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March 21, 2018

Horst Leissl: A Hulking Piece of Sacramento History

By: Corey Rodda

A larger-than-life painting of the Incredible Hulk seemingly breaking though the container wall of a water tower on Riverside Boulevard made quite a civic splash back in the 1970s.

The artist who gave trompe l'oeil reality to the Riverside Water Treatment Plant landmark was the late Horst “Hank” Leissl, who had paid homage to his son’s favorite comic book character.

Painted in 1976, the big green guy in action lasted four years longer than the six months of its commission, thanks to the efforts of three preteen girls who protested the city’s plan to sandblast it into oblivion.

“I was in kindergarten going to Crocker Riverside Elementary,” recalled James Peyton, who has digitized Horst’s work in "The Art of Horst Leissl. " (

“I would see that water tower on Riverside, and when you are a little kid obsessed with Spiderman and Hulk – it was this amazing thing that you had never seen before. You knew that it was something that was not supposed to be there.”

Horst’s very public art enchanted Sacramento residents from 1974 into the late 1980s. He had no problem with the short lifespan of his works.

“All my stuff is temporary,” Horst told the Sacramento Bee in 1984. “That doesn't bother me. There is room for temporary as well as permanent art.”

Other notable installations created by Horst include the Sacramento Fly, a 12-foot-by-18 foot cardboard fly on the Alhambra water tower and Hand Laundry which consisted of a series of giant inflated hands that were suspended under the XY freeway overpass. 

He also painted dada juxtapositions of Sacramento landmarks in an exhibit dubbed "Sacramento Dreamscapes," and satirized dessert culture with his "Incredible Edibles" -- ceramic-sculpted confection creations titled "Lobster-Chiffon Cake," "Bambi's Revenge" and "Seagull Chiffon Island." On one of the cake sculptures, plastic hands and feet are so precisely arranged that at first glance, they look like puffs of icing.

Horst’s grandfather, a traveling dentist, taught him how to bake.

Horst, who would create a cake called “A Gift From Nice” that looked like a basket with fruit tumbling from it, often baked for his son, Niko.

“He was very loving, but not in a super affectionate hug and kissing way,” Niko said. “He was very German."

“He was an awesome dad,“ his son added. "I learned a lot from him. As a kid, I was doing small animations. He taught me that being an artist is a skilled craft. You can be a Sunday painter or you can really be a trained artist.”

“He was an original,” his wife Julia said. “He thought about things and he felt things and there was nothing that he couldn’t do once he put his mind to it. I’ve never met anyone like him.”

“I really believe he was a genius,” she added.

In 1987, Horst suffered a stroke, followed by another a few years later. After his second stroke, he lost his ability to speak. Julia cared for him as his health declined. As his fine motor skills deteriorated, he turned to collage to channel his creativity.

The artist died in 1991, at the age of 61.

“He just faded in the end so in a way it wasn’t a surprise,” Niko said. “It wasn't a shock, you knew it was coming. That’s a better way.”

Horst was fastidious about his life's work, which he cultivated after nearly flunking out of school because of poor eyesight. To him, art was a trade that he could capitalize on.

“I think what made him so unique was that he was a European and he went through the war and it was a terrible thing for him,” Julia said. “He was a dadaist and he was a surrealist. He loved that school of art, the absurd. Going through the war, he saw how absurd things were and that is what gave him a unique background for his art.”

Born in Augsburg, Germany, in 1933, Horst's parents never married and he never met his father, who died fighting near the Eastern Front during War World II. He escaped being drafted into the Hitler Youth Corps after being judged too weak to join their Aryan ranks.

“He had a maternal grandfather who was very good to him,” Niko said. “He had a farm. When they were bombing Augsburg, they sent all of the kids away. He told us about the camps -- he encountered a lot of deprivation at the children’s camp.”

When he was 19, Horst moved to Redwood City, Calif., to live with his Aunt Paula, who had emigrated there from Germany. She had been working as a nurse in South America, where she fell in love with an American.

In the United States, Horst earned his citizenship and set about working toward a career as a commercial artist. He enrolled at Cooper Union College in New York City, where he majored in graphic design. As a student, he lived on a shoestring budget and a scant diet, including occasional bowls of “ketchup soup” at the automats.

His studies were cut short when he was drafted for a peacetime army and stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. He participated in the army as a graphic designer, tasked with curating the Old Fort Bliss Replica Cultural Museum which showcases the history of the fort, built in 1815.

“He wasn’t the most physically fit guy so he used his arts background to become the curator,” Niko said.

After his service, he ran his own business, Graphic Arts Studio, for five years in El Paso until he moved to San Francisco to join the Steadman, Cooper and Busse advertising firm as a production manager.

Horst was introduced to his wife Julia by a Maurice Read, a mutual friend, at an art gallery opening in Old Sacramento. She was pouring champagne. 

“They locked eyes and the next thing I knew that they had gotten married -- and then they got divorced and got back together,” Read said.

After they wed, Horst and Julia abandoned their careers to open Kiosko, a European-themed restaurant near Lake Chapela, Mexico, an hour south of Gaudalajara. They scouted the restaurant’s location by driving through Mexico in a Volkswagen van with son Niko, then a toddler.

The couple would shutter Kiosko after three years and return to California. They eventually moved to Sacramento in 1974 so Horst could immerse himself more fully in also his artwork and also to be near Julia’s family.

“We came back and he had a lot of friends here” Julia said. “We thought it would be the most comfortable place to be.”

To pay the bills, Horst freelanced and taught commercial art and film at Sacramento City College. He created a quarterly magazine for Blue Diamond, the nut people, called "Almond Facts."

“He hated being part of the rat race,” Niko said.

Horst worked closely with the City of Sacramento to create community installations, including a time capsule to be opened in 2073. He interviewed everyday Sacramento residents about how they felt about their home and their predictions for what it will be like in 100 years.

The artist also took pains -- some humorous -- to explain the rationale behind his works. A pamphlet distributed to his collaborators on the Sacramento Fly on the Alhambra Blvd water tower quotes Edgar Watson Howe, a magazine publisher and novelist: “Put cream and sugar on a fly, and it tastes very much like a black raspberry.”

“The fly gestated over years and geographic miles and hatched in Sacramento because of its fertile climate,” Horst added.

He came up with the idea to make the fly while he, Julia and Niko were staying at a vacation spot in Mexico overrun with flies.

“He would sit with his fly swatter and his book – [making a]  clunmpf clumpf [noise as he swatted the flies],” Julia said.

“We would see things and they would be normal and he would see it and turn it around and find something in it that would be unique,” she added.

“Horst took art and turned it around and turned it around inside out,” Julia said. “That’s what he was about turning things inside out and backwards.”

Read praises Horst as "the most underrated artist I know.”

“His art was very eclectic and he would do whatever he wanted to,” said Read, who pointed to one of Horst’s more famous paintings, this one depicting Arden Way. 

"He left out all the buildings and only had the billboards and signs,” Read elaborated. "The political statement was that we are a society overwhelmed by billboards," ruining the beauty of communities.

Niko believes that his father’s artwork is particularly relevant in this day and age and is ripe for a revival.

“I think that there is potential for his artwork to experience a renaissance,” Niko said. “One of the great things about my father is that he was a part of the futurist society. He was really ahead of time in a lot of his arts and concepts and now it comes around again.”

"There is a whole new generation that would be interested in his ideas,“ he added.  "He would have loved the internet. He loved technology.”

Peyton noted there was a small movement to access city funds to reintroduce the Hulk painting  to the water tower. However, currently the big green guy’s place on the Riverside landmark remains a distant memory.