Valley Voices

Celebrate Fresno artist Leo Politi and the library branch named for him

The late Leo Politi painted this large brightly colored mural of children, and his own dog, which still hangs in the Politi Branch Library that was named for him.
The late Leo Politi painted this large brightly colored mural of children, and his own dog, which still hangs in the Politi Branch Library that was named for him. Fresno Bee file

Come to the party! Let’s celebrate the life and legacy of Fresno born Leo Politi, t he Italian American artist/muralist and author/illustrator.

On Nov. 14, 15 and 16, see the remarkable collection of his award-winning artwork and books. Meet Leo’s son Paul, and begin or continue your appreciation of Leo’s contributions. Long before diversity was considered important, Leo Politi told the story of the many different cultural communities in our state. Starting with Little Pancho in 1938, to Moy Moy, to his autobiographical book, “Little Leo,” he presented the communities of immigrants and indigenous peoples to generations of young children from the 1930s to today. Children can see themselves in these images and his gentle stories which confirm the beauty of the human spirit.

The charming children’s book, “Little Leo,” tells the story of Leo’s early life in Fresno. He was born here in 1908 on a small ranch to Italian immigrant parents. His father trained horses for the famous Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show as well as for other show-business “cowboys.” In 1914 when Leo’s family returned to Italy, Leo wore his “Indian” costume including feather headdress, fringed vest, and leather chaps every day. He taught the children of his mother’s village of Broni, Italy, how to whoop it up like performers in the Western shows and movies. The village children had their mothers make them similar costumes to run through the small streets and piazzas.

Later, precocious artistic talent earned him a scholarship to the Royal Art School at Monza in Italy. At age 21 in 1930, he returned to the U.S. on a freighter that took him through Panama, Central America, Mexico and many colorful ports. He was especially impressed by Latin American culture, with its vibrant colors and the deep love of family.

He later set up as a street artist in Los Angeles, where he painted his unique pictures of the children on Olvera Street in the heart of the barrio near Chinatown and Little Tokyo. There he was discovered by a publisher of children’s books which led to his career as a writer and artist. He went on to publish 20 children’s books, as well as adult books about Los Angeles architecture, preserving at least the images of lost buildings.

Leo won the Caldecott Medal for “Song of the Swallows,” published in 1949, the highest honor for an illustrator. He said at the time, “In all my books I try to embody certain universal things: the warmth and happiness of family life; my love for people, animals, birds, and flowers. My love for the simple, warm and earthy things, from the humblest house to a little tree to the tiniest seashell; for the things made by hands, the sewing of a dress, the painting of a picture; and for the singing of songs and the movements of the body in dancing — all those arts which are instinctive forms of expression. I feel that it is only through the respect and continuity of our heritage that we can build foundation with strong roots for our future.”

His many other awards are documented in his biography, “Leo Politi, Artist of the Angels” by Ann Stalcup, also found in the Politi Library.

Many Fresno teachers have valuable illustrated and signed copies of Politi books from the numerous workshops Leo Politi gave here with Arnie Nixon. The Arnie Nixon Library at Fresno State also has a Politi collection and a garden created in his memory by Robert Boro.

Politi books and post cards will be on sale during the celebration. Politi’s work can be viewed anytime the library is open. Donations are welcome to build a new, larger library to honor this Fresno born artist and writer.

Opened in 1974, the branch was named in honor of Leo Politi (1908-1996). The library is located at 5771 N. First St., the southwest corner of First and Bullard.

Linda Longcor Scambray is a retired ESL teacher and Fresno native. She is a family historian/genealogist and collector of Fresno stories, and is the co-chair of Heritage Fresno with Janice Stevens. Email: scam4@comcast.net.

If you go

The 45th anniversary of the Leo Politi Branch of the Fresno County Public Library will be held with several events planned in honor of the Fresno-born artist:

▪ Thursday, Nov. 14, 5-7 p.m.: Remembrances of Leo Politi from his son Paul Politi and historian William Secrest Jr. A reception and re-dedication of the library to Leo Politi will be held.

▪ Friday Nov. 15, 3-5 p.m. Paul Politi will talk about Leo Politi’s works at the library. Postcards and three of Leo Politi’s books will be available for purchase.

▪ Saturday Nov. 16, Noon to 1 p.m will be creative craft tile painting. From 2-4 p.m. the public has the opportunity to participate in the “Paint like Politi” art project, plus there will be memories of Leo from his friend Denise Sciandra and a reading of the Leo Politi’s book, “Little Leo.”

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