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Charmed Life

Tony Award

Christopher Myers

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 5/28/2003

For more than 35 years, a neatly dressed man sat at an easel at Fawn and High streets in Little Italy, drawing and painting scenes of Baltimore and Maryland. Handsome and dignified, Tony DeSales was a full-fledged Baltimore character, hailed by restaurant patrons and lifelong neighbors, dubbed Little Italy's "ambassador" by journalists and politicians.

During his tenure on the street corner, DeSales turned out hundreds of drawings, mostly postcard-like images of local landmarks, rendered with a ballpoint pen on inexpensive paper, then variously copied and/or hand-tinted.

Over the same years--the last third of the 20th century--DeSales also wrote and published a community newsletter called Piccolo, dabbled in poetry, composed organ music for the Church of St. Leo, and passed out hundreds of self-published, self-addressed postcards that were mailed back to him from all over the world. From 1966 to 1998, his mother, Genevieve, often sat near him on the sidewalk as he worked. DeSales died in 2000 at the age of 59.

Applied to an eccentric public person, the term "character" expresses affection but, at the same time, diminishes the actual person: The character himself is at risk of becoming a scrap of local color, a living stereotype.

Earlier this year, Rita DeSales French rescued her brother's memory from one-dimensionality by publishing, at her own expense, the hefty book Baltimore's Own Little Italy Artist: The Artwork of Tony DeSales. Like DeSales' meticulous renderings of his built environment, the book is a labor of love.

The title is a bit misleading. The 225-page tome, of coffee-table proportions, displays 100 or so reproductions of DeSales' drawings and watercolors, but the accompanying text isn't really about the artwork. Instead, it's about DeSales himself and his subject matter--buildings, monuments, scenery, and sailing ships. As a compilation of local lore, this one belongs on the Baltimore bookshelf alongside Bert Smith's collections of local postcards, Frank Shivers' walking tours, and that hard-to-find, out-of-print collection of Charmed Life essays. The brisk, literate prose accompanying DeSales' drawings--plus dozens of lovely photographs and a few window-screen paintings by Tom Lipka --amounts to a respectable Bawlmer guidebook. French and her co-authors draw on many sources, yet manage to boil the copious material down to its most interesting essentials and gemlike factoids. (For example, do you know the connection between Little Italy's annual St. Anthony's festival and the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904? During the fire, the community prayed to the saint en masse for protection, and--lo!--the flames never crossed Jones Falls. Thankful Little Italy has held the festival ever since.)

DeSales' life story, tersely related here, is a heartbreaker: the tragedy of a man with native talent and a restless spirit who, due to poverty and his own stubborn integrity, never got to develop his gifts fully. As the eldest son of a mentally ill mother and a father who drifted away from the family, he shouldered household responsibilities from an early age. DeSales is quoted as saying "I was born 40 years old to take care of my mother." He also took care of his siblings. His hard-won career as a math teacher was cut short in the early '60s by his decision to care for his mother at home rather than let her languish in a nursing facility.

For the rest of his life he was, as the authors assert, truly an "outsider artist" by virtue of being self-taught and self-directed. He was never the sort of mystic naif displayed at the American Visionary Art Museum.

Instead, his drawings were intended to be faithfully descriptive. He was more concerned with the exact number of panes in a window than with the vagaries of natural light and shade. Even so, the art allows some insight into the soul of the artist--his personal rigor, his fixation on the solid, reliable facts in the slippery world around him. Although the writers remark that he nearly always included people in his scenes, the cityscapes look lonely, with small, scattered figures, often in silhouette. Meanwhile, light, shade, and atmosphere become free-form decorative patterns that dance around the hard-edged, obsessively detailed buildings. Aesthetically, some of the most pleasing drawings represent the least beautiful buildings, such as La Fontaine Bleu catering hall in Glen Burnie, where large glass surfaces gave DeSales an excuse to go wild with imaginary reflections.

As a small-time, largely self-taught artist myself--and one who has counted his share of window panes--I can't help but feel a pang of empathy for Tony DeSales. Success, in the world's terms, is an odd interaction of talent, ambition, perseverance, and sheer luck. One's dice start shaking before one's life begins. What would Tony DeSales have become, given different place and time of birth, given different parents? A classical musician? A commercial artist? A high school principal? Instead, he got some raw deals--and in his own dignified, creative way, he triumphed over them. More than being "a character," he had character. In the end, that's what justifies the book. It's doubtful that a happier, more conventional life would have garnered such a tribute.

As of this writing, Baltimore's Own Little Italy Artist is one of three finalists for a Benjamin Franklin Award in the category of biography and memoir. The awards will given out on May 28 by the Publishers Marketing Association, an organization of independent publishers.

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