Adeliza McHugh, seated, founder and proprietor of The Candy Store Gallery in Folsom, was photographed with some of the artists exhibited at her gallery during a 1987 show. They include, clockwise from bottom left, Maija Peeples-Bright, Roy DeForest, Robert Arneson, David Gilhooly and Peter Vandenberge.
Betty Warmack

 

 

Adeliza McHugh, who died at age 91 on Oct. 18 in Palo Alto, was a legendary figure in Sacramento art. When she closed the Candy Store Gallery in Folsom in 1992 after a 30-year run, McHugh had an international reputation as one of the most successful art dealers in the country and the proprietor of what had to be one of the most unusual galleries in the world.

Though she had no formal art education, McHugh built her modest two-room gallery in a quaint shingled house on tiny Folsom's main street into a destination point for collectors from all over the world. Actor and art collector Vincent Price visited the gallery in 1970 when he was lecturing on art at a local college. He wrote a glowing report titled "Way Out Art Found Way Out of the Way" for an East Coast newspaper. Later, a pair of German writers listed the gallery in a guidebook for tourists, stating that there were three things not to miss in California: Yosemite, Mount Shasta and the Candy Store Gallery in Folsom. And in 1987, Connoisseur magazine featured McHugh and the gallery in a full-color feature article praising her single-minded passion for art and the artists she championed.

While she exhibited the work of many artists over the years, the core group -- the Candy Store bunch -- included artists who were teachers or students at the University of California, Davis, and Sacramento State University, among them Robert Arneson, Roy DeForest, David Gilhooly, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt , Maija Peeples-Bright and Peter Vandenberge. Though all went on to achieve considerable national recognition, they continued to show at the Candy Store until the end.

Roy DeForest, whose work has been shown in New York, Chicago and Paris, recalls McHugh as "an incredible person and a phenomenal art dealer -- the best I've ever seen." Introduced to McHugh by David Gilhooly, DeForest remembers meeting her for the first time: "Here was this strange little old lady jumping up and down. She was so enthusiastic."

Intrigued, DeForest gave her a drawing to sell and she sold it right away, beginning a relationship that continued with annual shows of DeForest's work until the gallery closed.

With her pink cheeks, twinkling blue eyes and gray hair pulled up into a knot on top of her head, McHugh looked more like the proprietor of an old-fashioned candy store than one of the canniest art dealers in the country. But behind her grandmotherly exterior lurked a shrewd mind and an indomitable spirit.

Don Reich, one of the first artists she showed, remembers her way with recalcitrant collectors.

"She had a way of making you feel that you were the only person in the world that mattered when she was talking to you with her little-girl voice," Reich says. "Persistence was the key to her success. She had great tenacity and wouldn't take no for an answer. She would call people and not hang up until they bought something."

Irving Marcus, another artist who showed with McHugh in the gallery's early days, also spoke of her sometimes sneaky methods of selling art and her enthusiasm for the art she showed.

"One of her techniques was to get people to take stuff home and put it up. After a while they found they couldn't live without it," Marcus recalls.

"She was so excited about the work that it made other people excited too," Marcus says. "And she educated herself. She knew why the work was good and could convey that to others. I can hear her voice now saying, 'Look at that passage!' And she'd get them to look."

Collectors Bob and Carol Ledbetter remember their first meeting with McHugh in the late 1970s. "We had gone into the gallery and I made some unkind remarks about the work she had up," Bob Ledbetter says. "She drew herself up and said 'You need to educate yourself. You need to go to Europe.' " So the Ledbetters did, visiting galleries and museums, including the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, where they were amazed by the Dutch artist's work.

"Adeliza changed the way we looked at art," Carol Ledbetter recalls.

Back home, they visited the Candy Store again, and seeing a large painting of a hippo and other beasts by Maija Peeples-Bright, the Ledbetters began their collecting. Over the years they bought so much art from McHugh that they built a home in Granite Bay just to showcase their art from the Candy Store.

Born in southern Utah in 1912, McHugh grew up on the family ranch, Canaan, according to her daughter, Sheri Renison of Palo Alto.

"It was a large family and her father was a cattle rancher," Renison recalls. "One of her brothers taught her to ride horses. She literally grew up on a horse and became an expert horsewoman."

Her interest in art emerged when she was in her early 30s, living in San Francisco and married to her second husband, Vincent McHugh, a successful poet and writer. In San Francisco and then New York, she began visiting galleries and museums, bored at first until she saw a Jackson Pollock painting in Manhattan, which, according to an article by Ellen Schlesinger in Connoisseur, initially made her angry but then exerted its power as she kept calling it to mind. In short, it provoked a powerful reaction in her, one that she came to want to share with others when she opened her own gallery.

"Adeliza liked people who had a reaction to the art she showed," says Carol Ledbetter, who helped coordinate a major show at the Crocker Art Museum in 1981 devoted to the Candy Store. "If it made them angry, that was OK. The only thing she didn't like were people who had no reaction. She wanted people to be stimulated by art."

When her second marriage broke up, McHugh came out to Sacramento to stay with her sister, Edna, who was a real estate agent, says Maija Peeples-Bright, who became McHugh's closest friend among the artists she represented.

"Edna drove her around and finally they found this funky old house that had been the old Folsom library. It was February and there was a carpet of violets around the house. Adeliza thought it was charming, and Edna got it for a good price and they set up a business making candy," Peeples-Bright recalls.

The almond nougat candies they made, called "groovies," looked to be a success until the health department visited and pointed out the inadequacies of their kitchen. It was then that McHugh decided to try selling art, converting the candy store into a gallery in 1962.

"Adeliza had looked at a lot of art when she was with Vincent," Peeples-Bright says. "One day they were in an antique shop and Adeliza spotted some prints that she liked. They turned out to be Winslow Homers, the only good things in the shop. ... Almost by osmosis, she had developed an eye for what was real and not fake.

"She was a bit of a rebel and very gutsy. She went over to the University (of California, Davis) and introduced herself to Robert Arneson and asked if he had any art she could sell."

Arneson recalled, in a statement in the Crocker exhibition's catalogue, that to get McHugh off his back he gave her some outrageous pieces and sent her off with them to the boonies. She sold them, and Arneson, Peeples-Bright says, was faithful to her ever after and recommended other artists to the gallery.

Soon the Candy Store gallery was filled with the wild, funky art that became its stock in trade. Unsuspecting weekend visitors looking for lollipops or licorice were taken aback by the challenging work on the walls.

Once, Peeples-Bright recalls, a pair of women came in and, realizing they were in an art gallery rather than a real candy store, asked McHugh if she had any nice seascapes. McHugh pointed to a drawing by Luis Cruz Azaceta of a decapitated head floating toward a rocky beach in a small boat on a choppy blue sea.

"There," said McHugh, "is a fine seascape."

"The poor women almost croaked," Peebles-Bright remembers, but while the gallery often disconcerted casual viewers, it became a second home for sophisticated collectors and the artists who showed there.

"She created a family of friends through the gallery," Marcus notes. "The Sunday afternoon openings were a real get-together for all the artists." So strong was that feeling of family that a caravan of more than 50 artists and collectors traveled to Palo Alto last year to celebrate McHugh's 90th birthday.

How to sum up her influence on Sacramento art? "Adeliza was rebellious and defiant of convention," says former Bee art critic Charles Johnson, who covered the Candy Store in its heyday. "The works she showed were not pretty, but she was sure they were absolutely wonderful. She thought the Candy Store was the be-all and end-all of art and that no other gallery could compare with it. That supreme self-confidence made her successful and made her a significant figure in the 1970s."

Certainly she made her mark on that decade and beyond with the bright, whimsical, faux-naive art she showed. As Irving Marcus observes, "If one thinks of the Sacramento area as having produced an important, identifiable style, Adeliza was certainly the voice for it. She put it on the map."