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Angel of Olvera Street

Very soon I shall be gone — I am just a morning glory, A fading flower at dawn. —from Mieko (1969) I first met Leo Politi in 2001, nearly seven years after his death, when Gim Fong, the proprietor of a small Chinatown art shop, produced a transparent plastic storage folder from behind the counter. Inside was a faded and mottled children’s book called Moy Moy, its edges torn and frayed, but cherished in the way he laid it upon the glass — like jewelry. “This is more precious to me than anything in here,” he said. Published in 1960, Moy Moy tells the adventures of a young Chinese-American moppet and her three brothers in and around the shops on Chung King Road (“Chanking Road” in the book). Its characters are as delicate and expressive as any in children’s-book illustration, right down to Moy Moy’s tiny sprigs of hair tied with pink bows, the green flowers on her tunic and the lotuses on her slippers, and the stuffed toy bee she clutches. Printed on fine cream paper, its pre-separated, three-color illustrations are simple yet exotic: strong charcoal lines bathed in the earth tones of Tuscan tiles.The real Moy Moy still lives in Los Angeles: Her name is Mary, and she works at a bank. One of her three brothers is now a cop. This is what makes Politi’s books so special. Twenty years before Ezra Jack Keats drew his innovative stories about black children, Politi depicted real kids from real neighborhoods who almost exclusively were not white. “He created folktales for Los Angeles,” says Lois Sarkisian, an avid Politi collector and owner of the Santa Monica–based children’s art gallery Every Picture Tells a Story. “I grew up here, and the first time I learned about the Mexican influence on Olvera Street, or about Chinatown, or about the swallows making that incredible journey to San Juan Capistrano, was with his books.” Politi’s genius, she notes, was to draw other cultures without drawing attention to them. “It is an almost impossible skill to put across teaching in children’s books without sounding like a teacher,” agrees Ann Stalcup, author of the recent biography Leo Politi: Artist of the Angels. “He could do that: slide in foreign songs or phrases or recipes and do it so smoothly.”For a young street artist during the Great Depression, Politi was remarkably savvy as well as lucky: The celebrities who took in Olvera Street and bought his early charcoal etchings included director Preston Sturges, actor John Garfield and Austrian auteur Fritz Lang, who cast Politi for a cameo in Scarlet Street (1945). The artist’s most profitable and popular association grew out of a collection of homemade Christmas cards he sent to prominent children’s-book editors, including Alice Dalgliesh at Charles Scribner’s Sons. The cards eventually became the book Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street (1946), and from Politi’s 30-year partnership with Scribner’s came both the Regina and Caldecott medals, the two highest honors in children’s literature. A Fresno native who attended Italy’s prestigious National Art Institute at Monza and traveled extensively along the Central American coast, Politi brought a muralist’s eye to city life. Pedro, a tale of a red-winged Mexican boy’s participation in the annual Las Posadas parade, and the stories that followed cast Los Angeles as a collection of human processionals (and this was in the years before gridlock): Chinese New Year in Moy Moy; Olvera Street’s Easter Parade in Juanita; Little Tokyo’s Ondo Parade in Mieko. Although he preferred book illustration, Politi eventually tried his hand at murals, the most famous and ambitious of which is Blessing of the Animals (1978) at the entrance to the Eugene Biscailuz Building on Olvera Street. Washed in clay reds and dirt browns, it measures approximately 50 feet long and 20 feet high, with more than 100 different figures. It took Politi, then in his late 60s and ailing, four years to complete the mural as well as the mosaic tile, glasswork and wood carvings that surround it. Politi and friends from Castelar School, where he painted a mural in 1977 Throughout his life, Politi was fascinated with preservation, whether it be the integrity of his own work — he refused Disney’s offer to turn Pedro into an animated film, convinced it would be altered beyond his control — or the work of others. He had a habit of marching down to City Hall to protest whenever an architectural treasure was threatened with demolition, and soon after the 1965 riots, he went to the Watts Towers to ensure the structures hadn’t been destroyed. (He did it again after the 1994 Northridge earthquake.) When his own beloved Bunker Hill began coming down in the 1950s, he scaled houses and office towers (including the old Water and Power building) to collect its vistas on a drawing board he wore clasped to his bent frame with a leather strap. Bunker Hill, Los Angeles (1964), which depicted the area’s stately old Victorian homes as they were at the turn of the century, became the first book that Politi wrote and illustrated for adult readers. It was followed by four more over the next 25 years, all affectionate studies of the architecture and street scenery of a vanished Southern California. Politi’s books, paintings, magazine covers and political cartoons (including caricatures of Hitler and Mussolini) have now achieved objet d’art status, not just among collectors but with the city of Los Angeles, which owns all of the original Bunker Hill paintings but has nowhere to display them, and its libraries, which have absorbed his classic books into their historical collections, where no one knows to look for them. With the exception of Pedro, all of Leo Politi’s books are currently out of print.I remember this when I drop by Gim Fong’s shop again and realize how much of it is a tribute to the gentle Italian-American artisan: the photo that graces the storefront, the framed charcoal etching of Fong’s daughter behind the counter, and the huge Chinese kites from Moy Moy hanging from the ceiling. “Nobody ever did what he did for us,” Fong utters quietly, while in an alley outside the store, two tykes battle with plastic light sabers. “Nobody.”PEDRO, THE ANGEL OF OLVERA STREET | By LEO POLITI | Silver Moon Press | 32 pages | $12 hardcover LEO POLITI: ARTIST OF THE ANGELS | By ANN STALCUP | Silver Moon Press | 105 pages | $25 hardcover In conjunction with the Italian Oral History Institute’s fall conference, “Speaking Memory,” a retrospective titled “Leo Politi: Illustrator, Author, Angeleno” opens at the Watts Towers Art Center Gallery, 1727 E. 107th St., on October 23, with a reception from 1 to 4 p.m. and a book presentation from author Ann Stalcup at 2 p.m. The exhibit will be on display until December 3. Call (213) 847-4646 or go to www.iohi.org for more info.