An Artist Remembered

Bunker Hill's Angel, Painter Leo Politi, Passes Away

by Jon Regardie (1996)

Leo Politi, who chronicled decades of Downtown through his paintings and numerous books, died Monday, March 25. The internationally recognized artist was 87.

An aficionado of Los Angeles who could frequently be found sketching children on Olvera Street, Politi is remembered for both his gentle disposition and soothing watercolors. He was a fan of Bunker Hill, Chinatown, Little Tokyo and the Historic Core, all of which he captured in books. His work encompassed much of California, and his honors included the prestigious Caldecott Medal and having a local school named after him.

"Leo Politi would always come to Olvera Street and he was always painting," says Jean Bruce Poole, historic museum director of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument. She knew Politi since 1977 when he painted the mural "The Blessing of the Animals" on the side of the Biscailuz building, depicting the annual Olvera Street event.

"His paintings were always very sweet," she continues. "They were not of people in sorrow or agony or distress. He painted people as he liked to see them, happy and enjoying life and being good."

According to his son Paul, Leo Politi was born in Fresno, California, but moved to Italy with his parents at age five. He won a scholarship to a prestigious Italian art institute, and came to Los Angeles in his early 20s. During the Great Depression he sold his paintings on Olvera Street. He lived on Bunker Hill and Angeleno Heights his entire life.

He married a woman named Helen, though, says Paul, Leo Politi could never remember the exact wedding date. He often forgot specifics such as birthdays and anniversaries, instead focusing passionately on art.

"Art was far more than his work," reveals Paul Politi. "It was more important than money or awards. My father sketched every day of his life. He sketched to breathe."

Politi often incorporated children into his work, focusing on their unbridled energy and innocence. He created many colorful children's books including Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street, and Moy Moy, about a girl in Chinatown. He illustrated The Butterflies Come, about monarch butterflies, and won the Caldecott Medal, which honors the most distinguished children's book each year, for Song of the Swallows, a story of the birds at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

He verged into adult books too, the most noted of which was Bunker Hill, a series of paintings of the stately Victorian houses which populated that section of Downtown before the skyscrapers irrevocably altered the landscape. In total he authored 30 books and illustrated an additional 15 to 20. A devoted fan of Angels Flight during its first and second incarnations, Politi designed posters and T-shirts for the railway. Poole recalls that when signing his work for fans (including an appearance at Angels Flight rededication just weeks ago) he offered more than the proverbial messy scribble; he would draw a bird or write a short message in the corner to make each piece personal.

Honors followed the artist, and a small park in Elysian Park, near Dodger Stadium, is named after him, as is the Leo Politi Elementary School west of Downtown. In 1984 Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed April "Leo Politi Appreciation Month" to commemorate his 75th birthday. The City of Los Angeles owns all the original artworks included in Bunker Hill.

"He loved Los Angeles," says his son Paul. "He loved Angel's Flight and the Bradbury building. He was fascinated by Los Angeles and the history of Los Angeles. He tried to keep the spirit of Los Angeles alive."

A memorial service for Leo Politi will be held Monday, April 22 at 10 a.m. The free event will take place on Olvera Street, near the mural "The Blessing of the Animals," and is open to all who appreciate the man and his work.

The Politi family is requesting that anyone with photos of Leo Politi or his work send prints or negatives to the school so his paintings can be properly categorized: Send to Leo Politi Elementary School, 2481 West 11th Street, Los Angeles CA, 90006; attention Richard Alonzo.

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