Prestini, Leno (1906-1963)

  • By Jack and Claire Nisbet
  • Posted 10/03/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9571

Leno Prestini was an Italian American artist who worked as a modeler for the Washington Brick and Lime Company’s terra cotta operation in Clayton (Stevens County). Prestini also fired tiles and sculptures of his own creation, and in time changed his focus to painting. On the eve of World War II, several of his politically charged oil paintings were the subject of a prominent feature article in the Los Angeles Times. Although his reputation on the national level never advanced further, Prestini continued to create a substantial body of vernacular artwork in Stevens County. He also developed a reputation as a first-class adventurer, inventor, lake diver, miner, and horseman. Prestini committed suicide in Clayton in 1962.

From Besano to Clayton

Leno Prestini’s parents were born in northern Italy. Like many in their small village of Besano, Luigi (d. 1919) and Caterina Prestini (1884-1961) crossed the border to Zurich, Switzerland, to find work, with Caterina twice journeying home to bear two sons, Battista (1905) and Leno (1906). When the family was confronted by hard times, Luigi left his family and sailed for America in 1907. He found a job cutting stone in the granite quarries of Barre, Vermont, and Caterina followed him a year later with 3-year-old Battista and 2-year-old Leno.

Even in those early days, it was known in the quarries that few stonecutters worked past the age of 40 because of silicosis, a lung disease caused by exposure to rock dust. Luigi's brother Federico had escaped that fate by moving West and establishing his own stump ranch on Half Moon Prairie, just north of Spokane. His letters back to Vermont were so enthusiastic that in 1911 Luigi and Caterina decided to join him in Washington. Within a couple of years they drifted a short distance north to Clayton, where Luigi found employment with the Washington Brick Company.

J. H. Spear had founded the enterprise in 1893 to take advantage of Clayton’s high-quality clay deposits. By the time Luigi Prestini arrived on the scene in 1911, it had grown into Washington Brick, Lime, and Sewer Pipe, and had established a reputation for its terra cotta sewer pipe and handcrafted decorative panels. Much of the work was produced by a community of Italian American artisans based in Clayton.

Luigi Prestini worked as a chiseler, knocking product out of molds with a chisel or air hammer. Caterina washed clothes for a local school teacher to supplement their income. The boys helped to raise rabbits and garden vegetables, and bucksawed endless lengths of jack pine for firewood. Battista, called Bee, recalled that his mother was not happy with the house they found for themselves beside the old East Clayton sawmill, but the boys managed to have their fun. They played ball in the sawdust pile, walked to Loon Lake to fish for perch, swam in the flume beside the railroad tracks, and generally pried into whatever mischief was available. One evening Luigi brought some clay home from the plant and encouraged the boys to try copying a figurine of a lion that belonged to the family. "After three hours Leno's lump of clay looked like a lion," Battista recalled. "Mine looked like a lump of clay" (Battista Prestini).

In 1919, while recovering from stomach surgery, Luigi contracted a fatal pneumonia. After his death, Caterina took in boarders to make ends meet. Battista dropped out of school to work as a water boy at the brick plant for $1.50 a day. Leno stuck with high school for a year and half before he quit as well, and began exploring the world on his own. According to Battista, Leno was rail-thin, intense, and occasionally aggressive. At one point, he had a "bad nervous spell" and attempted suicide by sitting in a running car in the family garage (Battisa Prestini). By 1925, Battista was pressing tiles as piecework in the terra cotta plant, and when he suggested that Leno join him, the 19-year-old began an apprenticeship in the terra cotta craft. Within a year, he had laid the cornerstone on a new high school in the Palouse and installed some of the terra cotta ornamentation that still graces the Clayton Moose Lodge.

Modeler of Clay

Leno rose from terra cotta apprentice to the position of chief modeler. His style was influenced by Frank Frey and Cecil Sater, who mentored him in the trade. By 1931, Leno was fashioning personal pieces alongside the sunbursts and floral patterns required by the architects. His creations ranged from Christmas tiles sent out as holiday cards by company president A. B. Fosseen to three-dimensional figures, such as a diver dodging sharks, a lamp shaped like an elf, and a two-headed mountain climber. Many of these pieces expressed Leno’s unquiet mental edge. When Battista asked him why he portrayed the mountain climber with two heads, Leno replied, "Every time I get to the top of the mountain, my problems are still with me" (Battista Prestini).

A. B. Fosseen’s son Neal, (who later served as a Spokane city councilman and mayor) recalled that Leno would slip his own handmade terra cotta pieces into the kiln alongside regular orders. The economic realities of the Depression meant that Leno was occasionally laid off, and during those jobless intervals he pursued whatever caught his fancy. But according to Neal Fosseen, when there were orders to fill, Leno dependably resumed his post as head modeler. "Look," Mr. Fosseen remarked, "Leno was a terra cotta man" (Fosseen, 2002).

Inventions and Adventures

During his tenure in Clayton, Prestini emerged as a unique figure in local lore. In addition to his talent as a designer, he proved to be a clever engineer, an ardent conversationalist, and a mad adventurer. He took a notion to sail on Loon Lake, and fashioned a craft with an iron rudder and sewed sails from cement sacks. He made the keel from a coffin cover held in place with an iron strap, and Battista recalled that with every change in wind the strap would play a different tune.

After seeing a round diving helmet in Spokane, Leno and his friend Burton Stewart decided to make their own outfit and go after the gold they had heard was on the bottom of Loon Lake. They torched a helmet from a hot water heater, decorated it with an octopus, and installed double glass to prevent the faceplate from fogging during their dives. When they began descending beyond available sunlight, they cobbled an underwater flashlight from a six-cell battery enclosed in an aluminum cylinder, with a fuse head to hold the glass and a Model T radiator cap to seal the end. As their underwater explorations approached 90 feet, they ordered balloon cloth from the Goodyear Company to sew into a suit that could handle the cold temperatures. A stainless steel cream container provided the basis for an improved helmet, and a beer barrel pressure pump supplied air through a common garden hose. The outfit was such a success that Prestini and Stewart displayed it at the Spokane Fair that fall, and received a call from local police to help locate the body of a drowned man in a lake near Colville. They themselves later almost drowned while diving for gold below Z Canyon, a fast and dangerous stretch of the lower Pend Oreille River (Stewart).

Leno’s hands and mind, working together, seemed to spawn an endless stream of new schemes. He and his brother built the hull of a speedboat, but couldn’t afford a motor to power it. He and Burt Stewart climbed peaks from Mount Spokane to the Canadian border, and when the terra cotta plant shut down for a period, they customized a ladder and scaled the kiln’s 110-foot brick smokestack, taking panoramic photographs from the top to document their feat. After reading about land speed records being set at Daytona Beach, Leno fashioned a custom sports car with an airfoil rudder.

Cecil Sater and Frank Frey, fellow modelers at the brick plant, both had a profound influence on Prestini. Sater, a lay preacher, dabbled in religious paintings, and around 1936 Leno took up the brush as well. "Some of the boys were sitting around talking about the world situation," he recalled. "I had my own ideas and feelings. I wanted to put them into a painting. So was born my first painting, 'The Mechanical Monster' painted in oil with poor brushes and on a piece of plasterboard" (Graham, 1958).

Leno Prestini, Painter

In a newspaper interview, Leno succinctly laid out the course of his artistic work, from the Washington Brick and Lime Company to his personal canvases. "At the plant in Clayton I learned to work with my hands," he related. "An architect would make a rough sketch of an ornament for a building -- an angel in flight, perhaps. But the detail would be up to me. Each man worked that way, and so each developed his specialty in shaping the clay into figures" (Colville Statesman-Examiner).

"But building codes changed. Cornices and decorations could project only two inches over the sidewalk. The other men started drifting away. I did some drifting myself. And then I started painting" (Colville Statesman-Examiner).

While drifting, Leno took a job on a sheep train going to Chicago, and went on the bum to San Francisco; he wandered in Mexico for a while, and worked as a mess boy on board an oil tanker en route to Hawaii. In 1936 he returned to Clayton, found work in a brickyard, and resumed painting. He seemed to breathe in the human and natural landscape of Northeastern Washington -- the brick plant and its machine shop; the region's sawmills and mining culture; its mountains, coniferous forests, and deep natural lakes; horses and tribal gatherings; taverns, churches, and country music -- and he transformed these settings into paintings with a style that was unmistakably his own.

Prestini's Pages of Civilization

Deeply disturbed by news from Europe, he began work on a futuristic battle scene in which a cave man wrestled with a flame-breathing robot representing the totalitarian war machine. He titled the life-size canvas "Civilization -- Page 1936" and began work on the next installment in what became a series of "Pages."

Three years later, after completing "Page 1939," he hung its five huge panels in the Clayton Cafe. Each section depicted key players and symbolic images leading up to World War II. From Neville Chamberlain’s signature umbrella to Mussolini pulling a rabbit out of a hat, the panels forecast a dire future, and many local viewers were put off by the display. His brother Battista recalled that Leno would sometimes ask his opinion of a painting: "He'd say to me, 'What do you think?' and I'd say, 'I don't understand. What is it?' Then he'd get mad at me and yell. He was like that, either he'd give you the shirt off his back or he'd give you a cussing for not appreciating what he did" (Sowa).

After Leno finished "Page 1940" the following year, he carted all of his "Pages of History" to Spokane and placed them in the show windows of J. W. Graham’s stationery store downtown. Within two days, complaints from passersby induced the store manager to move the artwork to the basement. Undaunted, Leno drove the panels to Los Angeles, where Battista had moved some years before to work for Douglas Aircraft. In March 1942, a photograph of Leno appeared in the Sunday Los Angeles Times, accompanied by an article that explained his artistic statement. The photograph captured Leno standing in front of his "Civilization -- Page 1936." He wore a dark suit complete with a perfectly folded pocket handkerchief and pointed to the robot’s bulging helmet with a confident forefinger. "I’m no artist," he insisted, "but I can’t help thinking" (Los Angeles Times).

Local talent assessors begged to differ, and Life Magazine photographed the "Pages of History" for a double-page spread. But according to Leno, the editors at Life were wary of offending European leaders at a time when the United States was still trying to remain neutral in the war. "Pages of History" never ran in the magazine, and Leno was so discouraged that he quit painting for a while. He returned to Clayton, where he confined himself to sketching unruly political caricatures (Nisbet 2002).

When the war spread to America, Leno enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Since he weighed only 105 pounds, he was assigned to limited service at Fort Logan in Denver. During his stay, he completed a book of military cartoons in the style of the time. Eventually he was shipped to England with a fighter group of P-47s, then transferred to a bomber squadron. Battista later surmised that Leno’s work there included designing safety posters and painting insignias on bombers. Leno apparently applied for an assignment as a belly gunner on bombing raids over Germany, but as far as is known, he was never dispatched on a mission (Battista Prestini).

Returning to Clayton

Leno returned home after the war to find Clayton on the skids, and in 1947 the terra cotta factory closed for good. He had at least two serious romances, but never married. He resorted to bricklaying and stone masonry to support himself, and in the 1950s and early 1960s built fireplaces in several cabins around Loon Lake and Deer Lake. He purchased horses and began taking long trail rides. "I like to ride alone because then I can get ideas for my paintings," he told a reporter. "Being alone on a horse in the back hills gives me a feeling of the good earth. I love horses and I love to paint them" (Boni). In order to haul his steeds and signal his friends on the highway, he fabricated a livestock trailer, adding a horse skull with flashing amber eye sockets to the front.

During these years, he painted furiously, and many people in Stevens County retained vivid memories of Leno at his easel. All of his work was done in a small remodeled garage he called the Vagabond House. Local children would wander in and out of the studio while Leno painted away, talking a blue streak and often listening to popular tunes such as "Stranger on the Shore," or "Ghost Riders in the Sky," which inspired some of his best-known creations. "I listened to the record over and over again until I had to put the picture on canvas," he told a friend (Graham, 1958). He liked to display his art in a tavern or restaurant, then sit at the counter, drinking coffee and listening to comments. One piece that no tippler could ignore was a mural that memorialized the history of the brick factory.

In "Clay to Clay," Prestini explored his own and Clayton's symbiotic relationships with the terra cotta plant, juxtaposing the details of a distinguished Art Deco building with local workers and a dilapidated downtown. This was one Prestini creation that everyone could identify with, as was proved in the mid-1950s when a runaway fire threatened Clayton’s downtown business district. While the flames destroyed a Prestini mural that hung over the produce section of the local mercantile, anxious citizens rolled "Clay to Clay" on an ax handle and carried it out of harm’s way.

Smaller paintings by Prestini varied from quiet landscapes to cultural fables. Though the local scenes were far more popular with his neighbors, Leno dismissed those works as "calendar art." He maintained that "I can paint them without half trying. They are for relaxation. Those I like most are my thought-type paintings. They are like myself, the nonconformist" (Ste. Marie). Prestini’s most ambitious canvases used vivid symbols to skewer human and corporate greed, the immorality of power politics, and the marginalization of tribal cultures. Dark scenes explored his constant struggle with female relationships, guilt, and desolation. All of Prestini's paintings displayed his eccentric sense of color and composition, and his knack for the odd detail. And all of them stirred with the same restless energy that hounded him throughout his life -- as his brother said, Leno never could stand to leave anything sitting still (Battista Prestini).

An Artist's Life and Work

Prestini presented himself as a stubborn purist, telling reporters that he painted for himself, not money (Graham, 1958). One evening at the Triple R Diner in Clayton, according to local legend, he refused a check for $1,500 in exchange for his rendition of "Ghost Riders." Yet there is no question that Prestini would have enjoyed more recognition as an artist. In an audio tape of unknown date, he narrated a tour through a selection of his paintings, contrasting the pastel, thickly textured cowboy scenes that were selling in Los Angeles at the time with his own thinner, non-layered technique. He explained how he used paint to impart the lilt of an eye or the crucial moment in a story. He spun a yarn about Charley Russell's visit with Will Rogers in southern California. He recalled the flash of orange light in a Rembrandt painting, and the way Michelangelo thickly applied colors to give his Sistine Chapel figures a sculptural feel (Leno Prestini, audio tape).

In November, 1960, an exhibit of 50 of Prestini's paintings opened at Gonzaga University. In an appreciative essay, Reverend Louis Ste. Marie wrote that "Leno is a philosopher, homespun; he loves his country and knows it physically and historically. A common theme in most of his paintings is the changes that have come over it" (Ste. Marie). The professor spoke of Prestini's craftsmanship, his natural sense of form, his symbolism, and his vivid palette. "I want my color to reach out and hit the viewer," he quoted Leno as saying (Ste. Marie). "Leno Prestini may not be a trained artist, nor a genius in color and position, but there is more to art than outward form. Here is a man for all to understand and love, a man who has lived his life intensely, aware of the past and the present, of himself and of his fellow man. And, since communication is so rare and precious, we should be grateful" (St. Marie 1961).

The Gonzaga show traveled north to Colville in January 1961, and Prestini later exhibited paintings at the Corbin Art Center in Spokane and at Eastern Washington University in Cheney. But his work gained little notice outside the Inland Northwest, and Leno, now in his mid-50s, became lonely and frustrated. His mother, whom he had cared for at their home in Clayton as her health declined, died in 1961. According to Battista, "his disappointment in choice of girl companionship and loss of mother plus his store teeth giving him trouble" added to his depression (Battista Prestini). A doctor prescribed tranquilizers, which Leno did not like at all. But despite his problems, he retained his feel for the regional landscape and its people. When his insurance agent repeatedly asked for a painting in 1962, Leno offered him an historic scene of Deer Park in 1910 that he had based on an old postcard. The agent was so delighted with the painting that he offered to forget the insurance on Leno's car -- an aging Karmen Ghia (Prestini, miscellaneous papers).

Those who remember Leno during these years him always remark on his love of coffee and animated conversation (Graham 2002). A reporter described him in 1961 as "short, compactly built, the compactness emphasized by the fact that he likes to wear western garb ... . His hair is thick, gray, worn longer than a city man wears it. There is a dent in the bridge of his nose, his eyes are dark, and above his mouth there is a shaggy mustache. The moment Prestini talks, the entire picture changes. The dark eyes sparkle. The mouth is quick to smile and there are laugh lines alongside it. And the voice itself is soft and pleasant. What it says is supported, or illustrated, or both, by expressive gestures of the hands" (Boni).

Death and Legacy

Early in 1963, Leno visited Battista in Los Angeles, where he seemed "very nervous and unhappy, then painted a couple of paintings with a spatula and didn’t like them so he threw them in the trash" (Battista Prestini). As he prepared to return to Clayton, his brother rescued the canvases from the trash and made his brother promise to see a physician friend as soon as he returned home. Two days later, Battista received word that Leno was hospitalized in Spokane with a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. He lingered for almost a month, until April 26, 1963, but never regained consciousness. He was 57 years old.

Battista did not let his brother's memory fade away. In the early 1970s, he and his wife Mae moved back to Clayton, and with the help of friends in the community, constructed an A-frame museum. They combined the body of Leno’s work with their own accumulation of biographical material. When early visitors expressed bewilderment or disdain for his brother's art, Battista decided to give guided tours and explicate his brother's vision. "These are Leno's children," Battista told a reporter in 1982. "I will care for them until I die" (Inland Empire Observer). When the museum effort wound down after Battista's death in 1983, a younger generation of descendants retained Leno’s paintings and many of his effects.

In 1998, the family donated most of the primary Prestini material to the Stevens County Historical Society in Colville. These artifacts include decorative tiles, ceramic sculptures, advertisements, World War II cartoons, and more than 70 paintings, as well as photographs, Battista’s account of Leno’s life, correspondence, and notes from the Washington Brick and Lime Company about the location of their terra cotta work. The company's last commercial product, created in the late 1940s, was a set of decorative figures for a new art building on the University of Washington campus; one of them, a likeness of Leno Prestini, still glares from the eaves of the building (Leonard). Prestini’s large "Clay to Clay" mural, with a few burn spots carefully repaired, is permanently housed at the Loon Lake Historical Society, while other paintings and personal effects reside at the Clayton/Deer Park Historical Society.

Two years before his death, Leno Prestini commented to a close friend: "My life has been one of adventure, working to make a living and fighting for time so I can paint a better picture. I've worked to support my paintings and hope that someday they will support themselves" (Ste. Marie).


Sources: Bill Boni, "About a Man Named Leno Prestini," Spokane Spokesman-Review, January 11, 1961, p. 2; Neal Fosseen interview with Jack Nisbet, March 2002, Spokane; Pat Graham, "He Won’t Sell His Paintings," Inland Empire Magazine Insert, Spokesman-Review, December 7, 1958, p. 3; Pat Graham interview with Jack Nisbet, April 4, 2002, Spokane; Mark Hartley, "Clayton Museum: A Labor of Love," Inland Empire Observer, May 28, 1982; Glendine Leonard interview with Jack Nisbet, August 2010, Colville; James Mason, Notebook, Stevens County Historical Society, Colville, Washington; Arthur Millier, "Depicts World Turmoil," Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1942; Jack Nisbet, "Leno’s World," Pacific Northwest Inlander, April 25, 2002; Jack Nisbet, "Leno Prestini," North Columbia Monthly, August 2010; Battista Prestini, Miscellaneous papers, Stevens County Historical Society, Colville, Washington; Leno Prestini, Audio cassette, no date, Stevens County Historical Society, Colville, Washington; Leno Prestini, Miscellaneous papers and drawings, Stevens County Historical Society, Colville, Washington; Tom Sowa, "A Tortured Artist Rescued in Time," Spokesman Review, September 6, 1981, p. 12; Louis Ste. Marie, S. J., “Leno Prestini of Clayton, Washington.” typescript, 1960, Special Collections, Foley Library, Gonzaga University; Charles Stewart to Jack Nisbet, April 2, 2002, in possession of Jack Nisbet, Spokane, Washington.

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