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A Journey Down Memory Lane

Lost amid the industrial buildings and automotive businesses that lined Artesia Boulevard in Bellflower once was a preserved California and Western America art sanctuary that ran from 1969 to 2020.  Inside, in its day, the aroma of old books and natural musk created a familiar feeling of home.  Wood panels hugged the walls while tan shag carpet cushioned your feet.  Paintings dating back to 1885 of Yosemite Valley, the Grand Canyon, and Native American life were scattered around the rooms.  There wasn’t even enough wall space for the entire inventory encompassing multiple buildings.

De McCall, the owner of DeRu’s Fine Art, sold historic paintings out of the gallery location in Bellflower beginning in 1969.  But when the surrounding area shifted to a manufacturing locale, he knew he had to open a studio in an art-friendly community to advance his collection.  In January 1997, McCall opened a showroom in Laguna Beach on the corner of South Pacific Coast Highway and Bluebird Canyon.  Until closing in early 2020, the nook of a gallery exhibited one-of-a-kind art with only a handful of competitors in Laguna.  “We offer historical art,” said McCall.  “The paintings are all by the artists that started the Laguna Beach Art Association and Museum in 1918.”

DeRu’s was a staple in Laguna Beach for over 20 years, showcasing Laguna artists such as Edgar Payne and Anna Hills.  Several other art galleries also showcased these artists, and their work was prominently featured at the Laguna Beach Art Museum. Still, McCall developed a niche and friendships that were unlike any others.

Sadly, McCall closed the Laguna location as the art world changed and business began to wean.  “The internet has changed everything,” said McCall.  “Auction has taken over the [art] business.”  By the day, more and more people are buying art through auctions because it can be done online, McCall explained.  Similar to journalism and the fall of newspapers, the internet has also impacted the art world.  “People don’t get out and go to galleries anymore, which can be risky buying art.  We see a lot of fakes and forgeries that people bring in and say they bought online.”

According to McCall, prices have become soft and are going down in the internet age.  As a result, people don’t think art is a good investment anymore.  And, perhaps, in some cases, they’re right. But historical art will forever be different because it holds more depth.  It’s a representation and image of our past.  In fact, many modern artists replicate the past because of how potent, classic, nostalgic, and difficult things were then.  The era—which didn’t have iPhones or computers—had an authentic character that made it pure.  The same can hardly be said about the world in which we currently live.

“[The artists] recorded the time as it was in their paintings,” said McCall.  “It’s a direct reflection of their era.  Today, many artists paint out of time and era—about Indians and early days, et cetera.  But the late 19th- and early 20th-century artists were recording how it looked then and what was happening.”

McCall explained that the artists featured in his gallery lived through the Great Depression and World War II.  He also reflected on life in OC back in 1918, when Laguna became a destination for artists.  People had to take a train into Santa Ana and then take a stagecoach to Laguna.  Nothing about life was easy for these wildly gifted folk, which, in part, adds to the depth of these Plein Air treasures.

Part of DeRu’s allure was McCall’s gift for restoring old paintings.  It was his superpower.  He showed us a majestic painting of the Grand Canyon made in 1904 that he found during an antiquing excursion; it was dirty, varnished, ripped, and in grim condition.  “I always felt I had a little advantage over the average art collector because I can look at a dirty painting and know what I could do to bring it back to life.”

The painting of the Grand Canyon looks like it has age, but you’d never guess it was thrashed at one point.  McCall’s drive to save pieces of our history from being thrown out will live on for future generations.

Over the years, McCall; completed all of the art restorations for the Irvine Museum that, was later taken over and moved to UC Irvine, where they are building an art museum, research, and restoration center.

Books are another aspect of DeRu’s that adds a certain air of comfort to the gallery.  In the day, they lined nearly every flat surface in the Laguna and Bellflower galleries.  McCall showed a book of Payne’s work, Composition of Outdoor Painting, and revealed he was friends with the Payne family.  When Payne’s daughter, Evelyn Payne Hatcher, died at 93, she left McCall the book’s rights and requested his help keeping Payne’s art legacy alive.  This goal has been met and exceeded through updates and continued printing.

McCall once told of a couple, Rena and Ed Coen from Minneapolis, who were friends with the Payne family.  Rena and Ed gave birth to Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, better known as the Coen Brothers, the brilliant brother filmmakers of our time.  “Rena worked with Evelyn,” said McCall.  “They were college professors and close friends.  Ed Coen was from England.  I can see where the two brothers got their ability to produce movies.  Both parents were college professors and writers.  They were brilliant—and funny, too.”

Although the physical locations of DeRu’s Fine Arts closed in early 2020, you can still find McCall’s extraordinary collection in the Irvine Museum and the homes of the multitude of clientele he built over 50 years.

“Paintings don’t just offer monetary value,” said McCall.  “I’ve had clients tell me that at the end of the day, they look at their landscape paintings and feel relaxed, like they’ve escaped all of the bad things of the world.  There’s great value in feeling—sometimes more than the value of the art.”