The LA Artist Who Turned Down Disney and Fulfilled His American Dream

Leo Politi cemented his West Coast legacy with multicultural art that was decades ahead of its time.

By: Marianna Gatto, ISDA Contributing Editor

Leo Politi’s Los Angeles: Works of Love and Protest

A New Exhibition at the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles Explores the Life and Work of One of the Nation’s Greatest Italian American Artists

Best known as a Caldecott Award-winning author and illustrator, Leo Politi pioneered multiculturalism in children’s literature and captured bygone eras and communities with his paintbrush.

The son of Italian immigrants, Leo Politi was born Atiglio Leoni Politi in Fresno, Cali., in 1908. Located in California’s Central Valley, Fresno is typically not among the cities that come to mind when we speak of Italian immigration to the United States. However, in the 1870s, Italian immigrants began settling in the region, which is one of the seven most fertile valleys in the world. Its modest farms helped make Fresno an agricultural giant, and the city’s various immigrant groups came to form the very backbone of the city.

Leo Politi as a young boy.

Among Fresno’s noteworthy Italian immigrants is Baldassare Forestiere. Over a 40-year period, he singlehandedly excavated an untold number of cubic tons of soil using only simple farming tools and created a spectacular maze of nearly 100 underground tunnels, rooms, and grottoes spread across 10 acres. Known today as the Forestiere Underground Gardens, it is a state landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Boxer Young Corbett III is another famous Italian American of Fresno. Born Raffaele Capabianca Giordano in Potenza, Italy, Giordano assumed an Irish moniker in the ring, and in 1923, won the welterweight title.

Like many Italian immigrants, the Politi family decided to return to Italy, doing so when Leo was six years old. While living in Brioni, his mother’s village near Milan, Politi demonstrated exceptional creativity and talent as an artist, and his mother played an integral role in cultivating her son’s gift. Politi’s knowledge of the arts expanded significantly when the family relocated to London during his teenage years. In London’s museums, Politi encountered the works of Van Gogh, Cézanne, Monet, and Rembrandt, among other masters, and relished the city’s cosmopolitan lifestyle. His aptitude garnered the attention of the National Art Institute in Monza, Italy, which offered him a scholarship. He then returned, along with his family, to Italy.

Politi with his parents and sister.

In 1931, after completing his education, 22-year-old Politi decided to move to California. Sailing across the Atlantic, Politi became enchanted by the beauty of Central America as he passed through the Panama Canal and journeyed north along the coast of Mexico. The Mayan culture proved particularly inspirational for Politi. He developed a palette of colors that reflected the warmth and earthiness of the Central American landscape—ochre yellows, burnt siennas, browns, turquoises, and jades—that figured prominently in his artwork throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

One of Politi’s early works, Madonna with Four Angels, completed circa 1930.

Politi arrived in Fresno in 1931, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. Two years later, he met the woman who would become his wife. Helen Fontes was a waitress at the cafe where Politi frequently came to sketch and, with a 15-cent silver ring from Woolworths, Politi proposed. The couple moved to Los Angeles, where for the remainder of her life, Helen showed off her ring with great pride.

Leo Politi and his wife, Helen Fontes Politi.

Politi fell in love with the City of Angels. The commonalities between his Italian upbringing and Southern California’s deeply rooted Latino culture made him feel instantly welcome, and Los Angeles became the focus of his art. Unable to find employment, Politi set up an easel on Olvera Street, with Helen by his side. There he sketched charcoal portraits of tourists, selling his drawings for as little as a quarter to make ends meet, before offering his fine art paintings to thousands of visitors who flocked to Olvera Street each year. It was there that Politi first saw the child who would serve as the inspiration for his first fictional character, Little Pancho—a boy who rarely smiled and made more than his share of mischief.

Politi displays his paintings and chats with tourists on Olvera Street.

In 1938, Politi’s work garnered the attention of industry professionals who invited him to exhibit his art in New York City. The exhibition led to illustration work with publishers who requested Politi provide art for several textbooks. Later that year, Little Pancho became the subject and title of Politi’s first children’s book. Back in Los Angeles, Politi met Alice Dalgliesh, an award-winning children’s book author and founding editor of Scribner and Sons’ Children’s Book Division. Politi sent Dalgliesh a hand-painted, personalized Christmas cards depicting one of his other characters, Pedro. This would lead to a second book, Pedro the Angel of Olvera Street, which was published by Scribner’s. Politi was soon tapped to illustrate the progressive magazines Freedom and Script. As World War II approached, he used his characters—Pancho, Pedro, Lupita, and Rosa—to convey pacifist messages. One of Politi’s illustrations from this era, Food for Starving Belgian Children,sheds light on the suffering of ordinary people during wartime. As Politi’s list of admirers continued to grow, Walt Disney sought to purchase the rights for Pedro’s character, but Politi refused. Despite the economic hardships he faced, Politi was unwilling to compromise his artistic integrity.

A 1941 issue of Script magazine with Politi’s work on the cover.

Among the foremost themes of Politi’s work is the sanctity of the mother-child relationship. The subjects of his Madonna and Child-esque portraits were usually ordinary women and children he observed in daily life. Politi also viewed multi-generational relationships as vehicles for imparting and preserving history and traditions. Through the children who danced and played across the pages of his books, Politi highlighted Southern California’s diverse neighborhoods. He presented intimate portraits of Boyle Heights’ Jewish community, introduced readers to African American households in Watts, and invited viewers to play alongside Chinese American children celebrating the Lunar New Year on Chung King Road. Politi also documented the Italian American fishing community of Monterey, Cali., and the annual return of the swallows, which migrate 6,000 miles from Goya, Argentina to San Juan Capistrano, where they nest at the San Juan Capistrano Mission. Politi’s art proved to be truly avant-garde in that it predated the multicultural movement by decades.

Politi teaches children how to draw.
Politi’s work Ondo Dancers in Little Tokyo, completed circa 1960.

Although Politi is most famous for his soothing watercolors of children and families, his passion for chronicling Southern California communities cemented one of his most lasting legacies. During an era when many historic Los Angeles neighborhoods were being erased or transformed, Politi documented the enclaves and their residents, and lamented the destruction of communities in the name of progress. This theme is especially apparent in his Bunker Hill Los Angeles: Reminiscences of Bygone Days (1964), which was his first book for adults. The Politis were longtime residents of Bunker Hill, the downtown neighborhood of stately Victorian mansions that had originally been home to the city’s elite. By the 1930s, urban growth and the construction of the freeway led many Bunker Hill residents to move elsewhere, and the enclave was increasingly described as a “blighted slum.” Incidentally, Italian American writer John Fante also resided in the neighborhood during this era, and Bunker Hill inspired his eponymously titled work.

Politi captured the city’s most historic neighborhoods, including Angelino Heights, home to exquisite Victorian residences.

In 1961, the city of Los Angeles demolished 30 blocks of Bunker Hill’s 19th-century residences to make room for “the modern city.” The Politi family home was among those condemned and razed. Through its elegant prose and striking illustrations, Bunker Hill Los Angeles: Reminiscences of Bygone Days resurrects the bucolic enclave and suspends its people in time. Politi writes, “Can we really call it progress when it means the extinction of our leading landmarks of known historical, aesthetic, and sentimental values? By destroying all our islands of heritage, we are not only erasing the continuity of our city’s history, but above all, we are denying our children the precious knowledge of the past that would greatly enrich their lives. In ending, I would like to say what little value this work may have, it has been a work of love and also of protest.” Today, some of downtown Los Angeles’ tallest skyscrapers stand where the residential neighborhood of Bunker Hill was once located.

Leo Politi sketches residences on Bunker Hill, a downtown neighborhood that was completely erased by redevelopment in the 1960s.

As both an artist and voice of the era’s nascent historic preservation movement, Politi captured locales and landmarks at specific moments in history. He painted San Pedro, Cali., home to the Los Angeles Harbor and the birthplace of the West Coast tuna industry, during the apex of the fishing industry, when purse seiners filled the coastline. He drew Watts, a neighborhood in South Los Angeles, during the time of civil unrest. The neighborhood’s iconic towers, built by his friend and fellow Italian immigrant Sabato Rodia, rise into the sky like jeweled spires. Politi transported the public to Los Angeles’ bustling Grand Central Market and Union Station at Christmastime in the 1940s. Politi also memorialized places that no longer exist, such as Ports o’Call Village, a seaside plaza of curio shops and eateries (razed in 2018), and the Pike, a popular amusement park in Long Beach that opened in 1902 and welcomed generations of fun seekers before its demolition in 1979.

Politi’s Watts Towers at Night, painted in 1967. Politi was a friend and admirer of the Watts Towers’ creator, Italian immigrant Sabato Rodia.
Politi captured the fishing community of San Pedro, a neighborhood south of Los Angeles, home to thousands of Italian Americans.

Politi authored and illustrated more than thirty books; among them are Moy Moy, Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street, The Poinsettia, Mr. Fong’s Toy Shop, A Boat for Pepe, Meiko, and Song of the Swallows, the last of which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal. In 1977, Politi, a devout Catholic, was commissioned to paint a mural in downtown Los Angeles. Titled The Blessing of the Animals, the mural depicts the Catholic tradition of blessing animals and pets as a remembrance of St. Francis of Assisi’s love for all creatures. Described as the Italian American Dr. Seuss, Politi struggled financially for most of his life despite his tremendous gift. Shortly before his passing in 1996, a Los Angeles elementary school was named in his honor, and a portion of Elysian Park, one of the city’s largest public parks, is known as Montecillo de Leo Politi. To mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2008, a Los Angeles intersection was dedicated Leo Politi Square in honor of the person who, arguably more than any other, deserves the title, “Artist of the City of Angels.”

The cover of Politi’s Caldecott Award-winning book, The Song of the Swallows.

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