In the magazine world, there are a lot of aborted articles. In 2011, on a rainy September afternoon, I went to artist and poet Edward Boccia’s house to interview him for an article that would never make it into St. Louis Magazine. Not sure what to do with the interview, I transcribed it and waited, since he’d told me SLU planned to do a retrospective in 2013. Unfortunately, Boccia died in September 2012. He was 91.
Now, The Saint Louis University Museum of Art and the Sheldon Art Galleries are both hosting exhibits featuring Boccia. SLUMA’s exhibit, “Edward Boccia: Figurative Expressionist” opens today and runs through March 3. It includes many of the award-winning artist’s expressionist triptychs and paintings like his “Enigma Portrait.”
For “Edward Boccia: Early Work” (February 22–May 18), the Sheldon Art Galleries assembled 40 drawings and paintings that Boccia made between the ages of 20 and 48. Born in 1921, Boccia’s artistic talent was recognized at a young age. He studied at the Pratt Institute in New York before serving in World War II. When he returned to New York, he studied at Columbia where he got his bachelor and masters degrees. He became dean of the Columbus Art School in Ohio while finishing his masters. In 1951, he came to St. Louis with his wife Madeline, where he worked at Washington University’s School of Fine Arts until his retirement in 1986.
St. Louis Magazine: How did you know you wanted to be an artist?
Edward Boccia: Well, when I was at school as a kid, arithmetic was my downfall. It’s too abstract. But I loved to write and, of course, I loved to draw and paint. I was the kind of kid that knew I was an artist from the day I was born. I knew what I was going to do, and I was very popular in grade school. The teachers would have me go to their different classrooms now and then and draw stuff on the blackboards. So I was just an artist from age 3.
SLM: And you’re a published poet. Did you start that early on, too?
EB: I remember one substitute English teacher in high school read a poem of his, and I was so startled by it. That was the first big influence. It only took a couple of minutes for this young man to recite his poem, and my head just flipped over. But I didn’t really take it seriously, because I was always the painter. [But while teaching at Wash U] one of the students asked me if I write poetry, and I said no. And she said, “Well, you sound like a poet when you give us crits. Maybe you should write poetry.” I let that go for a couple years. Then it finally hit me: “Maybe I ought to try it.” So there was this guy… he’s poet laureate of Missouri [now], Dave Clewell. While I was teaching, I signed up for a poetry thing at night in arts and sciences. He was a terrific teacher and, even though he was still a student, he just had it, you know. And he got me going.
SLM: Your work often uses religious imagery. Were raised in a very religious home?
EB: No. My father was born in Italy, so I’m of Italian descent. My mother was born here, but her parents were born in Italy. So it was Catholicism. And, as usual, as a kid they make you go to Sunday school and go to Mass. I didn’t realize it, but it had a profound effect on me, because I’m not, unfortunately, a strong churchgoer. I should be. I once did a big mural at Wash U in the Student Catholic Center.
SLM: It was pretty controversial.
EB: Yeah, some of the old folks in the congregation wanted to paint it out. One rich guy—I don’t know who he was. A priest told me this—He told the priest, “I’ll give you a million dollars if you paint that out.” But I heard that the students and a lot of people rebelled and wrote letters and saved it.
SLM: Was that your first mural?
EB: Yeah, well I’ll tell you. It really wasn’t because when I was a kid my parents were all for me being an artist.
SLM: That’s good.
EB: Well you see that’s the Italian background. The arts are considered spiritual in Italy. I was a teenager, and I asked my mother—we lived in a big house in Newark New Jersey where the walls were kind of tall—if I could paint a mural on the wall behind my bed. And she said “Oh, sure Ed, go right ahead.”
SLM: What did you paint?
EB: [Laughs] I painted four huge male figures, and I used house paint, just black and white and gray. I had big brushes and pails. I think back, and can you imagine my mother saying, “Go ahead?” That’s how they were. My parents thought it was terrific. My father sold the house years ago, and I assume the new people papered over it, but it would be nice if I could go back there and have them take down the paper. I’d like to see how it looked.
SLM: What did your parents do?
EB: My father was a salesman. He came to this country [when] he was really very young. He told me and my brother that he only had 18 cents in his pocket. But in downtown New York he got acquainted with somebody who knew somebody and got him in as a salesman of jewelry. He was just an immigrant speaking with an accent, but all of his customers were Italians [Laughs].
SLM: You have a brother?
EB: He died about 10 years ago… The war came, and we both went into the war as soldiers. He was badly wounded in one of the battles against the Japanese. He recovered, but then he developed a disease called Pagets. They have a cure today, but they didn’t then, and he spent the last 8 years of his life in bed.
SLM: What did you do in the war?
EB: I went into a camouflage battalion. [The U.S. Army] wanted art student graduates, because we would know something about seeing. [Laughs.] It didn’t really work out. One of the camouflage methods everybody used was to put this big net with garlands woven in [it] on the tank. Since we were artists, we would know how to color the garlands. We did that for about a year—training in the states. Then somebody manufactured rubber dummies of those big Sherman tanks. It fit in a bag. We’d pull it out and blow it up with a compressor. It looked real as hell.
SLM: Did you see much action?
EB: One [battle] I remember was the Rhine crossing. We put up all our stuff for hundreds of miles in front of the Rhine, south a bit from where the real troops were going to cross, hoping that the Germans would aim at us. It worked, and we got a citation. We were told we spent three years in the army just for that one week.
SLM: What did you do when you left the army?
EB: Well, I went back to Brooklyn, because all my friends were there. I was totally confused.
EB: I found civilian life very difficult, because you’re free. Well, it’s hard to be free. You gotta work! After three years in the army, you get to be completely dopey. You don’t have to think. They don’t want you think. They don’t allow you to think! And so the adjustment was terrible. And then some of my friends said, “Oh, President Roosevelt made going to college free.”
SLM: The G.I. Bill.
EB: Yeah, the GI Bill. And so I said, well OK, I’ll go to school because maybe I’ll learn something, and maybe I can teach art, so I won’t starve painting. Well, that was the best decision I ever made. I transferred [from Pratt Institute] to Columbia [University] it was a real school. Pratt was strictly an art school. You just got a certificate, but that’s where I really learned art and the grammar of drawing and painting. It was a great school. When I was about to graduate [from Columbia] I wrote letters out to other faculty members that I’d had before the war, and this one teacher wrote to me and he said, “Don’t take any job because I want to talk to you about a job in Columbus, Ohio.” The job was dean of a private arts school.
SLM: You were a young dean!
EB: Yeah, I say I started at the top. I started as a dean and it was terrible because there wasn’t enough time to paint. So, I decided I had to get out of there. I wrote letters to various universities looking for another teaching job, and I got a letter back from the dean of the Art School at Wash U [who was looking for an] assistant dean. A step down. So I got the assistant deanship here at Wash U, now that was a little better, but after three years of that I couldn’t stand it because I was forcing myself into a Sunday painter. I begged the dean then to get me out of there, and just put me on the faculty. The heck with all this deanship stuff. He said “But Ed! Ed! You’re going to take a reduction in salary.” As if I cared, you know. [Laughs.] He put me on the faculty. I taught three days a week. That gave me four days to paint, and I swear for 35 years I’ve painted four days a week.
SLM: What did you think of St. Louis when you got here?
EB: Well, I was impressed because New Yorkers—they don’t think they’re provincial, but anything west of Newark, and the hell with it. For them, it’s cowboy and Indians. They’re so dumb. One guy told me one night in New York, a native New Yorker, he said “Oh were do you come from?” and I told him St. Louis. He said, “Oh you’ve come up for air, right?” I could have punched him in the eye.
SLM: Before you went to Pratt, I read that you did the Art Students League of New York?
EB: When I was a kid in high school, I would take the train into New York City to the Art Students League. [I’d] come in and paint from the model and the teachers would come in now and then. I worked for a long time on this nude. I’m a kid you know, 17, I guess. And the painter professor saw it. He was a pretty well-known painter in those days. I had my palette with blobs of color and stuff mixed up, and I had a [bigger] brush among other ones. He took the big brush and picked up all the colors and squished them all together. He went up to my nude that I’d sweat over trying to reproduce a human being, which is nuts and he [makes large painting gestures]. “Oh,” I said, “That’s what painting’s about.” What do I think that I’m God trying to make another human being?
SLM: Do you still paint a lot?
EB: I try my best. You know, as you get older your body changes and now I realize that so much of what we do is not only from reasoning, using the mind and knowledge, but it’s the physiology. It’s the change in the body. It changes the rhythm of the body including the mind, which affects the way you paint.