I cycled through downtown Santa Cruz in 2011, passed the Sockshop at Pacific and Locust, and found Ann Thiermann painting a mural on the back wall to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this landmark People’s Bank Building. I recognized her style from the 1995 Pearl Alley mural. When she found out I was a local historian, Thiermann said she was looking for pictures and information to bring the street scene to life. I came back several times with things she asked for. When she wanted to add a car to the street scene, someone drove by in a vintage car. Thiermann asked the driver if it was right for 1911, and the man said: “I’ll be back tomorrow in my 1911 car!”
Thiermann titled her painting “People make our city”. The mural includes the architect Wm. Weeks painted in an upstairs window, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk founder Fred Swanton on a bench reading in the Sentinel about the installation of his carousel in 1911, while journalist Josephine from the Sentinel Building across the street Clifford McCrackin, the advocate for saving the Big Basin Sequoias.
Thiermann has produced more than 70 murals nationwide, many of them for history and nature museums. For someone who focuses his life on others, I was so fascinated by surprising insights into Thiermann’s own story that I had wanted to tell her story for a long time. While Thiermann is preparing for the Open Studios from October 2nd to 3rd, the public has the opportunity to examine Thiermann’s art and life.
She was born into a Santa Monica Quaker household with brothers Eric and David and sisters Heather and Aggie. Her mother was a talented painter and sculptor. Her father ran the largest tree surgery company in Los Angeles, and his strong civil rights activism came from Quakers’ commitment to community service, which resulted in a highly motivated and activist family.
Thiermann’s life changed when she was 10 in 1960, moving from urban Santa Monica to rural Topanga Canyon. Suddenly the school was a half hour bus ride away. Her father owned an 8-acre ranch called Friendly Acres, but she found that her friends were now trees, rocks and streams in a state of nature that the indigenous Topang would have known. She had a horse, a donkey and chickens. The family loved camping, visiting state and national parks every school break, and even roughing on their own property (though sneaking into the house to use the bathroom). When it was hard to get away, the world came to them. Thiermann’s junior high friends liked to drop by because their father would lead them at games.
Thiermann loved music and played the piano since she was 6 years old. Then father Ian offered the Thiermanns’ garden in 1961 for the “Topanga Banjo & Fiddle Contest” sponsored by Santa Monica Quaker, which attracted 30 participants and 500 fans. Folk music has long been a place for protest songs. Performers were Mike Seeger (brother of the “If I Had A Hammer” composer Pete Seeger) and the Afro-Caribbean singer Henry “Taj Mahal” Fredericks. This founding folk festival grew rapidly and the following year moved right next door to Camp Wildwood.
In 1964, Betsy Itsbister from Santa Cruz was one of the directors of Thiermann’s Quaker Youth Workcamp leaders and helped build houses in the slums of Kankakee, Illinois. Then on June 2, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill, the most comprehensive civil rights bill since the Reconstruction. To celebrate, Ann’s group traveled to Chicago to meet with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. march and hear him speak on Solder Field. King called for redoubling efforts to end discrimination and poverty.
In high school, Thiermann found that she had inherited her mother’s natural talent for painting. Thiermann began with an emphasis on figural images and made portraits of all students in her world history class. She wanted to go to Mills College in Oakland, but the family couldn’t afford it. Then Thiermann was elected to represent the Pali (Palisades) grammar school in the fine arts. She won first place in fine arts out of 64 high schools and a Bank of America scholarship. So she spent a year at Mills College studying music and art.
Her brothers had gone to the newly opened UC Santa Cruz, which Thiermann visited from 1969 to 1972. The campus is made up of sequoias and fields that inspired them to study art and music as well as mythology and folklore. Todd Newberry’s biological illustration course sparked her interest in natural history. And she loved the independent study of the art history of the famous mystical artist Mary Holmes.
Thiermann returned to Topanga and spent a year painting and studying with the Renaissance painter Sid Francis. With the help of locals, Thiermann put on an art exhibition that grossed her $ 1,000, enough to spend three months in New York City. She lived in a Quaker boarding house and taught at a Quaker school. At Carnegie Hall, Thiermann was the musical companion for ballet classes, opera singers and instrumentalists, then he went across the street to the famous Art Students League to study classical figurative portraits and drawing. Lisa M. Specht was the League’s first female president, but the importance of this centuries-old institute had waned as modern art became minimal, conceptual, and impersonal.
Murals were the only performing arts in the 1960s and 1970s to flourish in the 1960s and 1970s because they clad blank walls in something human and personal that usually reflected a neighborhood’s cultural identity. Thiermann was employed as a music director and wall painter in a Jewish senior citizen center in the Bronx. One of the residents was a former silent film pianist, now blind but still able to accompany popular songs. In 1976, the seniors performed in front of the New York Public Library, belting out songs from “Oklahoma” with a Yiddish accent.
Thiermann’s three months in New York had turned into three years before she saw Californian nature scenes at the Met and felt homesick for the west coast. Thiermann returned to Santa Monica and taught art and music in a private middle school. She studied organ at UCLA while painting at Cal State Long Beach Graduate School. Her graduation thesis for a Master of Fine Arts was a series of 25 paintings entitled “Reflections”, which show people in a pensive mood in mirrors.
For several years she taught at the LA County Museum of Art and made studies of old masters, figurative drawings and landscapes. In 1987, after graduating, she exhibited an exhibition entitled “Locker Room Landscapes” at the Rose Cafe in Venice, California. They were very popular with Hollywood movie stars, and Arnold Schwarzenegger asked them to do his portrait.
Brother Eric Thiermann had returned to Santa Cruz in 1976, founded Impact Productions and began making documentaries. Father Ian introduced Eric and Helen Caldicott, who founded Physicians for Social Responsibility in 1978 to end the nuclear arms race. Eric made the documentary “The Last Epidemic” in 1979, which he edited with his father and released in 1980-81. Life Magazine and Newsweek called it the most influential anti-nuclear weapons documentary of its time. Eric later won an Oscar for a 1986 documentary.
Escape from Santa Cruz
Thiermann lived on the Santa Monica Freeway until her doctor told her she sounded like a light smoker, even though she had never smoked in her life. Since her father and brothers were already in Santa Cruz, moving north was obvious. She taught at San Francisco City College only to witness the October 17, 1989 earthquake that razed highways, collapsed buildings, and caused fires. She left San Francisco to escape the “earthquake zone” and was initially surprised that the damage had spread to Santa Cruz until she discovered that the epicenter was in the forest of Nisene Marks (near her current home / studio) found. As the organist of the Congregational Church of Soquel, she was playing at a church wedding two weeks later, and just as the pastor said, “Faith, hope and love, and the greatest of all is LOVE,” then there was a strong aftershock, as if around her Underline the power of love.
Charles Prentiss asked Thiermann to do some legal landscapes for the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum. The museum had partnered with the Boardwalk for an animatronic exhibition of 15 “dinosaurs on the beach” from October 16, 1993 to January. October 23, 1994 at Penny Arcade. The exhibition was boosted by the release of the film “Jurassic Park” four months earlier.
In 1997 the Natural History Museum commissioned Thiermann to create a mural of Ohlone Village. Thiermann researched the topic and staged an Ohlone Village in Nisene Marks as a model. The mural was so well received that in 2001 a request came from Santa Paula to paint a Chumash village scene in the Blanchard Public Library. Thiermann loves trees and frames the scene with plane trees. To her surprise, she spotted songbirds fluttering against the mural and trying to land on the branches. Museum curator Frank Perry said: “This is the ultimate compliment!”
When UCSC’s American Indian Resource Center commissioned a scene with indigenous dancers in Quiroste in 2008, Val Lopez and his group from the Ama Mutsun tribal band served as advisors and performed dances as their models. In 2013 she did “Funeral Rites of the Bay Area Indians” at the Oakland Museum. Because accurate depictions of indigenous Californian life are so rare, Thiermann’s images have been reproduced in museum exhibits, books, brochures, and documentation. Equally revealing are her natural history murals, which show the relationships between native species and the environment.
Thiermann’s tries to bring harmony and understanding into a world of discord. In her opinion, her media, art and music, overlap with a similar language of color, rhythm, light and shadow. Thiermann has performed with the UCSC University Choir, the Distinguished Artist’s Series of the Peace United Church, has been organist at several county churches and teaches art at Cabrillo College.
Take a look at Thiermann’s studio
Thiermann’s studio (catalog no. 59) will be open on October 2nd, 3rd, 16th, 17th from 11am to 5pm. It’s located above the village of Aptos, by the Trout Gulch Cathedral, watch out for signs. Visit santacruzopenstudios.com for more information. Some of their framed open-air landscapes are focused studies for parts of wall paintings. Copies of their exhibition catalog “Pathways Through Our Parks” are also available. Register for your “Bell’Italia” sketch tour to Italy for June 2022, visit annthiermann.com.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.