Photographs of Mel Hanson at a park in Stockton, California with his friends William and Judy Wilkey (and their son), dated July 1962. William Wilkey, a school teacher (K-12), and Judith Parker Wilkey, a nurse (RN), lived in Stockton in the early 1960s. Photos courtesy of Julie Wilkey Bechtel.
Even with the passage of so many years St. John does recall some anecdotal personal details. “I was his roommate for about a year at our commune. He would eat little dried fish from Chinatown. He was heartbroken from a girlfriend throwing him over.” According to St. John, Hanson worked for the Salvation Army during part of his Firehaus days. This has been confirmed by a search of the Stockton City Directory for 1962 which list “Hanson, Melvin driver Salvation Army h 940 N. Center.”
Importantly, Hanson appears to be the source of the Firehaus Group’s use of the word japonica. According to St. John, the word was used by the group as a sort of rallying cry; part secret handshake, part expression of exuberance. It originated from Hanson successfully passing a particularly challenging botany class thus ensuring he would graduate with a B.A. degree. Hanson’s younger sister, Gayle, recalls hearing the story from her mother, “He apparently yelled, “Japonica, japonica,” when he knew he had passed [his botany] class and could graduate.” Styphnolobium japonicum is a Japanese pagoda tree, also known as Sophora japonica so it is likely that Japonica was a term Hanson committed to memory in preparation for his exam.[fn24]
Mel Hanson, Self-portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, oil on canvas, 26 x 20 inches, 1961. Private collection, Southern California.
Photo showing the reverse of the painting (above) with the exact date 10/3/61; and, what appears to be a preparatory drawing dated a week earlier 9/26/61.
In St. John’s opinion: “Mel Hanson was the best artist in the Firehouse Group and could really draw. The drawings I like best are the pencil drawings heavily worked. I saw some of them while he was doing them.”
Jack Farley remembers that Hanson “was an experimental kid. He was willing to try out new things. He had an open mind.” This is manifested in the constructions and assemblage work he did. St. John concurs: “Hanson did assemblage/sculptures that were masterpieces. St. Sebastian riddled with arrows and flowing blood.” Farley lavishes praise on Hanson saying “he was very talented, and was really good with assemblages.” “He made really good paintings,” and simply, “he was a good kid.”
Mel Hanson, Self-portrait, graphite on paper, 20 x 24 inches, 1961. Collection of Matt Gonzalez (formerly in the collection of Terry St. John; Cliff Gustafson; and William Snyder). [fn25]
Mel Hanson, [untitled], gouache on paper, 30 x 22 inches, c. 1961. Collection of Matt Gonzalez.
Mel Hanson, various artworks from 1959-62. Private collection, Southern California.
JACK FARLEY & THE HORSE’S MOUTH
Terry St. John remembers that Jack Farley “had a million friends” including poets and dramatists who stopped by the Firehaus studio to discuss art, performances, Bertolt Brecht, and German Expressionism. He “always acted as if he owned Stockton.” St. John is quick to say “Farley possessed many attractive qualities. He was a very dynamic, intuitive, gregarious, magnetic, and gifted artist” as well as a “very good painter”. Yet St. John also recalls his outrageousness. “He made money by copying modern masters and signing them Farloux. In a pizza parlor, that was frequented by the literati, a customer wanted him to sign the painting Bonnard [after the French Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard]. Farley had a short temper when drinking [and] emptied the pitcher of beer over his head.”
Jack Farley, Untitled, oil on canvas, 8 x 5 feet, c. 1959. Private collection, Southern California.
Jack Farley (Farloux), Untitled, oil on canvas, 55 x 45 inches, c. 1960. Private collection, Southern California.
Jack Farley (Farloux), Landscape (Delta Park), oil on canvas, 12.5 x 12.5 inches, 1959. Collection of Terry St. John; formerly in the collection of Julio Ramos. Photograph by Boontawee He; Jack Farley’s signature, Farloux, on the reverse of the Delta Park painting.
It was the outgoing Farley who led the loose-knit band of artists and named them the Firehaus Group. He was a devotee of Joyce Cary’s 1944 book The Horse’s Mouth and insisted that all the members of the Firehaus read the book. According to St. John, Farley believed Joyce Cary’s book was about “the way [an] artist should act,” noting that the main character:
“Jimson [a painter] has put aside any consideration of acceptance by either academy or public and paints in fits of creative ecstasy. Although his work is known to collectors and has become valuable, Jimson himself is forced to live from one scam or petty theft to the next. Cadging enough money to buy paints and supplies, he spends much of the novel seeking surfaces, such as walls, to serve as ground for his paintings.” [fn26]
Cover of Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth (London: Michael Joseph, 1944).
St. John describes some of the Firehaus Group’s antics:
“Farley was pretty loose with rules and regulations. As long as you read The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Carey and pulled a few capers with him you were in. That included spray painting the side of the Haggin Museum with the password japonica and running like hell.” [fn27]
While “Farley resented the Haggin Museum, which repelled his overtures,” St. John specifically remembers that “[Peter Rodriguez] was a mature adult. He quite wisely would not spray [paint] the side of the museum.” The refusal is even more understandable as Rodriguez had won a local art prize and been rewarded with a solo exhibition of figurative work, at the Haggin in 1954, when he was 28 years old. It is worth noting that in the 1950s, regional museums often served as gallery spaces which hosted exhibitions of local talent.
Peter Rodriguez in Stockton, early 1950s. Photo by Richard Yoshikawa; Peter Rodriguez with his sister-in-law in North Beach, San Francisco, late 1950s. Photo by Raul Rodriguez.
Peter Rodriguez, Dia Negro [Black Day], oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, 1960.
St. John recalls more:
“The capers also included raiding the Art Department at COP for tempera. Farley went there so he knew the hours when the studios would be empty. Farley had a beat up old sedan with doors that flopped opened when moving. We each grabbed as many tempera bottles as we could. We raced to his car and threw the loot in and sped off as fast as his car would go holding on to doors that were flopping open.”
Jack, Carson, and Joyce Farley, 1958 or ’59.
Joyce Farley, date unknown. Large painting in background by Jack Farley.
The Firehaus Group struggled to make ends meet. St. John recalls that “Farley worked periodically as a cab driver.” And that Farley’s “old Auntie who terrorized us would see that we didn’t starve as Farley’s three kids lived with us along with Joyce his wife.” Whenever possible the group ate communally as a family which saved money. “I worked briefly in a cannery,” says St. John “then realized I could collect unemployment which allowed me to buy mounds of paint.” Farley characterizes it simply “I just got by.” In addition to driving a cab, Farley took a job teaching an adult art class in Lodi, north of Stockton.
St. John remembers the Farley children fondly, and recalls that they were called by various playful nicknames, no doubt due to tantrums and the like: “The children fit in fine, all of us Musketeers. Malcolm Malcontent, Larry Loudmouth, Minnie Mouse, and the cat Harvey Delbert, an erstwhile movie star.”
St. John recalls that at one of the Stockton exhibitions the group put on at Segarini’s:
“We had about one big blowout exhibition a year with many of Farley’s friends invited as well as stragglers. There was booze, music and entertainment. Billy Watson, a friend of [Bill] Snyder’s got in a fight with a defrocked Episcopalian priest who tried to hit on Billy. Farley topped the evening off, ending the show, by finding the toughest guy at the gathering who was a judo expert. He mopped up the floor with Farley who was thrown repeatedly over his shoulder to the floor. The cops came at about that time, with most of us going to the Stockton jail and released a few hours later. Farley was in good shape after the thrashing.”
Terry St. John, Mother and Father, oil on canvas, 70 x 56 inches, 1960. Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery.
Photograph of Terry St. John in his Regent Street apartment, Berkeley, 1962; Photograph of Terry St. John in front of his painting Mother and Father in his Oakland studio, 2015; Terry St. John, Clock, Ashtray, oil on cardboard, 16 x 21 inches, 1962. Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery.
Despite all the drama, St. John credits Farley with supporting his work and encouraging experimentation. Speaking of a large painting of the period, Mother and Father, which St. John considers his best of that time, he warmly recalls their friendship. Farley pulled up in a cab with a bunch of paints: “I love this painting [Mother and Father]. I love Fuller in Oil. I owe this to Farley. One afternoon he pulled up his cab to the studio. Unloaded vast amounts of Fuller Color in Oil. Twenty minutes later it was all on the canvas, his whole paycheck.” As St. John recalls “Farley was breaking down my resistance to experiment, as he was all experiment.”
St. John’s reminiscences highlight how a group of painters working in close proximity influence one another: “I did as Farley did. I applied mounds of paint onto canvases stapled to the wall with images from dreams, imagination, and my interpretation of a [Nikolai] Gogol short story.” The latter Gogol reference is to St. John’s painting Mother and Father.
Various artworks by Mel Hanson from the collection of David Keaton.
TERRY ST. JOHN & SENSEI
In one of the more amusing stories of the Firehaus Group, St. John recalls his Zen apprenticeship in Stockton.
In order to receive unemployment benefits after being laid off at the cannery, St. John had to meet certain criteria. The State Department of Employment required applicants to demonstrate a willingness to work. One way to do this was to work with approved employers who were looking for part time help. The employer would certify that the applicant was indeed making an effort to work and/or to receive training toward gainful employment.
St. John was directed by the unemployment office to a Stockton man who was apparently a Zen priest. He went by the name “Sensei”, which is an honorific term denoting teacher in Japanese Buddhism. St. John would later learn Sensei’s real name was McDonough and that he was of Irish descent. Sensei managed to impress the young St. John as an authentic practitioner of Zen and had a business proposition for him. He wanted St. John to help him “collect huge boulders from the surrounding hills around Stockton to create Japanese Zen gardens. St. John thought it would be a “terrific and interesting job making tea gardens and learning something about Zen.” Other than painting St. John didn’t have much going on, and he needed an employer who would attest to his job hunting efforts, so he agreed.
An authentic, late 15th century Zen garden in Kyoto, Japan.
On their first outing Sensei drove St. John into the nearby foothills in his MG motor car. The intention was “to get big rocks” but instead St. John recalls “we drank some beers and did not get rocks.” It was unclear how they planned to transport the boulders in Sensei’s British sports car, but St. John went along as Sensei imparted Zen wisdom. Some lesson was indeed taught as St. John says “I felt a little strange about not getting what we set out to get.”
The second day of work was similar “as nothing in the way of work transpired.” These purposeless outings repeated themselves as it became clear Sensei enjoyed having St. John as a sounding board for his views on life. Meanwhile St. John believed he was an employee and owed compensation for his labor, despite the admittedly odd behavior of his boss. Sensei seemed to treat St. John as a Zen novice, lucky to be the recipient of his teachings.
Terry St. John, Fat City [St. John walking to the studio], pen, brush, India ink on paper, 18 x 20 inches, 1960. Private collection, San Francisco.
With time Sensei’s peculiarities manifested themselves further. He asked St. John whether if he struck St. John by slapping him, as part of a Zen lesson, would he strike back? When St. John answered, “yes”, it was apparent the lessons had concluded.
By this point, St. John had already gotten feedback from his Firehaus associates. He had taken Sensei to meet other members of the group. As soon as Sensei had driven off, Farley “rolled over laughing” and said “Yaki (a nickname Farley used for St. John, short for “Teriyaki”) not that phony.” Sensei was apparently known to Farley who had taken a dislike to him after meeting him at a party and hearing him pontificate on the subject of contemporary art which he knew very little about.
Terry St. John, Berkeley Living Room, acrylic on paper, 18 x 14 inches, 1963. Collection of Terry St. John, photograph by Boontawee He.
St. John had also not been impressed with Sensei’s art views. At a gathering which included Muhs and Hanson, and a couple of others including a young novice Sensei had in training, Sensei had discussed Vermeer. “The gist of his lecture was that Vermeer’s paintings capture surface qualities only and miss inner truth’s. Most of us had heard these cliched arguments before.” St. John recalls that given the fact that “Vermeer was appreciated by Diebenkorn for the abstract structure and light that his paintings have” Sensei’s arguments were not convincing. “Sensei was talking down to us in a very pompous manner and hoots and howls came from us, not respectful acceptance from his audience.” St. John and the others “realized he did not know what he was talking about, simply passing on tired cliches attacking realist art.”
With the benefit of hindsight, St. John laughs at the entire encounter. Despite Sensei’s refusal to pay him, he did sign the requisite certification so that St. John could collect unemployment checks. The payments lasted for nearly a year, on a weekly basis, and St. John jokingly reflects that “Farley’s promise had come through, the streets of Stockton were paved with gold” if only temporarily. The checks came to an abrupt halt, however, once St. John’s unemployment agent retired and a stricter “mean young agent”, a college graduate who had studied the writings of Ayn Rand, took over and cut him off, just before Christmas.
Once the unemployment ran out, things got more difficult for St. John. He sold his car to hustle up some money and signed on to drive for Veterans Cab. “I got a Stockton map and memorized the main streets and avenues and was ready for one of the most interesting experiences of my life, exploring the jungles of Stockton.” He didn’t see Sensei again. [fn28]
Terry St. John, Ironing, casein on paper, 17 x 14 inches, c. 1962. Private collection, San Francisco.
MEL HANSON’S ARTISTIC STYLE
Mel Hanson’s artistic style is informed by Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and German Expressionism. The Foster-Gwin Gallery notes comparisons to David Park and suggests that Hanson “hit his stride in 1959/60 when he began to paint thick, heavy, juicy figurative works predating and influencing Joan Brown’s 1961-62 thick paint on canvas figurative paintings.“ [fn29]
Mel Hanson, Untitled [Seated man], oil on paper, 36 x 24 inches, 1962. Private collection, Northern California.
Mel Hanson, Self Portrait with The Muse, poster paint on brown bag, 12 x 9 inches, c. 1961. Private collection, Southern California.
Mel Hanson, untitled, oil on paper, 10.5 x 8.5 inches, c. 1962. Private collection.
Hanson’s later work references both Pop (relying heavily on Disney imagery) and Funk (in the assemblage works). Art critic Thomas Albright credited Bill Snyder with Hanson’s interest in pop references: “Hanson, like the others, worked in a broad, Bay Area Figurative style touched with elements of funky art. Shortly before his death, however, influenced by Snyder’s interest in the fantastic qualities found in the icons of contemporary pop culture, he completed a large painting, The Temptation of St. Walt Disney, in which his interest in German Expressionism took on overtones of Pop art.” [fn30]
Mel Hanson, Anaheim, oil on canvas, 48 x 46.5 inches, 1960. Foster-Gwin Gallery, San Francisco.
Additional photographs including details of Anaheim.
Preparatory drawings for Anaheim.
Albright notes Bill Snyder’s enduring use of pop culture iconography well into the 1970s:
“He was associated with the Firehaus group in Stockton in the late 1950s, when he painted in a variant of the Bay Area Figurative style, meanwhile using the camera to explore icons of the everyday environment that he saw as symbolic of American Pop culture — Mickey Mouse, images from advertising. His paintings of the late 1960s dealt with figures associated with World War I and the 1920s, based on old magazine photographs and frequently painted on unusual materials, such as naugahyde. In the 1970s, he concentrated on images from Disneyland and kitsch Hollywood movies, such as those by the Three Stooges.” [fn31]
William Snyder with his painting “Lonely City,” oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches, 1957. Collection of Linda Siner.
William Snyder, Sunny Study, oil on canvas, 33 x 41 inches, 1958, collection of Saskia Love; Fun House Clowns, oil on canvas, 49 x 39.5, 1959, private collection, California; and William Snyder, Harriet Francis, oil on canvas, 50.25 x 30.25 inches, 1961, collection of Yllysa Snyder.
William Snyder, Dusk, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, c. 1962 (with label from 1963 Stockton Art League Spring Annual), private collection, California; William Snyder, Still-life, oil on canvas, 19.5 x 17.75, 1961, collection of Yllysa Snyder; Uncle, oil and found object on canvas, 16 x 13.5 inches, 1960 (with Green Gallery label), collection of Steven Wolf Fine Arts.
Announcements for two of Bill Snyder’s Green Gallery exhibitions.
St. John remembers that the references to Pop came to Hanson first: “Mel had Disney idea years before [Bill] Snyder.” St. John also recalls that it was Jack Farley who may have introduced the Disney iconography into the Firehaus Group’s work. He apparently had a childhood friend he called Goofy, and he referred to his daughter as Minnie Mouse, so that may have helped trigger the use of those characters among the others. “The Disney references were mostly Mel’s. Farley named his best friend from High school Goofy. However, Mel picked up on Disney characters from Farley and ran with it.”
Regardless of who explored the Pop imagery first, Snyder and Hanson clearly influenced one another although Snyder would get the opportunity to pursue the use of this iconography further. As Steven Wolf has noted:
“At some point in the early 60s [William Snyder] and Hanson began to introduce figures from popular culture into their work, particularly Disney characters. The figures gradually took over Snyder’s painting practice. His mature work consists mainly of surreal scenes of people in Disney costumes on the street associating with people in normal dress, a strange forerunner of cosplay.” [fn32]
William Snyder, What Is It We Hope to Find That Is More Dear Than What We Had?, oil on canvas, 36.5 x 48.5 inches, 1973.
William Snyder, Untitled (Disney costume drawing), charcoal on paper, 25 x 17.75 inches, 1972. Collection of Steven Wolf.
In a review published in the Bay Area Reporter of a Mel Hanson retrospective exhibition, organized by Steven Wolf and held at the Belcher Studios Gallery in 1998, Eric Rose noted a dark side to Hanson’s imagery:
“Hanson’s portraits and cartoon studies, while often whimsical, also mask darker social commentary and astute political observations. Images of death seem almost prophetically to be lurking about his self-portraits, and his use of Disney characters, particularly his obsession with Donald Duck, are both violent and ominous. One of his seminal works “The Temptation of St. Walt Disney,” captures his ambivalence toward the cartoon patriarch and the grotesque social fantasies behind his characters’ violent and anarchistic behavior. The beloved Disney icons are portrayed as dark shadows posed in threatening and openly hostile behavior toward their imperiled creator.” [fn33]
Mel Hanson, gouache on paper, 36 x 24 inches, 1962, reproduced in the article “Mel Hanson” by Eric M. Rose, Bay Area Reporter, May 7, 1998, p.50.
Cedric Wentworth, of Rubber Diamond Gallery, also noted the ominous nature of the Disney iconography: “During the early Sixties, Hanson began to incorporate Pop culture imagery into his work as he developed a fascination with the darkly theatrical, absurd and politically charged iconography of Disney Studios. In his drawings and paintings, Disney characters like Goofy and Mickey Mouse appear as strange apparitions alongside portraits of people and animals.” [fn34]
Mel Hanson, Untitled (That’s Goofy), graphite on paper, 9 x 6 inches, c. 1962. Private collection, San Francisco; formerly in the collection of Ellen Kernaghan of the Green Gallery, San Francisco.
Details showing Hanson’s heavily worked pencil drawing technique.
MEL HANSON’S DEATH
On Friday, November 30, 1962 Hanson and a companion Koleta Kruse were struck by an automobile “as they walked from the southeast corner of the intersection [at Pershing Avenue and Country Club Boulevard] shortly before 10 p.m.” Witnesses told police that Hanson and Kruse “were not in the crosswalk and were walking against a red light.” [fn35]
Jack Farley recalls he was drinking in a bar on El Dorado Street, near where they lived, when someone told him Hanson had been hit by a car. Hanson was alive still, but unconscious, so efforts to visit him at the county hospital where he was taken were not successful as he was not permitted visitors outside of his family.
Terry St. John, Painting of Mel Hanson, casein on paper, 16 x 20 inches, 1960. Private collection, San Francisco.
Although not mentioned in contemporaneous news accounts, Hanson’s sister Gayle, who was 15 years old at the time, recalls the family “drove through dense fog to the hospital” as they made their way to see Hanson the night of the accident. St. John also recalls hearing that there had been tule fog that night, which is a thick ground fog common in the San Joaquin Valley during that time of year, likely contributing to the driver not seeing Hanson and his companion. [fn36]
Hanson died the following day:
“Hanson died in the hospital shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday from injuries received Friday night when he and another pedestrian were struck by a car at Pershing Avenue and Country Club Boulevard. The other pedestrian injured in the accident, Mrs. Koleta Kruse, 29, of 2033 W. Mendocino, is reported in good condition today at St. Joseph’s Hospital where she is being treated for a fractured pelvis and other injuries.” [fn35]
Officials said “Hanson suffered head injuries and leg fractures and did not respond to treatment.”
The driver of the car, 21-year old Lorene Morris, told police she did not see the pair until she hit them. Authorities later decided to charge her with speeding, finding that there was “not sufficient evidence against the driver . . . to support a more serious charge.”
Melvin Hanson’s obituary, San Francisco Examiner, December 3, 1962.
A memorial service was held for Hanson on Sunday, December 9, 1962, at the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco. [fn37]
Hanson is buried in Fernwood Cemetery, in Mill Valley, California, with his sister Karmalee, who died in 1967. [fn38]
The challenges of communal living, financial hardships, and slow dispersal of the group ultimately led to its undeclared end. Certainly Hanson’s death was a defining point in the group’s cessation. His legacy is hard to assess given the short period he was active, yet the best works that survive exemplify a level of craft and maturity far beyond his age. Hanson’s untimely death deprived us of what would have likely been a half century of art making.
To understand how young Hanson was at the time of his death, consider that Terry St. John was active as a painter until his death in early 2021, 58 years after Hanson died. St. John exhibited widely, yet didn’t really start to show until 1965 (at the Lucien Labaudt Gallery in San Francisco), five years after Hanson was included in the Spatsa Gallery show.
Terry St. John painting in his Shasta Road studio in the Berkeley Hills, 1987, twenty-five years after Hanson’s death.
Toward the end of his life, Hanson’s sister believes he knew his time was running out “He apparently knew on some level that his life was nearly over because he painted prodigiously toward the end.” In July of 1962, less than five months before his death, Hanson copied numerous anatomical drawings by the 16th century Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius who authored On the Fabric of the Human Body in 1543. St. John notes the macabre quality of some of these drawings “I find the copies of Vesalius work disturbing. Jaw, teeth, everything. Ominous.” [fn39]
But these considerations are influenced by knowledge of later events. At the time, it looked as if a young artist was eager to perfect his craft. We know for instance that Hanson also worked on a series of studies after the French Barbizon painter Jean-Francois Millet in July of 1962, nearly contemporaneous with the Vesalius drawings. [fn40] David Carlson relates that Hanson’s father, Karl, told him in the 1990s that prior to Mel’s death he had intended to send him to study art in France for a year. One can only imagine how that experience might have influenced his artistic development. [fn41]
We can confidently say that despite the short amount of time Mel Hanson had to live, he played an important role in the burgeoning avant-garde scene of the late 1950s and early 60s. His assemblage experiments and use of thick paint, as well as the merging of abstraction with figurative Pop elements, places him firmly in Bay Area art history.
In any artist scene, it is invariable that some will be credited with innovations that were part of the gestalt that others also helped spawn. We needn’t make Hanson out to be more than he was, nor insist that he was first or that others borrowed from him, to make a compelling case that he is an artist worth remembering.
Special Thanks to: Terry St. John and Jack Farley, Firehaus painters; Gayle Hanson Stevens, Mel Hanson’s sister; Carson Farley, eldest son of Jack & Joyce Farley; Linda Siner, Cezanne Marin, Yllysa Snyder, & Saskia Love, daughters of William Snyder; Johannah Muhs, daughter of Jim Muhs; Bob Segarini, son of John and Mercedes Segarini; Dimitri Grachis, owner of the Spatsa Gallery; Julie Wilkey Bechtel; Ico Romero; Claire Leary and William Parkinson for research assistance; Rudi Blondia and Amy Baskerville, owners of Engine House #3 in Stockton; Tod Ruhstaller, CEO & Curator of History for the Haggin Museum; Roger Phillips of Stockton, Calif. newspaper The Record; Lisa Cooperman, University Curator, University of the Pacific; Jennine Scarboro, Capp Street Project Archives Curator, California College of the Arts; Jessica Fong, Gallery Director at Stockton Art League Goodwin Gallery; Tammy Aramian, Executive Director of the George Washington H.S. Alumni Association; Steven Wolf, Steven Wolf Fine Arts and Grand Dukes Theater, San Francisco; K.C. Seymour, The Modern Art Exchange, Oakland; David Carlson, Carlson Art Gallery, Palm Desert; former San Francisco Police Inspector Jack Cleary; David Keaton, Modern Art West, Sonoma; Lisa Chadwick, Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco; Collier Gwin, Foster-Gwin Gallery, San Francisco; Dennis Calabi, Calabi Gallery, Santa Rosa; Cedric Wentworth, Rubber Diamond Gallery, San Francisco; John Natsoulas, Natsoulas Gallery, Davis; Cody Bustamante, Southern Oregon University faculty; Sarah Burns, Southern Oregon State College student; Boontawee He, for his assistance photographing artwork; Marc Powell, Tony Hall, and Chris Gauger who led me to good sources; and Bruce Nixon who interviewed Bill Snyder and wrote the first history of the Firehaus Group in the mid-1990s.
Mel Hanson, Fyrehaus, oil on canvas, 27 x 17 inches, c. 1962. Collection of the Crocker Art Museum, promised gift of George Y. and LaVona J. Blair. Reproduced from San Francisco and the Second Wave: The Blair Collection of Abstract Expressionism (Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum, 2003).
MEL HANSON — EXHIBITIONS [fn42]
Selected Exhibitions (confirmed)
Spatsa Gallery, San Francisco, Firehaus Group Exhibition, 1960.
Green Gallery, San Francisco, [Firehaus Group Exhibition or two-person show with Jack Farley], [1961 or 1962].
First Unitarian Church, San Francisco, [1961 or 1962]
Starr King School for the Ministry, Berkeley, [1961 or 1962]
Posthumous Exhibitions (confirmed)
First Unitarian Church (Parish Room), San Francisco, 1963. (solo)
Green Gallery, San Francisco, Paintings and Assemblages; Portraits, Self Portraits, and Figures; The Temptation of St. Walt Disney (three consecutive memorial exhibits), 1964. (solo)
Belcher Studios Gallery, San Francisco, Mel Hanson: Retrospective, 1998. (solo)
University of the Pacific, Retrospective Exhibition, 1963.
San Francisco Examiner, November 20, 1960.
San Francisco Examiner, November 25, 1962.
San Francisco Examiner, April 28, 1963.
San Francisco Examiner, January 26, 1964.
“ENDING” by Alexander Fried, San Francisco Examiner, February 16, 1964; “Somber” by A.F. [Alexander Fried], San Francisco Examiner, January 26, 1964.
Mel Hanson, Portrait of Erich von Stroheim, oil on canvas, 7 x 7 feet, 1961. Austrian-American character actor and director, von Stroheim, is depicted in a pose from his role as Count Sergius Karamzin (Capt. 3rd Hussars, Imperial Russian Army) in the 1922 film Foolish Wives. Hanson depicts von Stroheim in a German uniform from WWII; but reverses the Nazi insignia on a medal von Stroheim wears. Von Stroheim, who was Jewish, portrayed Nazi soldiers in several films in 1941 and 1943. French movie poster for Foolish Wives (1922). [fn43]
1 — Quotations from William Snyder are taken from The Beat Generation Galleries & Beyond (Davis: John Natsoulas Press, 1996), “The Firehouse Group at the Spatsa Gallery” by Bruce Nixon.
The book is available from the Natsoulas Gallery: https://shop.natsoulas.com/product/the-beat-generation-galleries-and-beyond-2/
Notably, the population of Stockton in 1960 was under 90,000 (today it is over 300,000). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockton,_California
2 — Terry St. John, referring to Hanson’s “Self Portrait with Frankie Dewey’s Red Wig” says “One of the pieces seems very much influenced by Bruce Conner who used old Victorian carpets in some of his work.” St. John email to Matt Gonzalez, May 4, 2019.
Cedric Wentworth: “Hanson’s interest in Pop Art can be seen in a dramatic self-portrait fabric collage made the year before his death. Self Portrait With Frankie Dewey’s Red Wig shows the artist smoking a cigarette and wearing a broad brimmed floppy felt hat. A bright red wig frames his sunglasses. The artist stares straight at us, the bony forms of his face giving him a frightening, otherworldly presence. The portrait is disconcerting, even menacing, as a sense of foreboding permeates the image.” Rubber Diamond Gallery.
Here is a reverse of the fabric collage on wood:
3 — Quotations and information from Jack Farley, aged 87, are from telephone conversations with Matt Gonzalez on June 1, June 3, and July 3, 2019, from his home in Washington state.
Quotations and information from Terry St. John are from email correspondence with Matt Gonzalez from April 22, 2019 to July 3, 2019 and various telephone conversations from the same period.
4 — Jack Farley is certain the fire house was in East Stockton. Both he, and Terry St. John who visited once, have seen recent images of the Pilgrim station and have not ruled it out. But definitive confirmation has not been found. One of the current owners, Rudi Blondia, has noted that “the firehouse was painted white early on. The paint was sandblasted off in 1974. So, it looked quite different from a visual perspective in 1958.”
There are few contenders for the location; only a fire station on East Channel is considered a possible other location for the original Firehaus. For a full history of Stockton fire stations see this site by Wright Realtors. https://www.wrightrealtors.com/stockton/sfd.htm
Thanks to Lisa Cooperman for identifying the Pilgrim location as the likely place the Firehaus first gathered.
Engine House #3 is currently owned by Rudi Blondia and Amy Baskerville. The building was first built in 1908. The exact address is: 19 N. Pilgrim Street, Stockton, CA 95205 (between E. Webster Avenue & E. Main Street). According to Blondia, who has done historical research on the building, “when the firehouse was built, it was labeled 4, 3 was going to be built somewhere else. In 1908 it is known as 4 and in 1909 or 1910 it is labeled #3 and they changed the labeling on the front parapet.”
More photos are available in a newspaper story by Roger Phillips. https://www.recordnet.com/news/20160318/photographer-buys-old-building-in-downtown-stockton
Apparently in 2012, the station still had an iron spiral staircase, see comments below the video by Sons of Fat City.
5 — Efforts to locate the exact address of either house shared by the Firehaus Group after they vacated the fire station has proven elusive. Tod Ruhstaller, CEO & Curator of History for the Haggin Museum, conducted the following research: “I looked through our Stockton City Directories for the years 1958-1962 and have been able to come up with the following information.”
Farley, Jack r [resides or rooms] 725 E. Main [this was the address of the Hotel Milner]
Hanson, Melvin studt [student] r 3601 Pacific av [address of College of the Pacific]
No other matching names
Muhs, J r RD 5 Box 256 [Rural Delivery Route 5 – the attachment [below] describes this route, which covered a great deal of south Stockton](https://postofficeshours.com/ca/stockton/homestead.)
No other matching names
Farley, Jack R (Joyce) driver Yellow Cab h [householder] 1877 N. Acacia
No other matching names
No matching names
Farley, Joyce Mrs slswn [saleswoman] Smith-Lang [one of the City’s largest department stores at the time] r 1559 W Monterey av
Hanson, Melvin driver Salvation Army h 940 N. Center
No other matching names.
6 — Joyce Farley, was born September 23, 1931. After the Firehaus days, she and Jack divorced and she continued to live in Stockton where she worked as a beautician. She died in 2010.
7 — “The membership was always changing. Farley, Mel, Bill Snyder, Peter Rodriguez, Jim Muhs, Julio Ramos and any other serious artist that Farley liked. The group was located in a large old grocery store, Segarini’s.” Terry St. John email to Matt Gonzalez, May 11, 2019.
The uncredited one-page “Biography” for St. John included in the Contemporary Realist Gallery catalog for a 1991 exhibition lists Peter Rodriguez as a member of the Firehouse Group. These details, likely obtained from St. John himself, nevertheless shows that St. John’s inclusion of Rodriguez in the group is not a recent recollection.
8 — Jack Farley was born August 6, 1931 and died June 20, 2021.
A 1957 Stockton Street Directory lists Jack and Joyce Farley, at 1821 1/2 N. California, Stockton. Jack Farley is listed as a student.
The information about Jack and Joyce Farley is based primarily on telephone interviews with their eldest son, Carson Farley, May 31, 2019 and with Jack Farley, June 1 & 3, 2019.
Jack Farley’s later paintings, c. 2010.
Jack Farley’s later drawings, mid-1990s.
9 –Information about Mel Hanson comes from both Terry St. John, Jack Farley, and Mel Hanson’s sister Gayle Hanson Stevens. Information about his degree at College of the Pacific comes from Lisa Cooperman, University Curator, Office of the President, University of the Pacific.
Dates related to Mel Hanson come from Family Tree Now website and the Social Security Death Index. https://www.familytreenow.com/search/death/results?first=Melvin&middle=charles&last=Hanson&citystatezip=California&dobyyyy=1938&rid=0s0&smck=PvV15DfCWUusdEqmRi6cKQ
A 1958 Stockton street directory lists “Hanson, Melvin, Student r3601 Pacific Ave., Stockton.” In 1962 it lists “Hanson, Melvin driver Salvation Army h 940 N. Center.”
Thomas Albright, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-1980: An Illustrated History (Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press, 1985); entry for Hanson, Mel (1938-1962): “Painter and assemblagist. Born in Stockton, Calif.; attended the College of the Pacific (B.A. 1960, philosophy). In the late 1950s and early 1960s he was associated with a group of bohemian painters, including William Snyder, Jack Farloux, and Terry St. John, who lived and worked in an old Stockton firehouse and exhibited together at the Green Gallery in San Francisco in 1960 as the Firehaus Group. Hanson, like the others, worked in a broad, Bay Area Figurative style touched with elements of funky art. Shortly before his death, however, influenced by Snyder’s interest in the fantastic qualities found in the icons of contemporary pop culture, he completed a large painting, The Temptation of St. Walt Disney, in which his interest in German Expressionism took on overtones of Pop art.”
College of the Pacific 1960 year book, Naranjado, page 31 listing Hanson as graduating, but not pictured.
10 — Information about Jim Muhs, who was born November 1, 1931, is scarce.
He is referenced in The Otis College of Art and Design Magazine – 2006 Vol.1. celebrating Otis: Nine Decades of Los Angeles Art. https://www.otis.edu/sites/default/files/OMAG-1st-ed.pdf
Additionally, Sabato Rodia’s Towers in Watts: Art, Migrations, Development, edited by Luisa Del Giudice (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014) Includes an account by Jeanne Morgan (Report to CSRTW, August 30, 1964) of visiting the LA Times offices with fellow Otis student Jim Muhs for the purpose of influencing the editor Otis Chandler to support the Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts. They were not successful although the effort to save the sculptural towers did ultimately succeed.
In a column “Art Scene” for the Palos Verdes Peninsula News, July 11, 1965, Charlotte Steen wrote about the art galleries in the South Bay area giving particular praise to “The Art Seller” in Redondo. She praises three artists including “Jim Muhs, whose weird fantasy figures evoke reminiscences of Mexico’s “interiorista” school.”
In 1968, Jim Muhs was noted as one of the artists participating in The Abbey Art Festival at the Abbey San Encino in Highland Park in Northeast Los Angeles. “Abbey art festival held over two weeks,” Highland Park News-Herald & Journal, June 20, 1968.
A colleague of his, Cody Bustamante, confirmed (via email to Matt Gonzalez, 5/29/19) that Muhs was teaching at Southern Oregon State College (SOSC), in Ashland, Oregon, in the early and mid 1990s. He moved to Apple Valley, California around the early 2000s.
A student of his at SOSC, Sarah Burns, recalled that one of her teachers in a Life Drawing class there “was Jim Muhs who had a zen approach – he wanted us to be convinced our brush and ink were actually on the flesh of the model and would travel over and around it. His paintings were large and distorted but interesting.” Sarah Burns “Way Back Machine”, September 16, 2011. https://sarahfburns.com/tag/ink-wash/
At the time of his death, Muhs was living in Poway, California. This is a later drawing by Muhs (not from his Firehaus days) posted by his wife Diana Muhs to her facebook page in 2009:
Photograph showing various Otis Art Institute students in the school’s parking lot, 1959. Left to right: unknown student, Lou Bertrando, Mitsi Nelson, Jim Muhs, and Billy Al Bengston. Photo by Doris Licht. Image taken from the Otis College of Art and Design Magazine (2006) celebrating 9 decades.
Jim Muhs, mixed media on fibreboard, 47 x 23 inches, date unknown.
11 — The information about Julio Ramos comes from Terry St. John, Jack Farley, Ico Romero, and the archives of California College of the Arts. Social Security information indicates that Ramos was born December 21, 1936 and died January 22, 2009.
San Francisco Examiner, February 14, 1965. (Newspaper notice for Lucien Labaudt Gallery).
Additional family photographs of Julio Ramos.
Painting by Julio Ramos, circa early 1960s.
Here is a later artwork by Ramos:
Julio Ramos, Red Planet, watercolor on paper, 19 x 24 inches, 1970. Collection of Terry St. John, photograph by Boontawee He.
After his death in the Canary Islands of Spain, St. John recalls that Ramos’s ashes were brought to Oakland by Ico Romero and “from there according to Julio’s instructions we sprinkled the ashes by the Buddha in the Japanese Tea Garden” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
12 — Biographical information about Peter Rodriguez taken from: “Peter Rodriguez, founder of SF’s rising-star Mexican Museum, dies” by Charles Desmarais, San Francisco Chronicle, July 26, 2016; “Honoring Legacy of Mexican Museum Founder” by Alexis Terrazas, El Tecolote, July 14, 2016; Eden Hughes: “Peter Rodriguez was born in Stockton, California of Mexican parents on June 25, 1926. A self-taught painter, Rodriguez works in an abstract expressionist manner. In 1975 he founded the Mexican Museum in San Francisco to showcase Mexican art. He currently lives in San Francisco. Exhibited: San Francisco Art Ass’n annuals; Haggin Museum (Stockton), 1954; Museo del Estado (Guadalajara), 1960.” Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940 (San Francisco: Hughes Publishing Co., 1989).
Regrettably, an oral history interview conducted with Rodriguez by Nora Wagner on October 23-24, 2004 for the Archives of American Art does not mention the Firehaus Group. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-peter-rodriguez-13148
13 — Information about Terry St. John, who was born December 24, 1934 and died March 13, 2021, comes from his website and various conversations and email exchanges. http://www.terrystjohn.com/biography.html
Examples of St. John’s later works. Terry St. John, Still Life, Plant, Solveig, oil on canvas, 48 x 42 inches, 2014; Terry St. John, Woman / Landscape, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, 2013; Terry St John, Morning Ban Am Puhr, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches, 2017; Terry St. John, Woman by Red Chair, oil on canvas, 42 x 48 inches, 2014. Courtesy of Dolby Chadwick Gallery.
14 — William Snyder was born September 26, 1926. His biographical information is taken from Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-1980: An Illustrated History (Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press, 1985) by Thomas Albright; and from a website operated by his family which includes a short biographical narrative written by Snyder. http://www.anartistbetween.com/index.html
Examples of Snyder’s later works.
15 — John and Eddie Segarini opened the first Segarini’s Market at E. Ellis Street and N. San Joaquin Street, before moving to a larger location at 2320 N. El Dorado Street near Castle Street. Bob Segarini recalls “I was mowing the little yard in front of the house when I noticed my dad [John Segarini] standing on the sidewalk just staring at the former store, which had been a studio for some young artists, and now stood as a storage shed for this, that and the other, that was no longer in use by one brother or another.” https://bobsegarini.wordpress.com/2015/06/19/segarini-happy-fathers-day-2015-my-dad/
Bob Segarini noted “A group of artists did rent that little building from my dad. I can remember seeing canvases and other detritus in there when I was 13 years old … 1958.” Email to Matt Gonzalez, June 3, 2019.
“Grocery-chain owner remembered” by Sarah Grunder, The Record (Stockton, Calif.), November 21, 1999: “Segarini’s Markets were an institution in Stockton for decades. Started with one small store at Ellis and San Joaquin Streets in 1923 by Mr. Segarini’s father and uncle, the chain grew to include stores on El Dorado Street, Pershing Avenue, Hammer Lane, Harding Way and Airport Way. The chain peaked in the 1960s.
Mr. Segarini was born in Stockton and raised in a home above the first store at Ellis and San Joaquin streets. He attended local schools and played basketball while a student at Stockton High School. He also attended College of the Pacific and served with the Navy during the Korean War.” https://www.recordnet.com/article/19991121/a_news/311219990?template=ampart
See also Historic Stockton Grocers: https://www.wrightrealtors.com/stockton/historic-grocers.htm
The exact address of the market the Firehaus Group used as their studio is 2549 N. San Joaquin Street.
16 — Assemblage work by Mel Hanson and William Snyder, reproduced from Sculpture from Junk by Henry Rasmusen and Art Grant (New York: Reinhold Publishing Co., 1967). The text reads: “Icon to Nyla Marie by Mel Hanson. (The Green Gallery, San Francisco.) Through a symmetrical arrangement of three panels and cupola this Pop Art assemblage attains a classical balance. The smaller shapes of doll heads and bodies pressed tightly together inside the boxed sections contribute texture and scale which contrasts with the larger rectangles and total shape.” “Sexagon by Bill Snyder. Manikin, plastered and painted, fur, fruit box, table legs. (Green Gallery, San Francisco. Photograph by Donald Hugh Bennett.)”
17 — Quotation from Dimitri Grachis, age 87, taken from a May 22, 2019 phone conversation with Matt Gonzalez from his home in San Mateo.
Terry St. John references the Spatsa Gallery in an oral history interview for the Archives of American Art in 1974:
TERRY ST. JOHN: I remember in the ’50’s there were various galleries like the Spatsa….
JOHN SACCARO: Oh, yeah, that was what’s his name? The Greek kid?
TERRY ST. JOHN: Dimitri Grachis, which was a tiny hole in the wall and it had this very beautiful feeling to it. Manuel Neri and all the local hotshots would show there. It seemed like scouts would come around and somehow they’d get a little big for his gallery and move on to other places. And Batman opened and Mission, etcetera. And these are very fine….
JOHN SACCARO: But that little gallery was really going for…really good for a while there.
TERRY ST. JOHN: Yeah, those were good….
JOHN SACCARO: And the Six Gallery and then East-West Gallery that Mrs. Gechtoff had right across the street from the Six, those were good shows. There was a real fine atmosphere there in those days.
TERRY ST. JOHN: Then all of a sudden in the ’50’s or ’60’s, this whole thing exploded and there’re a lot of galleries all around.
Oral history interview with John Saccaro, Terry St. John, & Paul Karlstrom, 1974 April 30-November 18, pg. 17 of the transcript. https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_213052
Regrettably, St. John does not reference the Firehaus Group in the lengthy interview.
18 — Bruce Conner quotation taken from The Beat Generation Galleries & Beyond (Davis: John Natsoulas Press, 1996), p. 137.
19 — Although the Green Gallery opened in 1960 the Firehaus Group show couldn’t have occur there until the following year, after the Spatsa Gallery show, which closed December 14, 1960. Jack Farley recalls the Green Gallery show as a two-person show including himself and Mel Hanson. Bill Snyder had solo shows at the Green Gallery during the 1960s. His art resume says the shows occurred between 1963-1966. A “Narrative Account” he wrote about his art career, late in his life, says they occurred from 1961-1966:
“Dimitri Grachis, started an art gallery called the Spatsa Gallery on Filbert street in San Francisco, and many artists had their first shows there. The “gallery” was located in a garage and, incredibly, our Firehouse Gang had a group show there in 1959. We were all painting large-format paintings then but we managed to get a fairly representative collection of our work together, anyway. The members of our group included Mel Hanson, Jim Muhs, Terry Saint John, Jack Farley and me. Dimitri closed his gallery shortly thereafter but Ellen Kernaghen, a secretary at BOAC, opened a gallery just around the corner of Fillmore, Off Union. The Green Gallery stayed in business for quite awhile, even though it was open only on weekends and in the evening. Ellen had to continue working at BOAC to support the gallery. Art sales, as might be expected, were minimal. Many artists who later became notable art figures had their first exposure at the Spatsa and Green Galleries. I had yearly shows at the Green Gallery from 1961 to 1966.” http://www.anartistbetween.com/docs/history.pdf
In the preceding account, Snyder mistakenly says the 1960 Spatsa Gallery Firehaus Group exhibition was in 1959. Also, although he doesn’t explicitly say they participated in the show, we know Jim Muhs and Terry St. John did not exhibit work with the others at the Spatsa.
Mel Hanson, Untitled (Roman figure), watercolor, 18 x 12 inches, c. 1962. Collection of Charles Gonzalez. The artwork is signed in the lower right “Melvin Hanson.”
20 — “Somber” by A.F. [Alexander Fried], San Francisco Examiner, January 26, 1964.
AT THE Green Gallery, a series of shows is reviewing the work of 24 year old Mel Hanson, who was killed in a car accident in 1962.
Certainly Hanson was very talented, though his death left his talent violently in the raw. His portraits (one an ingenious collage of colorful snippets of cloth) are forceful, unmannerly thrusts of broad stroke, mood and pigment.
His assemblages bring together everything from swathed rags to tin cans, and among them the seated, macabre “Fertility Symbol” is so startlingly vivid that it set the Green Gallery’s Fillmore and Union Street neighbors into a burst of protest when it was visible in a show window. –A.F.
21 — Hanson, Mel. Reg. Sec., Eagle Sales, Rally Chrmn., S.S.P.C., Celts, Painting, Coins, Stamps, Art School. “Reg. Sec.” = Registry (aka Homeroom) Secretary; Celts was a High School YMCA youth program, known as the Hi-Y Club (a quasi-fraternity). Photo is from the top half of the George Washington High School Yearbook 1955, with Hanson’s senior photo. The school’s mascot: The Eagles.
Tammy Aramian, Executive Director of the George Washington H.S. Alumni Association reports that “Mel Hanson’s parents created a scholarship at George Washington H.S. in his memory with proceeds from sales of his paintings.” Email to Matt Gonzalez, June 6, 2019.
22 — Biographical information about Dr. Karl Herman Hanson from an obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 2005, which notes: Karl Hanson grew up in Mill Valley, attended College of the Pacific, and obtained his medical degree at UCSF. The Mill Valley Record, November 22, 1935, states he was valedictorian of his graduating class at Tamalpais High School.
Mel Hanson, My Dad, The Fisherman Triumphant!, oil on paper (completed work) and ink wash (study), February 1962. Private collection, Southern California.
23 — Obituary for Margaret Jessup Hanson, The Examiner, December 30, 1984.
The Mill Valley Record, November 22, 1935, states Margaret Adelaide Jessup attended the Alhambra high school in Martinez, CA.
24 — Quotation from a message to Matt Gonzalez from Gayle Hanson Stevens, June 4, 2019. Styphnolobium japonicum is a Japanese pagoda tree, also known as Sophora japonica. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Styphnolobium_japonicum
25 — Cliff Gustafson was a student at Laney College and a friend of Bill Snyder. Terry St. John recalls a “drawing done by Mel that I rescued from a trash heap”. He states further “I own one pencil drawing by Mel Hanson. Cliff Gustafson was clearing out his studio for a move. I saw a Mel Hanson drawing ready to be thrown out and I asked if I could have it. It was in bad shape but under glass it would look fine. The drawing may have come to him via Snyder but he threw it out even after I explained to him who Mel was.”
26 — Quotation from the Wikipedia entry for The Horse’s Mouth: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Horse%27s_Mouth
27 — Oral history interview conducted with Rodriguez by Nora Wagner on October 23-24, 2004 for the Archives of American Art.
28 — There are many other stories of the Firehaus. In one, St. John remembers that some members of the Firehaus group served as extras in a local play, or what St. John calls “walk on actors.” The play was performed at College of the Pacific or a Jr. College in the area and St. John recalls it was “possibly by Brecht”. With the passage of nearly 60 years it’s difficult to recall details, but St. John remembers that it was a “legitimate theater, a nice stage, before a large audience”. He specifically recalls the play was “definitely German Expressionist” and that “I recall a burial scene” in it [making it possibly Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children which includes a scene of Catholic General Tilly’s funeral]. St. John remembers that the director, Bill [last name unknown] was an English professor and actor, who later posed for St. John wearing a priest’s habit. St. John says “I have a tempera drawing of him much in the vein of the drawing that I made of Mel.”
Terry St. John, Pretend Priest, tempera on paper, 20 x 18 inches, 1960. Collection of Terry St. John, photograph by Boontawee He.
St. John recalls other vignettes about the Firehaus worth preserving:
–To save money the group drank Sam Jasper wine, then considered the “bottom of the bottom, produced in the Valley, skid row stuff.” Ironically, the winery is now a respected Napa County wine maker.
–St. John (and Jack Farley) specifically remembers that it was common that members of the group “would venture into Chinatown to have Chinese food.” Stockton is a port town with many foreigners living and travelling through the city. Although 90 miles inland from the San Francisco Bay Area, Stockton is located at the end of a navigable channel east of the San Joaquin River. https://www.visitstockton.org/about-us/stockton-history/
–St. John remembers a neighborhood girl, a high school student whose name he cannot recall, would come to the studio to visit the artists. She brought a recording of the 1961 musical West Side Story the group enjoyed listening to and St. John considered her a good friend. Later, in a gesture of friendship, he accompanied her to her high school prom saying “I was the oldest date there. I felt awkward but she enjoyed herself.”
–Outside of their studio time, St. John recalls that the group all enjoyed watching “old time” Hollywood movies. ”Joyce knew the names of all the bit actors, Jack also knew many of the names.” St. John recalls that Farley and Muhs knew a psychiatrist who had revealed “lurid gossip” to them about some of his movie star clients.
—St. John remembers that Farley had nicknames for virtually everyone in the group. For instance, he called St. John, Teriyaki, and he called Snyder, Wig, ostensibly because Snyder was often preoccupied, or “wigging out”, over his finances and romantic pursuits.
–Farley and St. John were 49er fans. Their coach Red Hickey had introduced the shotgun formation in 1960 and St. John and Farley would watch the games on T.V. St. John recalls “Farley and I went to a field and tossed the football around with minor critiques from Farley about my jump pass.”
—On one of their trips to San Francisco, St. John planned to “take [his painting] Mother and Father to SFMOMA to enter it into a juried show. Earlier in the day, we dropped Mel off at his parent’s house, a low Wurster-like shingle house in a nice section of San Francisco to pick something up. Jack, Muhs, and maybe Mel and I visited Manuel Neri and Joan Brown, much to her consternation. I had thrown up on my sweater and was a mess. After a make do clean up we toured Manual’s studio where many of his pieces that would be acclaimed later were scattered throughout.” The excursion was lengthy and they had to abandon their original plan as “it was determined to be too late to enter my painting in the juried show at the museum.”
–Although Bill Snyder participated in the Stockton Art League Annual and at the Kingsley Annual at the Crocker Musuem in the late 1950s and early 60s, St. John says the others, including Mel Hanson, didn’t. “We considered them nowhere as the saying was then.” St. John believed “the jurors are usually rigged to pick the winners, no prestige, little money, small attraction.”
–When St. John left Stockton, he took most of the paintings and drawings he had made in Stockton with him, but he remembers leaving behind a large 5 x 6 foot painting of Joyce Farley in the studio. Today he remembers it as a “masterpiece.” He also regrets abandoning “a beautiful, funky painting [25 x 30 inches] of a rotted sardine”, a “still life repainted many times”, which Manuel Neri had praised during one of his visits to Stockton.
29 — Collier Gwin, Foster-Gwin Gallery, San Francisco. http://fostergwin.com/artist-bios/mel-hanson/
Terry St. John referring to Mel Hanson’s “Anaheim” painting from Foster-Gwin Gallery: “This piece is what I mean about his great work, sensational.”
30 — Art in the San Francisco Bay Area 1945-1980: An Illustrated History (Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press, 1985) by Thomas Albright.
31 — William Snyder is further mentioned in Albrights: “Personal Mythologies” chapter: “The paintings of Franklin Williams and Olive Ayhens, like those of De Forest, drew images and design elements from sources in primitive art – and these were given an extra cachet in Williams work by the addition of spidery tufts of thread. William Snyder brought together anonymous figures in Disneyland costume with images of his friends and family in big paintings that were often parodies of old masterpieces – Rembrandt’s “The Nightwatch” and Courbet’s “The Artist in His Studio.” p. 248.
32 — Steven Wolf of Steven Wolf Fine Arts and Grand Dukes Theatre auctions, San Francisco. https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/71790412_william-snyder-1960s-pop-realism
33 — “Mel Hanson” by Eric M. Rose, Bay Area Reporter, May 7, 1998, p.50. Rose’s article was a review of the Belcher Studios Gallery retrospective of 1998 which was organized by Steven Wolf and held in a collective art space operated by Dale Golden. Terry St. John and Bill Snyder attended the opening together.
Here is the full text of the review by Rose:
“When Mel Hanson was struck and killed by an automobile in Stockton at the age of 24, his artistic legacy seemed doomed to follow him to the grave. After all, he was not a leading figure of the Beat generation, belonging to a little-known clique of painters who worked out of an old firehouse in Stockton, hence their name: The Firehaus Group. And at the time of his death, he had completed little formal training in the arts and had no direct involvement in the larger San Francisco Bohemian scene, with many of his paintings having never been displayed publicly.
“But, as Belcher Studios Gallery demonstrates with their current exhibit, Mel Hanson: Retrospective 1938-1962, he did leave behind an impressive body of work. The exhibit — including portraits, self-portraits, collages, assemblages, and studies — doesn’t just show the tragedy of a promising artistic career cut short, but also the incredible talent and wry social commentary of a young man who was passionately devoted to his work. Hanson was primarily a figurative artist, although he was also influenced by German Expressionism, Pop- and Funk-art. This eclecticism only helps to compliment the quirkiness of the artist.
“Hanson’s portraits and cartoon studies, while often whimsical, also mask darker social commentary and astute political observations. Images of death seem almost prophetically to be lurking about his self-portraits, and his use of Disney characters, particularly his obsession with Donald Duck, are both violent and ominous. One of his seminal works “The Temptation of St. Walt Disney,” captures his ambivalence toward the cartoon patriarch and the grotesque social fantasies behind his characters’ violent and anarchistic behavior. The beloved Disney icons are portrayed as dark shadows posed in threatening and openly hostile behavior toward their imperiled creator.
“While this exhibit is sure to spark new interest in Hanson and his paintings, there is even more immediacy to the personal encounter invited by the work. Hanson is not a “master,” but a young man who had a rare artistic and creative drive that fueled his life up until his untimely death. This gives the exhibit a strange intimacy, and I left with a sense of having met the artist and having been invited into his often dark, often whimsical fantasy world. And what artist could ask for a better testament?
“The Mel Hanson retrospective is showing through June 1 at Belcher Studios Galleries, 69 Belcher Street. Hours are noon to 5 p.m., or by calling 255-8900 for an appointment.”
34 — Cedric Wentworth, Rubber Diamond Gallery, August 8, 2014. Rubber Diamond Gallery.
35 — “2 Dead in Car Crashes”, The Record (Stockton, CA), December 3, 1962; and “Speeding Charged in Fatal Crash”, The Record (Stockton, CA), December 6, 1962.
“2 Dead in Car Crashes”, The Record (Stockton, CA), December 3, 1962.
Two men died from auto accident injuries over the weekend, raising the San Joaquin County traffic toll for the year to 96.
Dead are: Ezekial Quinney, about 33, of Los Angeles.
Melvin C. Hanson, 24, or 940 N. Center.
There have been eight traffic deaths in the county in the last nine days, and the year’s total is within five of the 101 killed in 1961.
[“Two Are Killed in Auto Crashes” continued from Page 1]
Hanson died in the hospital shortly after 6 p.m. Saturday from injuries received Friday night when he and another pedestrian were struck by a car at Pershing Avenue and Country Club Boulevard. The other pedestrian injured in the accident, Mrs. Koleta Kruse, 29, of 2033 W. Mendocino, is reported in good condition today at St. Joseph’s Hospital where she is being treated for a fractured pelvis and other injuries.
Hanson suffered head injuries and leg fractures and did not respond to treatment, officials said.
Hanson and Mrs. Kruse were struck as they walked from the southeast corner of the intersection shortly before 10 p.m. Friday.
The driver of the car, Lorene B. Morris, 21, or 3840 N. Pershing, told police she did not see the pair until she hit them. She has not been cited or charged.
Witnesses told police that Hanson and Mrs. Kruse were not in the crosswalk and were walking against a red light. Witnesses also said that Miss Morris, southbound on Pershing Avenue, had a green light.
“Speeding Charged in Fatal Crash”, The Record (Stockton, CA), December 6, 1962.
The driver of a car that struck and fatally injured Melvin C. Hanson, 24, of 940 N. Center Friday night will be charged with speeding, the district attorney’s office said today.
A spokesman for the office said there is not sufficient evidence against the driver, Lorene B. Morris, 21, of 3840 N. Pershing, to support a more serious charge.
Witnesses said Hanson and another pedestrian who were struck by the car, Mrs. Koleta Kruse, 29, of 2033 W. Mendocino, were not in the crosswalk and were walking against a red light at Pershing Avenue and Country Club Boulevard.
Mrs. Kruse suffered a fractured pelvis. Hanson died in a local hospital Saturday night from his injuries.
Three collages by Mel Hanson, each 24 x 30 inches, date unknown. Private collection, Southern California.
36 — Quotation from a message to Matt Gonzalez from Gayle Hanson Stevens, June 4, 2019.
From Wikipedia “Tule fog forms from late fall through early spring (California’s rainy season) after the first significant rainfall. The official time frame for tule fog to form is from November 1 to March 31. This phenomenon is named after the tule grass wetlands (tulares) of the Central Valley. Tule fog is the leading cause of weather-related accidents in California.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tule_fog
37 — “Melvin Hanson” obituary, San Francisco Examiner, December 3, 1962.
38 — Hanson is buried in Fernwood Cemetery, in Mill Valley, California, with his sister Karmalee, who died in 1967. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/113252209/melvin-charles-hanson
39 –Wikipedia entry for Andreas Vesalius. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andreas_Vesalius
Mel Hanson drawings after Vesalius, from Roam Antiques, in Calistoga, CA. https://www.toopics.com/roam_antiques/
40 — Wikipedia entry for Jean-Francois Millet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean-François_Millet
Here is one of the Millet inspired works:
Mel Hanson, After Millet, oil on paper, [dimensions unknown], 1962. Private collection, Southern California.
41 — David Carlson, conversation with Matt Gonzalez, June 5, 2019.
42 — Mel Hanson’s obituary lists four shows as occurring during his lifetime, however it mistakenly says they were all solo shows. We know that the Spatsa Gallery show of 1960 was a Firehaus Group show. The Green Gallery, according to Jack Farley, was an exhibition, a couple of years later, of just his and Mel Hanson’s work. I have not been able to confirm whether this was presented as a Firehaus show. The First Unitarian Church and Starr King School for the Ministry exhibitions may have been solo shows. Also, it is unclear if they occurred in 1961 or 1962.
Three posthumous shows have been confirmed with newspaper announcements and a review. The Green Gallery show which was three consecutive memorial exhibitions of Hanson’s work included 1-Paintings and Assemblages; 2-Portraits, Self Portraits, and Figures; 3-The Temptation of St. Walt Disney. During the show it was promoted in the newspaper as “Paintings and Other Works”. January 26, 1964. However, this promotion was not for a separate show as a review of the three consecutive shows was published February 16, 1964. It also served as a notice the shows were concluding.
A review of the exhibition explained that it was three consecutive shows: “ENDING A series of exhibits of the work of the late Mel Hanson, the Green Gallery has been showing his very large “Temptation of St. Walt Disney,” boldly, impulsively, whirlingly painted in tempera on paper.” ENDING by Alexander Fried, San Francisco Examiner, February 16, 1964.
Here is the full text of the review by Fried:
“ENDING A series of exhibits of the work of the late Mel Hanson, the Green Gallery has been showing his very large “Temptation of St. Walt Disney,” boldly, impulsively, whirlingly painted in tempera on paper.
“Hanson (whose notion may have been pretty far fetched) looked upon Disney as a symbol of creative artist, caught in modern life’s countercurrents and still sticking to his path.
“Preceded by numerous dynamically talented sketches, the “Temptation” is an unlikely melange of Disney connotations (Mickey Mouse, etc.) the serene Hanson himself (poised and at work amid turmoil; in posture like Velasquez) and the tormenting demons of the “Isenheim Alter.”
“The gifted audacity, fire and bigness of it all cause all the more regret that Hanson was killed by a car when still in his 20’s.” –Alexander Fried
Artforum also reviewed the posthumous Green Gallery exhibitions.
MELVIN HANSON, Green Gallery, Artforum, March, 1964, by Palmer D. French, pg. 49.
Here is the full text of the review by French:
MELVIN HANSON, Green Gallery: This small gallery has devoted three successive exhibitions to a memorial retrospective of works by the late Melvin Hanson. It is clear that the automobile collision which claimed Mr. Hanson’s life in 1962, at the age of 24, deprived the Bay Area of a promising artist in his formative years. The quotations from his writings in the gallery brochure as well as the exhibited work, reveal not only a youthful exuberance but a mystical viewpoint, reminiscent of William Blake’s, encompassing in its contemplations the demonic, the Dionysian, and the naively beatific. Currently exhibited is a series of charcoal and pastel drawings for a contemplated painting: The Temptation of St. Walt Disney. These drawings are charged with tense drama and movement and conjure an imagery partly derived from Disney’s cartoons and partly from Hanson’s imagination, and give the impression of a “translation” of Bosch and Gruenwald into a strange idiom containing elements of Pop Art vernacular. While it is clear from these and other drawings such as “Study for a Portrait of Eric von Stroheim,” that Hanson was slowly and successfully grappling with problems of technique pertinent to his personal viewpoint, the work suffers a lack of some of the facility and resources to which formal training, if not a sine qua non, is at least a short-cut. The first phase of this three-part exhibition featured assemblages, of which “Icon to Nyla Marie” was the most evocative: a whimsical cluster of dolls and cut-outs in the “Byzantine Rococo” manner of a panel from a 91th-century Russian Othodox “Ikonostas.” P.D.F.
A number of unconfirmed exhibitions are often repeated in the sparse information about Hanson that is available. See for example ”Mel Hanson (American, 1938–1962)”, ARTNET (accessed 5/15/2019): http://www.artnet.com/artists/mel-hanson/biograph Specifically, errors about various Green Gallery shows are repeated.
Concerning an effort to confirm a University of the Pacific posthumous exhibition in 1963: “We don’t have department exhibition records for Mel Hanson’s dates nor does the library archive.” Email to Matt Gonzalez from Lisa Cooperman, University Curator, Office of the President, University of the Pacific, May 23, 2019.
43 — From Wikipedia: Foolish Wives is a 1922 American erotic silent drama film produced and distributed by Universal Pictures under their Super-Jewel banner and written and directed by Erich von Stroheim. The drama features von Stroheim, Rudolph Christians, Miss DuPont, Maude George, and others.
When released in 1922, the film was the most expensive film made at that time, and billed by Universal Studios as the “first million-dollar movie” to come out of Hollywood. Originally, von Stroheim intended the film to run anywhere between 6 and 10 hours, and be shown over two evenings, but Universal executives opposed this idea. The studio bosses cut the film drastically before the release date.
In 2008, Foolish Wives was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foolish_Wives
Reverse of Hanson’s Portrait of Erich von Stroheim painting.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with any additional photographs of artwork or biographical information about the Firehaus Group.