Col­lec­tor of African Amer­i­can art

Los Angeles Times - - OBITUARIES - By David Colker david. colker@ latimes. com

Artist Wil­liam Pa­jaud was a highly re­spected wa­ter­col­orist, but he was bet­ter known for col­lect­ing the works of oth­ers.

Over more than 20 years — and on a shoestring bud­get — he painstak­ingly put to­gether one of the most prom­i­nent col­lec­tions of African Amer­i­can art in the coun­try, with works by Charles White, Be­tye Saar, El­iz­a­beth Catlett, Ja­cob Lawrence and other well­known artists.

The col­lec­tion be­came a point of pride to the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity in Los An­ge­les — bus­loads of stu­dents toured it.

But Pa­jaud didn’t own the col­lec­tion; it was un­der­writ­ten by his day job em­ployer, Golden State Mu­tual Life In­sur­ance Co. And when the com­pany got into fi­nan­cial trou­ble, the col­lec­tion, which had rock­eted in value, was qui­etly crated up in 2007 and sent to New York to be sold at auc­tion.

Pa­jaud wasn’t told un­til the art was gone.

“He had kind of sin­gle­hand­edly put that col­lec­tion to­gether,” said his friend Paul Von Blum, who teaches art at UCLA. “It broke his heart.”

Pa­jaud, 89, died of age- re­lated con­di­tions June 16 at his home in L. A., said his wife, June.

He was hon­ored in 2010 at a Cal­i­for­nia African Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum gala, and although he had mostly given up wa­ter­color, Pa­jaud ( pro­nounced paz- HO) was still mak­ing art when he could.

“He was do­ing draw­ings on ev­ery­thing — pa­per tow­els, news­pa­pers, maga- zines,” June Pa­jaud said. “When the bills came in, if I didn’t grab them fast enough he would draw on the en­velopes.”

He started the col­lec­tion in 1965 when he worked in public re­la­tions at Golden State, one of the largest African Amer­i­can- owned com­pa­nies on the West Coast. Back then, “there were some naive souls who had no idea there were black artists,” Pa­jaud said in a 1989 UCLA oral history in­ter­view.

“You know, ‘ Blacks don’t paint pic­tures. They dance and sing, and they play football and bas­ket­ball,’ ” he said.

He felt an art col­lec­tion would boost Golden State’s im­age while help­ing lo­cal artists. The com­pany ap­proved the pro­ject but kept it on a tight bud­get, forc­ing Pa­jaud to f ind ways to get pieces at bar­gain prices.

He ap­proached White, who like many African Amer­i­can artists had trou­ble get­ting his works widely seen. Pa­jaud put im­ages of White’s art on the ap­prox­i­mately 100,000 cal­en­dars the com­pany mailed out one year, and the grate­ful artist in re­turn sold a ma­jor piece — a mon­u­men­tal por­trait of abo­li­tion­ist Har­riet Tub­man — to Pa­jaud for what turned out to be the trif ling price of $ 1,200.

Pa­jaud even traded his own paint­ings for pieces he wanted in the col­lec­tion.

By the time he re­tired from the com­pany in 1987, he had amassed more than 200 works.

“It’s one of the f in­est col­lec­tions in the West in terms of African Amer­i­can cul­ture and art,” Samella Lewis, a pro­fes­sor of art history at Scripps Col­lege, said in a 2007 Bloomberg News in­ter­view. “It’s like a mu­seum.”

Golden State, founded in 1925, had pros­pered largely be­cause it was one of the only com­pa­nies will­ing to sell life in­sur­ance to blacks. Its head­quar­ters, de­signed by famed ar­chi­tect Paul R. Wil­liams, opened in 1949.

But by the 1980s the com­pany was strug­gling f inan­cially. Art his­to­ri­ans and oth­ers ex­pressed con­cerns about the art, es­pe­cially af­ter Pa­jaud left.

“I got the sense they didn’t care about it,” said Bruce Pi­cano in the Bloomberg re­port. As a stu­dent he had cat­a­loged the col­lec­tion. Re­turn­ing sev­eral years later, he found some works be­hind f il­ing cab­i­nets. Oth­ers were locked up and out of view.

In 2007 came the an­nounce­ment by Swann Auc­tion Gal­leries in New York that it was go­ing to auc­tion 94 prime pieces from the col­lec­tion.

“It was a very ex­cit­ing sale and did very well,” said Nigel Free­man, head of African Amer­i­can Fine Art at Swann.

That Charles White por­trait of Har­riet Tub­man that Pa­jaud bought for $ 1,200 — a bid­der took it home for $ 360,000. Many oth­ers went for five or six fig­ures.

Sev­eral Pa­jaud paint­ings in the col­lec­tion were sold at the auc­tion, in­clud­ing one ti­tled “My Fa­ther’s Fu­neral.”

“He was a great pain­ter,” Free­man said.

In all, the pieces sold for more than $ 1.5 mil­lion. But that didn’t save Golden State, which was seized by state reg­u­la­tors in 2009.

Pa­jaud was born Aug. 3, 1925, in New Or­leans. His fa­ther was a jazz mu­si­cian whose chief source of in­come was play­ing at fu­ner­als. “He’d say he’d rather play a fu­neral than eat a tur­key din­ner,” Pa­jaud said in an in­ter­view for a planned doc­u­men­tary on his work and art.

His mother was univer­sity- trained in phar­macy, but as an African Amer­i­can woman she had dif­fi­culty find­ing work in that field.

Pa­jaud’s work life fol­lowed a sim­i­lar path. He earned a f ine arts de­gree from Xavier Univer­sity of Louisiana in New Or­leans in 1941, then moved to Chicago. But his work there con­sisted of paint­ing signs and free­lance de­sign­ing.

He moved to Los An­ge­les in 1949, where he took a job at the U. S. Postal Ser­vice while study­ing at Chouinard Art In­sti­tute, the fore­run­ner of CalArts. As the only full­time African Amer­i­can stu­dent, he en­dured racist com­ments and felt he had to work harder than other stu­dents.

“I was damn sure that when I got out of there, they knew I had been there be­cause of my work,” he said in the doc­u­men­tary in­ter­view.

He be­friended many lo­cal African Amer­i­can artists and later bought some of their works for the col­lec­tion.

Pa­jaud was hired in 1957 by Golden State Mu­tual as an art di­rec­tor, de­sign­ing brochures and other ma­te­ri­als, even­tu­ally work­ing his way up to head of public re­la­tions.

No mat­ter what his job, he al­ways worked at his art in his spare time, and his works were in­cluded in ex­hi­bi­tions across the coun­try. Ad­vanced age didn’t much slow his artis­tic out­put.

“My wife thinks I work too hard, some­times, but what the hell does she know?” he said in the in­ter­view. “No such thing as work­ing hard at what you love to do.”

In ad­di­tion to his wife of 19 years, Pa­jaud is sur­vived by daugh­ters Gayle Waller and Anne Pa­jaud; four grand­chil­dren; and two great- grand­chil­dren.

Swann Auc­tion Gal­leries

NOT JUST A PROM­I­NENT COL­LEC­TOR “Sea Bird on a Nest,” a 1970 wa­ter­color by Wil­liam Pa­jaud. “He was a great

pain­ter,” said Nigel Free­man of Swann Auc­tion Gal­leries in New York.

POINT OF PRIDE Many stu­dents toured Pa­jaud’s col­lec­tion, which

he didn’t own.

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