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DesignLA: Otis at 100

Four Alums of the Oldest Art School in L.A. Share Some Memories of the Way It Was
Michael Slenske

Two days before Christmas in 1916, Los Angeles Times publisher General Harrison Gray Otis gifted his Wilshire Boulevard home—aka The Bivouac—to Los Angeles County so it could be utilized “continuously and perpetually for the Arts and advancement of the Arts.” In September 1918, when the Otis Art Institute opened its doors as part of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, it became the city’s first art school.


Though the competition has certainly increased over the past century—with the sculpture-friendly UCLA, the utterly conceptual CalArts and the ArtCenter College of Design (the premiere institution for automotive creatives) all vying for top talents from across the globe—the Otis College of Art & Design (as it is now known) has survived as the stalwart of the SoCal scene by constantly changing with the times.


Throughout the 1940s artist-in-residence Norman Rockwell painted numerous Otis students and faculty into his Saturday Evening Post covers. In the 1950s architect Millard Sheets, who was then the school’s director, brought Peter Voulkos on staff. In turn, the ceramic star attracted Cool School icons like Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston, John Altoon, John Mason and Robert Irwin to study under him. A similar phenomenon occurred between 1965 and 1979, when legendary African-American sculptor Charles White joined the faculty and influenced future revolutionaries like David Hammons, Judithe Hernandez and Kerry James Marshall. Though a number of ascendant Angeleno artists such as Bas Jan Ader, Kim Gordon and Kour Pour have come through the school in the past century, Otis is now known more for its fashion design program, which has produced stars like Rick Owens and Claire Pettibone.


“We’re paying attention to the past and honoring it,” says Otis president Bruce M. Ferguson, listing several programming initiatives to celebrate the centennial this fall, including Some of Our Favorite Things, a funky group show at the campus-based Ben Maltz Gallery on display through December 8. “But we’re really trying to think about the next one hundred years.” Before Otis blows out the candles on the current anniversary cake, DesignLA took a trip down memory lane, going back six decades, with some of the school’s most notable (and local) alums.

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