A Sanctuary of Old California Art Closes After 20 Years

Photo by Mary Carreon

Lost amid the industrial buildings and automotive businesses that line Artesia Boulevard in Bellflower is a preserved California and Western America art sanctuary. Inside, the aroma of old books, natural musk (not the stuff modern-day hippies wear) creates a familiar feeling of home. Wood panels hug the walls while tan shag carpet cushions your feet. Paintings dating back to 1885 of Yosemite Valley, the Grand Canyon and Native American life are scattered around the room. There isn’t enough wall space for them.

De McCall, the owner of DeRu’s Fine Art, has sold historic paintings out of the gallery location in Bellflower since 1969. But when the surrounding area began to shift to a manufacturing locale, he knew for the advancement of his collection he had to open a studio in an art-friendly community. In January 1997, McCall opened a showroom in Laguna Beach on the corner of South Pacific Coast Highway and Bluebird Canyon. Ever since, the nook of a showroom has exhibited art unlike the rest that’s sold in Laguna. “We offer historical art,” says McCall. “The paintings are all by the artists that started the Laguna Beach Art Association and museum in 1918.”

DeRu’s has been a staple in Laguna Beach for the past 20 years. The only other spot in the area that showcases artists such as Edgar Payne and Anna Hills is the Laguna Beach Art Museum. But those pieces aren’t for sale. And, sadly, the museum will soon be the only place in the beach town highlighting this kind of art. Earlier this month, McCall announced the closing of the Laguna location. “The internet has changed everything,” says McCall. “Auction has taken over the [art] business.”

By the day, more and more people are buying art through auction because it can be done online, McCall explains. Similar to journalism and the fall of newspapers, the internet has also impacted the art world. “People don’t get out and go to galleries anymore, which can be risky when buying art. We see a lot of fakes and forgeries that people bring in and say they bought online.”

Prices have become soft and are going down in the age of the internet, according to McCall. As a result, people don’t think art is a good investment anymore. And, perhaps, in some cases they’re right. But historical art will forever be different because it holds more depth. It’s a representation and image of our past. In fact, a lot of modern artists replicate the past because of how potent, classic, nostalgic and difficult things were then. The era—which obviously didn’t have iPhones or computers—had an authentic character that made it pure in essence. The same can hardly be said about the world in which we currently live.

“[The artists] recorded the time as it was in their paintings,” says McCall. “It’s a direct reflection of their era. Today, a lot of artists paint out of time and era—they paint about Indians and early days, et cetera. But the late 19th- and early 20th-century artists were recording the way it looked then and what was happening.”

McCall explains that the artists featured in his gallery lived through the Great Depression and World War II. He also tells us about life in OC back in 1918, when Laguna became a destination for artists. People had to take a train into Santa Ana, and then take a stagecoach to Laguna. Nothing about life was easy for these wildly gifted folk, which, in part, adds to the depth of these Plein Air treasures.

Part of DeRu’s allure is McCall’s gift for restoring old paintings. In fact, it’s his superpower. He shows us a majestic painting of the Grand Canyon made in 1904 that he found during an antiquing excursion; it was dirty, varnished, ripped and in grim condition. “I always felt I had a little advantage over the average art collector because I can look at a dirty painting and know what I could do to it to bring it back to life.”

The painting of the Grand Canyon looks like it has age, but you’d never guess it was thrashed at one point. McCall’s drive to save pieces of our history from being thrown out will live on even after DeRu’s closes in the next couple of months. He’s going to do all the art restoration for the Irvine Museum that’s currently on Von Karman. Soon, however, that museum will be taken over and moved to UC Irvine, where they’re going to build an art museum, research and restoration center, according to McCall.

“I have a lot of art reference books that I’ve collected over the years,” says McCall. “I’m going to give some to the museum and sell them some, and help them put together an art research library. You can go online and find out a lot about known artists of the past but the books still have hidden information you can still only get in books, and find out more details about the artist. That’s what research is.”

Books are another aspect of DeRu’s that adds a certain air of comfort to the gallery. They line nearly every flat surface in the Laguna and Bellflower galleries. McCall shows us a book of Payne’s work, and reveals he was friends with the Payne family. When Payne’s daughter, Evelyn Payne Hatcher, died at 93 years old, she left McCall the rights to the book, and has helped keep the Payne’s art legacy alive; the book’s currently in its seventh printing.

McCall tells of a couple, Rena and Ed Coen from Minneapolis, who were friends with the Payne family. Rena and Ed gave birth to Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, better known as the Coen Brothers, the brilliant brother filmmakers of our time. “Rena worked with Evelyn,” says McCall. “They were college professors and close friends. Ed Coen was from England. I can see where the two brothers got their ability for producing movies. Both parents were college professors and writers. They were very smart—and funny, too.”

Although DeRu’s in Laguna is closing—and selling everything from books to furniture to original paintings for 25 percent off—the location in Bellflower will be open until all the art and books are sold. After that, you’ll be able to find McCall’s extraordinary collection in the Irvine Museum and the homes of the clientele he’s built up over the past 50 years.

“Paintings don’t just offer monetary value,” says McCall. “I’ve had clients tell me that at the end of the day they look at their landscape paintings and feel relaxed; like they’ve escaped all of the bad things of the world. There’s great value in feeling—sometimes more than what the value of the art is.”

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