Elaine Arnoux

1926, Omaha, Nebraska

(Helen Elaine Harper)
(Elaine Stranahan)
(Elaine Badgley)
(Elaine Kozloff)

Painter, sculptor, printmaker and installation artist, Elaine Arnoux wrote that “the discipline of my Nebraska roots, motherhood, and the allure of California’s landscape have inspired diverse and colorful periods of art.” (ebaart.com) Much of her work has focused on individuals of wide-ranging lives in rural and cosmopolitan areas. During her nearly 80-year career, her changing signature reflected her own ‘wide-ranging’ life as she added and subtracted husbands. Of the ‘line-up,’ she said: “Take a deep breath.” (Elaine Badgley Arnoux, painter of mayors) She was born Helen Elaine Harper and successively had names of Elaine Stranahan, Elaine Badgley, Elaine Arnoux, and finally Elaine Kozloff. Her life, which began in Omaha and continued in California, was a path from personal complications to public acclaim and self-confidence. Much of this transformation resulted from her accomplishments as one of northern California’s more prominent artists, teachers, and social activists. Especially known for her portrait painting, she was also co-founder and President of the San Luis Obispo Art Association (now San Luis Obispo Museum of Art), founder/teacher of an art school, and volunteer in low-income settlements. From 1957 to 2010, her work was featured in 25 solo exhibitions and 20 group exhibitions including a return to Nebraska in 1982 for an exhibition at the Schoolhouse Art Gallery in Brownville.

However, her early years in Nebraska were difficult because her father, Charles Harper, was abusive and her mother, Harriet, could not protect her. He served time in jail for impregnating a 14-year old girl and taking her across state borders. In 1936 when she was age 10, Elaine was living with her grandparents. After her father was released from prison, the grandparents moved Elaine from Omaha to Los Angeles to rebuild a family life with her mother and father. They lived in rented properties and, by 1940, were in nearby Whittier where her father worked for a citrus service. During her teenage years, she did portrait painting and, recognized for having talent, she received a two-year scholarship to Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles between 1944 and 1946. However, much of her creative energy was diverted by the mental and physical abuse inflicted on her and her mother by the father.

Searching for affection and stability, Elaine had a series of marriages beginning at 20 with Robert Stranahan (married from 1946 to 1952, 2 children). Succeeding husbands were John Badgley (married from 1952 to 1973, one son), Giles Arnoux, and Harold Kozloff. She recalled her time with Arnoux as happy and especially life changing because it set a pattern for her future painting career. He was a French artist 22 years her junior and he took her to live in his hometown of Biot, France for three years. At first she was depressed and lonely but, warding off a near break-down, she launched a portrait project of painting likenesses of each of the village’s influential people. The resulting images received positive attention because of the diversity of the 65 subjects and the fact that, unlike so many traditional portraits, none of them looked frozen or ‘absolutely still.’

After exhibitions of this series, several viewers financially supported her idea of a similar project in the Bay Area, and she returned to San Francisco in 1977 where she had previously lived from 1965 until her move to France in 1975. She described her subjects as a “hodgepodge of San Franciscans” ‒ over 190 likenesses such as cab drivers, firemen, postal workers, cultural leaders, and politicians including eight San Francisco mayors. The California Historical Society hosted an exhibition in 1985 and, in March 2009, a one-woman exhibition of her work titled The People of San Francisco was held at the Old Mint Building. During these years, Elaine also had other projects. She did a series of paintings based on Mother Goose subjects, which endeared her to families. She opened her own art school, the EBA School of Art, in 1979, and moved it to a different location 10 years later. The following year, a homeless shelter was built next door, and she provided gratis art lessons, leading to her activism, and she arranged an installation of homeless people’s shopping carts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts at its 1992 inauguration to raise public consciousness.

In 2014, when Elaine was 88 and had a studio near the Embarcadero in San Francisco, her work space, according to a visitor, was a “flurry of shapes and colors, fanciful sculptures, containers of every sort, paintings, brushes, baskets and books” (Sean Martinfield). As symbolic commentary on both the present and the future, the scene exuded vitality and creative energy. For those persons who knew the life story of Elaine Harper, it was a marked reversal from her early years. Summing up the twists and turns of her life, she said: “I was very old when I was young. I wasn’t young until I was old.” (AskART.com)

Elaine Arnoux is not represented in the Museum of Nebraska Art collection.


askART.com, Feb. 2014
“Elaine Badgley Arnoux,” ebaart.com, Feb. 2014
“Elaine Badgley Arnoux, painter of mayors,” by Sam Whiting, SFGate.com, Feb. 2014
San Francisco Sentinel, newspaper: 2/18/2014, Martinfield, Sean, “A Conversation with Artist Elaine Badgley Arnoux-The People of San Francisco, Lives of Accomplishment

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project:
Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945