Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 36
 
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
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Cotsen Exhibit Celebrates Los Angeles-Based Artist

Ellen Gilbert

Some artists are closely associated with particular places, like Van Gogh and Arles, Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico, or Ansel Adams and Yosemite National Park. Though less well known, children’s book illustrator Leo Politi (1908-1996) was intimately bound up with Los Angeles. It gets even more specific, since he was known to many as “the artist of Olvera Street,” for the place where much of his work about the city’s Mexican population is set.

To celebrate the centenary of Politi’s birth, the Cotsen Children’s Library, a unit within the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the Princeton University Library, has mounted an exhibition of the artist’s detailed, beautifully colored scenes from his books, along with some gaily illustrated inscriptions for friends and other memorabilia.

Politi was born in Fresno, California in 1908. When he was six, he and his family moved to Italy, where he began his art training at the Royal Palace of Monza. He returned to California during his early twenties, and during the Depression, he and his wife Helen would set up an easel on Olvera Street (often staying until midnight), where they sketched tourists and children using charcoal, pencil, or brush. Without a job, he sometimes sold his paintings for as little as a quarter or less to make ends meet.

Falling in love with Latin American culture and its high regard for family, he created characters along the way that would evolve into more than 20 books, and countless sculptures, paintings, and murals. His first book, Little Pancho, published in 1938, was reportedly based on an Olvera Street child who never smiled. That led to his second book, Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street, published in 1947. Considered a true innovator in children’s books, he was honored by the American Library Association in 1950 with the Caldecott Medal for “the nation’s most distinguished children’s picture book” that year, for The Song of the Swallows, a story of the birds at Mission San Juan Capistrano. He was the first California artist to win a Caldecott. His works celebrated cultural diversity, and were often published in both English and Spanish.

An obituary that remembered “his gentle disposition and soothing watercolors” also placed him at Bunker Hill, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the historic core of Los Angeles as well as Olvera Street. The Cotsen exhibition describes his illustrations as both idealizing and documenting “the lives of happy, ordinary Mexican-American, Chinese, and Japanese children within their local communities when the city of Angels was being transformed by the exodus of people from the vibrant historic downtown area to the segregated suburbs.”

Several libraries in California cities have children’s rooms with murals painted by Politi, and his “Blessing of the Animals” mural is at the entrance to the Eugene Biscailuz Building on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles. An elementary school was named for him in — where else? — Los Angeles.

The Cotsen research collection of illustrated children’s books, manuscripts, original artwork, prints, and educational toys from the 15th century to the present day is the benefaction of Lloyd E. Cotsen ‘50. In addition to making its collections available to scholarly researchers, it is a resource for children, families, and educators in the greater Princeton community. Visitors can explore Bookscape, a picturesque environment with whimsical spaces to read, including a two-story bonsai tree. Bookscape is open daily to the public and free of charge. Cotsen also offers a variety of free programs for children of all ages.

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