Dec. 8, 2014Vol. 45, Issue 3

Legacy of an Artist

Exhibit honors art department’s founder

John Ayres’ watercolor detail of Woburn Abbey of Bedfordshire, England, circa 1960, displays a precise architectural style for which he became known.

In October, special homage was paid to faculty emerita Janet Turner, whose distinct prints and painterly drawings often grace the walls of the campus museum in her name. A special event and exhibit that month helped mark what would have been the renowned artist’s 100th birthday.

But 2014 also marks the centenary of another great CSU, Chico artist and teacher, one with the distinction of having founded the Department of Art and Art History. A renowned watercolorist, who showed his work at some of the country’s most prestigious museums, he was responsible for hiring Turner and many other notable faculty artists in the last half-century. His name was John C. Ayres.

Born in 1914 in Modesto and educated at UC Berkeley, where he received his master’s degree in art in 1936, Ayres was teaching at Modesto Junior College when he was hired by Chico State College President Aymer J. Hamilton to create an accredited art department for the university. He became chair of the new Department of Art and Art History, a position he held for 21 years (1946–1967). During his tenure as department chair, the art faculty grew rapidly and included, among others, Turner, Ken Morrow, Jack Windsor, Ann Pierce, Tom Griffith, and Paul Feldhaus.

Ayres was also an instructor of art history with a special interest in medieval and Renaissance art. He was particularly passionate about the architecture of those two periods, which is reflected in his culminating watercolors of the 1960s. While he did some work in other media, such as oil painting and collage, watercolors were his focus and his most notable work. In 1943, art critic Alfred Frankenstein wrote of Ayres’ work:

Ayres founded the Department of Art and Art History in 1946 and served as its chair until 1967. This plaque hangs in the campus building named for him.

Ayres founded the Department of Art and Art History in 1946 and served as its chair until 1967. This plaque hangs in the campus building named for him.

“His drawing pops and crackles and explodes more vigorously, partly because he flings on the reds and yellows and other varieties of firewater with exceptional freedom. But it is always under control … you feel that the swift, fluid abstraction [of his drawings] have been achieved from the inside out, not from the outside in. [Ayres is] a man of extraordinary talent, power, and intelligence, who should be ranked among the top-notch watercolorists now working in this part of the world.”

Ayres exhibited his work at the de Young and modern art museums in San Francisco, the Crocker Art Gallery (now the Crocker Art Museum) in Sacramento, as well as other distinguished galleries. A dedicated teacher, he joined with history professor Lew Oliver on at least two occasions to take students on a tour of Europe.

On Nov. 13, a reception was held in the University Art Gallery to launch an exhibit honoring Ayres’ contributions to campus. Centenary: John Ayres is curated by alum Reed Applegate (’66), a former student of Ayres’ and of many of the faculty hired by him. (Applegate is the founder of the Museum of Northern California Art and his personal art collection, which includes Ayres’ work, is the core of that museum’s collection.)

The campus exhibit includes work on loan from Ayres’ daughter, Jean Ayres Clark; Applegate; and other collectors. Among many treasures, it contains five photographs of East Coast and European buildings Ayres painted on a yearlong sabbatical he took in the '60s.

“I think he was a frustrated architect,” Applegate mused. “He designed and built his first house in Chico in Mansion Park [near Applegate’s home], and he built another house on Berkeley Lane. He held bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art from UC Berkeley, and I assume he had some architecture in there somewhere.”

Dedicated around the same time as Laxson Auditorium, Ayres Hall was the first campus building to be named for someone who was still alive, Applegate said. Ayres passed away in 2005, a legend among artists and on campus.

Centenary: John Ayres runs through Dec. 18 in the University Art Gallery in Trinity 100. The gallery is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Compiled by Sarah Langford, Public Affairs and Publications



Art history professor Rachel Middleman has been selected for a Smithsonian art fellowship in Washington, D.C. Read more.

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