John Frost: A Quiet Mastery
The Irvine Museum, 239 pages
Thank God for archivists. The other week, I read a column in the Orange County Register by Sharon Henry, who sought to find the story behind Helen Stanley, whose name appears on a bench in Corona del Mar.
Henry sleuthed around town, checking documents in an effort to pinpoint who Stanley was, and came up empty.
Probably one of the most common human hopes is that our legacy will outlive us — and hopefully, that it will be more than just a shrug-inviting name.
I thought about that column as I read Phil Kovinick's "John Frost: A Quiet Mastery," the new book published by the Irvine Museum, which takes a once-nearly-forgotten California artist and gives him a painstakingly detailed biographical treatment. Read this volume while sitting atop the Stanley bench, and you may come to a conclusion or two about how posterity plays favorites.
"John Frost" is the 18th title produced by the museum, which previously spotlighted Edgar Payne, Franz A. Bischoff and other local luminaries. In a poignant epilogue, Kovinick describes the journey of Frost's fame — virtually a household name in the 1920s and 1930s, then increasingly obscure in the decades to follow before a renewed interest in California plein air painting, plus venues like the Irvine Museum, rescued him from storage.
Unlike Frida Kahlo or Vincent van Gogh, Frost probably won't become the subject of a biopic any time soon; his story is too low on drama for that. At one point, Kovinick describes him as "a warm, likable, down-to-earth nice guy who got along with just about everyone," probably not a role Ralph Fiennes was born to play.
The artist, who was born in 1890 and died of tuberculosis in 1937, grew up in a nurturing artistic family (his father, A.B. Frost, was a renowned illustrator), enjoyed a stable marriage and appeared to keep away from politics and hard living of most sorts.
Even still, Kovinick doesn't skimp on detail. Page after page of the book overflows with quoted correspondence, contemporary reviews and just about anything else a vault can hold. At its best, this eye for detail makes the subjects touchingly nuanced. Reading the elder Frost's letters to and about his artistic sons, we sense the conflict between his dogged support and his occasional chagrin at their chosen paths.
Other times, the research makes for a heavy read — particularly in the opening chapter about Frost's family history, which flies by in a whirl of proper nouns, dates and lives summarized in a sentence or two. But then, "John Frost" isn't simply a text biography. It's also a lush volume saturated from beginning to end with its subject's artwork, much of it nature scenes that depict California a century ago as it teetered between unspoiled landscapes and budding cities.
These images — vivid, soothing, soaked in natural light — are the heart of the book and the legacy Frost left behind. I'll leave analysis of them to a more astute art critic. Suffice to say that they're the work of a man who fell in love with the riches around him and brought a brush for the journey, and thanks to the efforts of Kovinick and others, we remember his paintings. As a bonus, we recall his name too.
A Thousand Miles From Home
The temperatures have dropped in Orange County as we venture through the fall months. The air seems a lot fresher, and the cool wind makes you long for a warm sweater or blanket.
The latter sums up how I feel about Fullerton-based artist Alice Wallace's latest album, "A Thousand Miles From Home." The 10-track LP that she self-released will make you want to wrap yourself in a blanket as you sip hot cocoa by the fire.