The city’s diversity formed his palette
Leo Politi captured some of Los Angeles’ most charming places with his two dozen children’s books and countless artworks. With brush and pencil, he immortalized the city’s crumbling Victorian mansions, its parks and its ethnic diversity long before “multicultural” entered the language.
Hailed as “the Artist of Olvera Street,” Politi, who died in 1996, is commemorated in other neighborhoods and in cities including South Pasadena, Redlands and his native Fresno.
A park near Dodger Stadium bears his name, as does an elementary school in the Pico-Union district. Later this year, the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park Avenue, near the artist’s former Angeleno Heights home, will be named Leo Politi Square.
Marking this year’s centenary of his birth, a yearlong exhibition of Politi’s oils and watercolors, ink sketches and murals and his movingly simple prose will begin Jan. 26 at the Pico House near Olvera Street.
He often painted and sketched on the historic street, which still displays one of his murals. The exhibit will include sketches made for his children’s books, among them “Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street” and “Juanita,” which were set around the old Pueblo de Los Angeles.
The exhibit will include wood sculptures, including a mother and her child, and dozens of his elegant watercolors of the now-vanished gingerbread Victorian homes on Bunker Hill and of others still standing in Angeleno Heights.
“Growing up, I always thought my father was a dreamer and a little naive,” Paul Politi, the artist’s son, said in a recent interview. He and his sister, Suzanne Bischof, have organized dozens of events over the next year with cities, schools, libraries and museums throughout the state.
“It wasn’t until later that I realized that he was a man ahead of his time, a deep thinker and very spiritual,” said Paul Politi, 64, a music writer who lives in Woodland Hills.
“He believed that reason and understanding was the key to everything, that if he could open people’s eyes to racial understanding, it would be a better world.”
The elder Politi’s life was like one of the many picture books he wrote and illustrated -- simple and humble.
He was born in Fresno in 1908, the son of Italian parents who grew grapes, made wine and raised horses on a small ranch. In 1914, as war got underway in Europe, Leo, then 6, and his family returned to his father’s family home in northern Italy.
“We know very little about his life in Italy,” Paul Politi said. “It was something he spoke little about.” But from a young age, Leo Politi was passionate about drawing and drew on every scrap of paper he could find, his son said.
At 15, he won a six-year scholarship to study at an Italian art institute.
In 1931, he returned to California, and, while working on a library mural in Fresno, fell in love with a waitress named Helen Fontes, who worked at a small cafe where the artist often sat and sketched her. The couple soon moved to Los Angeles and married; Politi bought his bride a 15-cent silver ring at Woolworth’s.
“Throughout her life, my mother showed it off with pride,” Paul Politi said.
While living in a bungalow on Bunker Hill, the artist set up his easel on Olvera Street, sketching tourists and children, and created a fictional character he called Little Pancho.
In 1938, a children’s book editor saw his sketches and invited him to show his work in a one-man exhibition in New York, setting the stage for Politi’s first book, “Little Pancho.”
Over the years, Politi received many awards, including the Caldecott Medal in 1950 for his book “Song of the Swallows,” about the birds’ annual migration to and from Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The Politi family rented several apartments and bungalows atop Bunker Hill over three decades. As the once-prosperous neighborhood crumbled, the artist stayed, telling his son he never wanted to live “in a sterile atmosphere.”
Neighborhood kids, whom Politi often stopped on the street to sketch, called him “Tarzan” because of his long hair, Paul Politi recalled.
In 1961, when their small house was condemned along with many other homes on Bunker Hill to clear the way for office skyscrapers, the Politi family moved to Angeleno Heights. But Politi continued to go to Bunker Hill, protesting through his paintings the demise of the historic neighborhood.
His watercolor illustrations were reproduced in the 1964 book “Bunker Hill,” in which Politi tells the story of “A Lady Named Rose,” who came to symbolize neighborhood resistance to the demolitions. She was an elderly woman who lived in a “charming old place” painted a “rusty green color, mellowed by time,” Politi wrote. When she was evicted, “she dragged her furniture downstairs all by herself, while her dog and cats stood by and watched.”
At his small Angeleno Heights home, which still stands, Politi built a mosaic fountain using recycled tiles and broken glass, much as his friend Simon Rodia had done in building the fanciful Watts Towers.
“Our house stood out like a sore thumb,” Paul Politi recalled. “My father painted our garbage cans and gates with birds, flowers and other designs. It was creative, but embarrassing at the time.”
The artist struggled financially for much of his life, his son said, recalling that “my father had to sell every one of his paintings for as little as a quarter to put bread and butter on the table.”
Paul Politi has spent the last 30 years buying back many of his father’s works, paying $500 to $10,000 apiece.
For more information about Leo Politi Centennial events, visit leopoliti2008centennial.org.