The Latest: 'Frost' unfrozen; a laid-back 'Home'

October 31, 2013
  • The album cover for Alice Wallace's "A Thousand Miles from Home."
The album cover for Alice Wallace's "A Thousand… (Handout )

John Frost: A Quiet Mastery

Phil Kovinick

The Irvine Museum, 239 pages

Thank God for archivists. The other week, I read a column in the Orange County Register by Sharon Henry, who sought to find the story behind Helen Stanley, whose name appears on a bench in Corona del Mar.

Henry sleuthed around town, checking documents in an effort to pinpoint who Stanley was, and came up empty.

Probably one of the most common human hopes is that our legacy will outlive us — and hopefully, that it will be more than just a shrug-inviting name.

I thought about that column as I read Phil Kovinick's "John Frost: A Quiet Mastery," the new book published by the Irvine Museum, which takes a once-nearly-forgotten California artist and gives him a painstakingly detailed biographical treatment. Read this volume while sitting atop the Stanley bench, and you may come to a conclusion or two about how posterity plays favorites.


"John Frost" is the 18th title produced by the museum, which previously spotlighted Edgar Payne, Franz A. Bischoff and other local luminaries. In a poignant epilogue, Kovinick describes the journey of Frost's fame — virtually a household name in the 1920s and 1930s, then increasingly obscure in the decades to follow before a renewed interest in California plein air painting, plus venues like the Irvine Museum, rescued him from storage.

Unlike Frida Kahlo or Vincent van Gogh, Frost probably won't become the subject of a biopic any time soon; his story is too low on drama for that. At one point, Kovinick describes him as "a warm, likable, down-to-earth nice guy who got along with just about everyone," probably not a role Ralph Fiennes was born to play.

The artist, who was born in 1890 and died of tuberculosis in 1937, grew up in a nurturing artistic family (his father, A.B. Frost, was a renowned illustrator), enjoyed a stable marriage and appeared to keep away from politics and hard living of most sorts.

Even still, Kovinick doesn't skimp on detail. Page after page of the book overflows with quoted correspondence, contemporary reviews and just about anything else a vault can hold. At its best, this eye for detail makes the subjects touchingly nuanced. Reading the elder Frost's letters to and about his artistic sons, we sense the conflict between his dogged support and his occasional chagrin at their chosen paths.

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