New Slater exhibition, ‘Joseph Gualtieri: The Artistry of Friendship,’ was inspired by a story of friends
During his years as a student at Norwich Free Academy in the early 1950s, Warren Canova excelled at art. He was named Class Artist during his senior year, and he designed the covers for the 1953 and ’54 yearbooks.
But art wasn’t the most feasible career path at the time. After graduation, Canova joined the Marine Corps, and later on, he spent nearly four decades working at Electric Boat, as a rigger and rigger supervisor.
When he retired, his life at NFA and his appreciation of art came back around in an unexpected way. Canova happened to live in the same Pawcatuck neighborhood as his former art teacher, Joseph P. Gualtieri. Gualtieri, who died in 2015, spent six decades at NFA, as a teacher and the longtime director of the Slater Memorial Museum on the NFA campus. He is a nationally recognized artist whose works can be found in collections of the Smithsonian and other renowned venues.
They reconnected and became great friends. Canova, who had bought some art over the years, began collecting Gualtieri’s works — most of them was purchased, but some were gifts from Gualtieri. With over 50 pieces, it’s possibly the largest private collection of Gualtieri’s work in existence.
Canova’s sons Nick and Bob carried on the stewardship of that collection after their father passed away in 2017. They were the impetus for a new exhibition about Gualtieri’s art and about the friendship between him and their father. “Joseph Gualtieri: The Artistry of Friendship” is on view through Jan. 5 at the Slater’s Converse Gallery.
This isn’t the first major retrospective of Gualtieri’s work at the Slater, but it’s the first since the 1990s. “Joseph Gualtieri: The Artistry of Friendship” spans most of his life and comprehensively represents his art, with more than 70 pieces.
“You’re seeing the entire career of one man … (and) the evolution of someone’s life’s work,” said Dayne Rugh, Slater’s director.
But museum-goers also learn how the relationship between Gualtieri and Canova morphed from that of a teacher and a student, to an artist and a patron, and to a friend to a friend.
“This exhibition tells the story of both of these men and the collection of artwork that was born out of that friendship,” Rugh said. “Every one of these pieces you see from them have never been displayed like this before, have never been shown to the public. It’s the first time that we’re debuting these pieces, so that makes it really special, it makes it really unique.”
The exhibition also highlights a few works by Canova, including a drawing and a couple of clay pieces he created while an NFA student.
The impetus for “Joseph Gualtieri: The Artistry of Friendship” dates back about two years, when Rugh was introduced to Bob and Nick Canova through Kathy McCarthy, who is executive director of the NFA Foundation. The Canovas pitched the exhibition to Rugh.
“It really has many layers. There are all kinds of discoveries,” Nick Canova said of the exhibition. “Even as you walk through the galleries, the way in which we put the show together for the public to visit it, they walk through and … slowly there are pieces of discovery.”
Bob and Nick Canova believe that their father and Gualtieri cooperatively built this art collection — either intentionally or not.
“It really is an amazing story, and we hope that folks who go to see it are as taken by it as my brother and I are,” Nick Canova said.
A friendship is born
After Canova and Gualtieri became reacquainted as adults, they and their wives would get pizza on Friday nights. During the summer, Gualtieri would move his art studio from inside his house to the garage (his wife insisted on the move out of the house in the warm weather, when the oil paint smell became more potent); Canova would watch him paint as they’d talk about art and life.
Nick Canova said both his father and Gualtieri were intellectuals who could have a conversation about anything at any level. They both had wicked senses of humor and enjoyed good food and good company.
“You were always guaranteed a rich experience” when spending time with either of them, he said.
He said his father idolized Gualtieri and had great appreciation for his artistic talent — hence the start of his collecting Gualtieri’s work.
“With the first purchase, I think it was a very richly, deeply touching thing for my father to own a piece of Joe’s work, and then over the years of their friendship, he started purchasing more pieces. He just absolutely loved having the pieces in his house,” Nick Canova said.
In fact, Bob Canova recalled his father’s house having 50-some pieces of artwork in it — “every wall, every door, the beds in the spare bedroom were covered with artwork,” he said.
In the final months of his life, Warren Canova asked Nick to promise to share the collection with people.
Nick said now, “I did make that promise to him, and then with my brother’s help and with NFA’s help, we are about to make a reality.”
Life took over
As for the fact that his father didn’t continue creating art as an adult, Nick Canova said that after Warren Canova came back from the Marines, he married and they had children right away.
“I think life just took over and he was providing for his family and the opportunity to create never really presented itself to him,” Nick Canova said.
But his sons hoped he might rediscover that creative side later on. Nick Canova, who became an art teacher, bought his father art supplies to encourage him to get back to art. He didn’t, though, until Gualtieri told him he should try. The result is in the exhibition; it’s inspired by a Saturday Evening Post cover, an image of a jester playing a lute and singing. It ended up being the only piece Canova did as an adult.
“Our father was really a very talented artist, and it is too bad he never really pursued it throughout his life,” Nick Canova said.
Themes and variations
Bob Canova said the collection boasts art that was made from the 1930s to a 2010/2012 time frame.
“It’s so eclectic,” he said. It covers a lot of the different styles that Joe did over the years. You’ve got about 80 years of Joe Gualtieri’s life that he drew and painted.”
Rugh said that the pieces in the exhibition represent the most recognizable themes from Gualtieri’s life as an artist.
“He painted a lot of series and replicated a lot of different themes throughout his life. Some of those would be the girl skipping rope – there’s two big ones in here. He would create a lot of conceptual and abstract landscapes. Tablescapes were very notable for him. And he really loved experimenting with perspective, with sort of a constrained perspective,” Rugh said.
In one painting, for instance, a tabletop looks as though it’s been flipped on its side, facing the viewer. A napkin and a candle seem like they might slide right off the edge.
One of Gualtieri’s earliest pieces exudes a post-impressionism aura, reflecting what a lot of American artists were doing at the time. But the perspective is what’s so unusual. The canvas is almost entirely taken up by the lavender field Gualtieri painted, but across a very thin strip at the top of the canvas are a tiny farmhouse and trees.
Rugh said that Gualtieri started out painting in what might be called more traditionally — the kind of post-impressionism and early expressionism that was very popular in the pre- and post-World War II era. After the war, though, Gualtieri began creating more conceptual pieces and was on a more modernist track.
Portraits and photos
Featured in “Joseph Gualtieri: The Artistry of Friendship” is a portrait of Canova that Gualtieri did late in their lives; the exhibition showcases the oil painting as well as a couple of drawings he did first as studies. Gualtieri was 94 or 95 years old at the time, and he died at age 99, so this is believed to be the last portrait he painted.
The exhibition also boasts photographs of the two men. One black-and-white image focuses on Gualtieri teaching a class in his painting studio upstairs in the Slater Museum in the 1950s, and Canova was a student. A color picture shows them both decades later.
Some items found a way into the exhibition unexpectedly. NFA bestows Newton Perkins Medals to students for achieving excellence in certain subjects. Gulatieri’s somehow ended up on eBay. Nick Canova was on eBay and just happened to search Gualtieri’s name. He saw the medal and bought it.
The power of art
Right said that an overarching message in the exhibition is that art has the power to create beautiful friendships between people.
“It’s a form of communication that can inspire people, just like it inspired Warren. He looked up to Joe as a mentor, as a teacher and became enamored with his artwork. It’s a story of friendship, and it’s a story of how art can create strong relationships between people,” Rugh said.
“There are some other ancillary lessons and themes that are explored, too, like Warren Canova was a talented man (but) he didn’t practice art when he was an adult. Yet one could only imagine what he could have created, what he could have done if he had decided to tap into that a little bit more. But it was a nontraditional field for men to get into. Nevertheless, it’s a story that I think can inspire people to look inward a bit and to try to harness and tap into that creative side because it’s intrinsically pleasing and it really can help yourself grow.”
This is also a uniquely NFA story. It speaks to the legacy of art excellence at the school, Rugh said it shows that NFA “can turn out artists that can now be found in museum collections across the country, which is exactly the legacy Joe Gualtieri leaves us. Joe Gualtieri was a working class, working man’s artist. He was part of the WPA way back when — he was a registered artist with the WPA programs — and he appeals a lot to that blue-collar, working-class artist who was so passionate and talented that his career speaks for itself.”
Nick Canova said that, in addition, visitors can get a new appreciation for the fact that everyone can collect things of beauty in their lives. He hopes, too, that the idea of stewardship makes an impression.
“We need to take care of things that live beyond us so that people who come after us can enjoy them too,” he said.
What: “Joseph Gualtieri: The Artistry of Friendship”
Where: Slater Memorial Museum, 108 Crescent St., Norwich
When: Through Jan. 5; 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon., Wed.-Sat. (closed Sun. and Tues.)
Admission: $10 for people over the age of 12, $8 for kids under 12
Contact: (860) 425-5563, Slatermuseum.org
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