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An Irony in Bronze

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The memorial dedication ceremony for Glendora Police Officer Louis Pompei was fraught with irony.

First there was the tragic irony of the death itself: Cashing his paycheck at a San Dimas Vons supermarket last year, Pompei, 29, found himself in the middle of a holdup. Pompei was not the type of man to stand by and watch, his friends said. Instead, he was killed in plainclothes, trying to stop some thugs.

For a few people present at the unveiling, there was also a strange sense of situational irony hanging over the event: Vons donated food for the June 9 service, only to receive notice June 10 that the Pompeis named the supermarket chain as a defendant in a $100-million lawsuit.

And more subtly, there was a slight irony at the ceremony, as most of the 300 people who turned out to commemorate the fallen officer on the one-year anniversary of his death had no idea the bronze plaques they saluted were designed, sculpted and built by prisoners.

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Saving the city of Glendora more than $10,000, artist Doug Lyons and four inmates at the Men’s Correctional Facility in Chino made the moldings for the plaques in the institution’s correctional arts program, said Tom Skelly, arts facilitator for the prison.

Lyons and the inmates worked more than 60 hours a week over two months to create the memorial, a small triangular bronze and a large disc-shaped plaque, which cost just over $6,000.

After the dedication, Lyons removed the sculptures and brought them back to prison, but the city can expect the two-piece memorial’s return today. The inmates just wanted a little more time, one said, to perfect their artwork.

A sander buzzes across the large bronze disc, filling a brightly lit prison workshop with noise and dust particles. Billy Walker, 36, squints over a worktable, sandpapering the hard-to-reach spaces between the memorial’s letters as 35-year-old Brian Burgess, known as Bam-Bam, kneels on top of the plaque, moving the loud sander in small, circular motions to smooth out its rough surface.

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While he works, Burgess watches the color of the sculpture change from black to copper, like an old penny dipped in polish.

“It’s beautiful,” he says.

His blue eyes light up with pride when he explains how the crew made the memorial, but when asked what he thought about immortalizing a police officer, Burgess just shrugs.

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“I heard the officer was a real upstanding individual,” he says, running his hands over the words “Honor and Serve” sculpted in an early clay mold. “I’ve once before gotten beat up pretty good by an officer, but I heard this guy treated everyone with respect.”

Walker is a little less compassionate.

“A cop is a cop as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I do feel a little sorry because he was a human being, but I mainly did this to save the arts program here.”

The 16-year program may be in budgetary jeopardy unless prisons can prove that inmate art serves a societal purpose, Skelly said. Not all inmates choose to go through the programs, but for those who are interested in the arts, there aren’t many other options.

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“About the only art we have around here is tattooing,” Walker said, lifting up his T-shirt to reveal two grinning demons inked onto his chest.

A large man with a thick, brown goatee, Walker says bluntly that he was arrested five years ago for manufacturing methamphetamine.

“He’s our chemist,” Lyons says. “I’m not joking.”

Walker applied the tricks of his past trade, mixing chemicals to create a rubber mold of the memorial. To get the compound right, the speed scientist measured out powders and liquids on a dial-a-gram scale that Lyons borrowed from the prison’s investigations department--the same type of scale drug dealers use to weigh their goods.

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Most of the men contributed the skills they developed--legally or otherwise--on the outside. But they all said the sculpting process taught them a great deal more, not only about the art form, but also about themselves.

“It . . . showed us a potential we never saw before in ourselves,” said Andrew Granger, 42, a sketch artist who traded in his pencils for clay to help with the sculpting. “It gave us a sense of self-worth.”

Granger spreads his arms out wide and smiles. “It’s alive,” he said, beaming at the bronze that bears Pompei’s name. “It’s got a spirit. It’s got our spirit.”


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