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Sylmar Artist's Gun Sculpture May Finally Get to Take Its Stand

September 11, 1986|DAVID WHARTON | Wharton is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

At one point, it appeared as if Leonard Poteshman's towering iron-and-steel sculpture had vanished.

It may be hard to believe that a 12-foot-tall, eight-ton object could disappear. But, considering the nature of Poteshman's sculpture, nothing in its long, strange history seems unusual.

The artwork is cast of 7,000 handguns and rifles that were used to commit crimes.

"This is a statement," said Poteshman, a Sylmar artist. "We shouldn't disregard that so many illegal weapons are out there. I wanted the citizenry to know about this."

The monolithic piece was unveiled in 1976 to considerable fanfare. Just as quickly, it became mired in bureaucratic limbo and sat for 11 years at the Torrance steel mill where it was built. A year ago, the mill closed down. The sculpture was gone.

Sighted in Montebello

Last week, Poteshman learned that it had turned up in Montebello. Through a series of coincidences, a Montebello reserve policeman saved it from being melted down. The artwork almost ended up in the policeman's front yard, but the city has since adopted it and plans to display it in a memorial park. The saga of the gun sculpture may at last have reached a happy end.

Sculptor and sculpture were reunited this week in a parking lot at the Montebello Police Department. That a policeman rescued the work is ironic. Poteshman was a composite artist for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for 25 years. He created the piece with the blessing of the Sheriff's Department, which had originally planned to install it at the Sheriff's Training Academy.

Monday, the 60-year-old Poteshman embraced his sculpture with mixed emotions.

"I'm mad," he said at first. "I'm disappointed that the Sheriff's Department disregarded the importance of this statement. But I'm glad Montebello has picked it up."

Poteshman conceived of guns as art 13 years ago, while watching the Sheriff's Department's annual demolition of confiscated weapons.

At that time, the department was required by state law to destroy all weapons used in crimes. The guns had for many years been dumped into the Catalina Channel. After complaints from environmentalists, the department began crushing and melting the guns.

Weapon Crush Inspires Art

It was while watching the crushing that Poteshman became inspired. He approached then-Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess with a proposal for the sculpture. Over the next two years, the artist carefully selected bits and pieces from the demolitions: serpentine-shaped rifle barrels and artfully tooled pistol grips.

He placed the pieces in square beds of sand and poured molten steel over them. When the cube face had cooled, he lifted it from the sand, and a relief pattern--a collage of weapons--was left. The faces were gusseted together to form a monolith.

"It's almost something out of '2001,' " Poteshman said. "You can just see gorillas gathered around this throwing bones."

The Sheriff's Department paraded the finished work before the press and announced plans to install it at the training academy.

Somewhere along the line, those plans went awry. There are differing accounts of what happened.

Poteshman contends that the Sheriff's Department backed away from the sculpture because it was politically volatile.

"This thing was controversial," he said. "I think it was probably a little ahead of its time."

The Sheriff's Department says it was simply a matter of money. The artwork, because of its tremendous weight, required a special base and costly transportation from the steel mill.

"The estimates were quite high, and our budgetary priorities would not allow us to spend that money," said Capt. Bill Hinkle. Poteshman said costs ranged as high as $16,000.

Years passed and the tower sat rusting in the steel-mill yard. Poteshman visited regularly with Pitchess' successor, Sheriff Sherman Block.

"I'd say, 'Are we aware that the sculpture is still there and are we going to do something about it?' " Poteshman recalled. "But I was an employee so I couldn't push the issue. There were times when I gave up hope."

Two years ago, the Sheriff's Department decided that it could not afford the artwork and began searching for a museum to take it. At about the same time, the Torrance steel mill went out of business.

Again, there are differing stories.

According to Montebello city officials, the steel mill repeatedly asked the county to pick the sculpture up.

Possible Miscommunication

A Sheriff's Department spokesman said the department never received such a request. It is possible, he added, that the steel mill contacted another county office. Poteshman had since retired from the department. He had also begun searching for a home for his sculpture, unaware that it was in peril.

No one claimed the artwork. Almost 1 1/2 years ago, the steel mill hired a trucking company to haul it away for demolition.

The sculpture would have been demolished were it not for Roy Johnson, the owner of the trucking company and a Montebello reserve police officer.

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