2012-05-18 / Community

A Life of Many Colors … On View

By Susan Hartenstein Special to The Wave


Artist John Russo and one of his colorful paintings Artist John Russo and one of his colorful paintings His life and his heritage are as colorful and diverse as his paintings that surround us in his home. Hanging on the walls, stacked and wrapped in organized fashion leaning against the walls and awaiting transport to a Fort Tilden gallery, sitting on easels; local vistas, European street scenes that are his memory’s heightened souvenirs of extensive travels, still lifes, nature sketches, a monsoon of multi-hued streaks across a canvas, a monochromed forest; stylized yet truthful depictions, abstracts; oils, acrylics, pencils, sculptures; the artworks of others that have caught his fancy; family photographs past and present; all around, the full-spectrumed evidence of a life completely lived in unfettered exploration of all the possibilities. Decades of a life lived ‘to the max’ feeding an adventurous and uncompromising art. Tall and handsome, John Russo at age 82, still, as they used to say, cuts a fine figure of a man.

“The Art of John Russo” will fill Rockaway Artists Alliance’s sTudio 7 Gallery in Fort Tilden the two weekends of June 2 and June 9. The opening reception will be Saturday, June 2, 6-10 p.m. in sTudio 7. Guitarist/singer/songwriter John Simonelli will provide the live background music. Gallery hours continue the next Saturday and the two Sundays, 12-4 p.m. Admission to the reception and the exhibit is free. For information: RockawayArt316@aol.com.

Russo’s parents were born in Italy. His father was a commercial fisherman during the Depression, as was John as a young man. It was a difficult, ardu- ous and often dangerous life. “I don’t do people [portraits],” says Russo. However, his depictions of fish (a salty subject he knows intimately) are among his most interesting paintings, including a collage of oil-painted koi fish against a tissue paper background. Winning an award for his print work, another of his best pieces is “The Bagel Woman,” combining a linoleum cut print subject against an oil-painted background. Never one to shun adventure, Russo has certainly had more than his share. He was a bodyguard for the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Joe DiMaggio; he was a hero sanitation man who rescued children from a fire, for which he earned a medal; he had his own contracting company; Russo was the vice president of a real estate firm; he has earned all sorts of humanitarian awards.

Largely self-educated, but never content to just settle, he has also always sought to broaden his abilities through formal education. Russo visited the Rockaway Artist Alliance galleries one day, liked what he saw and the idea of being an artist, and decided to expand on the casual sketching he had done for years. “I decided I wouldn’t do this unless I got some training.” As his passion grew, “From casual sketches came intricate, colorful paintings depicting both memories and visions of the future,” writes Russo. Everett Molinari, who had also taught at such prestigious venues as the Salmagundi Club, was Russo’s first art teacher at RAA. He went on to study art at Kingsborough College. “I just got into it,” he explains. He certainly did. At the age of 80, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, summa cum laude, majoring in art, from the College of Staten Island, CUNY. Among other academic honors, Russo received the “Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities Award for Outstanding Service to the College and the Community. Winner of a variety of awards for his artwork, Russo is a selling artist who is a member of the Rockaway Artists Alliance and the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition. The Rockaway Theatre Company is a beneficiary of Russo’s talents. He is a frequent addition to their team of scenery artists, whose work RTC Artistic Director John Gilleece has called “remarkable, …even breathtaking.”

When asked why he paints, without hesitation Russo says, “I’ve tried it all. I finally felt at home, comfortable in myself. I don’t have to prove myself anymore. …The imposter I was disappeared at Kingsborough. Art gave me self-confidence and a sense of who I am.” His wife, Marilyn, answers the question more simply. “It gives him peace.”

When asked, “Why a solo show?” the artist thinks a moment and responds, “I want people to see my work all together, at one time. Six years of work – I want them to see the development. I hope I get good reviews; I don’t know.” But ultimately, beyond all that it appears …it gives him peace.

Next on the horizon? “I would like to grace others with my love and knowledge of art. I feel I could teach children to appreciate the colors of the rainbow. At 82 I feel very young at heart.”

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