‘Face of Malibu’ Enters Pepperdine Collection

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Portraitist Johanna Spinks (right) with Malibu cowgirl Millie Decker (left) in 2013. Decker lived in Malibu for 93 years, dying at age 100 in 2019.

Malibu may have worldwide recognition, but for many of its inhabitants it’s just a small community made up of many caring neighbors. That community was captured in artistry from 2012 through 2017 by painter Johanna Spinks. Her portrait series “The Face of Malibu” (featured in The Malibu Times) featured 61 Malibu notables and everyday citizens who were memorialized in portraiture featuring a story about their contribution to the community. 

Beginning in late 2018, inspired by meeting a Woolsey survivor in a hotel after being displaced by the fire, the artist went on to create 17 watercolors and interviews of Woolsey Fire victims entitled “Face of Malibu Rebuilds.” Both series of portraits and stories have just been accepted to The Boone Special Collections and Archives at Pepperdine University’s Payson Library to be digitized and kept in perpetuity. 

“In the future, the general public will be able to go in and look at them digitally,” the artist reported. “They’re not going to be on permanent display because there are just too many.” 

“I’m very honored,” Spinks said. “This is always what an artist wants when you’ve done a body of work like that.” 

The British-born artist has done similar series for the cities of Ventura and Charleston, SC. The impressionist painter discovered her talent later in life after a career in other artistic endeavors, including film makeup. Since discovering her passion for portraiture, Spinks has been recognized with many honors including a 2019 Malibu Citizen of the Year Dolphin Award for her artwork contribution to the community.

For the donation, the artist personally removed “all the oil sketches off their stretcher bars, which was quite a task.” 

Now it will reside in Malibu permanently.

“The thing that has been wonderful is [all the Malibu portraits] are now all permanently stored somewhere along—importantly—with the sitters’ life story,” Spinks said. “The story is as important as the portrait.”

“My mission for the project was a one-on-one interaction with the sitter and simultaneously a collective interaction with the community via the project as a whole,” she continued. “I painted a lot of fabulous people—recorded their stories.”

One of those was fire victim Jill Greenberg. 

“Having my portrait done by Johanna was one of my fondest memories after the fire,” Greenberg told The Malibu Times. “We were renting a house. It was such fun. It made me feel so valued and the portrait was honest and flattering at the same time. Spending that time with Johanna was so special because she is a delightful and caring person.”

Spinks reflected on some of her subjects, whom she painted from 2012-19.

“We’ve lost quite a few of the sitters, unfortunately,” Spinks said. “Inevitably, life moves on. It’s special to look back at Bill Armstrong—he was the oldest sitter I painted in Malibu. Carol Moss is no longer with us. Millie Decker—Malibu’s first cowgirl—and a bunch of people who really knew the Malibu of old. That’s very special.” Spinks’ first Malibu subject, former mayor Laura Rosenthal, wrote to TMT, “Jo effortlessly put me at ease and made the whole sitting a joy,” but admitted, “The hardest part was trying not to laugh.”

Kathy “Gidget” Kohner Zuckerman wrote that she was “honored and grateful that I am recognized as the little girl that surfed at the ‘Bu.” Zuckerman called Spinks, “impressive,” saying the painter “has the Gidget-like can-do-ism, which made my time with her bitchen (sic).”

Spinks painted nine mayors of Malibu including Lou La Monte, who wrote, “I’m delighted that Pepperdine is adding ‘Faces’ to its permanent collection. These portraits are an important part of the chronicle of Malibu history.”

“We had two judges, a cantor, a state senator and the regular town folk that make the town special,” the artist recalled. “I tried to find the real folk who made up this beach town of Malibu.” The subjects were either chosen by Spinks or suggested by TMT readership. The sittings lasted two hours while the painter captured her image while interviewing the subject. “It’s a unique thing because there are few times when you’re staring into someone’s eyes for two hours solid. People placed their trust in me to represent them well. The unique connection between the portrait artist and sitter sharing their lifetime only for a couple of hours—that experience has remained unchanged over the centuries—the power of it, even in the age of Instagram and selfies. The goal was this interaction of energy, sharing the stories.” 

Spinks said she discovered “a unique thread of humanity that connects us all.” When interviewing her subjects she discovered they all cared about the same things: family, happiness and health. 

“Malibu is close to my heart. A slice of life is there now forever thanks to Pepperdine taking the collection and archiving it,” she said.