a couple years ago i bought a small metal rectangle, about 6"x9", that had been enameled in an abstract pattern. the
process of enamel on metal requires ground glass placed on the field and then all heated up to about 1500 degrees in a kiln, where the ground glass changes and fuses with the metal in colors and designs unseen sometimes. the small piece i bought was dated 1963 and signed
Cantini. since the day i bought it, it has bothered me for some reason that i didn't know the artist. finally, yesterday i did a search on
info space and discovered a Virgil Cantini in the city and he had been an artist at
Carnegie tech ( now carnegie mellon)! the phone was listed so, last night around 8:30, i called.
a man answered hello.
"hello", i said," i'm looking to speak with mr. cantini." i've done this alot and i'm never sure what will happen next.
"this IS mr. cantini", mr. cantini said in a native italian accent.
usually, when i hear something like that, my mind races and i start blabbing off about how i found the art and how great it is and blah, blah, blah. but i stopped myself and went slowly, trying not to cause him to slam the phone down or yell at me to leave him alone.
"mr. cantini, if you are virgil cantini, the artist, i have one of your enamels on metal!", i said, feeling like an idiot.
there was silence. i thought he hung up. and then silence. "mr. cantini?", i asked.
"yes, its me, i am here, so you have one of my enamels. of what is it?", he asked.
i described it to him as best i could put into words, not knowing much about process or color or technique.
"yes", he said, "it is probably mine, unless some person signed my name. is it in script, my name?"
i said yes, in script, and tried to describe better what i had that he fashioned.
"yes, yes", he interrupted, " its mine. i did them alot. i'm surprised it is so small. i haven't done small ones , only big ones because that is what the people wanted. so, what do you want with me?"
i hesitated because i thought it odd he would say that and then quickly remembered that , to him, this was a call from the dark
"do you want to sell it back to me? how much did you pay for it?", he asked.
i told him no, i wasn't calling to sell it to him, only to find out a little bit about the man who had made such a beautiful piece of color and metal. and i was glad i had found him.
" so, you found me! and now what?", he said.
i did a fast think. i had to. i said "well, and now i'd like to show you the piece , if you care to see it."
"yes, of course i'd like to see it, tomorrow. at noon. thank you. goodbye.", he said and hung up.
i figured i had better put the phone down. I was glad i'd get to meet the amazing virgil cantini.
tomorrow was today and i was standing outside his rowhouse at noon, knocking on his door. the house was a fantasy of colored wrought iron rooftop structures and plates of glass in the windows of color and light. i had noticed the house before in the oakland section of town but never really thought much about who might live in it. a gramma opened the door slowly.
"yes, hello", she said without an accent, "can i help you?"
"hello, yes you can . i'm...", i started and she cut me off.
"John! you're John. virgil went for a paper, just down there, and you wait. he's coming back now," she said. and i waited on the sidewalk , hoping i didn't see an old guy coming down the street with a paper rolled up like what you smack a
dogs ass with.
a minute later, he appeared out of the sidewalkers, wide and thick as he was tall but strong. his hand was out and grabbing mine.
"hello, and so we meet. and now you know what you wanted to know!", he said almost excitedly.
"did you look in the window, did you see any others?", he asked. and i had. the window was one of those old storefront windows with the baord so you can't see into the house but a place to display things. and he had placed five or six smaller panels and some round enamelled icons there for people to see. mr. cantini seemed much happier in person than on the phone.
"they're great. its good to see more.", i said. and thats when i pulled out the piece i had brought to show him. i lifted it in front of us
, proud like a
doctor lifting a new baby. The abstract lines and colors glowed in the sun
falling all around us, two strangers on a city sidewalk still with art.
stolen", Cantini said. I
looked up at him and could see the feeling in my head on his face.
"It's stolen", he repeated with disgust. " How much did you
pay?", he asked.
I think I yelled. " Whaddyamean its stolen? How do you know its
stolen?", I said as I held onto the merry go round of thought and
do I know?", he stormed in his accent that suddenly sounded mad and hurt.
" How do I know when I created it, I poured the glass with my hands onto
the steel, I pushed the steel into the kiln, I stood five feet away from the
furnace and the maddening heat? What do you want of me? You are a hustler, a
dealer, and now you mock me to my face! What do you bother me with? My own
creations!!" He turned very fast and started up the short steps to the door
of his rowhouse. I had to be smart and quick. " Wait!", I yelled,
which caused people on the other side of the street to notice us. Suddenly, I
felt stupid. Why had I called this man?
wait. You don't have long, though", he said calmly.
don't get mad again, but how do you know its stolen?" I asked again , ready
for an onslaught. Instead, he spoke slowly and softly.
had worked with a steel maker on these panels, smaller panels , a little thicker
than I was used to. All the panels had four little holes in the corners, like
yours, and one larger hole at the top, like yours. I used the panels one whole
summer, I made maybe thrity or forty, not all abstract, some flowers and some
drawings and some just little landscapes. All on those panels like yours. And
when I was done, WQED ( a public television channel) sent some kids up here to
film the work. They wanted something on one of us artists, they said. So they
came up and I shmy owed them
around the house and then we went to my studio. I showed them all I had done,
the small panels and the rest, big panels and all the rest."
came down off the steps, back onto the sidewalk with me. He took the little
abstract from me and felt its surface with his hand. He handed it back.
I left them at the studio and came back here for lunch and then went right back
to the studio. They were finished and packed their stuff up, all kids barely as
old as my kids then. They left and I left. But I went right back as they pulled
off in their van. I wanted to check the kiln, I always check the kiln. And it
was fine. And then I saw the space where these little panels were, like a wound.
Half of them were gone, maybe more than half, maybe most of them." Cantini
started back up the steps to the rowhouse and turned slightly to me.
on", he said as he turned the handle and stepped through the door. " I
want to show you."
gulped a bag of air and cleared the four or five steps in a single bound like
Superman saving a cat in a tree. The whole big front room of the rowhouse was
emptied of any furniture and Cantini was surrounded, overpowered and dwarfed by
his work It was everywhere, big steel enameled panels, small bronze and steel
sculptures , colors and shapes and flowers and drawings everywhere. I wish I
could describe it as I saw it but I can't. For me, stepping inot that rowhouse
was like stepping into a painting, being a small figure in an impressionist
scene of form , color and vision. I could see an old carnival wagon with big
flowing letters saying "The Great Cantini" and me driving, pulling
Cantini's work from town to town.
post is long enough and theres much more I could say. I learned alot about
Cantini as we walked through the room and I listened to him. His work is
everywhere inthe city, from the lobbies of the biggest buildings to boardrooms
to homes and even huge 20 foot by 60 foot panels hung outdoors. He was the
scuplture of my favorite public set of statues, a fountain of water ringed by
ten twelve foot tall cubist people holding hands as the water splashes on
and around them. I had never known. And here he was.
was quiet as I left without my original Virgil Cantini steel enameled panel.
It was right to leave it with him. He said to call
again and we could talk and he'd show me more, maybe go to his small
studio where he keeps most of his work. He doesn't sell anything anymore, tired
of the artworlds demands and pettiness, he says.
don't have my Cantini anymore. I traded it for a dream.