KCET highlights local collectors whose personal obsessions opened new doors into California’s past

By Matt Hormann

A roller coaster connected the  cliff-side Arcadia Hotel to Santa Monica in the late 1880s (photograph by E. G. Morrison).

A roller coaster connected the cliff-side Arcadia Hotel to Santa Monica in the late 1880s (photograph by E. G. Morrison).

Monomania.

It’s a word meaning total obsession with one thing.

For Venice’s Carol Wells, it’s political protest posters. She’s collected about 85,000 of them.

For Santa Monica’s Ernest Marquez, it was uncovering forgotten family history — specifically the 1839 Rancho Boca del Santa Monica land grant to his great-grandfathers Ysidro Reyes and Francisco Marquez, a span of 6,656 acres that are known today as Santa Monica Canyon and Pacific Palisades.

Wells, Marquez and other such collectors — one amassed 800,000 images by L.A.-area black photographers, another discovered connections between sci-fi fandom and the LGBTQ rights movement, and a third assembled the definitive historical archive on the California citrus trade — are subjects of “Monomania L.A.,” a series of short documentaries premiering Tuesday on KCET’s “Artbound” series.

Produced in partnership with USC Libraries’ L.A. as Subject historical research and storytelling collaborative, “Monomania L.A.” examines what happens when everyday collectors become historians, highlighting their personal stories as well.

“They’re what some people would call amateur historians, but they probably have a greater and deeper understanding of their particular subject than trained academics. They’ve made invaluable contributions to the historical record of Southern California,” says L.A. as Subject’s Nathan Masters, a producer of the series.

While the word “monomania” might bring to mind kooks and eccentrics, the featured collectors aren’t like the indiscriminate packrats you might see on an episode of “Hoarders.”

“In this context, monomania simply means an obsession with collecting materials related to one particular piece of Southern California history,” says Masters. “These collectors, since they’ve spent so many years — in many cases, decades — with the subject, are really able to drill down and understand things that even academic historians might not know.”

As founder of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Culver City, Wells has gathered the largest collection of post-World War II protest posters in the United States.

Her obsession began with a simple revelation. While working as a research assistant to art historian David Kunzle in Nicaragua in 1981, she saw a young boy transfixed by a poster advertising the Nicaraguan Women’s Association.

“That was my epiphany moment,” Wells says in the film. “The moment literally the light bulb went off.”

By preserving materials meant to be discarded, Wells aims to “transform them into an important primary source record,” she says.

For Marquez, 91, collecting grew out of a quest to find out more about his Mexican ancestors.

“I went to the library and got history books about Santa Monica and Los Angeles and couldn’t find anything about our rancho in them,” he tells the filmmakers. “The historians completely ignored our family and our rancho for some reason. If there was some mention of it, there might have been a paragraph or two.”

Marquez combed local libraries and even solicited the National Archives for the Rancho Boca de Santa Monica land commission records. He also began collecting photographs of the region, hoping to amass a visual record of his family’s holdings. Over time Marquez obtained more than 4,600 photos spanning the 1870s to the 1950s, most of them taken in the Santa Monica region. He’s since written several books based on those materials and recently sold his photo collection to the Huntington Library.

Juan Devis, senior vice president of content development and production for KCETLink, sees particular worth in what Marquez has done to highlight Mexican contributions to early California.

“In Southern California and in the Southwest we forget the common Spanish, Mexican, Latino roots we have,” Devis says. “They go very, very deep, but that’s not necessarily part of our common parlance. So I think archives like Ernest’s are very valuable.”

Masters also hopes “Monomania L.A.” will help broaden the definition of what it means to be a historian.

“You don’t have to become a monomaniacal collector to understand history,” he says. “You can start a small collection of your own or you can discover the history in your local public library. We just want people to be generally aware that there’s a lot of history out there, and we want them to become familiar with it.”

“There’s a lot of our collective history that still resides in normal people,” adds Devis. “The efforts of these monomaniacs are a way to codify that.”

“Monomania L.A.” premieres in Southern California at 8 p.m. Tuesday on KCET and makes its national debut at 8 p.m. on March 23 on Link TV.

Are you a keeper of Westside history? Email joe@argonautnews.com and we’ll help you share your treasures with the world.

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