Milton Hebald's world is in his hands

Had they looked up for a moment amid the frenzy of their arrival in 1964, the first major artwork the Beatles would have seen on American soil was "Zodiac Screen," a 220-foot-wide sculptural assemblage of the 12 celestial signs. For more than 30 years, the monumental work greeted travelers passing through the Pan Am terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Its creator, Milton Hebald, is 93 now and has a humbler artistic agenda. Most days, after a bowl of oatmeal and a half-hour sitting in the sun and thinking, he shuffles gingerly into the former dining nook of a small tract house in Sherman Oaks. The space has become Hebald's studio, flooded with natural light from a picture window that looks out on an unruly backyard he calls "a wilderness."

Here he continues to create, working in clay. In 1971, the novelist Anthony Burgess wrote that Hebald, then turning out big works in bronze, was "without doubt the most important living figure sculptor." Now he sticks to pieces you can hold in one or two hands: busts of loved ones, an insouciant Franklin D. Roosevelt, a pensive Albert Einstein, a seated J.S. Bach with an anachronistic tuba resting on his thigh.

"I wake up each morning," Hebald says, "and I want to get to work. It's wonderful."

"Zodiac Screen" has been in storage since the early 1990s; it was taken down after Pan American World Airways went bankrupt. But many of the other public bronzes that Hebald made in his prime continue to be seen every day by masses of people.

In Los Angeles, two giant works from 1986 stand outside the Downtown YMCA: "Handstand," a depiction of a muscular young man doing just that, and "Olympiade," which shows three female racers in stride, ponytails flapping.

Outside the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, home to the annual "Shakespeare in the Park" series, Hebald's 7-foot-tall "Romeo and Juliet" shows the star-crossed lovers in a passionate embrace. A "Romeo and Juliet" cast from the same mold towers over a rose garden at the Hollenbeck Palms retirement community in Boyle Heights, where the adolescent sweethearts serve as a reminder that romance is ageless.

For witnesses to his work as a nonagenarian, Hebald has his family, and he has Pussums, a black and brown neighborhood stray who shows up daily outside his studio window, looking to be fed. Hebald has made a reddish-clay feline statue for her to gaze upon, should she deign to do so while lapping up her can of cat food.

On a recent morning, Hebald took a metal spatula to a slab of clay, swatting, prodding and flipping it before pounding it with a wooden meat tenderizer. He was softening it for his next work, its theme as yet undecided.

His most recent finished piece sat on a shelf nearby. It is small, like all of the 40 or 50 works he has made since moving to Los Angeles in 2008, but it is sure to be treasured. It consists of the heads of two lovers, kissing, their outline forming a heart. It is inscribed "For Sergie & Eiko" and signed "Hebald 2010" in the block letters the artist has always used. It's a wedding gift for his grandson, who lives in Japan.

Near the wedding present rest infant busts of his great-granddaughter Cecile, now 2, and a recent self-portrait in clay that he wryly calls his "portrait of the artist as an old man." (The allusion to James Joyce is not accidental: Among Hebald's signature works is a life-size 1966 statue of Joyce that sits at the author's gravesite in Zurich.)

Hebald left his sculpting nook for a moment and returned with a photo of a self-portrait that he made in 1935, when he was a precocious 18-year-old in New York City. The sculpture has been lost, but the era of its birth remains vivid and relevant.

Since October, three of Hebald's earliest notable works have been at the heart of "The American Scene: New Deal Art, 1935-1943," an exhibition at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek that runs through Sunday.

Seventy-five years ago, FDR's Works Progress Administration sent Hebald into a neighborhood of Italian immigrants on Manhattan's Upper East Side to teach children how to work with clay.

The New Deal program put thousands of artists, musicians, writers and thespians on the government payroll during the Great Depression. Hebald drew a $22.80 check each week.

Today, he has come full circle. He's again teaching children how to create in clay, in occasional visits to Cecile's preschool in Culver City. Instead of a check from the U.S. Treasury, he's paid in nachas — Yiddish for the glow of pleasure that runs through elder hearts when they exult in their young.

Hebald says the WPA and the Federal Art Project — which commissioned new works for public display — did not just keep him fed but nourished his growth as a sculptor.

"It was a complete start in the art world for me," he recalls.

He's a small man, wholly unpretentious despite artsy accoutrements — goatee, black beret and scarf — and a love of quoting great literature from memory. His voice is strong, if scratchy, with a born-on-the-Bowery accent.

Working with the WPA brought Hebald into the orbit of New York City's artists' union. Its headquarters became one of his hangouts, and the leftist political talk helped to shape his creative sensibility. "Being there was everything. Meeting and mixing with other artists — it's important to a young artist. We were all radicals at the time, doing Proletarian art. You could call it a movement."

The New Deal exhibition at the Bedford shows "Americans grappling with an economic situation that's all too familiar today," says curator Carrie Lederer. "The timing made it seem like the perfect exhibition, not only to reflect on who we were but who we are."

Hebald's tabletop bronze of folk musician Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) is the first thing visitors see and the cover image for the exhibition's brochure. There is, of course, a story behind it. Hebald shared a studio with sculptor Harold Ambellan, who was deep into the folk scene. Ambellan booked Leadbelly to play a concert at the studio for an invited audience. When "Goodnight Irene" came around, the singer dedicated it to Hebald's wife, Cecile, a painter.

Working from memory, Hebald sculpted Leadbelly and dedicated the piece to him.

Hebald's "Elements in a Life," a bas relief inspired by Stephen Crane's novella "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets," shows a despairing father, a plaintive mother and a child gazing through a window at the world outside their claustrophobic room. In "Sunday," the third Hebald work in the exhibition, a man joyfully carries a small child on his shoulders.

The WPA ended in 1943, and Hebald was drafted into the Army in 1945. In the mid-1950s, he and Cecile settled in Italy, where the living was cheap and the bronze foundries were superb.

By then, he'd gained notice in New York: the Whitney Museum of American Art bought a piece and a Bronx hospital commissioned his first major public work, a 16-foot-tall image of dancing figures on the building's façade. Hebald won a fellowship from the prestigious American Academy in Rome, and Edith Halpert, the Manhattan art dealer who helped launch Georgia O'Keeffe, bought several of his sculptures and sold them at her gallery. Hebald's career blossomed.

In Italy, the sculptor and his wife amassed a notable collection of Old Master drawings at bargain prices. In 1970, the Hebald Collection was the focus of an exhibition at UCLA. Some of the drawings were later bought by the J. Paul Getty Museum. "Lot and His Daughters," a 415-year-old painting by the Dutch artist Joachim Antonisz Wtewael that once adorned the Hebalds' home in Italy, now hangs at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Hebalds' L.A. connection was through their daughter, Margo Hebald-Heymann, a Santa Monica architect whose designs include Terminal One at Los Angeles International Airport.

Cecile Hebald died in 1998; in 2004, now remarried, he left Italy and moved to Santa Fe, N.M., with his second wife, actress Kathleen Arc.

Arc died in 2006, and Hebald was left in a nursing home, cut off from his kin. His granddaughter, Lara Hebald Embry of Culver City, says he was rescued by Good Samaritans, one of whom is now his court-appointed conservator.

Hebald moved to L.A. in 2008 and now lives in Sherman Oaks with a much younger cousin. His health was too fragile for him to travel to the Bay Area for "The American Scene," but his oeuvre continues to grow. Some of his latest clay sculptures were featured in a show at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach. Lamentably, somebody swiped a bust of his great-granddaughter from the display.

Lovers — often in the act of lovemaking — remain a favorite subject. Hebald says that all the female lovers he shapes represent his Cecile. They were together more than 60 years.

"She's with me all the time," he says. "I dream of her all the time."

His chief ambition now, he says, is to have "Zodiac Screen" taken out of storage and put on display. He also dreams of completing one more monumental work. The model for it sits on a coffee table in his living room. Called "Time's Winged Chariot," it shows a charioteer driving a winged carriage pulled by a winged horse. This ode to transportation was inspired by his grandson-in-law's engineering and design work on the Exposition Line.

Hebald says it would be nice to have his recent L.A. output reviewed in a gallery exhibition. But shows, sales and glory are not high on his agenda. His reason for working is quite simple:

"They make me happy," he says of his sculptures. "That's what they're for."

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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