Bringing Art to the People
Millard Sheets was a driving force while he directed the art program here at the L.A. County Fair (1931-1956), always pushing for a better experience for visitors to the art exhibits that he organized; insisting that the average visitor see the best that was available without the exhibition becoming “high-hat.” This was one of the early lessons he learned from Theodore Modra, the first director of the fine art program.
Modra was instrumental in leading Sheets into a career in the arts. When Sheets was about 15 years old (1922) his uncle, L.E. Sheets, helped launch the first Los Angeles County Fair. Of course, his nephew was eager to participate in his first painting competition at the Fair. Millard entered a painting of Lake Kilarney in the “copy” division and he couldn’t believe it when he read in the newspaper that he had won first prize in landscape, a three dollar prize. So first thing the next day, there he was standing proudly in front of his winning masterpiece when a very firm voice sounded from behind him, “Did you paint that picture?” “Yessir,” said Millard. There stood Theodore Modra, the stereotype of an artist, with thick white hair and goatee and a flowing tie. Modra grabbed the frightened Millard by the collar and dragged him into his office that was then in a corner of the tent which housed the art exhibition. Sheets said Modra “harangued me for about twenty minutes” telling him that he should never “make another copy as long as you live…You go out and you paint, outdoors. You paint still life. You do anything but copy. And you have to draw.” Modra then asked the young Sheets to come to his house and bring his original paintings. For the next two years they critiqued his work and went on painting trips, first for the weekend and then for one or two weeks during the summer. Sheets said, “…he was a marvelous stimulus and a wonderful person to get somebody excited. Boy, I really got excited!”
Modra was the first to introduce Sheets to a wider world of art. A contemporary of George Bellows and Robert Henri, Modra told Millard about these other artists and taught him how to think about art in a way in which he had never been exposed before. A year later, at 16, Modra asked Millard to become his assistant for the Fair’s art program and when Modra suddenly died in 1930, Sheets was asked by the Fair Association to take his place. Modra’s legacy lived on in the work that Millard Sheets did to “bring art to the people” and in the work of one of America’s foremost artists.