Emmy Lou Packard

Mendocino Legacy Artist 1914-1998

Emmy Lou Packard, a California native, was born into a highly political family with left of center views. Her parents were founding members of an agricultural cooperative community in the Imperial Valley. In 1927, Packard’s father, an internationally known agronomist, took his family along with him to Mexico City, working as a consultant on the government’s historic land reform program.

There, Packard, who drew and painted precociously at the age of 13 was taken by her mother to meet muralist Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. Writing in 1941, Rivera remembered that first visit: “She was a blond, melancholy little girl with the face of a French gothic angel plucked from the reliefs of Chartres, but she had been born just two miles from the border of Mexico. Embarrassed and shy, bright little savage, she had all the character of the country in which she was born.”

At 20, while studying at University of California, Berkeley, Packard eloped with architect Burton Cairns. Together they had a son, Donald Cairns. Packard returned to university, bringing her young child with her to class, and graduated in 1936. Three years later, Burton Cairns died in a car accident leaving Packard alone as a single mother.

Packard continued working as an artist, again returning to Mexico to work as a studio assistant for Kahlo and Rivera. Working as Rivera’s chief assistant, Packard accompanied Rivera to San Francisco in 1940 to paint the Pan American Unity mural for the Golden Gate International Exposition. Packard also worked as an engineering drafter, illustrator of a labor newspaper for the San Francisco Bay Area shipyards, illustrated 3rd grade textbooks for San Francisco schools, organized the annual San Francisco Arts Festival, and was a founder of Artists Equity, a union like group for artists. During this time, she did some 300 paintings, watercolors, and drawings that she exhibited in Los Angeles and San Francisco, firmly establishing her place in the art world.

In 1959 she married fellow artist Byron Randall and left the Bay Area to move to Mendocino. This was the beginning of what was then to be her ‘Mendocino Decade’. Packard’s time in Mendocino was a small part of her long career as an artist but left an indelible mark on the community. Randall and Packard bought a house overlooking the pacific, turning it into their home, art studios, guest house, and gallery. It became a gathering place for artists, and friends, as well as the meeting place for the growing Peace and Freedom Party on the Mendocino Coast, and central headquarters for Packard’s decade long successful effort to protect the Mendocino Headlands.

Packard is quoted in an interview with Betty Barber, “I saw this marvelous headland and the beach and the quaint little town and I knew it would be ruined sooner or later by commercial development, and I felt that it had to be saved.” With the community behind her, Packard began gathering signatures door to door, beginning a campaign that resulted in a land transfer deal with Boise Cascade, preserving what would become the Mendocino Headlands State Park. In addition, Mendocino landowners, Al Nichols and William Heeser, donated adjacent property as public land. By the end of the 1960’s, her marriage to Randall was dissolving. In 1969, she returned to San Francisco, where she became a much loved figure in the Mission District championing Latino culture.

This remarkable exhibition was made possible by a recent donation of artwork by the family estate.