Audio Interview: https://clyp.it/oq5u2nf5 [23.04.00]
The following interview is a narrative transcript from my conversation with Grace Pucci, Past President and longtime volunteer of El Paso de Robles Area Historical Society. Grace shares the work of the historical society at the Carnegie Library in Paso Robles, California. An excerpt of the interview airs in “The Art of Life,” my weekly podcast series on Voice of Paso Internet radio Fridays at :15 past the hour at 6 – 9am. The interview includes topics such as “California Unedited! The Archives of R.J. Arnold.” This featured exhibition at Paris Photo Los Angeles at Paramount Studios (2015), and the current exhibition, “Shared Histories 3: More of R. J. Arnold’s Portraits of the Central Coast,” were curated by Grace’s nephew Anthony Lepore. The regional exhibition runs at the Carnegie in Paso Robles through December 2017.
The Virginia Peterson Research Room, located on the lower level of the Carnegie Library is the repository for these materials and is open to the public on Tuesday and Thursday from 10am – 1pm or by appointment. Historical Society volunteers are available to assist with research requests. The main floor of the Carnegie Library showcases the society’s collections through exhibits and displays, which celebrate the area’s unique history. Docents are on duty to greet visitors, answer their questions and share their knowledge of the area. A gift shop is located on the main floor and features an interesting mix of vintage and new items, books on local history and children’s educational toys and books. For more on PRHS, visit: www.pasorobleshistoricalsociety.org.
In 2011, the El Paso de Robles Area Historical Society received over 1,400 19th-century glass plate photographic negatives; the largest collection of historic items received by the Society to date. The collection is the work of photographer Richard J. Arnold whose studio was located in San Luis Obispo from the mid 1880’s to the early 1890’s. The glass plates were cleaned, cataloged, scanned and printed to produce the outstanding photographs on display at the Carnegie Library throughout 2017. The exhibit presents a rare look at life in San Luis Obispo County at the end of the 1800’s.
JT: This is Dr. Jill Thayer and today I’m visiting with Grace Pucci from El Paso de Robles Area Historical Society. We’re sitting in the Virginia Peterson research room located in the lower level of the Carnegie Library. Grace, it’s so nice to see you again. Thank you for joining me.
GP: You’re most welcome, I’m happy to be here today.
JT: Could you share the rich history of the Carnegie Library and the early beginnings of Paso Robles Historical Society?
GP: Certainly. Well, first the Carnegie Library back in the late 1800s, the ladies of the town decided we needed a library, and Mr. Andrew Carnegie, through his foundation, was awarding grants. His philosophy was any town that wanted a library should be able to have one. We applied for $10,000 grant, which we were awarded with the stipulation that we would assess ourselves 10% of that grant every year to pay for the ongoing maintenance. And with that money, we built this beautiful building that we’re sitting in today, The Paso Robles Carnegie Library. It became the official town library in 1908 and was in operation until 1995 when we built the new library across the street, and this became the home of the Paso Robles Historical Society.
JT: How and when did you become a part of this?
GP: I was a charter member and moved here in 1985. Virginia Peterson approached me and asked if I would become a member because they were just forming the society and I did. I’ve been a member since then and now I’m a volunteer here at the Carnegie.
JT: Tell us about the Historical Society today and the offerings that you bring to the community.
GP: Our main mission here is to preserve the official archival documents of the town. We have photographs, we have town histories, we have histories of historic homes, we have family histories. Anything to do with the town, education, churches, the high school, we have that here. One of our functions is to do research and when the public needs or wants to have some research done they can come and see us, and we will either help them with it, or we’ll do it for them. In our main floor upstairs, we showcase what we have, and right now, at this particular time we have a photographic exhibit, but through the years we’ll have exhibits on history, and on some of the important things that happened in town.
JT: We’re sitting here in this wonderful research library, and I’m looking around at the shelves of binders, archives, and catalogs, and I can only imagine the generations that you’ve been able to preserve, chronicle, and document. What are some of the most engaging stories that you’ve come across in your collection?
GP: A lot of the family histories are very interesting. We did a living history program on Myrtle Edgar Walton, and her family’s history. They were from the Estrella area out by the woods, now the Paso Robles Airport, and just some of the history of what she had growing up, seeing the way they lived, what was important to them. The church was the center of all of their lives out there, because it was very rural, and the church was where they had their meetings. She tells a wonderful story of a gentleman who came to town and did a phantasmagoria, which was an early – like a video, but it used a projector with a handle, and it showed different scenes and everybody from the area went to the church that night to see that, because it was something very special. She tells the story of a preacher… A traveling preacher would ride on his horse and come out and give the sermon once a month, so those kinds of stories are so – they put you in touch with what happened here 100 years ago, which we have no idea, many of us now, because we get in a car and go where we need to go. We don’t have to ride a horse or get in a carriage.
JT: Of course. Are there any stories that you’ve come across that are mysteries?
GP: One of the things that we’re asked a lot about and there really is no definitive answer are the tunnels under Paso Robles. And we’ve heard all kinds of stories, they were used for storage, they were used for water, bringing water. One of the famous stories is that the people who lived up on the hills on the west side would use the tunnels to come down to take the mineral waters, they didn’t want to be seen in their bathing costumes so they would use the tunnels to come to the water and then back. But it’s very hard to know which of those are actually true. Many of the tunnels still exist in Paso Robles, but many of them have been boarded up.
JT: Interesting, and what about some of the families that have fourth or fifth generation families, can you speak to that?
GP: We have many families in town, we call them the pioneer families, and many of them are celebrated on Pioneer Day. Last Pioneer Day we celebrated John and June Bertone, whose family came here in the late 1800s as Junes family, the Klintworth family and settled on the east side of town, and there are many. We have collections for many of the pioneer families, and when we first started back in the 1980s we did a lot of oral histories and they’ve been transcribed. A lot of those people are not with us anymore, so it’s nice to have those oral histories on file with some of the pioneer families who’ve been here forever.
JT: Tell me, with all of your thousands of archival records, originally they were done by hand, and most likely were hand transcribed or collected and bound in albums and so on, what about converting them to today’s media? How is that going in your area?
GP: Very slowly. What we’re doing right now is using the program called PastPerfect, and we’re trying to get everything we have on to that including photographs. I’ve got one volunteer who’s scanning photographs, and another volunteer inputting the information, so that will all be there. We have not done digital recordings yet, but everything is transcribed with the old typewriters. You can tell the minute you see a page that has been done on an old typewriter rather than a computer. Eventually, it will all get on there, but it is taking time. It’s very time consuming.
JT: It’s really important. I know, the oral histories that I worked on in my post-doctoral project were saved in a certain media format that was migratable in our current technology, but again every generation of media migrates to some new technological advancement. It sounds like you’re staying on top of current trends, but also in the industry, what will happen 50 – 100 years from now with the way that they’re preserved today. I find that really important and interesting.
JT: Wonderful. Honoring history and archival preservation are important components of the Society’s work. Could you share how an artifact is acquired and the process it goes through to become a permanent part of the collection?
GP: I’m glad you asked this, because it’s very important for people to know that. We don’t accept everything that comes in, we try to because we are limited on space here at the Carnegie. We try to hone in on things that directly relate to Paso Robles or the nearby surrounding area history, and how we do that is noted on our website and here at the Carnegie, a potential donation form. So people will come to us and tell us what they have, we let them fill out the form, and then we have an acquisitions committee who look at the form and determine if it’s appropriate for [our collection]. If it is then we call the person and ask them to come in, bring their items, and we fill out the appropriate paperwork. If it’s not appropriate for here, we try to discover where it should be, and then send the person in that direction.
Many times people will bring in – a relative will pass away, and they’ll bring in a big box of things that we’ve got to dig through and sort out. And generally if something in that box is not related to Paso Robles, we let the relative know. We say, “We’d like to send this to Michigan.” Or to wherever it’s supposed to be, and if it’s okay with them then we contact the historical society there, and say, “We have this, would you like to have it?” And we’ll send it on.
JT: What are some examples of some of the objects or achieves that they bring in?
GP: Many times it’s a lot of photographs, and one thing I will say is put on the back of the photograph who it is, where it was, and what date it was taken, because sometimes we get photographs that we have no idea who the people are, and when or where it was taken, and how do you appropriately archive that if you don’t have any idea? We also, surprisingly, get clothing, which is interesting. We’ve received a couple of pieces of old clothing, wedding dresses, and things that normally we would not take, but a few of them we accept to add to our exhibits upstairs. Normally, something like that, we would send on to the Pioneer Museum. We get a lot of photographs as I said, family histories. A lot of times people will have written something about their family which is so precious, and we will preserve that in an album. Our family histories section actually has individual notebooks on individual families, and so those notebooks will be filled with photographs and information on the families.
JT: I think it’s important as you mentioned to document on verso, on the reverse side of a photograph, time, place, people, anything involved so you can appropriately archive that in the database in PastPerfect. And provenance. It’s very important to document the history of the piece.
In 2015, Paso Robles Area Historical Society made quite an impression on the LA art scene, with California Unedited, The Archives of R. J. Arnold, the featured exhibition of Paris Photo, Los Angeles at Paramount Studios. For the show, they converted the sound stages and backlight buildings into galleries that showcased photography and digital media from around the world. I was pleased to join you all at Paramount for the opening. The installation was remarkable, and it was received quite well. I know your nephew, Anthony Lepore was the curator in an exceptional installation. I wanted just to talk to you about your reflections, looking back on that remarkable exhibition and the extraordinary venue.
GP: It was a major step for the historical society, first of all, to have our collection recognized at that level, and then to have it displayed so beautifully. And the thing that made me feel the best about it was that here was the work of a photographer from the late 1800s in Santa Luis Obispo. A very small microcosm of the culture of that time, and he is being shown at an exhibition that was seen by people from all over the world. The attendance at that fair was in the tens of thousands, and there were artists from all over the world, but here we were in this building with this nice historic component to photography, and having it recognized after sitting in an old hotel in San Miguel for many years. And the fact that it was saved, it was preserved, it was cleaned and archived, and these beautiful photos were made, and they were seen by so many people, it meant everything.
And I said, “You know we have these plates, you’re a photographer, come and look.” He came and looked and he said, “Aunt Grace, you don’t have any idea what you have here, this is a spectacular collection.
– Grace Pucci to her nephew, Curator Anthony Lepore
JT: What really stood out to me was showcasing this snapshot of history in this incredible space in contemporary culture. People came to Paris Photo, Los Angeles to see international galleries, artists, photographers, what was current in the culture…. to just go back in time and see these extraordinary photographs on display in an installation in this beautiful space that they converted to a gallery. What I remember was the excitement of the people, and intergenerational audience.
I remember young and old, all different ages, cultures, and ethnicities and they would go up really close to the photo and they would look at it, stare at it and just try to think in their minds what it must have been like to go back to those times, and how that equates with what’s happening in today’s culture. I just found that fascinating. They were just enthralled with the works. There were throngs of people in rows, and they were lined up around the building. It was such a high point of this international exhibition, and at Paramount Studios, what a thrill.
GP: It was. It was fabulous, and it was so good to have that shown to such a large audience. And some of the comments we received, especially when they looked at the photographs of the women, how could they have worn all those corsets and the high neck and squeeze themselves into these beautiful dresses, and yet there were pictures of very common ordinary people, the bread seller with his basket of loaves of bread, the butchers with their meat hanging. So it was a nice, fully comprehensive view of life in this little frame of history. We all felt very honored to have that show.
JT: Also, just the way the photos were composed, they weren’t out in the environment, they were these beautiful staged, posed, articulate images set in the studio. And many of the faces were so historic. You didn’t see a lot of smiles. They were these captivating images that I remember and people were fascinated by that.
GP: They were, and one of the things that Anthony pointed out to me was that talent that Mr. Arnold, the photographer had, as he was able to interact with his subjects in such a way that he brought out who they were in that photograph. It is, as you say, a lot of them were none-smiling, very staid, but you got a real feeling of who that person was and what their persona was like, because he drew that out of them in his work.
JT: The society has many notable displays throughout the year. Your current exhibition includes these images, Shared Histories 3: More of R. J. Arnold’s Portraits of the Central Coast. The first two in the series were exceptional. How did these shows evolve?
GP: This is a very wonderful story. When the glass plates were brought to the historical society, they were sitting in our newspaper room, untouched because we didn’t know what we had or what to do with them. And Brother Scrivani from Monterey, he was the archivist at the time for the Cooper-Molera Adobe, came to look at a newspaper and he saw them sitting there and he said, “You know, you really need to clean these up and put them in acid-free sleeves and acid-free boxes. I’d be happy to come and show you how to do that.” So he came and we started cleaning them up and then it was Thanksgiving, and my nephew Anthony was here. And I said, “You know we have these plates, you’re a photographer, come and look.” He came and looked and he said, “Aunt Grace, you don’t have any idea what you have here, this is a spectacular collection. This photographer was so talented,” and so he encouraged us to show them, and he did – he came down here, brought all of his equipment, did some high resolution scans of the photographs, and then he printed them and framed them, and that was our first exhibit of them. Then he lectured on Mr. Arnold in Los Angeles where he lives, and someone from the Paris Photo Group heard one of his lectures, and that was the connection with Paris Photo. They approached him and said, “We’d like to come to Paso Robles and see what’s up there,” and they did, and the rest is history.
JT: It’s extraordinary, the fact that this wonderful archival and cultural repository makes this huge, incredible splash on the international art scene with these beautiful photos.
GP: And it all happened circumstantially. They could have still been sitting in there and we would not have known what to do had these individuals not come forward and been part of the circle of what we do here.
JT: How many were there?
JT: 1,400, and how many did you glean for the exhibitions?
GP: We did the first two exhibitions here with about 22. Paris Photo did 50. And right now, we have an exhibit of them, and I think there’s close to 30 up there now.
JT: What was Anthony’s curatorial intent when he put the show together?
GP: I think he was most interested in showing the breath of R.J Arnold’s work, how he didn’t just interview the wealthy people who sat in the chair and came in for their portrait, but that he showed people across the board. That’s what Anthony wanted to show.
JT: And what was the preparation for something of this scope? You mentioned briefly, what would you say the greatest challenge was in preparing for a show of this scale?
GP: Well, because Anthony was so talented and took care of all of the curating of the show, our biggest challenge was how do we display it here, because it is a small space upstairs, and we didn’t have the appropriate panels to put them on. The first year, we borrowed them from the city. The second year, we put a little note in our newsletter that we could use some donations for the panels, and the money poured in so we were able to buy enough panels to display everything. And then we had to figure out how to arrange the cases upstairs and the furniture so that everything could fit. So that was my challenge. I left it to the professional artist to determine what would be shown and how they’d be printed.
JT: It was notable, when I came in and you were kind to show me around the exhibition, it was interesting to see how they looked in this space, in the Carnegie Library as opposed to the Paramount Studios.
GP: And I think what we need to say here is that these are the pictures that were at the Paramount Studios for Paris Photo Los Angeles. They were gifted to us after the exhibit, and they are different. When we originally framed the first exhibit, they were framed very differently and they had glass in front of them. This exhibit, there’s no glass, they’re framed very differently and there’s all different sizes of pictures, which makes it very nice. When we hung them up here, it was a different feeling from the first two exhibits.
JT: I noticed, it seemed that the engagement with the viewer was a little more intimate. They were in a warm space, in this beautiful library against the starkness of the Paramount exhibition space, but equally as impressive. It’s just a little different, they’re more approachable here.
GP: I agree.
JT: You can see a lot of the details, so I really encourage everyone to come down and see this extraordinary exhibit. A few last questions Grace. Share with us some of the treasures one might find in the collection here, overall?
GP: Well, a lot of people come in and they’re thrilled to find out information on their homes. We do have a wonderful historic section of homes up on the west side, and they’ll come in and we have collection of inventory on the historic homes then that will lead them to want to know more about the person who lived in the home, so we go over to the family histories. And we have newspapers that date back to the 1800s so people can find information in newspapers on families. There isn’t one specific thing, it’s like one thing leads to another and that leads to something else, and it’s like this wonderful little ongoing circle of information that we can share with people, which we love to do here.
JT: To me, I look at it like a treasure trove. You come in and you just uncover these wonderful experiences. It’s like going back in time.
GP: It is. One of the fun things is we have children come from the different schools and we’ll bring them down here and they’ll look at the year books, and many of them are of their parents when they were in school here. They’ll go to their parents’ year book and look at their parent’s picture and they’ll be laughing hysterically, “Look, that was my mother back in that school!” And that’s so wonderful, because it’s so important to engage the young people and get them interested in the history. That’s what we’re trying to do with our outreach to the school.
JT: I look at this as very important in terms of connecting one generation to the next. It’s just such an important service and offering that you bring, a gift I would say to the community.
GP: Thank you, I agree.
JT: I know volunteers play an important role in a nonprofit cultural institution. In what ways can one become involved with Paso Robles Historical Society?
GP: There are several ways you can become involved, you can docent, which is up on the main floor, and that would be greeting visitors and sharing with them what our exhibits are and a little bit of the history of the town. Or you can come down here to this beautiful research room, and help with cataloging the archives, doing computer input, just helping to organize things, or doing research. And we have very flexible times and hours we’ll work with people. If they want to be here all day or just part of the day, and everybody is trained and mentored. So if somebody says, “Well I don’t know anything about the history of this town,” they can come and we’ll share with them, they’ll learn and nobody is put on their own, you know by themselves. They are constantly mentored or taught about what we have here.
JT: What an incredible experience to be able to come in and immerse oneself in history, and culture. What do you see as an important issue in the preservation of our community and culture today?
GP: Well, I have my own personal thing that I think is important. I’m very concerned about the number of historic buildings in our town that have been demolished through the years. One of the things we work very hard on here is to create a historic preservation ordinance for the city of Paso Robles, which we now have in place. That’s very important, that’s why when people come here and they have an older home we’re so encouraging, and try to get them to embrace that. I think it’s very important of the family histories that we have. This wonderful archive of the families who settled this area, made it what it is today, and that it’s here to share with other people.
JT: And for those who are listening around the world, because of course this is Internet radio it’s broadcast internationally, what would you say to those who are interested in learning of their histories?
GP: Go first to your historical society and check that out, and one of the things we do here is we will do as much research as we can for anybody at our historical society. Then if it goes beyond that we make recommendations. If your family originally came here from the Midwest, go to the historical society, contact them and find out the information. But your local historical society is always the first place to start, because that’s where most of the archives are and where they are trained to help you.
JT: Any closing thoughts?
GP: We’re thrilled to have this beautiful building here in town, and to have the ability to preserve the history of our town through photographs, family histories, and all of our archives here. We very much enjoy interacting with people, and want people to come here, and feel comfortable in our building, and look at our exhibits. We want them to fully share in the history of Paso Robles which is very unique and very special to us, and we want to share that with them.
JT: It was such a privilege speaking with you. Thank you Grace, for the contributions of the Paso Robles Historical Society and sharing your thoughts on our cultural heritage.
GP: You’re most welcome. I’m very happy to do it. Thank you for speaking with me today.
[End of audio]
Article photos courtesy Jill Thayer, Ph.D.
“A Conversation with Grace Pucci, El Paso de Robles Area Historical Society,” from The Art of Life with Dr. Jill Thayer, a podcast on the Voice of Paso (VOP). Jill shares her thoughts on art, culture, and life on the Central Coast including a look at regional artists, professional practice, and topics that affect our quality of life. The weekly series is featured on Fridays around :15 past the hour at 6am though 9am on the Voice of Paso Internet radio. Narrative transcripts © 2017 Jill Thayer, Ph.D. All rights reserved. [Go TuneIn.com, search for “Voice of Paso.”] Promo: https://clyp.it/4pwxiwti and Program Interview: https://clyp.it/oq5u2nf5 [23.04.00].
Jill Thayer, Ph.D. is an artist, curator, educator, and writer. A native of Sacramento, California, she was a 45-year resident of Bakersfield prior to relocating to the Central Coast in 2014. She received her doctorate in 2011 at Claremont Graduate University in Cultural Studies/Museum Studies, which included a transdisciplinary study in global strategy and trade through Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at St. Peter’s College, Oxford University, UK. She holds a Masters degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with emphases in gallery practicum, arts management, and MBA marketing management. In Fall 2012, Jill produced and curated, “In Their Own Words: Oral Histories of CGU Art,” a series and exhibition featuring alumni, professors, and professors emeritus of Claremont Graduate University School of Arts and Humanities, including Karl Benjamin, Roland Reiss, Michael Brewster, Connie Zehr, Mowry Baden, Ted Kerzie, and John Frame. Digital narratives of the postdoctoral project are included in Archives of American Art at The Smithsonian Institution. Prior to pursuing her graduate studies, Jill owned a design firm for 25 years specializing in corporate identity and marketing strategy for small business and global companies. As a gallerist of 15 years, she curated regional and international artists through selected exhibitions.
Dr. Thayer is curator for Estrella Warbirds Museum in Paso Robles; and Associate Professor for Santa Monica College, Allan Hancock College, South University, National University School of Business Management, and Post University Malcolm Baldrige School of Business teaching onsite and online courses in art history, global visual culture, marketing, and integrative strategies. She is a contributing writer for art publications in Los Angeles and Miami; and host of “The Art of Life,” a weekly podcast for Voice of Paso Internet radio. As an artist, her paintings and digital media are included in private and corporate collections nationally.