A Sanctuary of Learning

By Heidi Donner

Hearst Art Gallery celebrates 30 years of expanding minds

Studying and exploring art in all its forms is vital to broadening the mind and nurturing the spirit. Throughout time, people have decorated and adorned their shelters and utilitarian objects, their bodies and clothing. They have recorded the landscape, celebrated the human visage in marble and paint and have transformed stone, metal and mineral in an indefatigable search for beauty and truth. For three-quarters of a century, Saint Mary’s College has been dedicated to preserving and exhibiting fine works of art.

This October, the Hearst Art Gallery celebrates its 30th anniversary. Since its first exhibition, “A Half-Century of Collecting: Selections from the Saint Mary’s College Collection,” to “Dreaming in Color: Aboriginal Art from Balgo,” (Sept. 8–Oct. 14) the gallery has staged unique exhibitions from California landscapes to ethnographic objects from Africa, Oceania and Asia, from sacred traditions to the link between science and art.

The Hearst Art Gallery is the only art museum in Contra Costa County accredited by the American Association of Museums, and recently was accredited for an additional 10 years. Its collection of 175 paintings by William Keith, the famed 19th-century California landscape artist, is the most comprehensive in the world.

The gallery also presents educational programs which make it integral to the College’s mission of fostering a love of lifelong learning and developing critical thinking and intellectual skills.

“Learning about art awakens curiosity, opens minds, gives voice to ideas and dreams,” says gallery Director Carrie Brewster. “Art is dynamic — it connects past, present and future. Art is accessible to all ages and all peoples; it is a universal language.”

Especially notable is the gallery’s Master Artist Tribute series. Begun in 1990, it examines and showcases the work of artists whose significance as teachers of art is as profound as their estimable bodies of work. Past recipients have been painters Wayne Thiebaud, Nathan Oliveira and Frank Lobdell; sculptors Manuel Neri and Stephen de Staebler; photographer Ruth Bernhard; and mixed media and documentary artist Carlos Villa. Each Master Artist is invited to the campus for a broad exhibit of their work, providing a rich personal encounter for students, alumni and others who appreciate their role in art.

Thiebaud, whose Master Artist Tribute came as he celebrated his 70th birthday in 1990, shared his reflections with the Contra Costa Times on the College: “As a teacher, I’m very interested in showing at the smaller institutions that do a service that many of the big museums and big centers overlook I like being a part of a more intimate audience.”

His student Nathan Oliveira, whose Master Artist Tribute came in 1992, told the Sacramento Bee “If Wayne had to give up teaching, he’d go down to the drugstore and teach. He’d grab some sign painter and say: ‘You want to know how to do an ear? Here, let me show you.’”

Perhaps Saint Mary’s premier art teacher was Brother F. Cornelius Braeg, who was introduced to Keith’s paintings during a chance 1908 visit with famed naturalist John Muir. Brother Cornelius’ lifelong effort to chronicle Keith’s life and work ultimately led to the College’s Keith collection and a definitive two-volume Keith biography, Keith, Old Master of California (1942). He said he found Keith’s works “nearest to expressing the quality, mystery and wonder of nature of any paintings I had ever seen.”

In 1931, four years before the College’s first gallery opened, Brother Cornelius wrote, “I can think of no better memorial to Keith than a Keith gallery at Saint Mary’s College where the students can understand and appreciate Keith and absorb the sublime messages of his art. The work of California’s Old Master would be found in an ideal setting — a sanctuary of learning where Keith would continue most effectively his valuable influence as an art educator.”

The Hearst Art Gallery’s Keith collection includes drawings, sketchbooks, a palette, letters and photographs along with the 175 paintings. The gallery maintains a Keith room where some of his works are displayed, as well as other galleries for seven special exhibitions each year on a wide range of contemporary, historic, ethnographic and international subjects. Recent exhibits include British, Hungarian and Austrian modernist painting, early artists of the Bohemian Club, Japanese woodblock prints, Russian icons, modern Christian art, Hopi ethnographic works, Navajo textiles, African healing sculpture, contemporary African women artists, Hubble Space Telescope images, Central American textiles, musical instruments from around the world, and even tools as art.

The Contra Costa Times named “Touched by Wonder: Ethnographic Art from the Saint Mary’s College Collection,” the best exhibition of 2006 in the Bay Area, calling it “a dramatic installation that put so-called ‘primitive’ art into a rich cultural context.”

Over the past 30 years, nearly 275,000 people have visited the gallery, and many have left behind words of praise. One wrote, “This exhibition, ‘A Winding River: The Journey of Contemporary Art in Vietnam,’ has given me a window into a Vietnam I never knew. I am grateful that it was made available through the Saint Mary’s Art Gallery. The imagination and sense of design is truly inspiring to me as an artist. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this cultural bridge between our country and Vietnam.” At another exhibit, a viewer commented, “This gallery is amazing. It is so awesome that science and art can come together like this. Great job! P.S. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I will never forget this exhibition.”

—Heidi Donner is the gallery’s public information officer.