CalArts alumni keep memory of Connie alive

For more than four decades, the case of murdered CalArts student Connie Marsh remained inactive as the tragedy slipped silently into history — until now.

In the last year, more than a half-dozen CalArts alumni, from those who knew her to those who learned about her, have dusted off photos of the deeply committed young artist and began echoing the questions that plagued investigators probing her death in 1974.

Her story resonates with them not only as women, but as artists and, particularly, as artists with the CalArts common bond.

After all, it was her dedication to craft and her passion to pursue it that motivated Connie Marsh to get in her car on April 3, 1974, and drive to a remote rugged hilly area off of Pico Canyon, assemble her easel and begin the work she loved.

That’s the day she vanished.

Kindred spirit

One woman moved to know more about Connie Marsh is a woman named who couldn’t avoid relating to Connie’s story if she wanted to. She wanted to be referred to only as M.

“I started at CalArts when I was 17,” M said, Thursday. “I turned 18 there. It was a time in my life when I wanted to show my parents, ‘I’m not a kid at home. I’m on my own.’

“I wanted them to know that I’m not going to go to business school and that I’m going to be an artist,” she said.

Like Connie, “M” found a place to fit in and a place to pursue her creativity.

When Connie’s father, Dr. Julian Marsh, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania where Connie was formerly a student, was asked in December 1974 about his daughter’s plans, he said she chose California for further study, drawn there by the beauty of the hills.

CalArts, for Connie, became a perfect fit — close to those hills, closer to art and close to those evolving as artists as she was.

The passion Connie Marsh showed for her craft inspires M to this day, she said.

Newspaper accounts about her disappearance paid attention to the circumstances of the day she vanished, particularly about unabashed critiques made about her art.

“Connie favored painting with natural light. She was told, ‘That’s old school.’ But, like all of us, you had to be able to defend your art.

“We lived in the same dorm.  We were all struggling with the same things,” M said.

Missing

Marsh went missing April 3, 1974. 

Her unfinished painting was found near her car on a rugged hill off of Pico Canyon Road. Her purse and wallet were found on the front seat.

Deputies at the time said they found no signs of a struggle, not even a footprint. In the days that followed the discovery, deputies scoured the hills on horses and dogs. 

There was no trace of Connie Marsh.

Then, on Dec. 15, 1974, between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., Lawrence Brown of San Pedro was hunting quail and trudging through the brush near Texas Canyon, above Vasquez Canyon Road, and found a skull, later determined to be that of Connie Marsh.

To reach the area where the skull was found required driving off Vasquez and then up Lost Creek Road, past an old hog farm.

Investigators with the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner determined in subsequent tests that Marsh died of blunt force trauma to the head — murder.

The location of the skull and the spot where Marsh’s car had been found are 10 miles apart.

The mystery of her disappearance became the mystery of her murder.

And, as her story moves steadily towards the half-century milepost, her legacy is being perpetuated and redefined by those following in her footsteps.

Violence against women

Emma Kemp runs the summer Art Residency Program at CalArts.

“I came across a reference to Connie in the CalArts archives,” Kemp said Tuesday. “I immediately felt a kinship with this fellow artist — a young girl pursuing her dream.”

Then, Kemp recently attended the “Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here” exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art (the display’s run ended in the first week of August), which affected her in a way that allowed her to see Connie Marsh in fresh new perspective.

Lacy, the Los Angeles artist and educator, has frequently focused her art on social themes and urban issues, including the issue of violence against women.

For Kemp, the exhibition got her thinking more vigorously about the short life of Connie Marsh.

“(The exhibition) made me think about the stories of women abducted, raped and murdered in the 70s,” she said.

So as a woman, an artist, a CalArts alumni and a murder victim, Connie Marsh is not likely to be forgotten at CalArts.

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