Friday, June 3, 2011

Pursuing the Life and Art of Leno Prestini

Pursuing the Life and Art of Leno Prestini


Wally Lee Parker

(all rights to this material is retained by the author)

            It’s been almost fifty years since Leno Prestini, alone in his Clayton, Washington, home, held the barrel of a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.  The locals were shocked — especially since Leno was the kind of small town character most everybody liked.  He was friendly, and like most artists, an eccentric — though as in most rural communities, it didn’t take all that much non-conformity to be considered eccentric.  Still, despite what might be described as a single man’s foot-loose, bohemian lifestyle, he wasn’t thought the less for it.  In fact, the oddities of his lifestyle just confirmed his authenticity as a “real” artist.
            The details of his death are sketchy, and most of the common tales told regarding the event incorrect.  Likely the most reliable source contemporary to the event was the Thursday, April 4, 1963 edition of the Deer Park’s Tri-County Tribune.  A small article in that edition traced the events of the prior Tuesday, beginning with a 3:55 A.M. call from Dick Russell, manager of the old Olson Hotel in downtown Deer Park, to Walt King, a deputy sheriff for Spokane County and one of Leno Prestini’s lifelong friends.  The newspaper stated Leno had been staying at the hotel since returning from a visit to California just the week prior.  Russell stated that Leno had “come to his (Russell’s) room” and indicated his intention of returning to his home (Leno’s) to “kill himself.”
            No speculation was offered in the article to explain why Leno hadn’t been staying at his own house in nearby Clayton for those several days between his return to the area and the morning of April 2.
          After receiving Russell’s call, Walt King went to Leno’s Clayton home.  King stated that Leno was “very despondent.”  King left the house after obtaining Leno’s promise that he’d see his doctor later in the morning.  King stated it was 5:10 A.M. when he left Leno’s. 
            After leaving, King call another of Leno’s lifelong friends — Burton Stewart, and asked him to go talk to Leno.  When Stewart arrived at Leno’s, he found him “with a bullet wound in his head.”  Leno was rushed by ambulance to Deer Park’s Tri-County Hospital.
            The article concludes by noting that “Friends of the artist … stated that Prestini had been extremely despondent of the past several months.”
            A May 2, 1963, Tribune article headlined “Colorful Artist Is Dead” sums the events that followed.  The article states “the artist hovered near death many times”, but twenty days after the injury “hope was held that he might recover” and he was transferred to a Spokane “rest home.”  And then, on April 26, Leno died as a result of his “apparent self-inflicted bullet wound.”  No specifics as to the immediate cause of death were noted.
            Verbal recollections of a few friends and acquaintances have suggested that Leno had improved enough to communicate, but what we believe to be the best source, the written memoirs of Leno’s older brother Battista, only states that “Two days later (apparently meaning two days after Leno had left his brother’s Los Angles home) (Battista) got word (his brother was) in (the Deer Park) hospital with (a) bullet hole in (his) forehead.  He survived 26 (actually 24) days.”  Since Leno’s brother does not mention being able to talk with Leno, it would be best at this time to conclude that the improvement in his medical condition mentioned in the Tribune’s May 2 article — specifically the “improved” condition that allowed his transfer to what was likely a nursing home — could more correctly be classified as a stabilization of his physical condition allowing his discharge from acute care combined with a determination that little else medically could be done.  In other words, since neither the newspaper articles nor Leno’s brother mention any verbalizations or even consciousness on Leno’s part, it would seem best to assume neither existed until contrary documentation is made evident.
            Leno was born in Besano, Italy, in 1906, but his family immigrated to the United States while he was still an infant.  He spent the last fifty years of his life in the little town of Clayton — which made him very much a local.  He was also the area’s best bricklayer and all-around handyman.  When Leno shot himself, most everyone in the community seemed to physically feel the impact.
            Though there have been various theories over the years as to the why he killed himself, Leno appears to have left nothing behind to clarify such.  Even Leno’s closest acquaintances claimed to have been puzzled by his last act.  And since most everyone who knew him well is now gone, it’s likely that anything of a confidential nature they may have known has passed on as well. Leno's brother, Battista, did suggest that Leno's deteriorating medical condition was a factor in his depression and specifically the possibility that he may have had a minor stroke.  Battista suggested Leno feared being reduced to an invalid state similar to that afflicting the boys’ mother in her final days. But all we can do at this point is speculate.
            What he did leave behind is his art.  As far as volume is concerned, this is not an overwhelming legacy.  A scattering of drawing, a few fired clay figurines, and something over a hundred paintings — the exact number isn’t known.  But as far as the three counties packed into the northeast corner of Washington State are concerned, the works of Leno Prestini are a significant part of the region’s cultural and art history.

Leno Prestini 1952
From the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society Collection
(image reproduced by permission)

            Of those three counties — Stevens, Pend Oreille, and Spokane — Stevens County has by far the largest concentration of Prestini’s paintings — almost seventy held by the Stevens County Historical Society’s Colville museum alone.  His fired clay sculptures are few — those that would be classified as piece of fine art that is.  Most of his efforts in that craft were special-order terra cotta embellishments he sculpted as an employee at Clayton’s Washington Brick & Lime factory.  Those pieces of architectural ornamentations were widely scattered across the Pacific Northwest.  The natural desire to associate every surviving example of such an embellishment with Leno, despite the lack of any collaborating evidence, has led to assertions he sculpted objects know to have been fired at Clayton in the years before he began working there, and in some cases even before his birth.  This is just to suggest caution be taken when evaluating any such claims.
            Leno was not the only talented sculptor working for Washington Brick & Lime.  The evidence implies that it was a grouping of the factory’s trained professionals who taught Leno the craft.  What those fired pieces known that have been modeled by Leno tend to suggest is that his skills as a sculptor surpassed his abilities as a painter to a measureable degree.  A few of the quotes attributed to Leno seem to imply that he would concur with that assessment.
            That’s not to say the lack of critical and commercial acceptance for his paintings wasn’t a disappointment to him.  It’s hard to see how it could be otherwise.  It’s probable he could have sold a number of paintings if he’d primarily painted western themed pieces devoid of his tendency to editorialize.  Most everyone was enamored by those.  But Leno deliberately refused to keep his personal idiosyncrasies from appearing on his canvases.    Such restraint didn’t seem to suit his artistic temperament.

Leno Prestini 1960
From the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society Collection
(image reproduced by permission)

            Through his older brother’s unpublished recollections and a number of the community’s often told anecdotes, we can to some degree outline Leno’s life from the viewpoint of others.  But it’s only through his paintings that we can hope to see Leno’s world as he saw it.  And in that sense, he did leave us a journal — and an extremely personal journal at that.
             On October 25, 2008, the Stevens County Historical Society held a private showing of its entire Leno Prestini collection for a small group of local artists.  Arranged in the attic of the society’s Colville museum, this presentation was in large part the doing of Glendine Leonard, the museum’s librarian and archivist.  Glendine was chairperson of a now discontinued committee tasked with refreshing the public’s interest in Leno’s art.  This showing was an attempt to solicit interpretations of Leno’s style, techniques, and the like from the region’s art community.  As a member of Glendine’s committee, I also attended.
            The museum’s oldest Prestini canvas is dated 1936.  Its youngest is a piece unfinished at the time of Leno’s death in 1963.  Between are the majority of his more political, allegoric, and surrealistic paintings — those too novel or disturbing to have comforted the walls of a largely parochial community; a community so parochial that even Leno’s brother, Battista, often chided Leno about “making such awful things.”
            To which Leno would snap back, “I paint to suit myself.”
            After Leno’s death, Battista went around the community gathering Leno’s unsold works.  Drawing a good portion of those works into one place, Battista, for the first time, saw his brother’s unique skills just as the artists Glendine invited to the Colville museum many years later would see those skills.  It was a revelation that changed Battista’s assessment of his brother’s life.
            Among the artists invited to Glendine’s Colville showing was Chewelah’s David Govedare.  Govedare’s better known works include downtown Spokane’s metal sculpture installation, The Joy of Running Together, and Interstate 90’s Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies.  Like the other guests, Govedare was particularly taken by the scope of the collection.  He noted, “Seeing works that span an entire career in one room — this is very impressive.”  He went on to observe, “So many of these are such personal statements.  Very direct.  Very revealing.  It’s rare to find an artist willing to put so much of his private feelings into the work.”

October 25, 2008
David Govedare at the Stevens County Historical Society’s Private Showing
Photo by Wally Lee Parker
(Permission to reproduce Leno Prestini artwork as seen in this photo granted by Janet Thomas — President, SCHS)

            Another in the group added, “The fact that he was an accomplished sculptor to begin with clearly shows in his paintings.  He’s working hard to give three-dimensionality to the elements within these images.  You can see that everywhere.”
            As for the traditional assumption that Leno should be classified as a self-taught folk artist, the general consensus was no.  Underneath the energy, humor, and editorializing found in his images, the assembled artists detected an educated understanding of the craft.  This man had the skill to paint what he intended.  If he wanted to say it, he put it right there for everyone to see.
            And that draws us back to Leno’s critical state of mind in 1963.  If there was any explicability to his suicide, it’s probable that the clues are in his art.  What we know of his life hints that just like many of the world’s best artists, Leno was driven by muses and pursued by demons.  Leno’s highly personalized artwork is well populated by the images of his tormentors.  Perhaps the most common of these demonic allusions are women characterized as devils — as feminine wraiths.  Most agree these images are veiled cyphers for the women he knew.  If this interpretation is true, then it seems to suggest that his misadventures with these women over the course of his life consumed so much of his heart that in those final days there just wasn’t enough of it left to keep him alive.
            I’ve written several articles about Leno and his art.  Those have been published by the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society and others.  Each of those articles has suggested that a larger, more encompassing article needs to be written.  This larger article should include sufficient examples of Leno’s works to illustrate the extent of his skill and the depth of his torment.  For that I’ll need permission to reproduce selected images from the various organizations and individuals owning them.  I’ll also need to draw opinions from working artists, art historians, art instructors, and students of the arts — anyone willing to talk to me.  All this needs to be mixed together with bits of data from dozens of published and unpublished sources.  If all of this were to come together, I suspect a fairly clear image of the man might come into focus.
            Going forward I hope to post revised editions of my previously published Prestini related materials here.  And if all goes well, I hope to eventually post the finished article here too.  After that, my intent is to submit the article to a select group of historical organizations for in-house publication.
            It’s a plan.  We’ll see.

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Other Prestini Related Articles

The Prestini Files: Beginning Article of the Prestini Letters - Translation Needed.

1 comment:

Carrie Gibbs said...

Thank you. I was young when we lost him. My parents both knew and love him. The year 1952 is when my feet hit the dirt I was born in Deer Park but moved to the "farm" in Clayton when I was 4. I was shocked that someone would "Kill himself " As being young and the WHY was just not a good enough reason. So here is a "story" about his life. When he came home from "the war" the things he saw had bothered him. A Dr. suggested he just paint. Which he used as a way to fight the feelings of unease from what he had lived to remember.. ONE of his paintings he put at the Fair.. There was a "visit" from men that were from the Government about that painting. It was of a "man dress a U.S. military person" with a huge pair of destruction. (bomb under each arm they had the letter H painted on them) He was questioned for a long time and as far as I know the painting was never returned. THIS was something that my Dad told me of Leno and just to put a time stamp it was BEFORE we dropped the bombs on Japan. So thank you.