Being well-known for its thriving art community, Toronto is not short of talented artists, and Pietro Adamo is no exception. Born in Ontario’s capital, he had an extensive education in Fine Art and Art History at the University of Toronto and Sheridan College. He then reversed the role and began to teach. Over his 20 years of teaching at the Chaminade College School in Toronto, he saw a number of his students go on to become successful artists, from architects to illustrators, and yet continued to fulfill his own desire to paint. Since then, he has worked on multiple commissions, as well released a series of prints, posters, and bas-relief sculptures. Intrigued? You can find him in galleries all over the world.
When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?
I still have vivid memories of finger painting in kindergarten at Essex Street Public School in the sixties, so the seeds were planted early on. I don’t know if one actually decides to become an artist, but I do know that a break from teaching art in order to paint for a year was a change I welcomed. I left teaching visual arts as a full-time profession in 1997. I have since pursued my passion for art, particularly painting as a full-time occupation.
Can you tell us a little about your background?
I was born Pietro Michele Adamo in 1955 in Toronto. I am the eldest of four children of the late Ilio Adamo and our mother, Rosa (née Garisto), both Calabrese immigrants who came to Canada in the early 1950’s. I graduated from University of Toronto/Sheridan College Art & Art History program in the mid 1970’s and became a visual arts teacher until 1997. I have been painting independently and through agents and galleries since 1998. I have been happily married since 1978 and have two children who are now adults and are pursuing careers.
How would you describe your art?
I have a difficult time trying to categorize my work as I try to stay open to all kinds of influences and techniques. I can give you an idea through words used to describe my work over the years by critics and reviewers of my shows: tactile, moody, depth, riot of sensational colour, palpable textures, delicious impasto, sensual brushstrokes, sophisticated surfaces, structured chaos, unusual juxtaposition of forms, haunting imagery, mysterious elements, sublime, brooding… just to mention a few. I will simply state this: I have painted thousands of pieces in the last decade alone, and the blank canvas still stirs feelings of anxiety, excitement, anticipation. It never gets old.
What are your favourite themes?
Much of what I am painting now is inspired by my walks in and around the McMichael grounds here in Kleinburg. Visually, some of that is obvious in that I incorporate reeds into a series which loosely references impressionist painting and the work of Riopelle and Pollock. In the past, my work has centered around themes related to the emotions suggested by colours (Emozioni series) and alienation (Cellular and Cosmo series), as well as modern urban life (Vitae Urbanae series). Themes I choose to explore are always related to where I am in the here and now - that is to say, they reflect life at that moment. The pieces are always to do with my state of mind, what I am concerned with, whether on a personal or a global level.
Is there a message that you wish to communicate with your art?
The minute you make a mark, you are attempting to say something, the meaning of which can be taken as being intentional or unintentional. That’s a daunting issue. I do not feel authorized or qualified or arrogant enough to suggest that I have a central message that must be heeded or at least sent out. Perhaps the message is in the process; maybe as inspiration for others to do whatever it is they do in their daily lives better. I am always in awe of the people who derive so much from my work. There’s an undeniable connection between artist and viewer, and therein probably lies the central message. That thought is humbling.
How would you describe your creative process?
Disciplined (unlike the artist himself). I am out of my comfort zone when I work, which is why it does work. I treat it like a job, and as such, I take two breaks and a lunch, and a daily walk which I feel is the R&D part of what I do. I work through days when it’s “just not there”, and as proof, there are many unresolved canvases I have considered inferior, only to find some clients aching for the “sophisticated unfinished ones”. Go figure. It takes discipline, even when it looks as if you’ve had fun.
What does your art work mean to you?
Art is life. Life is art - “ma please, gimme a break!” I have never completed a piece I would consider satisfactory in every aspect, and so art has always meant “the next one” to me in that the next piece offers a fresh start, a new beginning, a chance at redemption...hmmm…art is life…
How important is it to you to draw inspiration from your Italian heritage?
Well, how can I answer this one in a politically correct manner?
I can’t. So then the Canadian part of the equation is made from 100% Durham Semolina, and the sauce, well, the sauce is Piccante! Obviously, artists are who they are, both in terms of politics and DNA; and this, more often than not, is evident in their work. I laugh when we say ‘Canadian artist’, and at the same time there is no better term in this internet age. Canadian art has been celebrating and melding diverse influences for at least the last century. My art is no different. I may be in Taormina Sicily one week and sketching out my memory of Giardini Naxos by the Humber River the following week. My heritage simply adds great flavour to the mix.
While studying art history, did you fall in love with a particular stylistic period?
I have to say that I am drawn to the roots of modernism - that is, the pieces at the end of strict stylistic periods that indicated that yearning on the part of the artist for something; a departure, if you will. Michelangelo’s works at the end of his life were generally viewed as incomplete, or were they? Manet’s Dejeuner confounded the art lovers and scholars alike in its brazen artistry. Nude Descending a Staircase is often mistaken for a Picasso, but it is a piece that inspired many Cubists, including Pablo Picasso. My work plainly shows my keen interest in the modern movements, from Impressionism through Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism. New movements build on old ones, renewing, reviewing, reinventing. I often hear the term “it’s all been done before” by discouraged young art students. My answer is always: “The world awaits your contribution; that’ll be done when you muster up the courage.”
You often use concrete subjects and treat them with abstraction in your work; what draws you to the abstract?
I feel the relevance of abstraction in our lives as it seems to reflect the fragmented, intense nature of modern life. It can be interference, a blur, a traffic jam, a crowded street, or an empty parking lot, an abandoned factory, a windowless corridor. I grew up in the sixties and seventies; the seemingly unfocused mess that was existence was a norm. Ironically, the internet seems to have brought some focus back, even though the pace of life has augmented. The familiarity of that which is deemed “real” is something I do not shy away from. It’s like a good hook in a song; I’ll use it when I want to, but how I want to. Something familiar (as in the Tragically Hip song) can serve as a great lead into a deeper, unfamiliar, but captivating voyage of discovery. It is strange that abstract painting, now a tradition of sorts, represents a challenge for so many.
Being that you use mixed-media, do you have a favourite medium?
I am partial to acrylic paint and water-based oils for patinas. I enjoy working with textural elements such as wood, glass beads, reeds, resin, silica, wire, and so on.
What was it that drew you to teaching?
I had completed my degree, and at that time there was a need for teachers with specialties such as visual arts. No doubt the career, sense of security, and thought of teaching art while having some time to continue to pursue my passion entered into the decision. When I left, I did so knowing I would return some day; but art is a jealous mistress and so I’ve been away from teaching for 15 years.
What is your view on specialty arts schools in Toronto?
It seems as if there are many different specialty schools now. I believe in a balanced education but I can see where some students would certainly benefit from consistent concentration in art. I know some friends who are fortunate enough to teach in such schools. Although they claim the results speak for themselves, it is possible to achieve outstanding results in a normal secondary school with the support of staff and community.
How do you feel about the current art community in Toronto?
It is not as strong as it could be. Many artists feel that T.O. is not known as a city with a vibrant arts scene; although I feel that it is, but it is somewhat fragmented. Certainly, the city has few galleries when compared to cities with similar or smaller populations. Some feel the arts and crafts “fairs” have also contributed to fewer permanent galleries. If we judge by the amount of art in public spaces compared to other cities, we could conclude that there is little appetite for art in this city despite Luminato and Nuit Blanche, which seem to reinforce that art is a once-a-year media event.
If you could pick the brain of any artist, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
It’s not easy to narrow it down to one, so I’ll stick to three Canadians: Michael Snow, Tom Thomson, and the late Guido Molinari (that’s right, Guido). Michael Snow’s figurative work continues to be a major influence in my art, and Molinari’s hard-edged paintings have been important in helping me open my mind to minimal painting and colour relationships. I visit the McMichael collection frequently and am drawn like so many others to the work of Tom Thomson. I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen the works of many of the world’s great painters, but the haunting quality of Thomson’s brushwork and sense of colour and space are unrivalled. I would ask him if we could discuss the variations in light on snow due to conditions inherent in the Canadian climate. We’d probably do this over a shore lunch and beers up in Algonquin with Mike and Guido. Then I know they’d ask about the funny coffee I’d poured into the cups. I would answer: “Gentlemen, it is called Caffe corretto. Just drink it. I promise you’ll see things differently.”
What can we expect from you in the future?
I will work as long as I am allowed to. I will push the boundaries of my expression with an eye towards upcoming major solo exhibitions in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. I will continue to work on corporate and private commissions in my Kleinburg studio.