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Leo Politi; Author of Children's Books, Artist

March 30, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leo Politi, artist and children's book author and illustrator who earned the prestigious Caldecott Medal for his book "The Mission Bell," has died. He was 86.

Politi was found dead Monday in his Los Angeles home, Julie Rosen, a family friend, said Friday. She said she had last seen him March 23, and that he had recently been in ill health.

In addition to Politi's well-known children's books, the artist forever froze in his elegant watercolors the Victorian era of Los Angeles' Bunker Hill, including the recently restored Angel's Flight in its heyday. Twenty-six of his paintings, including the mysterious swirls of "The Castle," were reproduced in his 1964 book "Bunker Hill."

When the book was published, Times reviewer Ed Ainsworth praised the artist-author's "gentle heart, discerning eye and great compassion."

Politi's paintings, Ainsworth said, "catch the personality and character of the old houses just as faithfully as if they were decrepit humans instead of creations of wood, mortar, brick, stone, ironwork and plaster."

"The accompanying text is simple, almost stark," the reviewer continued, "as if the farewell to this lost world of yesteryear were being written in the heart's blood of those who mourn for the glorious past which can never return."

Politi lived on Bunker Hill for 30 years, watching the grand turn-of-the-century mansions sink into decay before urban renewal swept them away in the 1950s and '60s to be replaced by today's skyscrapers. He painted the faded Victorians as they were when they were new and occupied by Los Angeles' well-to-do professional class.

The Bunker Hill book and a second adult book of his watercolor illustrations of the city's early parks are now collector's items.

Watercolors featured in the books were displayed at City Hall in 1984 when Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed April of that year "Leo Politi Appreciation Month" to celebrate the artist's 75th year.

In 1991, in honor of Politi's more than 15 classic children's books, the Los Angeles Unified School District named a new facility at 1148 W. 11th St. the Politi Elementary School.

Politi earned the Caldecott Award in 1949 for his book about the swallows at Mission San Juan Capistrano. The award is given annually by the American Library Assn. for "the most distinguished American picture book for children."

Politi's first children's book was "Little Pancho" published in 1938. Another favorite was "Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street."

The artist loved children and for many years did sketches for them on Olvera Street and gave illustrated talks at libraries around Los Angeles.

In the 1970s, Politi also painted the mural of the blessing of the animals that appears on Olvera Street's Biscailuz Building. He said he modeled the figures and the sparrows after actual habitues of Olvera Street and the dogs after his own pets, Emmet and Oscar.

"I never once saw Politi at work," the late Times columnist Jack Smith wrote in 1978 after one of his periodic inspections of the mural. "Instead of being painted, the mural seemed to be emerging of its own volition according to some exquisitely slow time scheme, like a picture puzzle whose pieces had been hidden and were being put in place as each was found."

Attending the dedication of the mural, Smith described the seldom-seen Politi as "gaunt, sinewy, grizzled, slightly stooped, but with large eyes that seem always full of wonder."

"It was," the columnist observed, "a face that might have been painted by El Greco."

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