A man of style, dedicated to a life of art, Milton Hebald passed away in January at age 97. Although I had long heard about him from colleagues in New Mexico, I first met Milton at an exhibit of his artwork in Long Beach, California, in 2009. Many memorable conversations followed.
Milton was dedicated to reaching people through art in public places. He generously lent three of his bronze sculptures to an exhibition of WPA art I co-curated in 2010 at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek.
On his way to becoming a renowned sculptor, Milton won awards for his art as a child in New York City. He was the youngest student to enroll in the Art Students League. In the mid-1930s, Milton went to work for the WPA, teaching and producing public art.
He later put his artistic skills to work making models and casting metal in the defense industry during World War II. He was later drafted into the Army.
In the 1950s he won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy in Rome and with his wife, Cecille, began a half-century of living and working in Italy. After Cecille died he remarried and returned to New Mexico, and later moved to Southern California to be closer to his family.
Milton was known for celebrating the classic human form at a time when many of his contemporaries were moving into abstract art. Among his most recognized public works is the much-loved Romeo and Juliet sculpture in Central Park; the sculpture of James Joyce at his grave in Zurich, and the monumental Zodiac Screen he created for the iconic Pan American Terminal at JFK Airport in New York City. (The terminal is now demolished, but the sculptures are in storage).
Milton continued to work daily into his 90s, sculpting small terra cotta figures. His sense of style was on display when I was photographing him next to one of these terracotta pieces. Striking a jaunty pose and a far off gaze, he commented, “I know how to pose.” During our last visit, a few months before he died, I watched him patiently instructing his great-granddaughter, Cecille, in drawing, while his granddaughter, Lara, looked on.
Milton’s memorial celebration last month in Culver City, California brought people together from across the country to extol the life and work of one of the last surviving WPA artists.