By Mary Anna Pomonis
Nelbert Chouinard was born Nelbertina Murphy to Ruth Helen Lawrence Murphy and Dr. Lee Murphy on February 9, 1879 in Montevideo, Minnesota. Nelbertina’s older brother Lloyd later nicknamed her Nelbert.
Nelbert Chouinard graduated in fine art from the Pratt Institute in N.Y., where she began her practice as a painter. Pratt’s motto, “Be true to your work, your work will be true to you” seems to have guided Nelbert throughout her extensive teaching career. Nelbert’s move to Brooklyn and attendance at Pratt and later her work as an art teacher in New York was fundamental to her development as an art educator. Her experience speaks of a woman of unusual commitment and tenacity that later infused her curriculum at the school she founded, the Chouinard School Of Art.
Moving to South Pasadena, California after her husband Burt Chouinard’s untimely death, Nelbert became a member of the Eucalyptus School, painting images of the California landscape at that time. She taught art at Hollywood High, Throop Polytechnic in Pasadena with Earnest Batchelder, and most notably, at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. It was at Otis that she was spurred on to start her own school, due to the overcrowded conditions. She was encouraged to do so by the director of Otis, C.P. Townsley, who felt strongly that Los Angeles needed more art schools. Thus, in 1921, the Chouinard School of Art began in a two-story house on 8th Street in the Westlake area near downtown. By 1929, the school moved to the permanent location on Grand View St where it would run till 1972.
The Early Years of the Chouinard School of Art
Basing her curriculum on the cornerstones of drawing and design, Chouinard was recognized as a non-profit university in 1935. Chouinard existed from 1921- 1972 under Nelbert’s direction until her death in 1969. She had great assistance in running the school throughout the years from her able drawing teacher, Don Graham and many others. Early notable graduates include California scene painter Millard Sheets, Phil Dike, the Academy Award winning Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, innovative fashion designer Bonnie Cashin, the Disney animators known as The Nine Old Men, as well as many other distinguished animators, graphic artists, illustrators, fashion designers and potters.
Many evolutions of California art began there and artists such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, Hans Hoffman and Stanton Macdonald Wright taught there. However, under Dean Gerald Nordland, the school achieved it’s highest profile in the sixties and seventies with the success of its graduates who went on to define the genres of pop, conceptual art and early post-modernism on the west coast. These artists include: Llyn Foulkes, Ed Ruscha, Mary Corse, Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Rick Griffin, John Baldissari, John Van Hamersveld, Terry Allen, Ralph Bacerra and Elsa Rady, among many others.
Draw the Idea
Nelbert Chouinard was known to be a woman of great will and passion concerning the subject of art education. Her curriculum focused on the idea of drawing as the foundation to art education. Her appreciation of drawing as a core subject both formally and intellectually was carried through the 50 years of Chouinard’s existence by some of the finest drawing teachers in Southern California most notably, Don Graham. Her respect for the subject is more recently echoed by the Chouinard Foundation’s motto “Draw The Idea”. Nelbert Chouinard’s school was ground zero for many art and cultural movements and continues to be a tie that binds many of Los Angeles’ most important artists.