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Lucy Bradanovic Agid, sculptor

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“Dance of Life,” bronze sculpture by Lucy Agid

A life carved in stone

Ninety years with sculptor Lucy Bradanovic Agid

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Let’s look at her art first, shall we? because it takes only a glance to see the artistry in the marble and bronze sculptures and statuettes created by Lucy Agid. They are not excessively large, we’re not talking Michelangelo’s “Pietà” or “David” here, but mostly tabletop size. They also tend to be figural groups, half a dozen bodies, more or less, arranged in such a manner that calls to mind slow-motion modern dancers.

Whereas the marble works are smooth, lacking detailed features as if carved from large cakes of soap and left out in the rain, the bronze pieces have more texture, both tactile and visual, and bear resemblance to the drawings and sculptures of Ernst Barlach and Käthe Kollewitz. A larger ensemble, like “Dance of Life,” might even suggest Rodin’s “Burghers of Callais.” But while there’s often an anguished air in the figures by the above-named Europeans, Lucy’s groupings seem more introspective, in many cases like a closely-knit family. They are at the same time soothing, engaging, and life-affirming.

Creative, not dumb

Before her marriage to Herb Agid in 1957, Lucy Bradanovic grew up in San Pedro, the daughter of immigrant parents from Vis, an island off the coast of Split in Croatia. Her father was a fisherman. Born in 1929, Lucy was the second of five children and the first of her family to be born in the United States. At that time, she tells me, “Gaffey was just a dirt road.” And she remembers the 1933 earthquake as well, the Northridge earthquake of its day, which damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings.

Lucy Agid’s memory for details of her earliest years is astonishing, but now and then there’s a blending of chronology, a hopping from one thought to another, even in mid-sentence. As an interviewer, one tries to swim with the current, even if it goes upstream.

Although she’s never really lived away from San Pedro and now Rolling Hills, Lucy has an Old World sensibility, which perhaps blossomed in the early 1980s when her son, Nick, an acclaimed artist in his own right, suggested that she come and check out Pietrasanta, in Tuscany, where he was studying. That led to other European trips, and various enlightenments of a sort, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

“Ovation,” marble sculpture by Lucy Agid

Lucy attended Bandini Grammar School and crossed paths with a teacher who was, let us say, not very encouraging. On a field trip, “We went to Exposition Park and she (the teacher) says, You can either write a composition or you can draw; and I drew something that I saw there. The (other) children came up to me and they wanted me to show them how to draw. And she got very angry at me: You stupid one, she said, sit down.” Later on in our conversation, Lucy adds: “I liked my father because he said I’m creative, I’m not dumb.”

But what this and perhaps other incidents led to was Lucy’s parents pulling her from Bandini and putting her in Meyler Street School, “meaning for dumb children,” Lucy says. And here we have a classic example of someone held back or kept aside because they didn’t fit the standard mold. A friend of mine tells me that when she was in elementary school she tried repeatedly to correct the boy seated next to her because he was left-handed and she was convinced that was wrong. Being a southpaw myself, the only one in a family of five, that resonates with me. Fortunately I didn’t have a classmate telling me I was holding my pencil with the wrong hand.

“The older I got I didn’t feel bad because I found out I was different,” Lucy says. “There’s nothing wrong with being different. A lot of people couldn’t understand that, like the girl calling me dumb. I wasn’t.”

With Lucy now enrolled at Meyler Street School, the impression is that, academically, she’d fallen behind her peers. It was at Meyler Street School, however, that the gardener there befriended her, gave her flowers and seeds and inculcated in her a passion for gardening, which continues to this day.

Then we get to the “Catholic school,” which takes a while for me to figure out that Lucy is referring to Mary Star of the Sea, which, in my opinion, is one of the prettiest names for a school that I can think of. Mary Star of the Sea. How beautiful and serene is that?

“The nuns were very warm,” Lucy says of the women at Mary Star of the Sea. “They took me under their wing. I would go to where the nuns were; I don’t remember being with children my own age. I always was doing something creative, and the nuns picked up on this real fast.”

There was one, Sister Pascal, with whom Lucy got along well. Lucy illustrated a book, “and I gave it to Sister Pascal. She didn’t want to be a Sacred Heart nun anymore, she wanted to become a missionary nun. And she said to me, Lucy, will you write? Did Lucy write? No. Does it bother me all these years? Yes.”

I include this because it’s poignant. Some people say they have no regrets, but many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, carry some personal regret or remorse that we wish we could go back and ameliorate. But we can’t. It’s impossible. And we bear that guilt, that self-reproach for the rest of our lives.

Lucy Agid. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Further encouragement

Lucy had been drawing from an early age, but her exceptional aptitude for art was furthered when she graduated from Mary Star of the Sea and went on to attend San Pedro High School, where she had a teacher named Marion Stockton. Stockton taught ceramics, a subject or artistic discipline to which Lucy had never been exposed. And so one day, “It was after lunch and I opened the door and she let me go in and work. And then I started to make figurines.” She created them out of clay—her son Nick brings out a couple of pieces to show me—and truly they seem like works by someone much older and who’s well on their way to mastering the medium.

The ceramics teacher later sold several of Lucy’s pieces, but “She didn’t give me a cent because she said I used her kiln and I used her glazes.” Lest that leave a bad taste on the reader’s tongue, Ms. Stockton was instrumental in pushing Lucy to attend art school, which she did, Otis College of Art and Design.

Somewhere during her teen years Lucy met a concert pianist named Mary Perisich. Perisich was also a piano teacher, and Nick remembers taking lessons from her as a boy when she lived near Point Fermin. This woman also recognized Lucy’s innate talents and even bought some of her work, but more importantly, “Mary Perisich is the one who really said, Lucy, you should become a sculptor.” She brought her books and told her, “Your work reminds me of Barlach.” Perisich was “my mentor, you could say,” and furthermore, “Mary could play Bach, Beethoven, you name it. She was good, and she opened the door for me with classical music.”

Mary’s really the one who instigated me to go to art school.” Along with Marion Stockton, let’s not forget.

And now Lucy is on her way to college. But wait, there’s a little detour that must be attended to first: the canneries.

“I worked at a fish cannery to go to art school,” Lucy says. She began at age 16 and may have worked in a couple of them, or in different areas of the same one, because she recalls putting sardines in cans, three sardines (although headless) facing in one direction, and three sardines pointed the other way. Working, standing up in the water, she says, was terrible. At StarKist, “I even cleaned tuna,” and she indicates how large they were. The employees wore white uniforms. One imagines innards and entrails everywhere. “I remember slipping in my white uniform, and the blood from the fish [all over me]. I had to walk home like that.” But with what she earned at the cannery Lucy was able to attend art school.

“Sympathy,” marble sculpture by Lucy Agid

An even longer detour

And none too soon, apparently. At Otis, “All the teachers were really good to me, they said I had talent.” One of them, she recalls, “would kneel down and listen to me talk. Here I was, a student right out of high school!”

It appears that Lucy always knew or had a hunch about what she wanted to create, but had to navigate a teacher or two who urged her into a direction she didn’t want, including one instructor who pushed her “to go commercial, and I couldn’t do it. I just walked out on him, and I walked into Harold Gebhardt’s sculpture class.” Her talent didn’t go unnoticed. “He said, ‘You know who has it in this whole room?’ He pointed to me.” And so, not surprisingly: “Gebhardt was the main person that I liked, and Gebhardt encouraged me.”

“Speak to Us of Wisdom,” bronze sculpture by Lucy Agid

Among the people who took an interest in her work was Millard Sheets, a well known figure in the art world, and revered to this day. “Millard Sheets helped me a lot. Even when I got married, Millard Sheets was always there for me.”

Another artist who stepped in to encourage the young sculptor was the painter Francis de Erdely, who even bought one of Lucy’s works. She’d already had her first solo show at the Stockton Gallery in San Pedro, in 1947, and a year later received the San Pedro High School Art Achievement Award. In the early 1950s, Lucy was in group shows and was given additional awards as well as scholarships. It seems that she was considering going to UCLA, but “Francis de Erdely said, ‘Listen, just go home and work, you don’t need it.’ I started showing in galleries. Then my husband came, and I married. For a while I worked, but not like I really wanted to.”

Herb Agid had opened Riviera Camera in Redondo Beach in 1953, and kept it going for over 40 years. According to Nick Agid, his parents met in 1957. “My father saw some of her work,” he says, “and asked where he could meet the artist. They met, and married about two months later.” They were still married when Herb Agid passed away in 2009.

“My mother then did less artwork after she got married,” he adds, which could be kind of an understatement because, looking over the list of Lucy Agid’s solo and group exhibitions, there’s essentially a 30-year gap, which was the result of her now becoming a housewife and raising three children. All of this took place in the house where I’m sitting with Lucy on the outdoor deck of her home. The young couple moved there in 1959. “I had goats,” Lucy says. “There was nothing here. I put all the trees in the garden. It’s all me. I’ve been here a long time; a fisherman’s daughter; from San Pedro.”

In time, the children grew up and began living their own lives. Lucy then returned to her first love.
So now, with the 1940s and ‘50s behind us, and stepping entirely around the ‘60s and ‘70s, we’re in the early 1980s. Nick had gone to Italy and said, “Gee, Mom, you should come to Pietrasanta, you’ll really like it, to do your sculpture.” Not only did Lucy take him up on his offer, “She went back many times, and that’s where most of the marbles were started, and then finished here.” Pietrasanta is also where many of the bronze pieces were cast. Most of Lucy’s work in this phase of her life, Nick adds, dates from around 1984 to 2000. The first piece carved in stone was called “The Good Earth.”

“I regret that I didn’t save it,” she says. “That piece I didn’t want to sell.”

Nick smiles. “I don’t think my mother ever wants to sell anything.”

Meanwhile, Lucy is remembering when her husband pitched her work to a gallerist in Bern, Switzerland. The woman offered to take the sculpture, but Lucy said, “I really carved the piece for myself. It was my first piece in black Belgian.” But Herb urged her to sell it, and reluctantly Lucy decided to let it go. “So that’s how it started,” she says, this transaction leading to more work in other galleries, including George Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood.

“Mother and Child,” by Lucy Agid

Art coming from within

But what is it that makes Lucy’s sculptures stand out above the work of other figural sculptors?
“Because I can feel the human form,” she replies. “I feel from the center out, in the movement and everything. Like I say, you’re born with it. There’s nothing you could do about it.” And that’s true, she continues, “whether you’re a composer, whether you’re a good writer; you inherit all of this.”

Pressed further about her creative process, Lucy says, “Well, I’m very observant. I see groups of people and I get ideas right away.” She mentions seeing a family in Pisa, sitting together on the grass. That would be a nice piece, she thought to herself, and adds: “There’s a warmth that the Italians have that we don’t.”

Does she make sketches before she begins to work?

“I do sometimes, but I find that it’s in your mind and it comes out… I do some from a sketch, but I always change it.” Working with clay, of course, you can adjust as you go along. With marble, well, that’s not so easy.

Nick says she’s a natural. “It’s not a process for her; more like turning on a faucet. She may do some small sketches for ideas for work, but honestly it comes so easy for her. I have never seen her struggle to make sculptures, drawings, or flower arrangements.”

Answering my last question reminds Lucy that she wants to create a sculptural group inspired by the Viennese waltz, a group of girls dancing, a boy reciting poetry. “Someday I’m going to do that family, the Strauss waltz in clay. I want to carve it; I could do it. Nick says, forget the garden; and that’s what’s bugging me. I should do it, before I go away, because there’s so much beauty and it keeps flowing.”

She hums a few strains from a popular Strauss waltz, just as a breeze ruffles the windchimes next to where we’re sitting. “I want to do three pieces. I haven’t really gone over to the studio because I go outside and I work in the garden.” Her son points out that, “If she just made art she would have many thousands of pieces.” One could argue that her garden is a kind of sculptural creation as well, but one that needs constant attention. But Nick’s right; maybe leave that garden in someone else’s hands for a few days and see what can be done with a fresh lump of clay.

Lucy Agid in her garden. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

In a follow-up email, Nick puts this in perspective: “She loves to garden, could tell you where
each plant was from, where she got, it and what it’s called. She is a worker; loves to be outside. What she does everyday, for several hours, is garden.”

Lucy has traveled widely, but doesn’t say much about modern art. In her opinion, “I feel that Americans don’t know art like the Europeans do, and they only buy art because the gallery tells them it’s selling, not because it’s good.” Her example? Well, Jeff Koons, for one, making “big bucks” with his “Balloon Dogs” and similar pieces. “There’s a lot of artists that are very talented and they don’t go anywhere because they don’t have these galleries that support them.”

This, as we know, is a familiar refrain, and, yes, talent isn’t always rewarded when it should be.
Near the end of our conversation, Lucy again praises the country where she eventually created much of her work: “I miss Italy because of the warmth of the people. But I think it’s been ruined, and what has ruined Europe are the cruise ships; they’re all over the place. The Italy that I knew, I don’t think I’d want to go back.”

Lucy Bradanovic Agid, however she’ll be remembered, created some exceptional work: She touched the fringes of greatness and perhaps might even have made a home for herself there if she hadn’t pulled back for two or three decades to raise a family. We never know what could have been, only what was and what is. Will Lucy excuse herself from the garden and attempt the piece based on the Strauss waltzes? That would be a pleasure to see. There’s nothing like an exclamation point at the end of one’s artistic journey.

“I’ve lived a long time,” Lucy says. “I have many stories, and I’ve met so many interesting people.”
It was an afternoon well spent in her company. ER


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