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Sculptor Milton Hebald's work has mattered from the Great Depression to the Great Recession

December 17, 2010 |  8:45 am

MiltonHebaldMyungChun To be seen but not heard of is one of the professional hazards of the modern sculptor of public monuments.

That's why most art aficionados probably have never heard of Milton Hebald, yet many of his works remain prominent. In Los Angeles, Hebald's 1986 "Olympiade," (below) a giant statue of three women at full stride in a footrace, stands at the entrance to the Downtown YMCA on Hope Street; around the side of the building, his "Handstand" shows a young man doing that very move.

In Zurich, Switzerland, Hebald's life-size 1966 statue of James Joyce marks the great author's grave site.

In New York City, where Hebald (above, with a younger self-portrait) was born in the Bowery in 1917, travelers to and from Pan Am's international terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport from 1961 into the early '90s couldn’t miss "Zodiac Screen," his huge rendering of the 12 celestial signs, which hung on a 220-foot glass wall outside the building.  And play-goers at the annual Shakespeare in the Park series in Central Park file past Hebald’s "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Tempest," bigger-than-life bronzes that stand outside the entrance to the Delacorte Theater.

There are many more, although lately not quite so big. Since 2008, Hebald has lived in Los Angeles, and at 93, he still spends his mornings sculpting, creating table-top works in clay. He’s also part of an exhibition in the Bay Area that looks back on how the New Deal's massive jobs-creation programs employed visual artists. "The American Scene: New Deal Art, 1935-1943," runs through Sunday at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, and features three pieces Hebald created in the 1930s and early '40s, when the Works Progress Administration helped launch his professional career at age 18. In his first WPA job, Hebald earned $22.60 a week teaching children how to work with clay. It's something he still does, occasionally, at his great-granddaughter's preschool in Culver City.

MiltonHebaldOlympiade1986 The Bedford Gallery’s exhibition was inspired by this year's 75th anniversary of the WPA -– and by the parallels between that time and our economically challenged present.

There's even a Hebald-related footnote to the 2008 world financial meltdown, the signature moment in our current troubles. One of the sculptor’s most avid patrons was Cornelius Vander Starr, a tycoon who founded the company that became American International Group. That insurance giant's gung-ho enthusiasm for the temporarily lucrative practice of insuring dubious securities via credit default swaps contributed mightily to the meltdown and brought on a federal bailout, because the company was deemed "too big to fail." There's been a lot of subsequent publicity about Morefar, an ultra-exclusive golf course that C.V. Starr built in the New York City suburb of Brewster and where access was one of the perks of being an AIG executive. Part of its exclusivity is the numerous sculptures dotting the links -– many of them commissioned from Hebald decades ago.

For the full story and video on Milton Hebald, click here.

-- Mike Boehm

Upper photo: Milton Hebald. Credit: Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times

Lower photo: Hebald's "Olympiade" in downtown Los Angeles. Credit:  Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times