Monterey Stories

Bruce Ariss Was Here

Published on Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bruce Ariss Was Here

And had the time of his life

Artist, writer, editor, muralist, movie set designer and cartoonist - Bruce Ariss, was a colorful, talented, free-spirited Monterey icon who arrived on the Peninsula in 1935 and remained until his death in 1994 at age 83.

Ariss began his training as an artist-editor at U.C. Berkeley where he majored in art. He was art editor for the campus publication Occident, and contributed cartoons to the Daily Cal. He was also editor of the campus humor magazine The Pelican, and designed stage sets and posters for little theater. He was frequently in trouble with campus authorities for his irreverent humor and occasional shenanigans. While at Cal, Ariss met Jean Fitch, who he described as “the prettiest girl on campus.” They married in 1934.

After graduation, Ariss operated heavy machinery for a gold mine and managed to accumulate $200 in savings. He and Jean moved into an old garage near Asilomar and lived off their “fortune” for 18 months. Ariss later said in a newspaper interview, “…my wife Jean and I decided to make Monterey our home. She was a writer and I was an artist, and we had very little money. If we were going to be without money, then we might was well be poor in such a beautiful place as Monterey.” To earn a small income Bruce and Jean went to work for a small literary magazine, The Monterey Beacon, but payday never came, so they moved on to other projects.

In 1936, Ariss got into the Works Progress Administration, a federal program set up to create public works to relieve unemployment. He painted murals for many public buildings, including Monterey High School. Along with fellow artist, August Gay, he created a 150-ft x 12-ft mural covering three sides of the Pacific Grove High School library. Sadly, the mural was lost in a spectacular fire shortly after it was completed. “We worked from sketches I did,” said Ariss. “Two years to do and it was gone in 20 minutes!”

Bruce and Jean built their home and studio on a secluded, pine and cypress studded lot on Huckleberry Hill (now Lobos Street, in New Monterey). Using driftwood, used lumber, scraps, and salvage, the rambling, multi-level structure eventually grew to 25 rooms, spread over three lots. The Arisses raised five children and hosted parties for writers, artists, and friends. “In the ‘50s,” according to the Monterey Peninsula Herald, “There would be 40 or 50 kids playing in the lot next to the house – all of them related to Bruce and Jean.” The house was always a work in progress, and John Steinbeck referred to it as “A triumph over architecture.” It burned to the ground in 1990. “I got mad at the insurance company,” he said. “I paid $80 a year for years, then they raised the rate to $800. I bought a lot of fire extinguishers and smoke alarms instead…I guess it didn’t work.”

Bruce was fascinated by the working class environment of Cannery Row, and made hundreds of sketches of street and harbor scenes, cannery workers, fishermen throughout the 1930s, well before the publication of Steinbeck’s book. In 1936, Bruce and Jean accompanied Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck on a road trip to Baja California where the group collected marine specimens for Ed’s Pacific Biological Lab. Bruce captured images of the trip by filling sketchbooks with drawings and portraits.

In the 1940s, Bruce’s writing, editing, and artistic skills were put to use when he created cover illustrations for What’s Doing magazine. He served as Art Editor, and eventually became editor of that publication. For the U.S. Flag Centennial in 1946, famous interior designer Frances Elkins came up with an elaborate decorating scheme for the huge four-day celebration. Several blocks of downtown Alvarado Street were spruced up with new signs and brilliantly painted storefronts, all accomplished under the direction of Bruce Ariss.

Bruce’s interest in theater, dated back to his college days. In Monterey, he designed and helped build the Wharf Theatre, and created stage sets for many of its productions. In the 1950s, he commuted to Hollywood as a scenic artist and designed the set for Desi Arnaz’s nightclub that can be seen in reruns of the “I Love Lucy” show. He also wrote several original plays for the Wharf Theatre and even took occasional acting roles. He also helped Hank Ketcham with his Dennis the Menace cartoon strip and worked in the art department at the DLI. He supported Jean’s own successful career as the author of critically-acclaimed books including The Shattered Glass and The Quick Years.

Throughout his career as an artist, Ariss experimented with many media and styles and in 1989, a 60-year retrospective of his art, featuring watercolors, graphics, and oils was exhibited at the Pacific Grove Art Center. That same year, Bruce recreated a two-panel mural from his WPA work in the 1930s as a centerpiece for a 400-foot long mural created by several local artists to beautify a construction fence erected around a stalled hotel project on Cannery Row. Ariss was remembered as a “Peninsula Treasure” by the local newspaper. A quote from a 19th century Japanese artist who describes himself as “old man, mad about drawing” hung on the wall of Ariss’ studio. “That’s me,” said Ariss. “Old man, mad about drawing…I’ve never done enough.”

Written by Jeanne McCombs, using sources from the Library's California History Room.

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Comments (17)2675

17 comments on article "Bruce Ariss Was Here"

Donna Penwell

10/28/2016 8:49 PM

Thanks for the exhibit and blog Jeanne! You brought back wonderful memories of Bruce and Jean and the great Cannery Row Mural project. Bruce directed 50 artists (who were paid!) to create each 6'x6' panel for the mural...what a feat!

Jeanne McCombs

11/22/2016 3:09 PM

Thanks, Donna! He was a real Monterey icon. Just finished a YouTube video, too. Here's the link.

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Richard Rhoda

8/8/2017 8:45 PM

Bruce also painted storefronts and interior murals for many local commercial establishments. I remember fondly helping my uncle Bruce and his son, my cousin, Brien Ariss painting interior murals for the old Forrest Hill Supermarket which is now Trader Joe's in Pacific Grove.


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10/6/2017 1:33 PM

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