In most cases collecting information on deceased artists and their work is a never ending process. This is especially true for Jimmy, whose career as a cartoonist and fine artist spanned seven decades. Mysteries still abound. However one was recently put to rest.
Well over ten years ago I was contacted by a woman who told me her mother was good friends with Jimmy. Unfortunately this was before I began seriously archiving his work. Any records and recollection of the woman’s name are long gone. (Going forward I’ll refer to her as “Mrs. X.” It sounds more mysterious than Jane Doe.) However I do know Mrs. X’s story was credible because of the items I acquired from her shortly after our initial contact.
Shown here are several items which adorned Mrs. X’s bedroom when she was a young girl. The watercolor specialty pieces and the Canyon Kiddie figurines, which are now part of the Picerne Collection, were gifts from Jimmy to Mrs. X’s mother shortly after Mrs. X’s birth.
Adding credibility to her claim is the fact that not one of paintings was signed. I realize this may sound antithetical. However one of the maddening aspects of Jimmy’s work is he almost never signed his paintings when they were given as gifts to friends and relatives. Hey, who needs provenance if you’re keeping it in the family –I guess.
At the time the Canyon Kiddie figurines were even more intriguing than the unsigned watercolors. I had never seen anything like them before or since. I had no idea where they came from, who designed them, or who produced them.
Until now. Last month I received an email from a woman named Jill Altieri (real name), explaining she was, “an avid collector of pottery made by The California Cleminson’s in El Monte, California between 1941 and 1963.” She added, “As I am certain you are already aware the sweet little figurine you feature in your information about Jim Swinnerton was designed by Betty Cleminson of The California Cleminson’s.”
“Actually” I responded, “I did not know any of that.”
The figurines had always been real mystery pieces. I thanked her for the information. She then sent me another email a few days later with several pictures she thought I might “find interesting.” Indeed I did. Several are shown here.
But I learned about more than the source of the figurines. It turns out the Cleminson’s work is highly collectible.
Betty Cleminson and her husband George started their company in their garage in Monterey Park, California in the early 1940s. What started as a hobby for Betty soon evolved into a thriving business which included lines of dinnerware, kitchenware, and other decorative items. The pieces are typically distinguished by their folksy, homemade look. More information can be found in two books by Jack Chipman, Collectors Encyclopedia of California Pottery and California Pottery Scrapbook: Identification and Value Guide.
According to Chipman, the Canyon Kiddie figurines were rare in that most of the Cleminson’s products were functional rather than purely decorative. However a page from one of the Cleminson catalogs printed in the “early 1940s” reveals a dish set featuring hand painted Canyon Kiddie figures was also offered. A dozen Donkey Boys could be ordered for $21.
The California Cleminsons closed in 1963. But, as it is with Jimmy, most of their work is still sought after by collectors today.