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Artist’s Eviction May Doom Huge Front-Yard Sculpture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A bulldozer may soon do what Los Angeles officials and homeowners have been unable to do: end a long-running dispute over whether an Echo Park hilltop is trash or treasure.

Self-styled artist Gary Leonard is being evicted from a house that has been swallowed up by a gigantic sculpture made from thousands of discarded garden tools, auto parts and household items.

The house’s new owner has announced plans to remodel it, landscape the front yard and tote Leonard’s unusual artwork to the garbage dump.

Such a cleanup will be a tragedy, say Leonard’s supporters.

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It’s something that’s long overdue, counter his neighbors.

Leonard has lived in the 88-year-old house at 2446 Echo Park Ave. for 11 years. He said his sculpture started six years ago when he began wiring together castoffs scavenged from roadsides and alleys as therapy after a divorce.

Ironically, Leonard claims, it was fallout from the divorce that led a mortgage company to foreclose on the house and its yard-sized sculpture.

Leonard, 40, said he took out a $60,000 loan last year in order to pay child support to his ex-wife. But the lender foreclosed this year when he fell behind on his payments. Two months ago real estate investor William D. Little purchased the property for $127,000, Leonard said.

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Last Thursday, Leonard was told he has 18 days to remove his personal property from the hilltop home, according to Robert Sanchez, who handles eviction matters for Little.

“Come the due date, the property will be disposed of,” Sanchez said.

Leonard is scrambling to save his sculpture. He has hired a lawyer in hopes of stalling the eviction until he can find a way to buy the house back from Little.

Attorney Andrew Smyth of Los Angeles said a state law prohibits destruction of “fine art which is an expression of the artist’s personality” without advance notice. Enforcement of the law could give Leonard an extra 90 days to either remove the rambling sculpture or negotiate with Little.

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But Leonard will have trouble raising cash to repurchase the house--which Little reportedly is willing to sell for $145,000, according to Echo Park real estate investor Elmer Price. He is a friend of Leonard’s who has been in contact with Little.

“Maybe people could take up a collection and buy it--like the Watts Towers--and let Gary stay as curator,” said Price, who admits that Leonard’s sculpture is not his personal idea of art.

Debate over whether Leonard’s front yard is a gallery or garbage has raged for more than four years in Echo Park.

Twenty-six of Leonard’s neighbors demanded in 1989 that the scrap material be removed.

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“We feel people in our area of Echo Park are extraordinarily tolerant of the lifestyles of others, but we truly don’t believe we should have to live in the vicinity of this dump any longer,” they petitioned city officials.

A year later, then-Councilwoman Gloria Molina joined in the condemnation. “Mr. Leonard’s passion for ‘art’ has been indulged long enough,” she declared.

Last year, when the front yard sculpture began engulfing Leonard’s low-slung house, hilltop residents threw up their hands.

“This can’t be art. This is overkill,” groaned next-door neighbor Andy Aybar.

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These days, the castoffs form an almost solid wall around the front of the house. A dummy World War II bomb is lodged atop the home’s chimney. Outdoor lights donated by an admirer illuminate the street side of the sculpture.

“I’d like the house to be sold to an art collector,” Leonard said. “I’m not comparing myself to Van Gogh. But pound for pound, it would certainly be a bargain.”

Leonard’s 14-year-old son, David, takes a middle ground about dad’s creation.

“It’s definitely art. Sort of, I’d say,” David says, searching for words as he gazes at a sidewalk archway made of old garden tools, pieces of bicycle, chunks of scrap metal, rusty bedsprings and old dolls and other toys.

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Leonard’s friends have flocked to the house since county marshals served the eviction papers.

Conceptual artist David Normal of San Rafael said he doubts the sculpture can be moved. “Tearing it down will be akin to murder, in a metaphysical sense. It will be a very cruel thing,” Normal said.

Althea Edwards, an artist from La Crescenta, said Leonard’s sculpture was the subject of a two-month exhibition earlier this year in Pasadena. “This house is like a diary of Los Angeles,” she said. “It’s our diary.”


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