Primarily known during her lifetime as one of the greatest Hollywood costume designers, Theadora Van Runkle (1928-2011) was a visual artist whose paintings, drawings, and watercolors are among the most representative—and ravishing—expressions of the bohemian Laurel Canyon ethos that defined the time and place in which she lived.
Van Runkle received three Academy Award nominations and, beginning with her iconic designs for Bonnie and Clyde, was recognized as a visionary figure whose cultural influence was felt both inside and outside of the film industry. Largely self-taught (though she briefly attended the Chouinard Art Institute in the 1940s and later taught there), she maintained an active art practice over the course of more than six decades, producing several thousand discrete works. At times a private endeavor that allowed her creativity to flourish away from the public eye and the bustle of her film career, at others an activity she shared with a coterie of fellow artists in and around her home, Van Runkle’s artmaking resulted in a large and varied body of images notable for their vivid (and often erotic) figuration, autobiographical candor, and ecstatic approach to the natural world.
The work can be divided into several discrete categories: figure studies; portraits (including a number of vibrant and psychologically revealing self-portraits); domestic scenes and still lifes; landscapes; and fantastic, dreamlike images, some of them related to an imaginary narrative entitled The Peepstone. Indeed, even when the artist is depicting the spaces and moods of daily life, a fantastic quality pervades both her choice of subjects and her means of rendering them. Driven by a keen sense of humor and graceful command of her materials, Van Runkle had a propensity for transforming the stuff of ordinary experience into exotic, richly patterned visual material. This links her to a heterogeneous array of artists, including Van Gogh, Gauguin, and, in her own time, David Hockney, an acquaintance who frequented some of the same social circles in Los Angeles. It is also instructive to consider her work alongside the music and art of Joni Mitchell, a Laurel Canyon friend with whom she would speak on the phone, even while she painted.
Van Runkle’s images are notable not only for their formal pleasures, but because they serve as windows into a life that was itself a constant act of imagination and self-invention. Her artwork is the distillation of a wide-ranging, mutable sensibility—one that also appeared in her costume designs and the altogether original way in which she envisioned, designed, and decorated her house and its surrounding landscape—that is novelistic in scope. The writers she admired therefore provide perhaps the most apt models for contextualizing the total impact of her project. Chief among them are Colette, the French novelist whose radical independence and frankly feminist perspective informed the boldness of conception that marked Van Runkle’s art as well as her biography; and the collection of figures associated with the Bloomsbury Group, whose ideas and stylistic advances flowed freely between different genres and expressive forms.
Both of these examples point toward the importance of the social dimension in all of Van Runkle’s work. If Laurel Canyon is perhaps most readily associated with the music made by its inhabitants in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the collaborative spirit that animated those years has been continually tended by a small group of artists like Van Runkle who recognized the need to actively celebrate aesthetic values in a culture that too frequently dismisses them as superfluous. Filled with humor and mystery, her art is a testament to the intimacy and connection—whether with other people, animals, places, or even objects—made possible when beauty assumes center stage.