Show Honors "California's Girl of the Golden Sunshine"
By Melissa Mendonca
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos courtesy of Barbara Lancaster
THANKS TO a grandmother keen on scrapbooking the details of her daughter's foray into the California art world of the 1930s, Barbara Lancaster has an abundance of ephemera to dig through in preparation for an upcoming show of her mother's art at the Main Event Gallery in Red Bluff. There are bills of sale for paintings at Gump’s of San Francisco, a 1940 news article announcing her mother's show at the Crocker Art Museum published in the Sacramento Union, and many sketches of paintings-to-be.
Babette Fickert Dowell, the subject of the exhibit, made Red Bluff her home for the beginning and end of her long life, and had a storied career in art at a remarkably young age, ending it during World War II when she went off to teach art to Japanese children interned at Manzanar.
“Mom was doing her part to right a wrong,” says Lancaster. “The most important thing she did was run away from art and go to Manzanar relocation center. She was the art teacher for the children and had to improvise for the oils and canvases with lipstick and sheets.”
It wasn't the first time Fickert Dowell ran away to something profound. As a young girl, she would escape the oppressive heat of Red Bluff summers with her female relatives and land in Carmel and Pacific Grove. “Mom ended up taking art lessons from Arthur Gilbert,” says Lancaster, “and Arthur Gilbert was a very famous artist in the area at the time. I have every letter they ever wrote each other.” It's clear Gilbert understood the talent he was nurturing in the young artist.
At age 13, she won a money prize for a poppy poster contest held by the American Legion and was having work accepted into the California State Fair. By 19, she had her own show at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. The Sacramento Union article announced the show was titled “Babette Fickert: California's Girl of the Golden Sunshine.”
“I have the invite list of the people from Red Bluff who came to the opening,” says Lancaster. “She had 50 people show up. It was a big deal.”
Support for Fickert Dowell's art came early from her parents, who created studio space for the young artist in the basement of their home. The Fickert family had a casket business, having expanded from building cases for jewelry and silver. “Her father, being a furniture maker, made all of her frames,” says Lancaster. “And I have the most beautiful shipping crates that he created.”
At Scripps College, Fickert Dowell studied under Millard Sheets, a leader of the 1930s “California Style,” finding him not nearly as easy to work with as Gilbert, but perhaps equally influential. “Both Arthur Gilbert and Millard Sheets got her into some very big shows,” says Lancaster.
While Fickert Dowell's success in art came early, it was a short period of her 81 years of life, only about a decade in total. Having lost all of her friends to World War II, she moved to the East Coast, where she worked at the Army Map Service and met her husband, patent attorney Arthur E. Dowell. The couple retired in Red Bluff, where Fickert Dowell had about five good years before advancing through a journey of brain cancer. The couple were active supporters of St. Elizabeth Hospital Foundation.
The show in Red Bluff honors the accomplishments of a woman many may not have known were made at such an early period of life. “My mom was so humble,” says Lancaster. “She never would have done this herself. I was always the loud, vocal one in the family so it fell to me to do this.”
It's clearly a process of love and discovery driving the show. Having been raised on the East Coast as the only child of Arthur and Babette, Lancaster is meeting friends of her parents and finding areas her mom loved to paint. “She lived in an inspiring place,” says Lancaster. “She saw the light and it affected her.”
She also saw the colors, and had a knack for mixing paints. “She could look at a color and she knew how to mix that color,” says Lancaster. “And because of that she could remember that color. She carried colors in her head.”
Lancaster will present a PowerPoint presentation on the life and art of her mother on Saturday, May 11 at noon at the Main Event Gallery in Red Bluff. •
Babette Fickert Dowell: California's Girl of the Golden Sunshine
Main Event Gallery, 710 Main St., Red Bluff
Opening: 5-8 pm Friday, May 10
Lecture by Barbara Lancaster: noon, May 11