Pasadena, CA: An Intimate Soirée at The Huntington Library

It’s hot. I walk with a sense of urgency, my heels pinching my middle and little toes every time they smack the pavement. In an utterly predictable bit of kvetching—because I always seem to wear uncomfortable shoes on days when I have to do the most walking—I tell my friend Kristin Vartan how my kicks are taking a toll on my feet. She sympathizes, but we push on toward the entrance to The Huntington Library in San Marino. We’re here for Member’s Brushstrokes: Beyond the Gallery, an event I was invited to by Robert Vargas, genius artist and world-renowned muralist. But truth be told, Kristin and I are a little late, a little past schedule. We check in quickly, and brochures in hand, we step into the green. 

They say that one of California’s biggest pride points is the fact that locals have access to a whole range of landscapes. In the heart of San Bernardino Mountains, you’ll be treated to a grand, alpine scenery. Cross the Venice boardwalk that skirts the ocean, and you’ll find yourself enveloped by golden sand and sea. Drive out to Death Valley, and you’ll end up in the thick of a scorching desert. (A proud Californian will boast about being able to hit up all three places in one day, but I’ve never heard of anyone attempting to do that). In San Marino, at the The Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, you’ll find something else entirely: a little, bite-sized piece of old Europe. 

Being outside here feels like being inside another world. Here, everything follows a different timetable. The breeze picks up. My pulse drops. There’s an increase in self-awareness, and a sharp diminishment of restless city noise. Here, life itself kicks its shoes off, puts its feet up and takes a breather. 

“Oh my God,” I exclaim, quite possibly for the fifth or sixth time already. The sheer size and grandeur of the place overwhelms me. Stretching over 207 acres, a whopping 120 acres of which are maintained as botanical gardens, the grounds are divided into a library, research and educational centers and a slew of galleries housing European and American art. In other words, there’s a lot to see. If you ever decide to visit, don’t forget to pack a pair of walking shoes—an element of planning-ahead we’ve already established isn’t my strong suit. 

Taking everything in, we indulge in a quintessential Parisian activity: strolling. Today, the expansive, lush field in front of the library beckons with food trucks and cocktail carts. Guests, decked out in semi-formal attire, are knee-deep in conversation, sipping on their libations. Shafts of sunlight slump against the sides of buildings, leaving dark shadows where they didn’t tread. If you set your imagination to simmer, you can almost view the landscape like a painting, a lesson in chiaroscuro. 

We make our way to the Camellia Garden—a grassy slope of land peppered with sculptures and a tapestry of, well, camellias, where Robert Vargas is posted up, painting a portrait of the man sitting still in front of him. I met Robert a little less than a year ago at another event in Los Angeles, where he was invited to paint a handful of guests. Watching him quietly study his subject, I became in awe of his talent. That being said, I think what Robert has rises and flows over the edges of “talent,” which, in my opinion comprises of two things: innateness and effort. Sure, there’s a suite of art genes he was born with. And yes, I also know it takes a lot to train the hand to paint skillfully and with a certain, fresh style. But there’s a third element at play here—a sort of a sixth sense, a knack for not just untangling tensely coiled human emotion, but capturing it on paper. Robert gets it, and he gets it quickly, a feat that takes most artists days—or months, even—to accomplish. It comes to him as easily as breathing. (I highly recommend taking a moment and perusing his work here). 

Kristin and I are stunned into momentary silence as we observe him in his element. “Wine?” I propose after Robert wraps up his portrait. And so, with a glass of bubbly in hand, we roam around the garden, taking a moment to be serenaded by the soiree’s string quartet. It’s an idyllic moment, in a way. The instruments meet smoothly in slow, sweet measures, not just with one another, but also with the staccato of voices and the occasional flurry of wind. 

Just around the corner, we pause again to listen in on a lecture by Edward Goldman, art critic and host of KCRW’s “Art Talk” on NPR. “Los Angeles to New York today is what New York was to Paris after World War II,” he quotes a friend in a speech about Los Angeles’ ever-growing place in the world of contemporary and classical art.

As the event inches closer to an end, we quickly slip into the Huntington Art Gallery, a Beaux-Arts mansion that’s home to one of the most significant and sizable collections of 18th-century British art in the country. In the first-floor library, we flit past Jane Austen first-editions and ornate, 18th-century French decorative armchairs and tables. Upstairs, we spend what time we have left soaking up every bit of the world Henry Edwards Huntington first starting building almost a hundred years ago. At around 8 p.m., we head back toward the main staircase. The click-clack of our heels is amplified in the silence, but at that moment, something else echoes even louder, words that feel more true to me now than ever: Los Angeles to New York today is what New York was to Paris after World War II.

Outfit deets:

“This dress is one of my favorite Goodwill finds! I’ll take anything with shoulder pads, really. Not to mention, the beautiful emerald green worked really well with the library’s lush landscape.”

Dress: Vintage| Earrings: H&M | Shoes: Jeffrey Campbell (Currently Unavailable)

As an Los Angeles-based journalist and fashion writer, Mari Alexander highlights local and global talents through runway reviews, designer interviews, and trend reports.

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