During the Coronavirus pandemic, Art Spiel is reaching out to artists to learn how they are coping.
Can we ever really know another person? I ask myself that frequently when thinking of the great Vito Desalvo. Though I have known Vito for nearly 60 years, he is still an enigma to me. A huge fan of his work, I tentatively approached Desalvo about this interview. He demanded a carton of cigarettes in return for sharing his thoughts. I then turned to his friend and colleague Stan Klein who graciously agreed to approach the inscrutable Desalvo on my behalf. The following is the result.
Vito was originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and went through art training at Carnegie Mellon University. He moved to Chicago in the late 1970’s. Vito then moved to Maine for ten years starting in 1998. He returned and has been creating artwork in Chicago ever since. In his previous artistic working environments, he has exhibited with various museums and galleries. While he still has somewhat friendly relations with the local gallery world, he has presently chosen to go on in his own path.
His current work, International People in the Know, is his reflection on interpersonal relations in today’s world. He has chosen both fictitious faces as well as actual faces of real people in his life. The backgrounds suggest no clue as to place, identity or nature of the conversation. The artist only offers the finality of the implied statement. In some of the faces is a lingering hint of relating the knowing implication of their comments. Others possess only a sense of innocent use of common use phrases. Vito has made comments related to these pieces that all serious conversations eventually lead to a confirmed answer form of ‘no’.
Vito Desalvo continues to live in Chicago and still speaks to people. Most have vague positive comments to say about him. This interview was conducted by Stan Klein.
SK: How are you coping?
VD: I had to conduct this interview through his closed studio door. Friends for over forty years and he thinks I’m going to infect him with something now.
“I’m fine. Two cartons of smokes and a case of beer on the back porch. Social distancing? I invented it. Give me a break. They said an early sign of this bug was lack of taste and smell. Well I never had either so I must be immune to it. The one thing I have now is a lack of patience. Cure that.”
I can testify to the fact that that most of the time Vito lacks most social skills and an absence to acquire them, so I would say he is pretty much the same as usual. He has stopped going to the local saloon when they stopped smoking on the premises. At one point before that they would lock the door and allow smoking but since that he is mostly grabs take out for things considered food of some sort. As I said not much has changed.
SK: Has your routine changed?
VD: “Stan, look you have known me for over forty years. i am as constant as the morning star. People have changed me over the years I suppose. Clearly I listen to them for my work but I guess I can see the facets of what they are dealing with. But I am a listener and observer, then I chronicle my thoughts about the crap i witness. Unless the earth falls off its axis or they out law gravity I will be here watching it all. I did a drawing years ago about how I only needed an outlet (electrical) and a window. Now. I might add a couple of beers and a pack of cigs to that piece. We good here now.“
SK: Can you describe some of your feelings about all of this?
VD: “What? Feelings? Let me turn the tunes down for a second.”
Vito has a turntable in his studio I can usually gauge his mood by the record selection. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was blaring a few moments before not a sign of a relaxed Vito.
“You want to know my feelings about all this crap going on? Let me give this a thought. First of all I generally don’t like to ‘visit and chat’ with people. It is all so much noise to sit through. I generally view the room and try to mentally score the music of their chatter. I will miss it, I suppose but this is just means more time to work on my drawings. Last night I wandered out on the street, in the middle of the road, at three a.m., nothing, so quiet. A dead city. Sort of thought at any minute a car would turn sharply on to the street and dump a body. I must admit that I can’t tell if the air is cleaner but the tobacco does seem taste fresher outside now.”
SK: What matters most right now?
VD: “Leo and you have told me of folks who have gotten sick from this. Now that pisses me off. Getting sick or dying from real stuff is one thing. That happens. Car wrecks, heart attacks, family turning on you. You understand that stuff. This is like a plague.”
He paused for a moment. Leaning against the door I heard him talking quietly to himself.
“Yeah I think there is an immense wave of locusts somewhere out there going on now. Stan, can there be more than one plague going on at once? Must be against the rules. I will miss my friends, even though we would mostly just sit together, listen to some tunes, have a couple of drinks and say nothing for hours at a time every so often. A lot gets talked about in silence. I guess that is what I miss most now. Thinking they might get sick and be gone. Just like that. “
SK: Any thoughts about the road ahead?
VD: “Hunker down. Get the things you need to survive with. Be a damn reptile. I can draw forever. I fear for those who depend on life’s circuses to entertain them. No restaurants, movies, sports, for them this is like a trial run of being in a nursing home. Can’t go anywhere. Same bland homemade food every night, people call with nothing to say. Now that’s tough sledding for someone not prepared for life’s monotony. Hopefully they will find new discoveries in themselves. Passions never before realized. Something to make them more interesting people. A sort of wake up call. They can turn and make their life a more enriching book. Empathy, thought about others, something more faceted. Frankly to depend on others to amuse your interests in life, is a rather short path. Become a creator not a viewer.”
With that the sound of footsteps followed by the voice of his heart, Lady Day, singing softly in his studio.