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Milton Hebald's world is in his hands

The artist was a New Deal sculptor in New York. Now in Sherman Oaks at 93, each day brings a new reason to create.

December 17, 2010|By Mike Boehm, Los Angeles Times
  • MILTON HEBALD: Three of his works are featured in "The American Scene: New Deal Art, 1935-1943" at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek.
MILTON HEBALD: Three of his works are featured in "The American Scene:… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Had they looked up for a moment amid the frenzy of their arrival in 1964, the first major artwork the Beatles would have seen on American soil was "Zodiac Screen," a 220-foot-wide sculptural assemblage of the 12 celestial signs. For more than 30 years, the monumental work greeted travelers passing through the Pan Am terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Its creator, Milton Hebald, is 93 now and has a humbler artistic agenda. Most days, after a bowl of oatmeal and a half-hour sitting in the sun and thinking, he shuffles gingerly into the former dining nook of a small tract house in Sherman Oaks. The space has become Hebald's studio, flooded with natural light from a picture window that looks out on an unruly backyard he calls "a wilderness."

Here he continues to create, working in clay. In 1971, the novelist Anthony Burgess wrote that Hebald, then turning out big works in bronze, was "without doubt the most important living figure sculptor." Now he sticks to pieces you can hold in one or two hands: busts of loved ones, an insouciant Franklin D. Roosevelt, a pensive Albert Einstein, a seated J.S. Bach with an anachronistic tuba resting on his thigh.

"I wake up each morning," Hebald says, "and I want to get to work. It's wonderful."

"Zodiac Screen" has been in storage since the early 1990s; it was taken down after Pan American World Airways went bankrupt. But many of the other public bronzes that Hebald made in his prime continue to be seen every day by masses of people.

In Los Angeles, two giant works from 1986 stand outside the Downtown YMCA: "Handstand," a depiction of a muscular young man doing just that, and "Olympiade," which shows three female racers in stride, ponytails flapping.

Outside the Delacorte Theater in New York's Central Park, home to the annual "Shakespeare in the Park" series, Hebald's 7-foot-tall "Romeo and Juliet" shows the star-crossed lovers in a passionate embrace. A "Romeo and Juliet" cast from the same mold towers over a rose garden at the Hollenbeck Palms retirement community in Boyle Heights, where the adolescent sweethearts serve as a reminder that romance is ageless.

For witnesses to his work as a nonagenarian, Hebald has his family, and he has Pussums, a black and brown neighborhood stray who shows up daily outside his studio window, looking to be fed. Hebald has made a reddish-clay feline statue for her to gaze upon, should she deign to do so while lapping up her can of cat food.

On a recent morning, Hebald took a metal spatula to a slab of clay, swatting, prodding and flipping it before pounding it with a wooden meat tenderizer. He was softening it for his next work, its theme as yet undecided.

His most recent finished piece sat on a shelf nearby. It is small, like all of the 40 or 50 works he has made since moving to Los Angeles in 2008, but it is sure to be treasured. It consists of the heads of two lovers, kissing, their outline forming a heart. It is inscribed "For Sergie & Eiko" and signed "Hebald 2010" in the block letters the artist has always used. It's a wedding gift for his grandson, who lives in Japan.

Near the wedding present rest infant busts of his great-granddaughter Cecile, now 2, and a recent self-portrait in clay that he wryly calls his "portrait of the artist as an old man." (The allusion to James Joyce is not accidental: Among Hebald's signature works is a life-size 1966 statue of Joyce that sits at the author's gravesite in Zurich.)

Hebald left his sculpting nook for a moment and returned with a photo of a self-portrait that he made in 1935, when he was a precocious 18-year-old in New York City. The sculpture has been lost, but the era of its birth remains vivid and relevant.

Since October, three of Hebald's earliest notable works have been at the heart of "The American Scene: New Deal Art, 1935-1943," an exhibition at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek that runs through Sunday.

Seventy-five years ago, FDR's Works Progress Administration sent Hebald into a neighborhood of Italian immigrants on Manhattan's Upper East Side to teach children how to work with clay.

The New Deal program put thousands of artists, musicians, writers and thespians on the government payroll during the Great Depression. Hebald drew a $22.80 check each week.

Today, he has come full circle. He's again teaching children how to create in clay, in occasional visits to Cecile's preschool in Culver City. Instead of a check from the U.S. Treasury, he's paid in nachas — Yiddish for the glow of pleasure that runs through elder hearts when they exult in their young.

Hebald says the WPA and the Federal Art Project — which commissioned new works for public display — did not just keep him fed but nourished his growth as a sculptor.

"It was a complete start in the art world for me," he recalls.

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