bemusing musings of a bewildered brush-wielder

ralph vicinanza

I am very sad tonight.  I won’t hide the fact from you that, tonight, I have no resolution for my sadness, no whimsical climax to my writings that will rescue the reader from melancholy.  A good friend of mine just died, and I am so sad.

A few years ago, I had my paintings hanging in a Gatsby mansion on the Gold Coast of Long Island.  There was some event going on, and as the endless crowds were guided through the halls of this monstrous Mill Neck castle, some of the crowd stopped to admire my paintings.  Most kept moving.  I lingered in the vicinity, hoping that somebody would be interested.

I gave up waiting for a bite, and went wandering elsewhere.  Looking over my shoulder, I saw a man walking towards me with purpose.  “Kevin McEvoy?”  he asked.  I said yes.  He energetically said “That painting.  That painting of the Sicilian man, the dark features… did you do that?”  I was excited to hear his brimming enthusiasm.  I replied “The painting of Roberto… yes, I did.”  “Well, Kevin, I would like to buy that painting.”  I hesitated.  My wife had written down some pretty high numbers for the paintings, which I felt were a bit overzealous… but I told him the price.  “Sold.  Here is a check.  Ralph Vicinanza is my name.  You’ve obviously trained in the tradition of Sargent, right?  Don’t answer, visit me and tell me all about you and this painting.  Please bring the painting to my home as soon as possible.  There is something going on in that painting- the triangle of white highlights.  Brilliant work.  I’m very pleased.”

Roberto, collection of Ralph Vicinanza

I was stunned.  The show ended a few weeks later, and I brought the painting over Ralph’s home.  It was difficult to find, as his home was a mansion buried in a forest that was spotted with other mansions.  This was the Gold Coast that I had previously spackled, though now I was reentering this orbit as an artist.

The grounds of Ralph’s home were stunning.  The layout of the land and home were artistic and inspired- from the towering dark trees, to the winding paths that lured one forward… I knew that his grounds must have been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the creator of Central Park.  The house was a charming, brick structure, with a faded white wash over the red stone.  The roof was a mossy slate.  I couldn’t recall ever seeing a more cohesive residence in my life, where the architecture and the land coexisted and intermingled more naturally.

With trepidation, I rang the bell.  “Come in, come in, you’re just in time.  Can I get you something to drink?”  He had a few friends over, and invited me to join them.  His home was littered with art, from Picasso to etchings of Charles Dickens, from Baroque bronzes to abstract expressive canvases.  Ralph was a buoyant entertainer, a conversationalist, a wit that was teeming with energy.  I sat down, and he began to interrogate me.  Where… who… how… when… he wanted to know everything about my training, about my background, about my life as an artist.  My glass was continually refilled with some excellent wine whose name I couldn’t pronounce. 

That night, I had a hard time figuring out where Ralph had come from, what he did for a living.  He never talked about money, never dropped names, never talked about status, never talked about cars or careers or all of the things that Goldcoastians might wax loquacious about.  He talked about life, about traveling, about literature, art, geometry, nanophysics, Frederick Law Olmstead, Joseph Campbell… and above all, mythology.  But eventually, I found out that Ralph was Steven King’s agent, along with dozens of other prominent authors.  And he was a movie producer.  And a tv film producer, etc.  A google search shows that he’s somehow done work with the Dalai Lama.  But Ralph would never talk about these things, I had to glean these facts from his friends.

Over the past few years, we regularly went out for dinner, exchanged emails, met up for a drink near his building in New York City.  He was always so giving towards Margaret and me, buying paintings regularly.  He knew he was enabling me to pursue my career as an artist.  Without his support, I don’t know how those years would have gone.

Josiah, collection of Ralph Vicinanza

 When I returned with a body of work from either Florence or my studio in New York, he invited me to bring over my works.  He was polite until invited to be honest.  Then, he was a merciless critic- bestowing unrestrained praise on one work, and ruthlessly rejecting other pieces.  Through the years, he maintained one warning above all others: “Kevin, don’t ever become a bar mitzvah/dedication/baptism/christening/50th anniversary/CEO painter.”  He would always say to me “If you let these people have their way with you, they will have you painting their botoxed faces for the rest of your life.”  He urged me to paint true life, the human spirit, the marriage of the real world with the fantasy of human imagination.  He really was an agent for Steven King.

In one instance, I saw him fill with rage.  I was doing a portrait commission for a couple in Muttontown.  There was no end to their money, and no beginning to their knowledge of art.  Or life.  Upon finishing a nine foot wide double portrait of their children, they mandated that I “Paint the background with the huge figure of the Eiffel Tower.  Make it look like the children are sitting on the lawn beside the tower.  You know, that romantic tower in France.”  I disagreed.  They threatened me.  I was livid,  I was enraged.  I nearly tore the painting to shreds.  I stopped by Ralph’s home, and upon hearing the story he grew so angry that he nearly couldn’t talk.  He was half laughing, half yelling.  He told me to hold my ground, and to never give into their idiocy.  I didn’t give in.  I won.  There’s no Eiffel Tower there, today, thanks to Ralph’s reassuring rage and support.  The painting finished, the couple were upset with the lack of the Eiffel, but very pleased with everything else.

He sent me a text a week ago, saying he was sorry that he hadn’t been in touch.  Business had been overwhelmingly consuming, and it was nothing against me, he was just swamped.  He hoped I understood.  I texted him back, letting him know that everything was fine, and that it would be nice to meet up and talk at some point in the near future.

Today, someone called and gave me the news.  Ralph had died of a brain aneurysm on Saturday.

This story ends abruptly, because quite honestly, it ended abruptly.

A year ago in Madrid, I stood in front of Picasso’s La Guernica.  I was utterly moved by the pain of this piece, a testament to Spain’s grief over the death in war.  Something that particularly seized me was the tongue of the mother crying over her dead child- that sharp tongue, a dagger piercing the empty space…  and so it finds its way into my painting, as a broken wine glass, piercing the empty space.  After I got the news that Ralph had died, I returned to my studio.  I began a painting in a fury.  Though only a detail is shown at the beginning of this blog, the canvas depicts a violin that had been silenced, a book that had been thrown facedown, a glass that had been shattered.  This painting somehow depicts, for me, the sense of loss when someone is gone.

And so, If I could conclude this blog, I would say that Ralph was an encourager.  He did nothing but encourage me for the past few years.  Steven King cites Ralph’s friendship as a major influence on numerous works.  I’ve read that Steven King began writing in the boiler room of his home, to drown out the distracting noise of his family.  Though I never heard him praise himself to say it, I would imagine that Ralph was the encouraging voice that Steven King needed to hear back then.  Ralph came alongside others, and with them, created art.

Davide, collection of Ralph Vicinanza

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4 responses

  1. “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4).
    Ralph’s life was a blessing. My condolences.

    September 29, 2010 at 7:41 am

  2. dwg

    Ralph was a close friend of mine. I don’t have anything to add to what you wrote, but have you thought of painting a portrait of him in your style?

    January 4, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    • I don’t know if I can. I am still so sad. As well, I only paint from life- now that he is gone, I can’t paint him. I just don’t know.

      January 4, 2011 at 7:13 pm

      • dwg

        Man, oh man, do I understand. I’m a painter but not a figurative one, so luckily I don’t have to wrangle with the question. He was such an amazing man. It’s been months and I still refer to him in the present tense–I probably always will.

        January 5, 2011 at 6:40 am

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