Landscape painter Laura Way Mathiesen brought an indomitable spirit, a formidable mind and boundless curiosity to Topanga in the 1920s.
A woman with red hair and “dancing brown eyes,” Laura Way Mathiesen (1876-1966) opened Marmont Studio to sell her paintings in the first hairpin turn on Topanga Canyon Blvd. in 1924. Under a woodblock-printed letterhead, depicting her studio on the right and her cabin on the left, she wrote to her friends…
“It is really a most wonderful location for I have at all times the variety of beach, rocky shore, palisades, mountain, cañon, or deep woods. In addition to this, all the world passes by my door. Sundays the traffic is almost intolerable.…
“I wish you could see some of my work at the present time. I feel sure that it is getting better and better and I am almost surprised myself some of the time with my work on waves and rocks and ocean subjects, for I have so small a background of ocean experience. When first I tried it I felt really bewildered at the heaving, tumbling mass, but almost all the sketches I made that first week have been sold so I must have done tolerably well. And so the little studio idea came to me….” (“Former Decatur Woman Has Mountain Studio,” The Decatur Review, September 7, 1924)
Marmont was probably Laura’s wordplay of Montmartre, the famous artists’ neighborhood in Paris. The name also combined “ocean” and “mountain,” evoking the studio’s location, and the main subjects of her paintings. Marmont Studio predated Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont by five years. The “primitive and rough little house” in the neighborhood called Brookside catered to weekend tourists, but was popular with locals as well.
“Marmont Studio, home of Mrs. Laura W. Mathiesen, well known California artist, is a gathering place for artists. Here on Sundays, particularly, they drop in to discuss their work, and to view Mrs. Mathiesen’s paintings.” (“Topanga Briefs,” Evening Outlook, October 8,1938)
Laura’s journey began in Northfield, Minnesota, where she was born Laura Rogers Way on April 28, 1876. Her grandfather had settled in Northfield after making a fortune in the California Gold Rush, and may have inspired her fascination with the West.
Laura studied art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where she graduated with a degree in Fine Arts in 1904. After college, she worked as a Supervisor of Drawing (instructing both teachers and students) in public schools in La Crosse, WI; Decatur, IL; Colorado Springs, CO; Butte, MT; and Oxnard, CA. Her biggest trip was to Europe, where she spent the summer of 1908 traveling from Scotland to Italy, covering long distances on foot.
Wherever Laura lived, she was at the center of society and the arts community. She was especially active in Decatur, where she painted sets for school plays, made shadow puppets for parties, judged baby contests, and gave talks on subjects like “Good Taste in Choice of Home Decorations and Furniture.” She only lived there from 1905-1912, but she left such an impression that Decatur newspapers continued to write about her for decades, publishing some of the best accounts of her later life in Topanga.
Laura met James L. Mathiesen (1879-1936), while living in Butte, Montana. Mathiesen, a member of the Theosophical Society, lectured on subjects like reincarnation. A new mysticism entered her life, and she began to express occult beliefs, like that thoughts can influence people and be photographed. Soon she was giving her own talks on telepathy and the Hindu creation myth of “Hiranyagarbha.” She married Mathiesen in 1918, quit teaching, and went to work at the Theosophical Society. She showed her paintings there as well.
In Butte, Laura also became politically active. When women won the right to vote in 1920, she ran for local office as a Socialist. Years later, she joined the Malibu Democratic Club and operated a polling place at her Topanga home.
Laura continued to paint and became known for her landscapes, but “her seascapes are even better.” Her colors were “strong, yet restrained.” Her style was between old and new.
“She is not a modernist in the accepted sense of the word, but she is decidedly not of the old school, and never loses her effects in overabundance of detail. She is quite willing to leave the individual leaf and blade to the imagination, though she seldom goes in for extremely broad effects.…” (“Wayside Studio…,” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, March 4,1928)
She spent her free time traveling to scenic places to practice her art, taking more art classes, and mentoring under famous painters like Walter Marshall Clute (1870-1915), Leonard Ochtman (1854-1935), and Frederick Oakes Sylvester (1869-1915). She was sure of her skill:
“My work might be equal to the best of the California artists… an [George] Inness or a [Thomas] Moran or a William Wendt might be in your midst….” (“Letters to the Editor,” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, October 11,1926)
She was egalitarian when it came to how art should be appreciated.
“On the theory that all people should have an opportunity to see and enjoy art for the asking, Laura Way Mathiesen has placed her rustic studio on the main highway in Topanga Canyon, and the boy or girl on a hike into the wilds, the workman on the road, and even the passing vagrant are as welcome to come and enjoy her paintings as is the rich dowager who orders her chauffeur to park in the shining sedan at the side of the road.
“Mrs. Mathiesen would rather see many of her paintings sold to poor people for small sums than to sell a few at prices asked by other artists. She paints because she loves to paint, and she wants the world to share in her own joy in her work.…
“[She] has since made literally hundreds of landscapes of Southern California scenes… has exhibited in many Southern California galleries, but none of her paintings has ever been on display at an art dealer’s store. She feels that this would make the price too high, and says that she will never sell in that manner.” (“Wayside Studio…,” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, March 4, 1928)
Laura’s paintings were widely admired, and she became the vice president of the Santa Monica Art Association.
“Mrs. Mathiesen is a painter in oils who has won much praise for her…landscapes of beach scenes, beautiful canyon spots and ocean views.…” (“Art Club Holds Usual Session in Canyon Home,” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, May 24,1926)
When Laura opened the Marmont Studio in Topanga the sign on the boulevard read, “Painting and Pedigreed Pups,” because she also ran a dog-breeding business there.
“If you dislike dogs, stay away from the Marmont studio, for some of the most charming wire-haired fox terrier puppies you ever saw are apt to enter informally at any moment.” (“Wayside Studio Welcomes Rich Man, Poor Man, Child or Ancient to Its Doors,” Santa Monica Evening Outlook, March 4,1928)
Laura felt a deep affection for her “live wires,” and was so grateful when a man found her lost puppy, Pango, that she called him “a prince of good fellows, an uncrowned hero, a scholar and a gentleman.” She also had a yellow cat named Caliph, and a goat.
James started a business keeping bees in the side canyon off the hairpin turn, and Laura liked to paint designs on his honey-jar lids. When James became an invalid in the 1930s, Laura took over James’ bee business with the help of a Russian refugee.
“Just now I am interested in beekeeping, having about 60 hives which I am working with a most unusual partner, an exiled Russian Cossack. He is a man of many contradictions, who as a young boy entered the World War. The Russian revolution saw his property swept away, his family scattered. He is keenly appreciative of art, music, literature, speaks several languages, knows bees in a most scientific way….” (“Russian Cossack Helps Artist in Her Bee Farming,” The Decatur Herald, March 21,1933)
She also took in boarders like her sister, Lucile Way (1877-1966); James’s widowed mother Anna Mathiesen (1855-?); and a widowed clairvoyant named Frances Carre (1867-1963) whose “gift of vision was internationally known.” Frances was a preacher of the Bahá’í Faith, a Middle-Eastern religion that believes all major religions are united. Her son, Earl E. Carre (1891-1943), lived nearby with his wife and four children.
James died in 1936. A brushfire burned down Marmont Studio in 1938, along with 300 homes in the Santa Monica Mountains. “I lost everything except my paintings of Yellowstone,” she said. “They were in the house and I grabbed them and ran.” Later, she added that she had saved 70 “small sketches and studies covering her journey west.”
Laura was able to return to the Brookside neighborhood after the 1938 fire with the help of the Red Cross, which built her a five-room house 100 yards off the boulevard. She continued to use her home as an exhibition space, and again filled it “to the rafters” with a new Western series that included Mt. Whitney, Mt. Rainier, Pikes Peak, June Lake, Mono Lake, Death Valley, Palm Springs, Yosemite, and the giant sequoias.
In 1939, Laura remarried, to Gilbert Ruben van Alen (1869-1952), an auditor for the city of Los Angeles. However, the conventional Gilbert was not a good match, and their marriage ended. In 1949, the Los Angeles Times came to interview her about a two-month road trip she’d taken alone to Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon.
“‘You’re never too old to do what you want to.’ These were the words of Laura Way van Alen, 73…. “‘I am afraid of nothing.’…
“She proudly displayed her paintings after apologizing for the condition of her house, explaining that in the morning she had canned 21 pints of pears and had company for lunch….
“When asked her opinion on modern art, Laura said, ‘Ha!’ She enlarged on the subject by saying…, ‘I realize some people like modern art. For me, I like to see an object as God made it. I don’t think His type of art will ever be improved upon.’” (“Woman Artist, 73, Enjoys Long Tour Alone in National Parks,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 1949)
Laura continued to travel, paint, and be active in the community until her death at 90, on August 23, 1966. One of her favorite quotes, from a speech by Harvard president Charles William Eliot, wonderfully captures her: “To see beauty and to love it is to possess large securities for [a happy and worthy] life.”
Pablo Capra is a former Lower Topanga resident, and continues to preserve the history of that neighborhood on his website, www.brasstackspress.com, and as a board member of the Topanga Historical Society, www.topangahistoricalsociety.org.