A True Work of Art

Posted on January 12, 2011

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Every Italian has exactly one friend named Angelo.

I met Angelo DeCesare in 1960, in Mrs. Brilli’s kindergarten class at Our Lady of Grace School in the Bronx. If you look at the photo below, Angelo is in the back row, second from the left — the one who’s thinking, “Someday I’m going to enjoy a successful career as a writer and cartoonist, appear in a YouTube video, and be the subject of an online blog!” I’m seated in the front row, third from the right — the one who’s thinking, “Are we having our picture taken today?”

Angelo and I were part of a small group of friends who played stickball in the street, traded baseball cards in the schoolyard, and talked about comic books the way nineteenth-century scholars discussed works of literature, except with a lot more yelling and punching. He and I shared a love for building plastic models. Our favorites were the monsters: Dracula, Wolfman, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. (There were really just three steps involved in putting the models together: painting the individual pieces, waiting twenty-four hours for them to dry completely, and then gluing them together. I don’t know if Angelo had the same weakness, but I could never wait out the required drying time, and my models always ended up all blotchy and sticky and covered with fingerprints. Wolfman looked as though he’d been left in a hot car for a week.)

The class pretty much stayed together from grade to grade, adding and losing a few kids each year. Angelo was the smartest, funniest, and most well-liked. (He promised to give me his 1962 Mickey Mantle card if I said that. Not a big deal for either one of us: he has doubles on the card, and nobody believes anything I say anyway.)Β That fateful day before Christmas break in the fourth grade, when I almost choked to death on a piece of hard candy, Angelo was somewhere in the classroom. He had no idea at the time, but he’d missed his chance to invent what would years later become the Heimlich. In retrospect, it’s just as well. Having to ask, “Does anyone here know how to do the Angelo DeCesare Maneuver?” would have probably caused the loss of countless lives.

I don’t remember when it started, maybe second or third grade, but at an early age Angelo would hold small, informal art workshops in the classroom. On rainy days or right after lunch, a bunch of us would circle our desks around his and he’d teach us to draw a pirate or an astronaut or The Phantom of the Opera. He’d draw a line, then wait as we all drew the same line. Then he’d make an oval for a face, and we’d do the same. And he would continue, patiently taking us one tiny step at a time through this picture he could have drawn by himself in a minute and a half. By the end of the lesson, Angelo would be holding an incredible illustration, something suitable for framing or entering in an art contest. The rest of us would be looking at each other’s pictures, trying to determine if anyone’s even remotely resembled the one Angelo had just done. Mine usually looked as though I’d drawn it blindfolded, and underwater.

But here’s what’s amazing about those art lessons he gave so many years ago. Angelo is still doing pretty much the same thing. He goes into schools all over the New York City area (including our old OLG in the Bronx), and teaches kids how to draw, and helps them to see how much fun writing can be. His book, Flip’s Fantastic Journal, is just one of a series of books and programs that Angelo has created to help students feel more comfortable with writing, reading, art, and math — and to practice social, teamwork, and conflict resolution skills. The remarkable part isn’t that he can pull that off, but that while he’s doing it, the students are having fun.

If you visit Angelo’s website, you’ll see that he’s written and created storyboards for hundreds of Marvel, Harvey, and Archie Comics. In 1997, his book Anthony the Perfect Monster was a winner of the Children’s Choices award. But it’s the encouragement and inspiration he instills into thousands of children that I believe is his greatest accomplishment. He’s one of those exceptional individuals who knew at a stunningly early age what he enjoyed, and what he was supposed to be when he grew up. Not only that, but decades later, he still loves what he does.

When I asked Angelo what he’d like me to include in this post, he replied with the usual nonsense:

“You should mention my early career as a Mae West impersonator, my battle with the Loch Ness Monster, and the time I fell out of the Space Shuttle.”

Which proves that while Angelo is a gifted artist and teacher, he’s also a big fat liar. I know for a fact that his space shuttle mission was canceled after NASA found out about the Mae West thing. I doubt I’ll ever get the baseball card he promised. And I seem to recall that his monster models always looked even better than the pictures on the boxes. Other than that, I’d have to say I lucked out. I’m allowed to have only one friend named Angelo.

And this is the one I got:

 

 

To learn more about Angelo’s books and programs, visit:

http://www.puppetryinpractice.com/neighborhood/
http://www.amazon.com/Anthony-Perfect-Monster-Angelo-Decesare/dp/0679868453


Or email him:
flipandmuzz@rcn.com

 

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Posted in: Friends