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An arts celebrity who doesn't toot his own horn: Herb Alpert

July 24, 2010 |  7:00 am

Herb It’s a rare celebrity in Los Angeles who’s not tooting his or her own horn -- let alone one who’s also a major philanthropist, a benefactor to the arts and arts education. But the word “humble” is often used to describe Herb Alpert, he of the chart-busting Tijuana Brass fame, by those who’ve gotten to know him. He’s given away more than $100 million through his foundation, which was set up in 1988.

Alpert has yet another hat, that of visual artist. Today he’s amid a forest of sinuous black totems spiraling into the lofty heights of Ace Gallery Beverly Hills. They're an art form he has practiced for the last two decades -- sculpture. “I do something every day, whether sculpting or painting,” he says. “It definitely feeds my spirit when I sculpt or paint or blow the horn, that’s an essential part of my being.”

About 40 years ago he took up painting. Then he picked up working with clay from his friend, sculptor Kristan Marvell. “Once I put my hand on the clay, I was hooked,” Alpert says. “It’s a very sensual feeling, you can work very quickly if the clay is cooperating.” He began forming small pieces a few inches tall, then they became several feet tall.

“I began doing this in the kitchen,” he says with a laugh, “which my wife wasn’t crazy about.” Especially when he used a blowtorch to soften up wax pieces. His wife is singer Lani Hall, with whom he released an album last year, “Anything Goes: Herb Alpert & Lani Hall Live.” Alpert also has an album coming out this fall, “I Feel You.”

Later they built a studio on their property in Malibu. The sculpture in “Black Totems,” the current show at Ace (through Aug. 28), are made of bronze coated with a soft black patina, and reach up to 18 feet high, fabricated at a local foundry.

They were inspired by totems of the Pacific Northwest Native Americans and by the tall, gnarly “scholar’s rocks” prized by Chinese literati. “There was a progression, I started making them larger and larger,” he says. “As they go up, there are parts I change from the original concept. I like to keep that spontaneity -- to me it’s like jazz. I’m not trying to analyze it, I’m just trying to feel it.”

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-- Scarlet Cheng

Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times