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Artist Diana Basehart Back at Work on Her Pet Projects

September 22, 1986|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

Diana Basehart's home is filled with the cheery print fabrics of her native England, the animals she loves (four dogs, two cats), the swans and shells she has sculpted--and haunting memories.

Only now, two years after the death of her husband, renowned actor Richard Basehart, is she beginning to pick up the pieces of her life that shattered when he died. And those pieces center around--and combine--the sculpting that is her creative bent and the causes of the elderly and of animals that engrossed both of the Baseharts.

Pencil-slim, elegant in a silky blouse and color-matched slacks, Diana Basehart served tea--English, of course--in the airy living room of her hillside home in Coldwater Canyon. She began with--and returned repeatedly to--the shock of her husband's stroke and death in September of 1984.

"The first year is the longest," she said. "I felt I was drowning continually. . . . We were married three months under 26 years, a marriage of total loving."

She admitted she considered suicide, but "I couldn't because of my mother, my children and my animals. I couldn't do that to them. I have four dogs and two cats. Who would take them? Nobody wanted them anyway; that's how they came to me."

As she spoke, the dogs, once homeless and unwanted, curled at her feet, eyed a visitor's lap and snoozed on the couch next to their owner. She recounted each one's history: Devon, more formally Devonshire Cream, a honey-and-white terrier of mixed parentage and winsome personality, found living under a trailer at UCLA; Buffy, delivered to the doorstep by relatives of a deceased woman who wanted Richard Basehart to have her dog, and Nell, a runt nobody wanted who is now 11 and nearly blind, "Yorkie, sort of," and Kate, possibly a more-than-sort-of Yorkie.

Diana Basehart touched on some of the things dear to her: her mother, Gwenyth Snyder, who visits her daily; daughters Janna, 22, and Gayla, 17; her work as a sculptor and teacher of sculpting; the plight of the elderly and of animals, two causes that have become enmeshed in Basehart's life.

She told how she and her husband used to visit homes for the elderly.

"We'd talk to the old people. We felt they were as outcast and unwanted as the animals," she said. "Yet there was not an animal in the place, nothing to touch, feel. We tried to get the nursing homes to accept a dog or cat. None would, although some have now."

Diana and Richard Basehart, horrified by the cruelty to horses he had seen while filming in Spain, joined with a handful of others in 1971 to form Actors and Others for Animals, which champions animal humane causes. Four months after Richard's death, Diana established the Richard Basehart Fund, administered through Actors and Others for Animals, that primarily seeks to help the elderly afford to own a small pet.

Cost of Owning Pet

She explained, for example, that many senior citizens cannot afford the veterinary charges or the cleaning deposits landlords require of pet owners. She hopes the fund can continue to help both the elderly who need pets and the animals who need homes.

To that end, Diana Basehart has contributed the fees she earns teaching sculpting, plus other monies. She has designed a line of jewelry that she hopes, once start-up costs are paid, also will augment the Richard Basehart Fund.

So far the total is $40,000, she said, and contributions are welcome. (Donations are accepted by Actors and Others for Animals, 5510 Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood, Calif. 91601, telephone (818) 985-6263.)

Admittedly "reclusive, much too reclusive" since her husband's death, Basehart thinks a summer trip to England has helped "to get rid of the phantoms" that have haunted her in her grief. She has resumed her sculpting and teaching.

"Teaching? Yes, oh yes," she said, "and it's hard work.

"I also am working all day, five days a week, on a small piece of my own to take to a gallery in England."

A former actress and model who discovered sculpture at 18 on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Diana Lotery Basehart has shown her work at various galleries and in one-woman shows. Her collectors include celebrities ranging from Jacques Cousteau to Angie Dickinson ("She has seven of my sculptures"). The Basehart home itself is a gallery of her creations, and, with the four dogs at her heels (one cat remained sleepily atop the mantel, the other among the absent), she took visitors around the house to see her work.

Favorite Themes

Her sculptures include female torsos, a mother and child, busts of her daughters and husband and a piece of praying hands that become a dove, but swans and shells predominate.

Especially swans: "I'm swan-mad. I think it's because I'm English." In varying form they fill bookshelves in the study, niches in the bathrooms, a ledge over the kitchen sink, serve as doorstops. Two swans atop the living room coffee table, one representing Richard, the other Diana, can be placed to form a heart.

She caressed the alabaster of one sculpture and pointed out the striations of another of pink marble, almost as though each found life in her hands. She led the way into the garden, where she teaches. One of her prime rules for sculpture students is never to use power tools, even though many sculptors now do.

"Everything I do (sculpture) is by hand," she said, "no power tools. (When you use them) all spiritual value disintegrates; you lose oneness with nature. I only do three pieces a year, perhaps."

And turning again to the Richard Basehart Fund, she observed:

"We want to give the elderly a pet. There is an incentive for living if something does love you and is dependent and does rely on you."

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