Steve Comba has been a familiar face at the Claremont consortium since 1986, not only as a graduate student and Pomona College Museum of Art (PCMA) assistant director and registrar, but also as an artist.
From April 26 to July 13, Comba will be showing his art piece Arboretum with the Claremont Museum of Art, an organization that he helped establish nearly a decade ago. The Arboretum exhibit is part of a partnership between the Claremont Museum of Art and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens, who carved out a new gallery space in their building.
Comba has avoided showing his own work at the Claremont Museum in the past, but since he no longer has administrative ties with the organization, he accepted its offer to show his work. The piece is a large-scale painting of an arboretum, constructed from various landscape photos Comba has taken over his years in Claremont.
Although the work has been exhibited before, the botanical gardens provide a thematically significant place to display it.
“This project has a feel to it about the artificial nature of structured gardens, which is synonymous with the artificial nature of making a painting,” Comba said. “It was almost like a chess game to see how much of an artificial environment I could create and have this painting grow organically over time.”
Comba originally came to Claremont when he matriculated at Claremont Graduate University in 1986 to receive his master’s of fine arts in studio art. After becoming a member of the consortium’s staff, he never left.
“Twenty-six years later, I think I realized that museum work is kind of interesting,” Comba said.
Comba first came upon museum work when he was trying to support himself through college. Most of the money he made to support his schooling was through his work in professional picture framing.
“It was a great skill to have because I could frame my own artwork and got discounts on material, which was very important,” Comba said. “It was that skill that actually led to a Friday afternoon part-time gig at the then-called Montgomery Gallery.” The Montgomery Gallery is now a part of the PCMA.
When he was offered the job of registrar at the gallery, Comba took it so he could afford to rent studio space. As a registrar, he was responsible for managing the care and maintenance of books in the permanent collection and pieces that were borrowed and acquired.
“In a small staff, I am the one at the forefront of access to all of the objects, so those things you wouldn’t traditionally see in an exhibition, I’ve been able to gain access to,” Comba said. “As an artist in a museum, the vast storehouses that can be invisible has been really influential for me.”
Comba also discussed how the PCMA, compared to larger civic museums, offers greater transparency and accessibility to museum staff members as well as students.
“For us to be relevant to a college environment, we can’t just do exhibitions that are vital to the different kinds of needs for education and variety, but we have to let everyone in on what we do,” he said. “I think one of the things we’ve been able to create is a connection to those objects for students who can come into a space like this and have a real artwork put on a table in front of them.”
Pomona funding has given many students the opportunity to work under Comba and get hands-on experience at a museum.
“Working with Steve is wonderful,” said Anna Turner PO ’15, a collections intern who works with Comba at the museum, primarily with the Native American collection. “He’s a fantastic boss and knows his stuff. He always has something for me to do, and has given me many opportunities to help out with important tasks.”
Although Comba has a strong career in museum administration, he is an artist at heart. Comba has continued to produce art throughout the years, exhibiting his work in museums and painting at night.
“It’s been really important for me to think of myself as an artist first and foremost, who happens to have a really good job,” Comba said. “For many years I was nocturnal. I used to only like to paint at night anyway because I like the controlled environment of the studio, as well as weekends.”
“If I had the unlimited resources to just be a painter, I would probably have a hard time working that much in the studio because I am so efficient with my attack mode in the studio,” he said.
Comba said that he believes it is important for artists to regularly expose their work to the public.
“If you are just working by yourself in a cave, does it matter?” he asked. “Being an artist is a fundamentally egotistical choice. We think that we are making things that must be seen by other humans.”
Lily Comba SC ’16, Comba’s daughter, recalled a story about her father’s desire to have his work seen and appreciated.
“When he was in high school, one of his first works of art was stolen from the show and he didn’t care,” she said. “He took it as a compliment.”
She also described his love for the community of Claremont.
“He does so much within the art scene as he does outside that he’s truly an integral part of Claremont,” Lily Comba said. “People gravitate toward him and he, in return, demonstrates a passion for the community like I’ve never seen in any other person.”