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Oral history interview with Henry Lion, 1964 May 21

Oral history interview with Henry Lion, 1964 May 21

Lion, Henry, 1900-1966



Collection Information

Size: Transcript: 14 p.

Format: Originally recorded on 1 sound tape reel. Reformatted in 2010 as 1 digital wav file. Duration is 43 min.

Summary: An interview of Henry Lion conducted 1964 May 21, by Betty Hoag, for the Archives of American Art.

Biographical/Historical Note

Henry Lion (1900-1966) was a sculptor and painter from Los Angeles, Calif.


Conducted as part of the Archives of American Art's New Deal and the Arts project, which includes over 400 interviews of artists, administrators, historians, and others involved with the federal government's art programs and the activities of the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and early 1940s.



MAY 21, 1964






BH: Mr. Lion, it's very good of you to let me come and talk to you about the project days and I think we are going to echo because we are interrupting your moving out of your house to give this interview and there is nothing around here but the walls. I do appreciate it.. I wanted to ask you first a little bit about yourself. Where were you born?

HL: I was born in Fresno California, August 11, 1900.

BH: And where were you educated?

HL: I graduated from Fresno High school, and then I spent four years in LA at Otis Art Institute. That's about the extent of my art education.

BH: Were you a sculptor before you started painting or have you done both all the time?

HL: Both about the same time.

BH: Were there any particular teachers at Otis who influenced you? Or people...?

HL: I was probably mostly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, I mean Stanton Macdonald-Wright.

BH: Then McDonnald-Wright.

HL: He was a teacher of mine for a while.

BH: I think he has been an influence on many people in this area.

HL: Then I had Mrs. Julia Branken Wendt for quite a while. I had several other teachers.

BH: You worked with the Federal arts projects. Was this with any of the treasure department commissions or was it a Federal works project.

HL: I made one for the WPA and then I did several for the Procurement...

BH: Procurement? Was that under WPA or...?

HL: I don't think it was. I think it was a separate sort of thing. It was a commission. Definite artists were commissioned to do definite pieces of work.

BH: That was the treasury department. What was this for?

HL: Well I did the facade for the federal building here in Los Angeles.

BH: Oh!

HL: I did something else; that's about the only thing I did. Then I did Debrio Juan Rodriquez Cabrill monuments at the harbor for the Federal Art Project.

BH: Is that San Pedro Harbor?

HL: Yes. It's San Pedro Harbor.

BH: What about the large sculpture that you have in the Los Angeles Plaza downtown?

HL: That was put up by the Native Daughters of the Golden West of Hollywood. It was put up in 1930, I think it was. Cast in bronze by Guido Nelli here in LA; a seven and a half foot bronze of Phillipine de Nevi, founder of the town. It was set up in the center of the Plaza, opposite the old mission. It was placed there because that's where he started the town, right from that spot.

BH: Probably the old mission. Then what about the large statue that you have in Carthay Circle?

HL: That was a competition, national competition, which I happened to win in 1924. I was just out of Otis; I was twenty-five years old. It was an anonymous competition and there was a thousand dollar prize in addition to the commission to do it. They gave me the commission and this seven foot bronze was caste in New York by the Rollin Bronze Works.

BH: Good. Now, what about the one of Cabrillo? Is that a free standing figure?

HL: Well, its a composition stone thing. It was designed for the Cherrio_____ but it's a massive thing. It's standing, it's massive. Would you like to see a photograph of it?

BH: Yes, I certainly would. ...During the intermission we have been looking at the scrap book and Mr. Lion started to tell me about Charlie Russell and how he'd always been an admirer of his. I wish you would tell the story for the tape before we go on.

HL: Well, Mrs. Russell was telling me that when she and Charlie Russell -- just about a year before he died -- they were at Carthay Center, and she drove him around by the statue and he expressed the desire, told her that if she ever had a portrait made of him to have the sculptor do a statue like that. He had never met me and didn't know who I was at all. So, after he passed away why she came to me for this portrait of Charles Russell which I made.

BH: This is the one that's in the state capital building,... or in the historical museum, in Montana.

HL: It's in Montana and there is another in Wyoming. There are two of them.

BH: Oh really? One in Helena, Montana, and where is the other one?

HL: They are both in bronze.

BH: Laramee?

HL: It's...

BH: Whitney...

HL: At the Whitney Museum, in Cody, Wyoming.

BH: At Cody, yes.

HL: One was in that museum and one was at Helena. Also there are two other casts. There were about six bronze casts made of this one portrait.

BH: Where are the other ones, do you know?

HL: One is owned by Mr. Jones the president of the Richfield Oil Co. and the other one is owned by two other people. One is a person very fond of Charlie Russell's work. He is an old cattleman from Texas. He is still living here in LA. The other one is owned by Mr. Adams his attorney for Richfield Oil.

BH: The sculpture of yours that's in Carthay Circle which Charlie Russell saw was your Navaho Indian head. Is that right, the one that he admired so much?

HL: No. He admired my Pioneer that seven foot bronze figure outside, in front of the Cathay Theater. He drove around several times. He expressed his desire to have the sculptor of that statue make a bust of himself.

BH: What in on the facade of the federal building? The subject matter?

HL: Well, it's a large eagle.

BH: Is it stone or metal>

HL: Terra cotta: fired clay; it's glazed terra cotta. There are four of the, two in the front, and two on the Spring Street side.

BH: Did any of the other people work with you on that or...?

HL: No. I did that alone. It's quite a large thing. It looks small though, from down below, but it's ten feet through.

BH: I saw an eagle the other day which they think is Gutzon Borglum's. It is in the lobby of the new Times Building. Have you seen that? It was on top of the old Times building for many years. It was probably done about 1890, and someone said that he didn't think that it was Borglum's because the eagle doesn't look like a California eagle. Since Borglum came from Idaho, I want to check the Idaho eagles and see if their heads slant back. Might be one way of finding out for sure! Did you study them, eagles in our part of the country?

HL: Well I studied eagles but I didn't know that we had an eagle of our own. You mean here in LA?

BH: Well in California. The Sierra Madres' eagles are different apparently from the High Rocky mountain eagles.

HL: Is that right?

BH: Makes a difference. Do you remember anything interesting about the time that you did that particular facade, and any of the Federal Projects things that were happening?

HL: Well, this was a little while after the main Federal Project. I don't know whether the Federal Project was really going on at this time or not.

BH: Mr. Lion, you did four eagles for the Federal Building facade. I understand that in your original designs there was some trouble because your eagle was going left when officially he was supposed to go right. You had to do it over again. Was your original model for the eagle in wax? Was this one criticized when you submitted it? How did that work?

HL: Well, I did a small model after which when I got the commission to do it.

BH: Is that the one that had the eagle facing left?

HL: You know, I wasn't too much aware of this eagle looking right or left, until you pointed it out in these old newspaper notices.

BH: Yes.

HL: I had completely forgotten all about that and I don't really remember much about it.

BH: It's all in this newspaper article. I don...You mentioned that they gave you, told you what the design was to be and that you didn't have too much to say about that.

HL: Yes, it was to be the American seal, the United States seal.

BH: Oh I see.

HL: And I had to stick quite a bit to that idea.

BH: It's a more stylized version of the seal.

HL: It's a little more stylized than...

BH: They are very handsome. Was it difficult to do it so it would read from a distance the way it does? Each one of those is so distinct!

HL: I don't remember that it was hard to do. I drew with that idea. When I was doing it, of course, I was right up against it all the time . It was just a matter of luck that it worked out all right. It was put up afterward. I was there when it was put up.

BH: Was it Guido Nelli who cast it?

HL: No, that was cast in terre cotta. It was cast way up in Washington I think.

BH: Oh, really? Did you have your studio in the Cathay Circle at the time?

HL: Well, no I was at Cheviot Hills that time. This is quite later on.

BH: You had your model sent up North ant it was cast and brought back down.

HL: The mold was cast in my studio and the mold was sent up to Washington where it was cast in terra cotta and fired and glazed and it turned out fine. Each eagle is cast in about six or seven pieces; they are all separate and then put together.

BH: What is the bond that holds them together?

HL: Well they are fastened together in the rear, that's next to the building you see.

BH: In one of the old Los Angeles Art Association catalogues I saw in an art exhibit of 1937 a bird bath in terra cotta that you had done on the Project. Do you remember that at all?

HL: I don't remember a bird bath. I designed a bird bath for my patio. Is that the one you are referring to?

BH: I think probably that was.

HL: Well....

BH: That was your own?

HL: That was my own bird bath.

BH: That wouldn't have been one of the Projects then.

HL: This is late on. You mean this one?

BH: I think that was it, Yes.

HL: That's the one, right. That's all terra cotta.

BH: Did you do any easel painting for the Project?

HL: No, I didn't. No. I do a lot of painting. All these walls were covered with paintings. You can see the marks they left. They are usually all over the walls, but they are all stored away now, because I am leaving the house.

BH: Did you work with any of the other artists in any way on the Project?

HL: The three of us did one large project in Lafayette Park, "The Power of Water" figure.

BH: "Power of Water?"

HL: "Power of Water" figure in Lafayette park. It was done by Jason Herron, Sherry Peticolas and I, the three of us together.

BH: What was the subject matter of that one?

HL: Well there is one main figure in the center of the design, seven foot by about an eight foot figure of composition stone. Then in front is a long high relief depicting water and it has two pools one above and one down below and the water falling into the lower pool from above.

BH: Did you each do a different set of figures for it?

HL: The whole design is mine and the modeling is mine. But Sherry Peticolas did mainly the engineering, casting and all sort of thing.

BH: Was Sherry Peticolas man or woman?

HL: A man.

BH: A man? and Jason Herron was a woman!

HL: That's right.

BH: What was her part in it?

HL: She worked with me on it. She helped in the casting and....There is an awful lot of work to it you know, in the way engineering. So we all three worked on it.

BH: How long did it take you to do it? Do you remember now?

HL: I believe it took several months to do it. It's surprising how much you forget. It really took several months to do it. How do people write their biographies?

BH: That's why the archives are important, nobody had time at that time to get it written down.

HL: It's surprising how much you forget.

BH: I have in my notes here that Sherry Peticolas did a "Juan Bautista De Anza". Did you have anything to do with that?

HL: No. No. He did that on his own, in Santa Ana.

BH: What about George Stanley's, the one in Hollywood Park? That must have been a large statue!

HL: Oh the one in, at the Bowl?

BH: Hollywood Bowl?

HL: That was his. I suppose he had helpers doing it. That was carved in stone. I think it's in granite. He carved it out of granite.

BH: I don't know. I haven't studied it yet. I have no details. I just wonder if you had done any work with him?

HL: No.

BH: There aren't very many sculptors on the list like...

HL: No, I didn't work with Stanley at all.

BH: Or with BJ LBJ... Djey el Djey?

HL: No, I didn't work with him either.

BH: Or Antone Balszak. Anton Blazek?

HL: The only piece I cooperated with on works of sculpture is the... "Power of Water".

BH: Just the one?

HL: That's the only one I worked..on with others.

BH: Do you feel that some of the younger sculptors were influenced a lot by the older ones on these projects? If they weren't working together it was probably less true than it was in painting.

HL: Well, I don't know how much influence we had on others.

BH: Do you feel any of them influenced you? You were one of the younger ones at that time.

HL: I was influenced by different people, not the people here, but by certain European sculptors. You know you cannot help but be influenced by those you admire and you feel that you develop away from them. It isn't a matter of copying, you don't copy them at all. At the beginning you are quite close____ influenced; and then you sort of develop into your own way of doing things.

BH: Don't you thing that the Federal projects helped all the artists in the fact that they were so conscious of an American contribution in subject matter and a certain pride came out of this? There wasn't much turning to Europe as there had been.

HL: The Federal Project was a terrific thing for the artists, It was something none of them expected.

BH: Yes. It actually saved the lives of many of them.

HL: Oh yes, it did. It was quite a thing and we forget now, really, the effect it had on us at that time. It was quite a thing!

BH: How did the artist hear about it when it started? Was it word-of-mouth?

HL: Oh, we were notified; we were all notified.

BH: Did the sculptors have any kind o union or organization at that time?

HL: No. No union. They don't have a union now.

BH: They don't?

HL: No.

BH: Oh, I didn't know.

HL: Somehow artists don't seem to have such things. They are more "lone wolves".

BH: I just wondered if you remember anything about the times when this was beginning? I read that in San Francisco when the word got out that the WPA was going to help the artists that it was a word-of-mouth thing, and they lined up for blocks, including some little old ladies who had painted lamp shades, hoping to be on it. I wondered if you remembered anything about it?

HL: I don't remember that sort of thing. We were just notified and... The fact is, at first I didn't exactly know what it was all about! I didn't believe it at first and it just sort of soaked in gradually. To realize the government was really going to do that. Something.

BH: It must have been wonderful to find out at a time when everyone needed it!

HL: Yes.

BH: Were any of yours by competition?

HL: Yes. The "Power of Water" fountain was sort of a competition, and... the "Cabrillo" was not. That was something I started. There were others. The one designed by Archie (Archibald) Garner, the Planetarium statue, that year was a competition. His design won it. It was of course executed by quite a few good sculptors but it was Archie Garners' design.

BH: Is he still working here?

HL: I understand he is in Carmel (Calif.) now. Either in Carmel or Big Sur (Calif.).

BH: I'll have the Archives researcher in that area go and talk to him.

HL: I think he's still up there. I don't know what he is doing. Then he did the allegorical figure of Justice in the foyer of the Federal Building, carved out of limestone.

BH: I saw that when I was in there one day.

HL: The figure on the other side of the room was done by a friend of mine is a figure of Lincoln. Did you see that?

BH: Oh yes. James Lee Hansen.

HL: Hansen! Yes, that's right. And where ever he is now I don't know. I think that was the first and last piece of sculpture he did. It was odd.

BH: That is strange because maybe it was so monumental that he wore out!

HL: He was a wonderful painter. I liked his work.

BH: Oh was he?

HL: Yes. Technically -- he was a very talented fellow.

BH: I wonder if he did any painting for the Project? You don't happen to remember, do you?

HL: I don't know whether he did or not. But this was not exactly part of the Project, this "Lincoln" and "Justice".

BH: Oh, they weren't?!

HL: These were on the same order as the facade for the Federal Building. They were permissioned by the Government. They weren't exactly on the order of the Federal Art projects.

BH: I realize that there were two different aspects: The commissioned ones, which came through the treasury department, and later the WPA.

HL: That's what this was, Treasury.

BH: Murals were the same in that building; they had been competitive.

HL: I see. But, Hansen was really, quite an intellectual fellow. There is a write-up in the "Life" magazine regarding this statue that he made. I have the scrap somewhere.

BH: I hope we find it in one of these scrap books. I'd like to read about it.

HL: it's it's...

BH: What kind of painting did he do? Easel paintings or commercial work or....?

HL: Well, my painting was not really commercial...

BH: No pardon me: I mean Mr. Hansen, I just wondered about his work.

HL: He did mainly commercial. He did things for national products. Quite a while back I heard that he was in Palo Alto (Calif.). I can't remember just where he was but he was working on national advertising things.

BH: Who do you think he was with?

HL: General Electric or... one of these national concerns. So, that it was a very important job.

BH: It's strange that a person would do something as really handsome as that statue is and than never do anything else in that field!

HL: I don't think he did. I think that was the first thing he did. It shows you the natural ability he had. That's probably the first piece of sculpture he did and the last.

BH: Had he attend Otis Art Institute with you too?

HL: No, he was much younger than I.

BH: Oh he was?

HL: Oh yes. Much younger than I.

BH: It's interesting to learn something about him from you, in case the northern researcher can't locate him.

HL: Anyway, I had that impression that he was younger. Maybe he was my age, but he wasn't at Otis when I was. He was one of these fellows with just a natural ability. I don't think he needed much schooling. He was very clever at pencil drawing. I think he finally was doing commercial art for an important concern.

BH: I wanted to get back to the Lafayette, "Power of Water" design again. Was it difficult to have three people work at one time?

HL: One... It was hard on me... it is hard for me to work with others because I have to... Its like several people trying to play the same violin. It's hard to cooperate on one design. The... I designed it and I did the main modeling of it.

BH: So then you knew how you wanted it to look.

HL: That was it: either that or somebody else would have to do it all, because it was hard getting people to cooperate. But this figure of Archie Garner's is in front of the Planetarium. Have you seen it?

BH: Yes. It was years ago.

HL: There are about six figures and one sculpture was assigned to each of six different men you see.

BH: Oh, how interesting.

HL: It worked alright in that case.

BH: If they deviated in style a bit it didn't matter?

HL: They all _______ and it looks like it is all done by the same man. There isn't much variation between the designs. The design as a whole was designed by Archie Garner. That was way back in one of the real Federal Art projects. That was a competitive design. He is a very interesting fellow, Archie Garner. He's from Fresno.

BH: He is in Fresno today?

HL: He was from Fresno. He went to the same high school I went to. He was a few years younger than I.

BH: Do you know where he is now?

HL: Either in Carmel or Big Sur.

BH: Oh, he's the one in...

HL: And if you wanted to get in touch with him, I can give you a man's name who could give you his full...address. It is...

BH: I would like very much to.... O.J. Woodward, chairman of the mall going up in Fresno?

HL: Chairman of the Art Committee and they are going to put up an awful lot of sculpture there.

BH: Is Mr. Garner going to have some in it I wonder.

HL: I don't know. Mr. Woodward was telling me about planning to go and see Garner, so that's how I knew he would have his address. Whether he's going to put anything of his, I don't know. Would you like to see the design of this mall?

BH: Of course I would, I'd love to see it.

HL: (Mr. Lion hunts for the address, finds only part of it which accounts for) When you write things down you have to write the thing down completely!

BH: Most of the time...!

HL: Say you put something down, maybe part of a name or something and, later on you go back and you don't have any idea what it was related to.

BH: In a certain sense that happened to a whole period here, because no one did record the Projects work and the Archives are trying to get all these things together, to see an all-over art picture.

HL: Ah... It's odd that it wasn't done then.

BH: I find it is more difficult talking to the sculptors since they didn't seem to be together. They were usually all working alone.

HL: It was so alive at that time that you feel as though it would be remembered by some means. But it gets lost!

BH: Do you remember any of the exhibits that they had showing individual pieces of work? I understand that part of it was acquainting the public with what the artists were doing. The Los Angeles County Art Museum had at least one show. I think there were quite a few entries.

HL: They did have an exhibition of the Federal Art Projects. Since that time of the Federal Art Project, things have changed so. It almost isn't the same place.

BH: You mean because of so many people here or a different spirit of the time?

HL: Well the people have changed and the art interests have also. Things have just changed in every respect.

BH: Do you think the works that were done on the Project influenced the works of today?

HL: I don't think so. I don't think so. I think things were influenced largely by the European artists and took on modified aspects here. They changed a little here. But basically it was because European things were brought here.

BH: The Southern California Federal Projects, I believe, was one of the most active ones of the projects in the United States at the time. There were a great many artists who were working here and I think that we did develop a kind of art that was distinct from the rest of the country. You can usually tell a work that was done here, both in sculpture and in painting.

HL: "It was probably different from the other arts of the country"? I wasn't too aware of that, if it was!

BH: I was thinking that as a sculptor, you had many commissions for doing garden sculpture. And with so much Spanish architecture down here, this appropriate sculpture was so much used at that time. I remember the magazines of the 1930's and 40's. In which there were many Spanish homes with beautiful gardens, and they always had a fountain or a birdbath and that must have been an impetus______ to you.

HL: My work was largely sort of regional in that aspect and still is. As far as the trend today is to this non-objective art. Although I enjoy it, and I like it, I don't do it myself. I think all important work is based on the abstract, but not just purely abstract. It sort of getting to be a cliche' now. You see so much of it everywhere that the feel (impact?) is dying out. You might call it very conservative today. It changes and there are new things coming up all the time and dying out, and coming in and dying out. Funny how rapidly things are changing. It didn't used to be that way.

BH: You didn't feel that the Federal Project made any pendulum changes like that at the time.

HL: I wasn't aware of it. But, today things come and go so fast. It's surprising how fast. The odd thing about it is that they don't remain. They come fresh and new, things change.... and then go; and something else takes their place.

BH: Someone else I want to ask you about was Merrell Gage.

HL: Merrelle Gage, Oh yes.

BH: Was he in charge of the section on sculpture, I wonder? I know he helped to organize it at the time.

HL: He did?

BH: Yes.

HL: I wasn't aware of that. He taught at USC for quite a while you know, and I thought he was just one of the Federal Art Project men, I mean one of the commissioned sculptors.

BH: I don't know what he did on it. I'm going to be seeing him this week and I'm going to talk to him about it. I know that he helped to organize the Art Commission which the arts and the first part first started the WPA Art Project here. There were many people who donated of the WPA their time to getting it started.

HL: Really I didn't know that. I...

BH: I know he donated his time to help get it going; and since he was a sculptor I wondered if you remembered him on the Project.

HL: I remember him on the Project. He was a very close friend of mine. It's odd that I didn't mention him before you did. It just didn't come to me.

BH: There are a great many names to remember.

HL: I just saw him about a month ago in his studio. He is doing a large freeze relief. He told me that was the last thing he was going to do....? inaudible....

BH: I'm sure it won't be either. He's a fine sculptor. You didn't do any ______ together at the time though?

HL: No, we didn't work together, no.

BH: Did he teach at the Art Center School where you were or go to Otis Art Center when you were there?

HL: No, he's from Kansas I think.

BH: You probably first knew him about the time of the Projects.

HL: No, I knew him earlier than that. He came to my studio at Cathay Center. I think that's where I first met him. I think he had just come to town. inaudible. He taught at USC for a long time. His main work was the "Lincoln" he did. He works on the "Lincoln" -- quite a bit.... He made a Lincoln film for the movies, developing the modelling stages.

BH: I think everyone enjoys seeing that film on Lincoln's Day, they always show it. It's a beautiful thing.

HL: Yes, they show it. And then he made a large "Lincoln" for Kansas..., I think. That was a long time ago, in his younger day. So I guess Lincoln has been his main interest.

BH: Oh --

HL: Inaudible and mumbled.

BH: Mr. Lion, if you think of any more things about the Project I would like to have another talk. I'll look at your scrapbooks, if I may, and if I think of more questions maybe you'll let me come back. Thank you for letting me take your time today.

HL: Some time, if you'd like, I will take you and show you my works around town.

BH: I certainly would like to. Thank you so much for letting me come and talk with you.


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Quotes and excerpts must be cited as follows: Oral history interview with Henry Lion, 1964 May 21. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.