Bruce Ariss

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Bruce Wallace Ariss, Jr. (October 10, 1911 – September, 1994) was an American painter, muralists, writer, illustrator, editor as well as theater and set designer, amateur playwright and actor, and overall icon on the Monterey Peninsula, California.


Ariss was born in White Salmon, Washington, the son of Bruce Wallace Ariss, a construction contractor, and Anna (née Kerwin). Ariss attended Oakland Technical High School before enrolling in the University of California, Berkeley (B.A. 1934),[1] where he was art editor of the campus publication "Occident" and editor of the campus humor magazine, "The Pelican". At university he met Jean McLellan Fitch of Napa, who he described as "the prettiest girl on campus" [2]. They married in 1934.[3]. “After graduation, Ariss operated heavy machinery for a gold mine and managed to accumulate $200 in savings.” [4]. With this relatively large amount of money, Bruce, a painter, and his spouse Jean, a writer, decided to take an 18 month “honeymoon” on the Monterey Peninsula to pursue their creative efforts.

To augment their savings, They took over the editorship of “The Monterey Beacon,” an experimental local literary magazine, and published John Steinbeck’s “The Snake” in 1934. [5]. William Saroyan passed through Monterey and sold a short story for one dollar to the Arisses for publication in the Beacon. [6]. Years later Bruce did covers and other art work for a local magazine “What’s Doing on the Monterey Peninsula.”

After renting a small place in Pacific Grove, The Arisses bought several lots on Huckleberry Hill in Monterey and built a small studio-house. This evolved over the next fifty years, mostly with scrap and donated materials, into a three story 20 plus room dwelling to meet their changing preferences and the growing needs of their five children. [7]. John Steinbeck referred to the house as a "Triumph over Architecture" [8]. It burned to the ground in 1990, destroying a large number of Ariss’ oil paintings. “I got mad at the insurance company,” he said. “I paid $80 a year for years, then they raised the rate to $800. I bought a lot of fire extinguishers and smoke alarms instead…I guess it didn’t work.”[9]. At age 80, Ariss designed and rebuilt, with help from many friends, “Triumph over Architecture II,” which is currently occupied by his daughter, Holly Shoats, and her spouse Al

Ariss was a friend and contemporary of John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize–winning author, and Ed Ricketts. Bruce and Jean Ariss accompanied Ricketts and Steinbeck on an excursion to Mexico to collect marine specimens. His account of the trip, including numerous sketches, were published in his 1988 book "Inside Cannery Row: Sketches from the Steinbeck Era” which offers a rare insight into the obstinate but charming Steinbeck, who himself wrote of one such journey in the book Sea Of Cortez [10].

Bruce Ariss was sort of a renaissance man, but essentially he was an artist. He produced literally hundreds of works of art during his long career [11] . One of his most noted works is titled “Lower Alvarado Street” 1936 [12]. Ariss's artwork was influenced by Diego Rivera, who insisted that a woodblock carving of him by Ariss was the best portrait that any artist had ever done of him.[citation needed] Unfortunately, many of Ariss's oil paintings and sketches were destroyed when the 1990 fire destroyed his house.

For over six decades the Arisses were central to the Monterey Peninsula diverse and ever changing community artists and writers who often passed through Doc Ricketts lab on Cannery Row. [12]. These included (in rough chronological order): John Steinbeck, Doc Rickets, Adelle Davis, August Gay [13], Joseph Campbell, Robinson Jeffers, Lincoln Steffens,[citation needed] Francis Whitaker, Salvador Dali, Jean Varda, Ellwood Graham [14] and Barbara Graham (Judy Diem) [15], Hank Ketcham, Henry Miller, Ward Moore and Raylyn Moore [16], John and Ching Smithback [17], Eldon Dedini, Bob Bradford [18], Paul McReyonlds [19], Arch Garner [20], Ephraim Doner, [21], Eric Barker [22], Gus Arriola, Richard Farina, Les Gorn [23], and Gordon Newell [24].

Ariss painted a number murals, many under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal program set up to create public works to relieve unemployment. Some of his murals can still be found throughout Monterey County. Working with August Gay, in 1934 they created a giant WPA 150 ft by 10 ft mural for the Pacific Grove High School library depicting the Monterey coastline in the thirties from the Point Pinos lighthouse to the Custom House, with Monterey's Cannery Row its focal point. [25] Unfortunately, the mural was destroyed by fire in 1946. Ariss also painted a number of storefronts, many for the 1949 centennial, including those for Monterey Hardware and The Poppy Coffee Shop on Alvadaro Street in Monterey. His mural across from Doc Ricketts lab on Cannery Row is a current tourist attraction [26]. In 1989 Bruce designed a five year mural project for a walk way in Cannery Row later named “Bruce Ariss Way.” He and a group of about fifty young artists painted the murals in 1989 [27] . In 1998 the murals had faded badly and a majority of the murals were refurbished, mostly by the original artists [28]. Ariss also did murals for the Monterey Bay Aquarium [29].

The Wharf Theater, on Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf, designed and built by Ariss

Ariss and his good friend Angelo Di Girolamo [30]. were instrumental in the founding and design in 1950 of the Monterey’s. Wharf_Theater. “One of their presentations that year was Bruce Ariss' "Point of Departure".The production was successful enough that MGM brought Ariss to Hollywood, where he worked for the following 5 years” doing sets for “The Bing Crosby Show,” “I Love Lucy,” and other productions. Ariss also acted in the Wharf Theater; he played Lennie in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”. The theater burned down on New Year’s Eve 1959, but Ariss and Di Girolamo built a new theater on the wharf, now officially named “Bruce Ariss Wharf Theater”. Ariss also did the cover and illustrations of Di Girolamo’s 1990 book “Whispers Under the Wharf: A Ghost Story” [31]

Ariss was a very avid reader, mostly of science fiction. He wrote some science fiction short stories [32] before publishing his sci fi novel, “Full Circle” (Avalon) in 1963 [33]. He also illustrated science fiction works including “Through Time and Space with Ferdinand Feghoot” (1962) [34]

One of his many interests was a concept car called the Polaris. In 1958, Ariss designed an economy sedan with innovative features such as a sliding door, front wheel drive and modular components. Ariss worked for 12 years at the Defense Language Institute with Barney Inada in the art department. Ariss also assisted the cartoonist Hank Ketcham with Dennis the Menace.


  1. ^ Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, vol. 2, R. Reginald, 1979, pg 801
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  3. ^ "Bruce Ariss Was Here," Monterey Penninsula Library, October 8, 2016,
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