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Looking for 4-Leaf Clover : Mural Gives Focus for School's Tradition

May 01, 1988|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

The tradition is more than 30 years old.

New students at Sutter Junior High School in Canoga Park go to the library. There, they study a vast mural that soars two stories to the ceiling. The painting, called "The First Spring," depicts the newly created world suggested by the Bible. More than 200 species of animals appear in the painting, a skunk and a grasshopper as well as elephants and a curvaceous camel.

But the newcomers don't study the animals. They scan the huge canvas looking for a tiny four-leaf clover.

Tradition Born

In the early 1950s, a Sutter youngster asked the mural's creator, Kay Nielsen, if he had included a four-leaf clover in his epic painting. Nielsen hadn't, but promptly added one--and a Sutter tradition was born.

Sutter's mural, which is more than 30 feet wide and 20 feet tall, is only one--albeit one of the largest--of the artwork in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

This month, the district began a survey of paintings, sculpture and other items of artistic, cultural, historical or monetary value that have been given over the years to its 618 schools.

Westside school board member Alan Gershman proposed the survey to determine what treasures have been amassed in the district's 133-year history. The survey is expected to lead to a districtwide policy on the use, protection and preservation of such gifts. Eventually, some of the items may be displayed in a school district gallery or museum.

Sutter librarian Lee Gibbons has seen the painting every working day for 36 years.

'Always Gentle, Always Calm'

"There aren't very many people who get to live with a wonderful work of art and certainly not one of that size," she said. "It's always gentle, it's always calm, it's always encouraging no matter what the day brings."

As Gibbons explained, the painting, which is on canvas, originally had hung at Central Junior High School, which was closed and incorporated into the school district's headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

The Filippa Pollia Foundation, a charitable organization established in memory of a child, had commissioned the painting for the district with the proviso that it be placed where it could be enjoyed by children.

Since the administration building would be occupied solely by adults, the district decided to move the painting to Sutter, a new school being built in the San Fernando Valley. Sutter's library was redesigned as a two-story building, instead of the standard single story, to accommodate the gift.

Much to the dismay of its creator, the painting had been rolled up for storage with the paint on the inside, cracking the surface. Scaffolding was installed in the Sutter library, and Nielsen worked for two years restoring and extending the painting at the new site.

Already at Work

"I get here at 7:30, and he would already be here at work," Gibbons recalled.

Nielsen was born in Denmark in 1886. Influenced by Asian art, Art Nouveau and the sinuous work of Aubrey Beardsley, Nielsen was best known for his book illustrations, including the children's classic, "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," and for his stage designs.

He came to Los Angeles in 1936, where he worked on the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Walt Disney's "Fantasia."

He once said "The First Spring" was inspired both by Genesis and Haydn's oratorio, "The Creation." The artist also painted the mural "The Canticle of the Sun" at Emerson Junior High School in West Los Angeles. He died in 1971.

Nielsen was utterly absorbed in his work, said Gibbons, although he occasionally would come down from his perch to speak to youngsters who came into the library. His wife, Ulla, chauffeured him to and from school, took his phone calls, and brought him tea and homemade soup for lunch.

Not Much Help

Ulla was allowed to help with the painting, but not much.

"His wife was an artist in her own right, but the only thing he would let her work on was the grass, not the animals, and the legend," said Gibbons. The legend, the verse from Genesis that begins "And God made the beast of the earth . . . " appears in gold beneath the painting.

Nielsen aspired to perfection, Gibbons said. He mixed his own colors in a base of egg white, Gibbons recalled that Nielsen was dissatisfied with his rendering of one of the boasts that appears in the distance.

"He worked for a week on a nickel-sized water buffalo," said Gibboms, who found every picture of a water buffalo the library had to offer at the artist's request.

Gibbons said the painting has had the effect its donors hoped for. "The youngsters really take the time to enjoy it," she said.

Try to Copy Horse

Nielsen's execution of a high-spirited white horse is especially admired. "Many, many of the girls will come in and try to copy the horse," Gibbons said. "It's very romantic, like all the horses in all the story books you read as a child."

Gibbons suspects that a layer of grime has accumulated on the paintings surface, and she frets that it may suffer from exposure to the elements since the library's windows must be kept open for ventilation.

The librarian also regrets that she wasn't more aware of how fortunate she was to be present when Nielsen worked on Sutter's masterpiece.

"I was too young, too involved with books," Gibbons said. She wishes she had saved Nielsen's brushes and his paint cans.

"He told me how many shades of green were in the mural," said Gibbons, who thinks there are dozens. "Oh, I wish I could remember. I should have written it down!"

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