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
"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
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
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.
archived from firstname.lastname@example.org.