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Whatever Works / FRED HORN

Finding a New Love in the Shadows

July 19, 1999|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crowds have departed, and the lights are dim at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. If paintings could talk, if Georges de La Tour's 17th century Mary Magdalen could lift her pensive gaze from the candle's flame, she would do so now, alone in the dead of night.

Carrying a jug of coffee to supplement four hours of sleep, Fred Horn arrives for the graveyard shift. Horn, night watch commander, often works days at Gil's Auto Body in Bellflower, where it is noisy and hectic.

He looks forward to these nights, and the peace and contemplation as he wanders among creations made over centuries. In charge of night security, he walks through buildings looking and listening carefully, poised for anything unexpected that the night might bring.

There are tales told here. One has to do with a painting that used to hang in the Anderson Building. It was in a room without windows, yet an eerie shadow would appear on the wall, and the painting would bounce.

There's another about a guard who claimed she saw a woman riding a horse through the third level of the Ahmanson Building.

There are times when even Horn, walking alone through a room filled with sculptures, will become uneasy and turn his head, feeling eyes upon him. Sometimes there are unfamiliar sounds, unexplained ticks or pops barely audible over the whispered moan of the climate control system.

"It's quiet in here at night, and sometimes you'll hear a sound and think, 'I don't remember hearing that sound before.' It all depends on your imagination--especially at night."

Sometimes he stops to study a painting, seeing things he never saw before.

"I like it when they bring in the new exhibits because it gives me something different to look at," he says. "I love the furniture in the Ahmanson Building. I think about the style, the way things were made then, figuring out how these people made things when they didn't really have anything to make them with."

Horn, 53, of Lakewood, had never been in an art museum until he started working here almost seven years ago. Now he and his wife, Josephine, an assistant high school librarian, visit galleries here and while traveling. Without his even noticing it, art has changed his life.

Certain pieces become friends, others remain strangers or, at least, strange.

"There's a lot here that I wouldn't consider artwork, but to each his own," Horn says. "They have some artwork here that's just metal bent all over the place. That's artwork? They have a sink hanging on the wall. Artwork? When I first came here I figured artwork was paintings, you know, not a sink."

But, for the most part, he sees beauty as he walks through the halls. He wonders why so few people in the paintings smile, how anyone could possibly create such detail in the miniature sculptures encased in the Japanese Pavilion.

Another advantage of the job is that it allows him to think. There is time to ponder the past, his first marriage that ended in divorce after 18 years, the son he no longer sees. He also thinks about the present, his current marriage, his wife's children and grandchildren who bring fullness to his life. In the eight years of marriage, he says, he and Josephine have never argued. One reason, he believes, is that he is at peace with his life.

His job enhances that. What he appreciates most is the trust vested in him. He got his first job at age 16, when he started as a stocker in a liquor store, eventually becoming manager. He worked in sales. Seven years ago, when he quit his job with a firm that sold meat and canned goods, he was unemployed for a couple of months.

He searched unsuccessfully for another sales job, then heard there was work at Intercom Security Systems, which is contracted by the museum. He applied and was hired, starting part-time at less than half the money he had made at his previous job. Still, he stuck it out.

It's important to stay with a job, he says. He has worked at only five places in his life. He hopes to stay at the museum until retirement, which he hopes is as peaceful as this place he has come to love.

Only once since he has been at the museum has someone sneaked in, he says--a rogue hopped the fence to fish coins out of a fountain. But he knows he must stay on his toes. He cannot allow himself to be lulled, so he studies every inch of the museum, each corner and shadow. He counts the stairs, 244 in the Anderson Building, and usually around 8 a.m., before the crowds arrive, as L.A. traffic surges full-steam, Horn calls it a day.

Duane Noriyuki can be reached by e-mail at socalliving@latimes.com.

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