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The Bruton Sisters

Sisters in Art – Esther, Helen, and Margaret

Margaret Bruton – Born February 20, 1894 in Brooklyn, NY; died August 29, 1983 in Monterey, CA.
(Anne) Esther Bruton – Born October 17, 1896 in Alameda, CA; died August 31, 1992. Married name: Esther Bruton Gilman.
Helen Bruton – Born February 7, 1898 in Alameda, CA; died November 16, 1985, Monterey, CA.

Helen Bruton won the Section commission to do the two terra-cotta reliefs for the Fresno Post Office and Courthouse (now the Fresno City Hall). The reliefs are titled “RFD-1″ and “RFD-2″. They were installed in 1940. She also did the murals at the University of California at Berkeley, located on the exterior wall of UC campus office supplies bldg. (formerly Old Powerhouse), a brick building just east of Sather Gate along Strawberry Creek.

Helen and Margaret did the mosaics for the exterior of the Mothers House at the Fleishacker (San Francisco) Zoo. These lovely works are still extant although the Mothers House (now the Zoo gift shop) is in disrepair and needs restoration work.

There are several microfilm reels available at the Archives of American Art relating to the Bruton sisters at http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/bruton64.htm

The text in the AAA catalogue reads:
“Transcript of an interview of Helen and Margaret Bruton conducted by Lewis Ferbrach√© for the Archives of American Art, 1964 (37 pp.). The Brutons speak of their background; their art education; Helen’s studio in Monterey, CA.; their stay in Virginia City in the early 1930s; their exhibitions in California; their attempt at illustrating in New York City during the early Depression; Helen’s work for the Memorial Library at the University of Southern California, and the Gladding-McBean Tile Drafting Department in Los Angeles; commercial mosaic jobs; their work for the Public Works of Art government project, including the exterior mosaic panels on the Mother House at Fleishacker Zoo in San Francisco; their work for the Works Progress Administration, including mosaic panels for the Old Powerhouse at the University of California, Berkeley, and terra-cotta relief sculptures for the post office in Fresno, CA.; and their murals for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. They discuss conserving the murals, the WPA, and government support of the arts today and recall their assistant during the WPA years, the Italian mosaic artist Anthony Falcier, and their friend Clayton S. Price, who painted for the WPA in Portland, OR.” (AAA)

The following biographies are from www.askart.com:

(Anne) Esther Bruton
Esther Bruton is best known as a skilled muralist, and for her ability to work with wood and paint. Born in Alameda, California in 1896, she was raised there with her two sisters Margaret and Helen who were also artists. After attending a local public high school Esther joined her older sister Margaret in New York City. From 1917 to 1918 she studied under George Bridgeman at the Art Students League in New York. She studied commercial art at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. After her studies she took a position as an advertising illustrator at Lord and Taylor department store in New York.

Esther then returned to her family home in Alameda, California where she worked for the I. Magnin department store as a fashion illustrator. She maintained her position there over the next seven years while also traveling periodically with her family. In 1924 she spent four months in Tahiti where she lived with a friend in a grass-hut. She traveled again in 1925 taking a trip to Europe with her sisters. The three of them took classes in Paris at the Studio de la Grande Chaumiere. Esther gave up her job as a commercial artist in 1929 to concentrate on her Fine Art. She took another trip with her family to Taos, New Mexico to sketch the Pueblo. When the family returned, Esther and her sisters gave a joint exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco in 1929. During the 1930s she continued to show her work within California where she gained critical praise and earned awards.

All of the sisters had unique talents and Esther’s was her ability to work with wood and paint. She made painted screens and was a skilled muralist. One of her commissions included the circus-theme murals in the cocktail lounge at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco. Esther was selected chairman of the jury for the fifty-seventh Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Art Association at the San Francisco Museum of Art in 1937. She remained an active member of the California Society of Etchers and also the San Francisco Art Association in her later years.*

Helen Bruton
Helen Bruton originally wanted to be a sculptor but turned instead to woodblock printing and engraving. She later became known for her mosaic murals. Born and raised in Alameda, California, Helen attended the University of California, Berkeley where she majored in Art.

During World War I, she worked with her sisters Esther and Margaret in occupational therapy at the Letterman Hospital in San Francisco. In 1920 she moved to New York to take classes at the Art Students League for one year under sculptors Sterling Calder and Leo Lentelli. She joined her sisters in Europe to study art, mainly in Paris.

Returning home, she became interested in California-Spanish architecture. She was commissioned by tile producer McBean and Company to create mosaic panels for the Mudd Memorial Library at the University of Southern California. In 1929 Helen, her mother and her sisters traveled to New Mexico where all three girls painted and sketched. When they returned they gave a joint exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco. Helen also exhibited at the California Society of Etchers and the Progressive California Painters in 1934. She later worked with her sister Margaret on a W.P.A. project for the Fleishacker Park in San Francisco. The sisters designed and implemented the two mosaic panels that were the first tile mosaics to be done in San Francisco by local artists. Helen later received a commission from the University of California Berkeley to create mosaic panels to adorn the University Art Gallery (1936).

She continued to live in the San Francisco Bay Area eventually settling in Monterey, California where she died in 1985.*

Margaret Bruton
Margaret Bruton is often known for her landscapes, figures, graphics and murals. Although Margaret’s family had lived in San Francisco, California, Margaret was born in 1894 in Brooklyn, New York, where her mother had relatives. Margaret and her mother returned to California when she was two months old. She was raised in San Francisco where she and her sisters Helen and Esther, also artists, attended public high school. As a youth Margaret showed promise as an artist, which prompted her art education in 1913. She started at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco where she studied under Frank Van Sloun. At the age of twelve she won a prize for her work and later earned a scholarship that enabled her to study at the Art Students League in New York City. At the ASL she studied with Frank Vincent Dumond and Robert Henri.

Margaret stayed in New York for four years until returning to California in 1918. Bruton worked at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco for two years until the end of the war. She then traveled to Monterey, California where she attended open-air sketching classes with Armin Hansen. Eventually her entire family moved to Monterey in 1924, renting their home in Alameda. In 1923 Bruton won a prize for a painting she exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum. In 1925 she and her sisters traveled to Europe to study art and Margaret stayed in Paris, France, for a year to study at the Academie de la Grand Chaumiere. When she returned to California she gave her first solo-exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in San Francisco (1926).

During 1929 she spent time in New Mexico to find new material for her artwork. She painted Indian portraits and exhibited her works when she returned to California. She took frequent sketching trips with her mother and sisters to Nevada and Mexico. She often exhibited with the California Society of Etchers, the Club Beaux Arts, the San Francisco Society of Women Artists and the San Francisco Art Association. Margaret Bruton died in California in 1983.*

*©www.askart.com