OUR ART SHINES IN THE SOUTH
By Francine Brevetti
Since the Italian American community in Los Angeles County predates California statehood, it is no wonder there is a profusion of art flowing from Italian hands and minds here.
Unbeknownst to many, the Italian community of Los Angeles harks back to a time when California was still the domain of Mexico.
A permanent Italian settlement in the region began after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, according to the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.
The first Italian settler, sailor Giovanni Leandri, arrived in 1827, two decades before the Gold Rush of 1848 and California’s statehood in 1849. Leandri established a successful store at the Plaza, now El Pueblo de Los Angeles.
No doubt the southern climate and its proximity to the sea attracted Italian settlers who often learned Spanish, the lingua franca of Los Angeles before they learned English.
But after shopkeepers and fishermen, came the artists as they do today.
"From iconic works of public art, such as Sabato Rodia's Watts Towers, to illustrator Leo Politi, a pioneer in the multicultural movement, and arts educators such as Karen Boccalero, the co-founder of Self Help Graphics—the color, beauty, and emotion that Italo Angeleno artists shared with the community, and the way in which their gifts resonated among people across the globe is unmistakable," Says Marianna Gatto, founder of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.
THE WATTS TOWERS
One cannot address the subject of Italian American artists in Los Angeles County without acknowledging the colossal work of Sabato, called Simon, Rodia (1879–1965) in the Watts Towers.
An immigrant from Campania, the mason Rodia had no training in architecture nor engineering. Nonetheless, over a period of 34 years, he constructed 17 major sculptures upon his compact triangular site. He lived and worked in the town of Watts before it was incorporated into Los Angeles.
These towers consist of steel rebar, covered with mortar, work he did by hand with common tools. He drew his mosaic materials from throwaway objects, shards of glass, tile, pottery, soda bottles, the occasional toy, and other refuse.
Nobody knows what motivated or impelled him though he was often heard to say he had to “do something big.” It appears he succeeded. The tallest tower stands 99 ½ feet.
Rodia christened his masterpiece “Nuestro Pueblo” (meaning “our town), honoring the Mexican culture that founded Los Angeles. The Watts Towers have been named a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark.
To honor the sacrifices of the 20,000 Los Angelenos who served in World War II, and the 1,852 who perished in that conflict, Humberto Pedretti (1879-1937) sculpted the monument called The Doughboy, depicting an American soldier. The imposing bronze figure was initially situated in Los Angeles’s most vital Pershing Square. The statue appealed to public sentiment and patriotism after the war.
THE BILTMORE HOTEL
Giovanni Smeraldi (died-1947) an Italian-born American muralist and interior designer, painted the ceilings of the ballroom inside the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. His murals beautify the walls and ceilings of many other hotels in California, New York, Florida, and Canada.
The Italian American Museum of Los Angeles plays a big part in preserving and exulting in the contributions of Italian Americans in southern California and especially of its artists.
“We document history and contributions the artists that are working today,” said its founder Ms. Gatto.
She was especially eager to honor Atiglio Leoni Politi, known as Leo. Politi (1908-1996) was an author and illustrator of over 20 children’s books.
His works often portrayed cultural diversity, and many were published in both English and Spanish -- long before the current consciousness of honoring diversity, noted Ms. Gatto.
This community-based art center was a primary center for the nascent Chicano art movement.