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Ailing Sculptor Refuses to Abandon Statue Repair

March 30, 1989|JOHN L. MITCHELL | Times Staff Writer

Despite ill health and waning strength, sculptor William Van Orden was back at work this week, trying to save Venice High School's famous statue of actress Myrna Loy from an unending assault by vandals.

Van Orden, who has repaired the statue 12 times over the last decade, had doubted he would have the strength to repair the statue the last time it was attacked by vandals in February. The 66-year-old artist says that he suffers from cancer and that his doctors have given him two months to live.

"Then I decided I couldn't abandon her," he said. "I had to return one more time. This is my life's work, and after I finish this job I feel I can pass the job on to someone else."

Van Orden received an outpouring of support and nearly $600 in donations after a recent Times article about his efforts to preserve the statue and two others on the campus--replacing heads and arms that were battered and once even destroyed by dynamite.

"People have been so generous," he said. "They are treating me like a king." Van Orden said a financial donation and the pledge of further support came from the New York producers of a planned musical based on the light-hearted mystery film "The Thin Man," in which Loy gained fame playing opposite William Powell.

The 7-foot-tall statue of Loy, depicting the goddess Venus rising from the sea, was sculpted in the 1920s by Harry Winebrenner, a nationally known sculptor who also taught art at Venice High School. He chose as his model a 16-year-old art student named Myrna Williams, who later gained fame in films as Myrna Loy. Winebrenner used student models for the two other statues as well.

Over the years, the statues have been the targets of pranksters and vandals. The most recent attack occurred in February when vandals scaled a well-lit protective fence surrounding the statues and damaged the heads of the Loy statue and two other figures.

In response to that attack--the first since the fence was put up in 1987--school officials plan to enclose the statues in a cage and install motion detectors that will trip an alarm system. "We hope that will do the trick," said Principal Andrea L. Natker.

Dedication Ceremony

Now that the restoration has begun, students are planning a dedication ceremony near the end of the school year. They even invited Loy, who is 83 and lives in New York.

"They were able to get through to her in New York and called her," Natker said. "She said she appreciated what was being done, but she said she would not be able to come." At the high school this week, Van Orden, who recently underwent radiation treatment for his cancer, was working six hours a day restoring the damaged heads with a water-based clay.

He said he plans to modify the face of the Loy statue. "I want to make her the way she was as a movie star during the height of her popularity," he said. "I don't want her to be a 16-year-old."

When the clay heads are completed, he said, molds will be taken and concrete replacement heads will be fashioned from the molds and attached to the statues. The whole job should take less than a month, he said.

But time suddenly has become a factor for Van Orden, who has spent thousands of hours restoring the statues.

"There really isn't much time," he said as he moved quickly around the statues, shaping the facial features with his fingers. "I really feel like I am racing against time. I think I can win the race as long as I stay at it."

Although he has received little payment for his trouble, Van Orden said the recognition his work has brought him from the students and his family has been its own reward.

"It has been my dream to have my family proud of me and now they are," he said. "All my life I have been wandering around the country, working odd jobs to support my work. This has given me something to be proud of and something for them to remember me by."

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