Saxonburg art show crosses generations

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As a boy growing up in Italy, Savino Cicconi wanted to be an artist. When he moved with his family to the United States at age 6, he turned to art in the new country where he couldn’t speak the language.

“Back then, they just put you in the back of the classroom and let you figure it out on your own,” said Mr. Cicconi, 66, who now lives in New Kensington.

Because of the language barrier, he often struggled with his studies — except for art.

“I can still remember the smell when I first opened up a 36-pack of crayons and started to draw. It was one class that it didn’t matter if I spoke English, plus I was really good at it,” he said.

Mr. Cicconi remembers when he was about 3 years old that he enjoyed painting the carts his father made in Italy.

“The carts were beautiful and had all sorts of logos on them. One day I decided to paint them on my own. I don’t think my dad was very happy,” he said.

His love of art might be in his genes — Mr. Cicconi’s great uncle was Ferdinando Cicconi, an Italian portrait artist in the 19th century.

Now a retired art teacher from the Plum Borough School District, Mr. Cicconi spent over three decades educating others while also creating his own works of art.

Some of those and his great uncle’s art are featured in the “Cicconi/Cicconi Show: A Two Man Show from 1860 to Present Day,” which runs through Saturday at the Saxonburg Area Artists Cooperative in Saxonburg. 

Mr. Cicconi’s art includes collages, created out of mixed media, that are statements of modern day life, and wooden duck sculptures. Original Fernando Cicconi paintings, which reflect the traditional court painters of that time, will also be on display.

When he was in ninth grade at the former Har-Brack High School in Natrona Heights, his art teacher, Michael Kensik, fueled his passion for art even more.

“He was fantastic. We all loved him,” Mr. Cicconi said.

When Mr. Cicconi was a senior, Mr. Kensik asked him about his future.

“He asked me if I had thought of college and I said, ‘Mr. Kensik, have you seen my grades?’” Mr. Cicconi said.

By his own admission, Mr. Cicconi’s English, math and science grades “left a lot to be desired,” but his graphic arts, arts and history grades were good. Mr. Kensik asked Mr. Cicconi whether his parents would let him go to college if Mr. Kensik helped him get accepted.

“It was during the Vietnam War and I had friends who had already come back in body bags. My dad had been a prisoner of war during World War II and was determined I wasn’t going to war. When I told him I wanted to go to college, he was thrilled,” he said.

Mr. Kensik helped Mr. Cicconi get accepted to Youngstown State University, where he majored in art education. For over three decades, he worked with the Plum Borough School District as an art teacher, also serving as head of the art department.

One of Mr. Cicconi’s students provided the impetus behind his signature collages.

“I was always telling them to re-use materials to create art,” Mr. Cicconi recalled. “One day I was dumping out the remains of paint from a baby  jar that we used to store the paint in and one of my students said, ‘‍Mr. Cicconi, you should do something with that.’”

That “something” became the collages on which Mr. Cicconi added other types of material with the paint to create artworks with contemporary themes.

“When something important happened, I would create a piece,” he said. He created collages about events such as the Iraq War, the Steelers winning and losing Super Bowls, the popes, and President Barack Obama’s election.

It was by chance that Mr. Cicconi was selected to display his art at the Saxonburg Area Artists Cooperative. He had artworks from his great uncle with him when he went to see one of his former teachers, Sam Andrew, one of the organizers at the cooperative.

“I asked him if he wanted to display the paintings and he suggested my art as well,” Mr. Cicconi said.

“This is one of the most unique shows, not only for us, but for any gallery. The comparisons between Fernando and Savino are wonderful – Savino’‍s works are exciting, colorful and modern, while Fernando’s are just splendid,” Mr. Andrew said.

The artworks are not for sale, unlike many of the works typically shown at the gallery, Mr. Andrew said.

The Saxonburg Area Artists Cooperative is at 215 Rear West Main St. Information: 412-260-5779 or the cooperative’s Facebook page.

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:

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