But to hear Heath Fox tell it, Goodell never gave up on art when he moved to La Jolla from his native Pennsylvania in 1951. Rather, he shifted focus and, in a way, secured a legacy as one of the most underrated artists who’s ever worked in San Diego.
“He came out of that American scene painting that really took off between the ’20s and ’50s, so he really does have a place there in the history of American art,” Fox says.
Fox is executive director of the La Jolla Historical Society (780 Prospect St.), which is hosting a new, joint retrospective of Goodell’s work: William Newport Goodell: painter, craftsman, teacher. One of the shows, which is open now and runs through May 22, is being held at the Historical Society and features Goodell’s figurative and still-life work. The other show focuses on Goodell’s landscape and wartime work, opens Feb.
20 at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library (1008 Wall St.), and runs through April 16. The Historical Society show also includes photos, personal essays, artifacts and poetry from the late artist, in addition to nearly all of his major works. It was undoubtedly a major undertaking, but show curator Tara Centybear says she wanted to be thorough.
“A lot of this work comes from two collections, but a lot of it was tracking people down to actually talk to them about Bill,” says Centybear. “I felt like a spy.”
To get a better understanding of Goodell’s life and career, it’s best to start back in Pennsylvania. Born in Philadelphia in 1908 to a Quaker family, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, working and developing his style throughout the ’30s and ’40s. His oil and watercolor paintings reflected the movements of the time—late impressionism, American realism and Regionalism—and he often mounted the finished paintings in handsome wooden frames that he handcrafted himself.
“Bill was a very balanced person and understated about his achievements,” says Lyn Thwaites, who became Goodell’s good friend in his latter years after he had moved to California. “It wasn’t false modesty—he knew he was good, but he also had a strong sense of the true proportion of things, which probably went back to his Quaker upbringing.”
There are some fantastic pieces from this period of his life, all of which are on display at the joint surveys of his work in La Jolla. His self-portraits, like “Still Life With Artist” and “Self Portrait,” are both grand, stalwart examples of his representational style and his latter piece, “The Engraver,” even hints at the burgeoning surrealist movement. He continued to work during a stint as a chief specialist of visual aids in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Paintings and serigraphs like “Boots in Barracks,” “The Piper” and “Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” are lovely and often humorous depictions of military life both on and off the base. One of the more striking pieces from this mid-’40s period is “Pastoral (Ruth in Daisies),” a strikingly grand portrait of his wife asleep in a field of flowers.
Goodell decided to move to Southern California in 1951.
According to Fox, Ruth suffered from horrible allergies and needed to move to a dryer climate. They lived in the San Bernadino mountain area before moving to La Jolla in 1954 and it was around this time that his painting seemed to slow down. It makes sense considering there were fewer places to show art than there were in Pennsylvania, and Thwaites makes the argument that the Navy and the war “took him away from his studio and his burgeoning exhibition career.”
In 1961, he began teaching art and drama at the Balmer School, which later became La Jolla Country Day School. He remained active artistically, painting masterful mosaics in his house and crafting metal mobiles for the living room. He retired in 1977 and it was his interactions with the community that really secured his legacy.
“The story wasn’t well known and since we’ve done this show, we’ve had a lot of people show up and say, ‘Oh, he was my teacher’ or that they knew him,” Fox says. “I think they all knew him and had fond memories of him. A great teacher and very sociable person, but they knew him in that second half of his life so I think to see this, all of his works in this show, was quite a surprise for them.”
“People who knew him would see a painting or two of his in his home when he was alive, but they didn’t know how good he was,” adds Centybear. “He was very modest and didn’t talk about all he had accomplished or all the awards he’d won on the East Coast. He’d just say something like, ‘Oh, that’s a painting. Yeah, I made that.’”
Fox argues that Goodell, who passed away in 1999, should have been “better known within the tradition of art history that his work represents.” Even Thwaites, who mainly knew him as a friend, thinks the exhibitions will not only be eye-opening to the people who once knew him but will also serve as Goodell’s posthumous reintroduction to the art world.
“Bill spent many years teaching art and drama to students locally and it was a role he valued, but what a thrill for friends and community to discover that it had such an amazing painter in its midst all this time,” Thwaites says. “Even for those who didn’t know Bill, this is period art of very fine quality that’s worth seeing in its own right.”