Leo Hills

Leo Hills was a San Francisco art dealer and owner of the Continental Art Gallery , a grand-sized, street level showcase of rooms on Stockton Street at San Franciscos Union Square, where now stands the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Hills’ Gallery showcased exhibits of old European and contemporary American art, and featured one of the largest exhibits of works by sculptor, Beniamino Bufano. But, most significantly for the artist, it was the combination of Leo HillsContinental Gallery, and the opportunity that venue, its owner and its manager provided for public access to Mulleians work that make Leo Hills’ contribution to the artist’s career uniquely important. Mr. Hills’ role in that collaboration is foundational.

t was early one autumn afternoon in 1969 that the 22-year-old artist G. Mark Mulleian walked into the Continental Gallery, holding under his arm a package wrapped in a towel. Captivated by the exhibits, Mulleian felt a range of impressions, but what struck him most forcefully was an immediate sense of the spiritual intensity emanating from the sculptural works of Bufano’s exhibit. Wanting to learn more about the sculptor, Mulleian browsed through the pages of an album of newspaper clippings documenting Bufano’s prodigious body of work, when he was pleasantly interrupted by a very tall, long-bearded man with long black hair and a quiet, focused demeanor. Mulleian soon learned that this gently imposing figure was the manager of the gallery. His name was Leonard Roy Frank.

Mr. Frank noticed the package under Mulleian’s arm. Approaching the young man with eyes as strong and soft as his voice, he asked, “What do you have there?” The artist replied “A drawing.” Mr. Frank then asked, “Can I see it?” The artist answered, “Yes” and unwrapped the pencil drawing from the towel. Mulleian still remembers Mr. Frank’s stunned look and quiet amazement. Taken aback, as though surprised, Leonard Frank stood transfixed. He later confided to the artist that he could not believe that a pencil drawing could ever be so fine, with such extraordinary realism and detail. Studying the drawing, Frank then turned to the young artist and asked, “Do you have more?” The answer to that question, that, indeed there were many more like this, proved to be one of the most consequential statements the young artist would ever make.

As a result of that initial encounter, Leo Hills, in collaboration with Leonard Roy Frank, (rightly credited with being the first to discover Mulleian) arranged Mulleian’s first exhibit with Beniamino Bufano at Hills’ Continental Gallery, while also providing a venue source for the first of many newspaper reviews of Mulleian’s work in 1969 and all through the decade that followed. This initial public exposure would lead to Mulleian’s ultimate feature exhibit in 1970, also with Bufano, at the newly opened Frank Gallery, just round the corner from the Continental. The Frank Gallery became a landmark exhibition venue on Sutter Street, (also known as San Francisco’s Gallery Row) there at the Union Square location throughout the 70s.

But, in a sense, Leo Hills acted somewhat as the facilitating medium for the creative energies of the two artists and the business acumen of Frank, a sort of alchemical nexus in which the other three would thrive. Early on, in the beginning of the 1960s, well before the Continental Gallery opened, Leo Hills arranged the first feature exhibition for Bufano at another San Francisco location, culminating in a business relationship between the two men that lasted until Bufano’s death in 1970. But even after Frank opened his own gallery on Sutter Street, Leo Hills remained an active presence in the lives of the other three.

On one occasion, Hills, Frank, and Mulleian agreed to help Bufano move one of his latest sculptures, titled "St. Francis of Assisi", to Muir Woods. Bufano had called Leo the night before, instructing him to bring a pipe to be used as a lever in aiding the moving of this three-ton sculpture. It was agreed that the three men would arrive at Bufano's studio on Minna Street by seven o’clock the next morning.

A large truck was already waiting when they arrived. They found Bufano quietly pacing back and forth in anxious anticipation under the studio's large wooden rafters, the beams highlighted by dusted shafts of light from the old French skylight far above. Bufano was clearly preoccupied with details of the task at hand, when, almost as an afterthought, he abruptly stopped in front of Hills and blurted out: "Did you bring the pipe?" With an air of ‘I thought you’d never ask’, Leo reached into his inner suit pocket and studiously, meticulously, pulled out a small steel pipe, all of eight-inches in length. At that, Bufano, with all of his four feet, seven inches of volcanic Roman wrath, grabbed the pipe and threw it clear across his studio with the focused fury of a thunderbolt, demanding in his heavily Italian-accented exasperation, "How can I move a three ton statue with that!"

As a rule, optimism was Bufano's natural impulse. Negativity was not in his vocabulary. And, over the years they worked together, Hills came to understand that with Bufano’s passionate nature, exasperation was an unnatural byproduct of momentary circumstance, as ephemeral and spontaneous as a thunderstorm in summer, his vitriolic wrath enduring only just as long. After the dust had settled and Bufano regained his composure, the four men set out with Bufano's St. Francis tied securely to the flatbed truck, headed toward its final destination across the Golden Gate Bridge, in Marin County’s Muir Woods.

From the beginning, Leo Hills recognized that Bufano's legacy would be forever timeless, his quest for world peace forever transcendent, and the relevance of his vision of world peace would grow and deepen. What he may not have understood at the time was the extent to which the purity and intensity of that vision would increase in urgency in the generations to follow. Clearly, it is greater now th
an ever.

After Hills and Bufano returned from a long trip to Europe, and during Bufano’s process of relocating his studio, Hills received a phone call from an author who was to interview Bufano that morning for a book she was to write about the sculptor. Bufano hadn’t shown up.. It was Leo Hills, Leonard Roy Frank and Mark Mulleian who discovered his body in his Minna Street studio. The sculptor died on August 16, 1970 at the age of 82. The same three men who had ridden with Bufano to Muir Woods would ride in the limousine behind Mayor Alioto in Bufano’s funeral procession to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, just south of San Francisco. There, Beniamino Benevento Bufano was laid to his final rest. Leo Hills was to follow Bufano in death less than a decade later.