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Local historian’s dream of South Bay artists’ exhibition about to come true

Originally published in the Rose Garden Resident, February 24, 2005, by Mary Gottschalk

Leonard McKay’s seemingly impossible dream is coming true. In March, the 32 watercolors and oil paintings by 20th century Silicon Valley artists collected by the 83 year-old historian and Shasta Hanchett Park resident will go on public display for the first time at History Park, San Jose.

“It’s exactly what I wanted and I never thought it would happen,” says McKay, who has been an inveterate collector since his student days at Santa Clara University.

Starting in the 1960s, McKay focused much of his energies on collecting artists from Santa Clara County and nearby.

It’s an eclectic collection that includes some very well known artists, such as A. D. M. Cooper and Andrew P. Hill, as well as artists who are virtually unknown, such as the twin McCracken sisters who took up painting in the 1960s.

McKay’s collection and the building it will be housed in at History Park are intertwined.

A San Jose native who grew up in Los Gatos – “it wasn’t a Yuppie town like it is now; there were working people there,” he says – McKay’s father, Leonard McKay Sr., took a bus back and forth to the print shop in downtown San Jose that he founded with his mother, Bessie C. Smith and his stepfather, Clifford Smith, in 1919.

After serving with the U.S. Army First Infantry Division in Germany after the Battle of the Bulge, McKay returned to San Jose and completed his degree in accounting and advertising at the University of Santa Clara.

Three days after graduation, he joined Pan American Airways and spent the next seven years in the Pacific Basin.

“I worked in Honolulu, Japan, Guam and Hong Kong. I had an office in downtown Hong Kong when China was falling to the communists. The Nationalists were with Chang Kai-Chek. Some high-ranking Nationalists were going up the stairs behind my office to a restaurant in the Hong Kong Hotel when some communist sympathizers shot them from the street through my office windows,” says McKay, recalling how he dived under his desk.

When McKay returned to San Jose in 1953, he continued with Pan Am in San Francisco.

“I drove the Bayshore Freeway one day and said, ‘That’s it.’ It was all stop signs and wasn’t a freeway,” he says.

McKay’s father was ill at the time, so he returned to the family business. After his father’s death, he bought his grandmother’s interest in Smith McKay Printing Co. in 1956.

In 1983 McKay sold the business to his son David, who operated in until his death in October 2004. McKay and his daughters then closed the business.

After selling the printing business, McKay operated Memorabilia of San Jose, specializing in post cards and old books dealing with Santa Clara County. He also worked closely with Clyde Arbuckle on his definitive History of San Jose, published in 1986.

House of art
Coincidentally, in its early years Smith & McKay was next door to the Pasetta House, then located at 196 W. St. James at Terraine Street.

It was there during the early years of the 20th century that Anna and Mateo Pasetta raised nine children. The were prominent in the fruit drying business.

Some two decades ago, one of their grandchildren was driving by the old home and saw it was about to be demolished.

“He didn’t want to see it destroyed, so he offered to buy it,” says Arlene Pasetta Nobriga, who lives in the Newhall Neighborhood. “He offered to buy it and they told him he could have it. So he had it moved out to the park and it was designed as an art gallery.”

The house, though, sat empty and unrestored, until the same grandson underwrote its restoration.

“He doesn’t want his name out there,” Nobriga says, explaining why he wishes to remain anonymous. “We’re a very private family, but our parents grew up there. He figured it was a good way to preserve the family name.”

While the donor was a student at Santa Clara University, he got to know McKay and his late wife Naomi.

He did some printing business with McKay and at one point, the two talked about turning the house into an art gallery. They have remained friends over the years.

He is also the one who purchased the art collection that will be on load for at least a year for display inside the Pasetta House in History Park.

At McKay’s request, it will be called the Leonard and David McKay Gallery.

“I thought he should be remembered,” McKay says of his late son. “He was recognized as one of the finest printers on the West Coast and he did some beautiful work.”

Parting with the collection was not easy, but McKay had long cherished the hope that someone would buy the collection and display it for the public to see. He had pieces of it on display at his shop, but there wasn’t sufficient space to display it all.

There are stories behind each piece, and historian that he is, McKay loves to share them.

Painting of big trees
One of the most impressive pieces in the collection is Hill’s painting of a giant redwood at what is now Big Basin Park.

Hill founded the Sempervirens Club environmentalist group and it his photography and painting is credited as having helped save Big Basin.

An early ally was the McPherson family in Santa Cruz and several members of the family will be on hand, along with the members of the Pasetta family for the dedication on March 6.

McKay has spoken to Bruce McPherson, the former state senator and newly appointed Secretary of State, and is hoping he will attend the exhibition opening.

Members of the McPherson family are in the Big Basin painting and McKay likes to point out that many people who view this particular painting comment on the fact that the three figures standing by the central tree have no facial features.

“Hill wanted the focus on the redwoods, he didn’t want faces,” McKay says. “Some people say he mustn’t have been a good artist if he couldn’t do faces, but in fact he was a good portrait painter.”

Pointing to other paintings, McKay talks about Dick Barrett, a prominent Mercury News columnist in the 1960s and 1970s, and the McCracken sisters, Vida and Venna. Of the eight McCracken paintings, six are watercolors, two are oils and all but one are Vida’s.

Some of the subjects of the paintings are instantly recognizable, including the Santa Clara Mission by Larry Burnham, Faber’s Bike Shop by Sara Anderson, the Alviso Train Station by Vida McCracken and the Golden Gate Park Conservatory by Robert Tower.

Each painting is a favorite in one way or another, but McKay admits that his very favorite is a view of the hills in San Luis Obispo in the spring by Anthony Quartuccio. “This was my favorite, I wanted to keep it,” he says.

The monetary value of the collection is difficult to estimate, McKay says, adding that he attended an auction in December with hopes of acquiring a painting of the Santa Clara Valley in bloom. The pre-sale estimate was $4,000 to $6,000 and McKay watched the piece sell for $45,000.

“Everything by Santa Clara Valley artists went over their estimates,” he says. “The prices of San Jose artists has gone up.”

“The significance of this collection is it’s a collection of artists that not necessarily lived here their whole lives, but they painted or did these works while they were living in the South Bay,” says Sarah Puckitt, curator for art and photography for History San Jose.

“Leonard has had the foresight to collect South Bay artists in a way that no other collector has done. It’s nice for us to be able to show and honor his collection. We’re very happy we’re getting to show it.”

McKay is pleased to see his dream realized, and now he has another one.

“There is a huge Andrew Hill painting that was given to the state by the people of San Jose and it was hanging in the legislature for more than 50 years,” McKay says of the 14-by-8-foot painting of a wagon train crossing the desert on the way to California. “Now it’s in a big box and the state Department of Parks and Recreation had it. The won’t give it back and they won’t do anything with it.

“I’d like to see it come back to San Jose.”