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Heavy Metal : Sculptor Hal Pastorius Weathers Storms as Well as His Works of Art Do

November 21, 1987|MIKE SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

Harold L. Pastorius Jr. is almost wistful when he talks about the not-too-long-ago days when one of his giant metal sculptures could ignite whole communities, split city councils and bring storms of ugly letters to local newspapers--even, in one case, a summons to the Coastal Commission.

Success, it seems, has taken some of the fun out of his life.

"People take to heart the adage that 'you can't argue with success'--so they don't," he says. "And that's too bad, because controversy is a great attention-getting device on a very positive level; it gets the public involved."

And that's what Hal Pastorius and his works are all about: getting people and communities involved with art.

Pastorius, a longtime Laguna Beach resident whose monumental pieces dot the Orange County landscape, is considered the dean of the nation's art-in-public-places practitioners. Not only is he one of the most-commissioned such artists in the country, but his advice is sought from Massachusetts to Alaska by state commissions, schools, private developers and community art councils.

Here in his home county, though, Pastorius and his work have a history of stirring up emotion. On the mild side is his piece on Alton Parkway near Redhill in Irvine, which thanks to a local newspaper is still known in the area as "The Yellow Banana." The 30-foot bright yellow work actually is titled "Portal," because its function is to call attention to the entrance to an all-black glass structure from which the lobby is otherwise impossible to determine.

And then there's "Vestige," a piece designed to symbolize the remains of once-ambitious building projects in Baja California. At the center is a 16-foot-high piece of steel, supported by curving sections of more steel. And it is a piece the citizens of Laguna Beach are not likely to forget.

"Vestige" was placed in a park area near Main Beach in 1980 and was intended to be a permanent fixture. That was before someone decided that it looked like "a giant index finger being waved at the people," or a religious symbol (in a certain dim light, it's possible to think it resembles a cross) or a "blight on the landscape."

It was also attacked by late community activist Betty Heckel, who even started a petition drive against the sculpture, although she also wrote Pastorius that it wasn't the art she objected to, but its blocking the view of the ocean.

That's when the city decided it was a Coastal Commission problem, which only stirred up a whole new battle. What, demanded art experts from San Diego to Eureka, gives the Coastal Commission the right to judge art?

The day before the commission was to meet, the city asked Pastorius to remove the sculpture. Then, after several years' service as an unofficial landmark on Laguna Canyon Road, "Vestige" was acquired by the City of Paramount as part of its art-in-public-places program.

The sculptor is not bitter at the city in which he lives for rejecting one of his works.

"The debate is important and the involvement of the community is essential," Pastorius says, "After all, sculpture is not like a stage performance or even a painting. Sculpture has a permanence, a durability, a strength and a power of statement unmatched by any of the other arts.

"It will still be there long after we're gone."

If it sounds as if he's on a crusade, that's because he is.

He has helped establish art-in-public-places programs in Brea, Garden Grove, Irvine, Paramount, Lakewood, Lawndale, Riverside, Newport Beach, Cypress, Laguna Beach, Oceanside, Oxnard and Anchorage. In addition, he's worked with the cities of Dallas and Boston and is involved in creating six major pieces for a development in Phoenix.

"Much of what we perceive as greatness in past civilizations has to do with art," he says.

"Art is more than a function; it helps people understand themselves and is basic to the learning process itself. People in the arts use all their senses--they touch, they feel, they see, they think, they smell, they hear--and there's a memory attached to each of those senses, so the more you use, the more you enjoy what is enjoyable.

"The simple fact is that people who are involved in the arts enjoy life more."

Pastorius likes to repeat the first question that the late billionaire J. Paul Getty reportedly would ask any prospective executive: "What's your involvement in the arts?"

"And the answer," Pastorius says, "told him everything he needed to know about the person's personality, about their ability or inability to accept change and, most importantly, to help him guard against hiring what he called 'somebody just like me,' which Getty believed could only harm an operation."

Art, Pastorius says, also tells a great deal about a community's personality.

"It used to be (that) the only statues or monuments you saw in public places, such as parks, were busts of politicians or military leaders, and they were usually built by relatives of those people. After a few generations, nobody knew who they were--or, frankly, cared.

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