I wish someone had told me to value my art more and to be more protective of it. Long story short, I was in a situation where I was afraid I would have to move on short notice. At the time I was hanging out with a friend who was a fan of my work, and, one day, in something of a panic, I gave him all of my early paintings. Over the years I would ask to see some of them, and he would always make excuses as to why I couldn’t. Eventually he told me he threw a bunch of them out. I said, “Why didn’t you give them back to me?” He didn’t have an answer for that. I’ll never treat my work so casually again.
As a part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Bucciano.
Joe Bucciano is an artist whose work explores the journey from trauma to healing. His unique finger-painting technique creates raw and intimate pieces that convey the intensity of his subjects. His work has been showcased in solo and group exhibitions in galleries and cultural centers, including the Heckscher Museum in New York; the Art League of Long Island, ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale, and the Epoch Press literary journal in the UK.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a rural area of Long Island, New York with two brothers and two sisters. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for the first ten years of my life. My father was a mechanic. It was chaotic. We were poor, and there was drinking and domestic violence. My parents lost their house to foreclosure, and later divorced. My father spent a couple of years in jail for selling drugs to an undercover cop.
I was an introvert and a loner, and spent my time reading and drawing and playing in the woods next to our house. I didn’t have many friends, but I excelled in school. Art was always a big part of my life. I entered all the art contests in elementary school where you had to draw a poster for Fire Prevention Week or Dental Health Week.
My brother Dan would critique my drawings, which hurt sometimes, but it also spurred me to do better. I credit him for getting me into the habit of constantly trying to improve. Otherwise I received no support at home for my interests. If your parents struggled financially while growing up, they wanted you to get a “real job.” I was steered toward something that might be more lucrative, like commercial art or architecture. By the time I entered high school I had decided that filmmaking might be a more realistic, but still creative, career.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Art has been a part of my life as far back as I can remember. At a very young age I was intrigued by the strong emotions that paintings evoked in me. I remember being struck by the art on the covers of the Golden Book children’s encyclopedias. They had a surreal quality to them that intrigued me. I did a paint-by-number painting when I was around seven years old–my first attempt at oil painting. It was just all I ever wanted to do. But, like I said, I was talked out of it because of the seeming impracticality of it.
The moment when I absolutely knew I had to paint occurred while I was at Pratt Institute: I had majored in filmmaking, but one night I had an exhilarating dream about wild Technicolor mirages that you could walk right up to! I awoke knowing that, in some inexplicable way, the dream was telling me that painting was the right choice for me. That was the exact moment when I made the decision to have an art career.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I actually stopped painting for a period of twenty-three years.
After I left Pratt, I began painting in earnest, and within a few years had been in several art shows, won a few awards, and sold a few paintings. It looked like I was off to a good start. I married my first wife around this time, but the marriage did not go well, and I was divorced by the time I was 25. As a result, I shut down emotionally. It was a very gray period for me, the lowest point of my life. I remember telling my brother Dan that I’d run out of things to paint. What’s interesting, though, is what I did do: I spent a lot of time refining my photography skills, making short videos, studying writing, learning web design and Photoshop, and helping produce my sister Rose’s rock music album. I did everything but paint! I’d temporarily given up on painting, but not on being creative in a more general way, and I learned a lot of skills that would help me later on when I started painting again.
At the same time I was also finding ways to heal from the trauma I’d lived through. I learned to take better care of myself, and gained a clearer view of the world. By 2004 I was in a much better place emotionally, and it was then that I met my current wife Heather. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Two years after our marriage I started painting again. I was apprehensive at first, but I kept at it, and eventually painted some of my best pieces.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
First off, I’m–to a certain extent–returning to my roots as a landscape painter. That was pretty much all I did for a long time. Later on I stretched myself and tried other subjects. I got comfortable painting people. But lately I’m feeling the urge to get back to landscapes. They’re my first love.
Having said all that, I am also working on other projects. I’ve been struggling with a project for the last three years that’s about the view of the world through the eyes of an infant. I’ve been collecting images of works by other artists that contain elements of what I have in mind, and I’ve done some digital sketches. Progress has been slow, but I’m really intrigued by the concept.
I’ve also begun work on a series of short-form videos of brief meditative moments designed to evoke a sense of quiet joy. I’ve had the idea for this for at least twenty years, but have only recently recorded what I think will be the first video of the series.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
I’m a member of the Twilight Zone Café, which is a message board for fans of the TV show, and one day I somehow figured out that one of the other members, a guy named Christopher Conlon, was a Bram Stoker award-winning author. I thought I might enjoy stories written by an author who also likes the Twilight Zone, so I read one of his books and absolutely loved it! I wrote about it at the Café: “Has anyone else read any of Conlon’s stuff?”
Even though Chris had taken a break from social media, he somehow found my post a couple of months later and we connected. I mentioned that I was an artist and might want to do a painting based on one of his stories. He looked at my paintings online and loved them. We exchanged emails and began writing back and forth, and one day I got an email from him with an attachment. I opened it up, and it was a Word document. He had written a short story based on one of my paintings! That was the beginning of the Bucciano/Conlon Project. I would do paintings inspired by his stories, and he would write short stories based on my paintings. Our respective styles were a good match, since we both lean toward dark topics. It was a fruitful collaboration that lasted two years. If you can, read his story “On Tuesday the Stars All Fell from the Sky” (from the book The Oblivion Room). It knocked me out!
Where do you draw inspiration from? Can you share a story about that?
Lots of things inspire me. When I listen to music, I see landscapes in my mind. Many of my paintings come about that way. Images often come to me in idle moments, like when I’m washing the dishes, or right before I fall asleep. I’ll get visual metaphors popping into my head while I’m wrestling with a problem. Weather conditions inspire me: thunderstorms, rain, the late afternoon sun shining through the woods.
Books can have the same effect on me. I’ll get images in my head when I read a compelling story. That was actually the inspiration for my painting “Nostalgia for an Imagined Past.” It shows a comfortable-looking room with books and a globe, and a glimpse of a sailboat passing by outside the window. I had been reading a story about a prosperous family, kind of an idealized American family. I started daydreaming about what it would’ve been like to have grown up under similar circumstances. The books and the globe suggest that there’s always more to learn about life and the world, and the sailboat symbolizes hope. It’s about my belated realization that better things awaited me beyond my humble beginnings.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I use the imagery in my paintings to help process past traumas, and hope that in doing so I’m able to help others do the same. The best I can hope to do is to nudge the viewer into an introspective mood. People tend to resist introspection. It’s difficult and painful, and you can’t do it without help.
My marriage is the most important part of my life. It’s my biggest success in life. There’s been a learning curve there. I’ve been learning to be the best husband I can be. It wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t worked through all those negative things I grew up with.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish I had been told to follow my dream of being an artist. Since I was told that having an art career wasn’t an option, I tried out many lines of work over the years, and just didn’t care enough about any of them to excel at them. Early in my current marriage I went through a short period of unemployment, and I used that time to really think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. That was when I admitted to myself that the only thing I’d ever really wanted to do was make art, and I decided that nothing would ever keep me from it again.
- I wish someone had told me to be prepared to talk about my work! It’s already a challenge anyway when you’re introverted, and during my three semesters at Pratt I didn’t have many opportunities to discuss my art–nor did I during that long period when I wasn’t painting. One thing that helped a lot was the year I spent with Toastmasters, which is a group that helps you learn to master public speaking. You’re required to make speeches every few months. My first one was what they call the “icebreaker” where you essentially introduce yourself to the group. I used mine to explain how I became an artist. Later on I did a presentation about the Bucciano/Conlon Project. So I was simultaneously becoming more comfortable with public speaking, and with talking about my life as an artist.
- If you want to make a living at art, you have to treat it like a real business and do the boring stuff that real businesses do. I spend a ridiculous amount of time taking photos of my work and editing them in Photoshop so that the colors are accurate. I keep records of everything: detailed information about the artwork (including date finished and size of canvas), which art shows I’ve been in, expenses. You have to keep your art expenses separate from your personal expenses. Save everything that’s ever been written about you, and save everything you’ve ever written about your art. I’ve learned the importance of using contracts, copyrighting your work, doing press releases, blah blah blah. Your eyes are glazing over about now. It’s not fun, but it pays off in the long run. Fortunately, in addition to having a creative side, I also have a disciplined, obsessive side that likes to keep things organized.
- You can’t do it all yourself. You need mentors and teachers and help of various kinds. I got a scholarship to Pratt thanks to my high school art teacher Pete Klotz. They wanted to give the award to a student who was related to someone on the school board, but Klotz went to bat for me. He said I had the most talent and should get it. I only went to Pratt for three semesters, but it was enough to break me out of my mostly “self-taught” shell. My work was critiqued by the professors, and I got to interact with other artists. I started doing much larger paintings. It was exciting to work on a larger scale. That was one of the things that changed painting for me forever. I found that paintings done on a larger scale make much more of an impact on the viewer. For the last few years I’ve been working with artist advocate Caroll Michels. She’s helped me set prices for my work, implement art marketing strategies, fine-tune my website, write my artist statement, and make a postcard to introduce myself to museums, galleries, and art consultants.
- I wish someone had told me to value my art more and to be more protective of it. Long story short, I was in a situation where I was afraid I would have to move on short notice. At the time I was hanging out with a friend who was a fan of my work, and, one day, in something of a panic, I gave him all of my early paintings. Over the years I would ask to see some of them, and he would always make excuses as to why I couldn’t. Eventually he told me he threw a bunch of them out. I said, “Why didn’t you give them back to me?” He didn’t have an answer for that. I’ll never treat my work so casually again.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like to see there be a national focus on mental health. I’m distressed about the mass shootings. They’ve become an epidemic in the last few years. Something in society has changed, and not for the better. Why do some people think it’s okay to shoot up their classmates now, or to shoot random people in public? That wasn’t the case until recently. The root causes of it are not being investigated, and whenever it’s mentioned, the discussion becomes mired in partisan politics. I would like to see us put politics aside, and address this issue in a realistic way.
We have been blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this.
Perhaps Jordan Peterson. Rule 6 of his 12 Rules for Life states: Set Your House in Perfect Order Before You Criticize the World. His view seems to dovetail with my own life experience and observations. My political views have changed as I’ve evolved and grown and healed. Psychology is at the core of your politics. For that reason, it’s far more interesting to me than politics.
It’s been said that all art is political. For me, all art is psychological.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you very much for this opportunity!
Joe Bucciano: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became An Artist was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.