An Interview With Francesco Agresti
(As seen on Jason B Kohl's website)
Francesco Agresti is an abstract painter, teacher of fine arts and a generous donor to my Kickstarter campaign in the fall. I recently sat down with him to discuss his work and his life.
Filmmakers can learn from the experience of artists in other fields. We all go through the same difficulties and resistance. My favorite quote from our interview reflects this: at one point he referenced an old italian saying:
An artist will never see money and will lose their sight.
Francesco is one of many who overcame personal and financial obstacles in the daily pursuit of his craft.
Jason Kohl (JK): I was hoping you could start by telling me a bit about your childhood, where you grew up, what your parents did.
Francesco Agresti (FA): I was born and grew up in Itri, Italy and my father owned an olive grove which he took care of and my mother was a seamstress. Then we immigrated to the Bronx in 1956. I had just finished 2nd grade.
JK: How did you adapt to your new world?
FA: Well, actually my brother and i were pretty excited although we didnt speak the language. We started out by playing in the street with other kids who lured us out. we were hiding behind the storm door but the kids coaxed us out to play. the streets became important right away.
JK: When did you decide you wanted to become a painter? Did you draw as a child?
FA: Yes, I drew all the time as a child to the point that i got into trouble in grammar school because I was drawing in the margins of my books. We had an older lady, Miss Dunn, about 80 who every Friday afternoon would come into the school to give us a drawing lesson. She would give us beautiful classical art postcards with Vermeer and other artists work on them. And then, when the Beatles came out I started doing their portraits in my notebook and the girls all loved that. Then I started doing tatoos on the boys arms (in grammar school). Always pen, paper, crayons but then other people started to get interested in what I was drawing.
JK: Did you know at that point that you wanted to be an artist? Did you know that there were careers like that?
FA: No. absolutely not. I just did it for me, I enjoyed it. Then I stumbled into the art section of the local library and found all these books about the artists on the postcards and got real excited about that. So I went to the 5 and 10 store and found a water color set and paper and I made a painting for my mother. She still has it. It has red sky, blue deer and a black and white horse. Rather modern in some way. I was about 15 or 16 at the time.
JK: What did you think you were going to do?
FA: I knew I was going to go to college, the first one in my family. It was a public university and was free so I could afford to go. The first two years I majored in literature and then I met a friend in the library with an art book. Up to that point I didnt know you could study art and drawing at this level. What got me was she was taking classes in this with grades and professors.
She told me about the art department and I walked over there that day and there was a lot of activity, painters, etc. I found the head of the department and that summer I took 3 classes. My parents were thinking I would study something worthwhile like medicine or engineering. They just shrugged when they found out I wanted to study art. They were afraid there is a saying in Italy that says An artist will never see money and will lose their sight.
JK: Did that dissuade you for a while?
FA: No. I remember getting a copy of a Vermeer painting. I took it to where I painted in the basement. My next door neighbor happened to see it. My parents never paid much attention to what I was doing. The neighbor said Thats a nice painting and my mother said to her, You like it, you take it. I was shocked she would give it away but what could I do. Later the neighbor brought back $20 for me and I though that was pretty cool. Then when I started going to museums like the MET I saw a painting I had copied hanging there and I couldnt believe how different it was from the ones I saw in books. I saw how thick the paint was, the accumulated paint. I thought, now this I can do! That book stuff I couldnt do. The surface has always been important to me.
JK: What did you do after you graduated?
FA: I got my bachelor in FIne Arts and my Masters in Fine Arts. The Chairman of the Art Department liked my stuff. He said now Francesco you can teach for us. This sort of terrified me, I ran away from it and couldnt imagine I could stand in front of all those people and teach. I didnt come around to teaching until much later.
I went back to Italy after two nervous breakdowns. I had lost my relationships, there was no one in the united States who could help me and I had no family support. I just wanted to die. So then, back in Italy I wanted to learn the language so I started teaching myself [Italian]. I started working in the olive grove and slowly started getting sane again. I met an American soldier, the sixth fleet was stationed in Gaeta. And he said the Americans go to this place to learn English so why dont you go there to learn Italian so I went to school to learn Italian. I drew a lot, and one day my book fell from my hands when I was walking with a friend and all these drawing fell out.
She was shocked, she didnt know I could draw, let alone that I had my Masters in Fine Arts. She said, You have your Masters, then you can teach for us! She represented LaVerne University in Naples and so I was interviewed by an American girl who went to Fordham U in the Bronx and she hired me and I started teaching in Naples. That is how I got back to a normal member of society and I was getting paid for it.
Before I went to Italy I was picked up by a Gallery on Madison Ave and the curator liked my work. She bought one of my pieces and began to represent me. I was sending her drawings from Italy so I still had some validation from the art world but I didnt know what to do with it. I had some shows in Italy and a gallery represent me and my art was changing. Then I came back to the US and taught at the University in North Carolina.
JK: So rediscovering your roots made you able to face your calling.
FA: Yes, rediscovering my roots was very interesting it gave me answers. It was something that had to be taken care of. Then I had to come back and take care of my life in America and was able to teach here. But I always continued to read and to paint. I went to Hunter College which is now the City University of New York and began to teach.
JK: How did you continue to pursue painting after you became a teacher?
FA: That was very difficult because I was teaching 4 classes and you never stop. Lots of preparation. I would take my students to all the museums. I was holding on to only 2 to 3 paintings and I wasnt selling, I didnt have enough to sell and I didnt have a gallery. I started to do small works on paper like wash, water color, pencil. Then I had a show with this gallery in Germany right outside of Kassel. I was always experimenting with paper because I could get my ideas down right away.
JK: Did you develop a schedule to allow you to fulfill both responsibilities?
FA: I paint full time now. I only teach one class at the local art center to get out into the community. I like to get up early in the morning and start about 7.30 am when it is quiet and the light is good. I stay there till noon and then take a break, a nap (reposo in Italian) and then I go back into the studio till about 6 or so. This is 7 days a week and it is not enough. I am physically painting a good amount of that time.
JK: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become an artist?
FA: It was difficult for me but I would say You have to be a fool for something or you are dead meat. I tell my students, paint anything and everything you can even if you dont feel like it. Read lots of books, look at lots of paintings. I would tell my students to go to school, even get a PHD if you can. Try to hang out with people who have the same passion. You do make yourself vulnerable when you say you are an artist. You should be painting wherever you are.
JK: And if you could sum up what painting has taught you about life in one sentence?
FA: God have mercy. To me, it is always about that maybe painting is a metaphor for life. You take something physical like paint and turn it into something spiritual. There is a fragility about things, because when you are painting you dont know what it is you will end up with. Otherwise it is an illustration. Maybe it is not knowing how it will turn out that makes it so elusive, like life.