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'Westways' cover art at the Pasadena Museum of California Art

December 18, 2010 |  3:00 pm

Sawka In 1926 Touring Topics (the predecessor to Westways), the magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California, was changing directions. The editors shifted gears from a solely automobile-related publication, expanding their focus to regional culture and travel destinations. The guiding force behind this transition was editor Phil Townsend Hanna, who initiated the cover art program and showcased images from California artists to reflect the content and mission of the magazine.

More than 40 pieces from the Westways art collection are on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art exhibition, "Scenic View Ahead: The Westways Cover Art Program, 1928-1981," through Feb. 21.

Hanna, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times, commissioned works from novice and established artists reflecting movements of the period. Beginning with the March 1928 issue, he presented 12 landscape scenes from plein-air artists, including Alson Clark, John Frost and Maynard Dixon. "Dixon was a famous and sought-after artist at the time," said Matthew W. Roth, co-curator and archivist for the auto club. "All 12 covers in 1930 were by him."

Hanna unwittingly became a patron of local artists. From March to December 1929, he hired female artists to paint the covers, including Henrietta Shore, Mary DeNeale Morgan and Donna Schuster.

During the Depression, the covers were scaled back and the name was officially changed to Westways in 1934. The '40s brought the vibrant California watercolor movement with artists such as Rex Brandt, Phil Dike and Maurice Logan.Phildike

"The paintings followed the theme of neat places to drive to and the landscape as recreation," noted Roth. "When they found artists they appreciated, they stuck with them." One example was Chinese American artist Jake Lee, who contributed 24 covers from 1954 to '78 including images of San Francisco's Chinatown and L.A.'s Olvera Street. "His work progressed from standard illustrations to really abstract visceral pieces." [For the record: A previous version of this post misspelled Jake Lee's last name as Glee.]

Another significant shift happened in the '70s when F. Scott Fitzgerald's former assistant Frances Kroll Ring took the helm of the magazine. "She presided over a real flowering of the magazine, a golden age," said Roth. "At that time there was no outlet for creative nonfiction [on the West Coast] so she brought in Anaïs Nin, Wallace Stegner and Norman Corwin to write essays. She was like a kid on a playground, and the covers went along with that."

The cover art program ceased in 1981 as Westways, like other publications, turned to photography for cover art, which continues in its current format with the exception of a few special issues. The content remains focused on travel, California culture, car-related issues and advocacy efforts. The 250-piece collection is housed in the auto club archives downtown.

Jakechinatown One fascinating story to emerge from the cover art program is that of Polish émigré, Jan Sawka, whose first visit to Los Angeles turned into his first commissioned painting, "Sunset Strip 1978." His tour guide was friend and scriptwriter Budd Schulberg, who dropped him off at the edge of the Sunset Strip one day.

"I took a notebook and markers and walked down Sunset Boulevard," said Sawka, who went on to design album covers, sculptures, and film and theater sets. "It was awful and strangely beautiful how billboards dominated human life." His stroll was interrupted several times by drivers, including a police officer, wondering where his car was.

"It was Sunset Strip at its most decadent period through the eyes of an immigrant," added co-curator and fellow auto club archivist Morgan P. Yates.

"What's amazing is the we have an art collection that is organic to the organization, noted Yates. "It's a great and important part of the archives. It has an inherent connection to the magazine and the auto club."

 -- Liesl Bradner

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Westways magazine celebrates a century of car culture

Images: Top-Jan Sawka "Sunset Strip, 1978," acrylic/ink . Right- Phil Dike, "Balboa," 1947, watercolor. Bottom-Jake Lee, San Francisco's Chinatown, 1963, watercolor. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives

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