When you live in a city all your life, it’s easy to take it for granted. Very few of us apply a tourist’s eye to the streets we walk every day.
So it was in an effort to get in touch with my city that I attended my first lecture at the Museum of the San Fernando Valley which recently opened a store front in the Westfield Sherman Oaks Fashion Square. The subject was sculptor Henry Van Wolf, presented by his son, Joe.
Joe Van Wolf is an unassuming, low-key guy who would probably be more comfortable doing the work of his father. He told the assembled group of about fifteen people how his father came to the
United States from Germany in the 1930s with one dollar in his pocket and 250 pounds of tools. Henry studied all kinds of art in his native country, but here in America he focused on bronze casting. He opened a studio on the grounds of his home at Hazeltine Avenue and Chandler Boulevard. In an effort to help other artists, Henry founded the Valley Artists Guild. He soon became one of the most in-demand sculptors in southern California.
Joe grew up in the valley and went to
Notre Dame High School, class of ’62, after graduating from St.Elisabeth Elementary in Van Nuys. His father passed in 1982, leaving Joe to be the caretaker of his father’s business and his finished pieces now spread all over Los Angeles, the U.S., and the world.
After the lecture, I talked to Joe about his life in the valley in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He told me that the area had changed so much—more traffic, people, noise. He and his wife, Ladonna, were moving that week down south to
Arkansas where Ladonna was from. “Life there is like the valley was forty years ago,” he told me.
As the lecture broke up, I perused the collection of Van Wolf reproductions displayed in the museum. I photographed a few—busts of Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein—but I wanted to see them out in the city, in the places where they lived now. We found our car and hit the road.
Our first stop was the mall outside the Van Nuys Civic Center. There on a pedestal stood Van Wolf’s Fernando, a bronze representation of the first inhabitants of the
San Fernando Valley who were most likely Chumash, Tongva, or Tataviam Native Americans. A reproduction of the statue, about the size of an Oscar, is given annually to those who have contributed to valley culture and enterprise over the years.
I also managed to shoot some pictures of the old Van Nuys courthouse and original fire station. Both buildings have nice bones and excellent architecture. On this quiet Saturday, the mall was nearly deserted.
Next up were the bronze doors at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Encino. Van Wolf’s doors to the church depicted the Seven Sacraments.
Our final stop was my favorite: Van Wolf’s Lincoln In Meditation, installed on the corner of
Verdugo Avenue and Buena Vista Street in Burbank. Behind it is Lincoln Park and the Buena Vista branch of the Burbank Public Library. As twilight faded to night, I was able to catch the haunting image of Lincoln’s face in my lens.
Public art may be more necessary than museum pieces because it performs a civic function. It’s out there with us, the visual accompaniment to our daily lives. May be it was the fading daylight, the history, or the sculptures themselves, but I found myself moved by the images in ways I hadn’t expected.
Later, back in my study, I contemplated the medallion made by Henry Van Wolf that Ladonna had removed from her own neck and given to my wife. It was a beautiful, heartfelt gesture. On one side was Christ as a shepherd, herding his sheep; on the reverse, Christ was depicted blessing children. I thought of Joe and Ladonna loading the last of Henry’s sculptures, tools, materials, all the artist’s detritus into trailers and transports for the long journey south.
Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley would be diminished without them. History would go on, though. Henry’s statues would stand, monuments to the epic that was the twentieth century in America and Los Angeles.
I placed the medallion on our writing desk next to the computer. Silently to the night, I wished the Van Wolfs Godspeed.