Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Letterio Calapai: A personal narrative written by his former studio assistant Frank Vioski

Letterio Calapai
I walked into Letterio Calapai's workshop in 1978.  I had been working on the North Shore as a tradesman for quite some time and had been interested in the beautiful work displayed in the windows of his workshop/gallery on Tudor Court in Glencoe.  I stopped in the gallery one day.

"Would you teach me the art of etching?" I asked.

"Well, I've retired from teaching so that I can devote more time to my work.  But, I would like to see what you are doing.  Could you bring some of your work by?"

I did bring a portfolio of my work.

"Your work would lend itself very well to etching.  I can agree to see you every Wednesday morning from 9:00 to 11:00 if that is ok with you.  Please bring $15."

That was how our relationship began.  After awhile the $15 was dropped and I began to spend much more time with Mr. Calapai than just Wednesday mornings.

Letterio Calapai
He was the very essence of what I thought (and still think) an artist should be.  Diligence and hard work marked Calapai.  Every day he was at his shop from 9:00 to 5:00 except Sundays.  Then he would work in a small studio he had prepared in the extra bedroom of his Wilmette apartment where he lived with his wife Jean, a retired high school English and French teacher.  Jean was also an accomplished pianist and they had squeezed a baby grand piano in the living room of their apartment.

Frank Vioski
Mr. Calapai did teach me much more than etching.  All aspects of intaglio printmaking as well as wood block engraving were taught and executed in that little studio.  We worked on plates that Mr. Calapai had made while teaching but had never had the time to complete in an edition.  We were always preparing for an art show or doing a demonstration for one group or another on the North Shore.  One summer, Mr. Calapai went to Africa on a safari with a group of medical professionals as the group artist.  We worked very hard on the plates he had prepared on his journey.  Another time he went to the Vatican in Italy for a showing of his work and to honor him.  Everything was in Italian and he worked hard brushing up on the language.

Tammy Vioski and Letterio Calapai
But with Mr. Calapai, it was not all work.  When he learned that I was to get married in 1987, he insisted on talking to my bride-to-be concerning the pros and cons of being married to an artist.  He grew to love my wife Tammy very much and would often draw her.  He loved to cook and would come to our home and have the best time preparing one of his dishes for us to savor. 

Letterio Calapai
Every year Mr. Calapai would close the studio for three months to summer out in Maine.  This he had been doing with Jean for 26 years.  They had a large old home set atop a hill in Stonington on Deer Isle, a small island accessible by bridge.  Below the hill was another building that Mr. Calapai had turned into a studio.  "Why don't you and Tammy come and visit us in Maine?" he asked me shortly after we were married. 

Letterio Calapai and Frank Vioski
And we did.  We ate lobster, went clam and mussel hunting when the tide was out, sat atop the hill and sketched the bay and in the evenings after one of Leo's great dinners, Jean would play the piano or we would just sit and enjoy ourselves with good conversation.  "You know Frank, Jean and I never had any children of our own and we feel as if you and Tammy are like our children."  What do you say to something like that from someone you love very much? 

I was beginning to see what the life on an artist might look like.  A true genuine artist....and a true genuine friend.

Letterio Calapai and Frank Vioski
By 1992 we had completed a large body of Mr. Calapai's work, both past and present and we were delighted with our efforts.  But Mr. Calapai, now 90 years old, was tiring more easily.  When he was honored at the Glencoe Public Library for his life's work Tammy and I would be on either side of him to steady him.  Our days in the studio would be shortened.  Some days he just had to sit while I did most of the plate preparation.  Then came the time when he could not work in the studio at all.

Letterio Calapai in his studio
By 1993 Mr. Calapai was forced to close the studio.  He could not come to work anymore as his health had deteriorated due to bone cancer.  He was forced to spend his time in bed in his Wilmette apartment while Jean took care of him.  We sold the presses, arranged for a reputable gallery out east to handle his work and started to clean out years of accumulated work, plates, boxes of correspondence as well as the tools, inks, and art paper of the trade.

"What do you want me to do with all of this Mr. Calapai?" I had been chosen to pack up the shop.

"If you can use any of this, I would like you to take it home."

By March of 1993 we knew that Mr. Calapai's time was growing short.  "Frank, I don't have time for this.  I have too much work to do."  And he did.  The last project he did was a wood engraving he created while bedridden.  He asked me to print it.

Vladimir Leyetchkiss
 On March 28, 1993 we celebrated Mr. Calapai's 91st birthday.  Jean had lobster flown in from Maine, had the baby grand meticulously tuned and had plenty of champagne on board.  Mr. Calapai had done a very beautiful wood engraving from the musical piece "The Erlking" and it had grace the record album cover of the concert pianist Vladimir Leyetchkiss.  He was kind enough to fly in from New York to play for Leo's birthday.

Leo was upstairs in his bed as he couldn't walk anymore.  He was sitting up in his bed to listen to the music.  Downstairs, Jean, Dr. Arthur DeKovits and his wife and Tammy and I made up the rest of the party.  Dr. DeKovits was an avid collector of Mr. Calapai's work and was a close friend often vising us at the studio.

Watching a concert pianist up close is an amazing privilege and after two hours of beautiful music, friends, and excellent food it was over - except for the memory.  Everyone left except Tammy and I to help Jean clean up.  Then the hospice nurse came to the top of the stairs and asked us to come up as "it was time."

Frank Vioski
Letterio Calapai March 1993

We did go up - Jean, Tammy and I.  Mr. Calapai was laying in his bed very tired and weak.  He had enjoyed the concert very much.  He told Jean he loved her very much and she told him the same, then he closed his eyes and was gone.

Letterio Calapai and Frank Vioski

Today, Mr. Calapai still lives on - in his work which we celebrate and enjoy and in the harts of those of us who were privileged to know and love him so.  My hope is that this will enable you to know the artist better....and the relationship I had with him.

Frank Vioski

Letterio Calapai & Friends: A Look Back will be at the Robert T. Wright Community Gallery of Art from July 8 through August 12, 2011.
Gallery Summer Hours:
July 8 - 29
Monday - Thursday 8 am - 9 pm
Friday 8 am - 4:30 pm
Closed Weekends
August 1 - 12
Monday - Friday 8 am - 4:30 pm
Closed Weekends

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