Louis Guarnaccia -August 2007

Portrait of an artist

by: Gabriella Burnham

On a gently overcast morning, Louis Guarnaccia sat next to his back-yard koi pond, the hazy sunlight barely reflecting off the lily pads as orange fish dotted the water’s surface.

Guarnaccia’s hair was gathered into a thin ponytail and his round-rimmed glasses were affixed snugly on his nose. The artist sat back admiring the warm dappled sunlight, which he said will be brilliant in his current work-in-progress, a landscape oil-painting of the Washington Street Extension. This one will be his new favorite painting, he said, although he has no idea how it will turn out.

“With every painting, I try to make it better than my last. I’m not the type of person who does a painting and says, ‘Wow! That worked! Let’s do it over and over again.’ I’ve wiped paintings many times, because, in my opinion, I’m only as good as my last piece,” said Guarnaccia, who has been creating artwork for 40 years now, ever since his grandmother handed him his first set of oil paints at 8 years old.

It’s all about creating a piece that captures the beauty of our world, he said. Each of Guarnaccia’s paintings seem to embrace a delicate serenity, unadulterated by the negativity of hate and violence. His most well-known paintings are of Nantucket’s pristine ocean-view landscapes, particularly the wooden sailboats in the island’s annual Opera House Cup regatta.

“My impetus for painting was to create beauty, because I’d seen such ugliness. So, for me, when I paint, I’m incredibly private. That’s my own time,” he said.

Art is Guarnaccia’s olive branch. Even when he was a skinny first grader with big ears, a crew cut and the object of classroom bullies, his talent separated him from the taunting.

It was his thing, he said.

An unexpected move with his father landed a young Guarnaccia in Norwich Free Academy, a private school in Connecticut with one of the top art programs in the country. Consequently, he graduated to the Paier College of Art, a competitive and intensive art school in Hamden, Conn.

“At art school, you’re living and breathing art every day. It wasn’t uncommon that I would stay up all night finishing my paintings to meet a deadline,” he said.

Guarnaccia’s strokes are saturated with a strong classical background rooted in European tradition. He has worked under such masters as Dean Keller, Ken Davies and Rudolph Zallinger.

This intensive foundation in technique and skill allows him to dabble in and out of abstract and representational styles. In 1986, Guarnaccia took what he calls a 10-year hiatus from realist painting to enjoy a venture through the abstract world. That came after a tour of the northeastern world, particularly Europe and the former Soviet Union.

“From my visits to Greece, Spain and the Soviet Union, I had a large body of work. So I committed to a one-man show of 50 works (in 1989). That’s a lot. I was on my 47th painting and I asked myself, ‘Why do I paint realism?’

And I didn’t like the answer I got. It was to get approval from other people. That’s no way to spend your life. I was disgusted by the answer.

So I scrapped that painting and the last three were completely into the abstract. And I liked it. I liked the freedom of it,” said Guarnaccia, who describes his work as a complete balance of painting for himself while simultaneously creating saleable items.

“That is the heart of my success. I am one of the lucky few who happens to love to paint what people love to buy. People like to buy subject matter first and foremost. I like to paint sailboats. I like to paint twilight in the harbor. That’s what turns me on,” he said.

It’s a yin and yang, really, between what his audience loves and what he loves. And it isn’t peculiar that a fifth-degree black belt (soon to be sixth) in aikido and a practitioner of tai chi chuan would be drawn to such a symbiosis. All of his paintings embrace it.

“Specifically in tai chi chuan, all the movements have yin and yang qualities. If one hand is up, the other is down. When one circle goes one way, the other circle goes the other,” said Guarnaccia, moving his hands slowly through the air, as he headed into his small studio overlooking the pond to grab a landscape of the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

“In painting, if I have a bright color, it’s balanced by a muted color. If there’s a light area, I counter-balance it with a dark area. If there’s thin paint in one area, there’s thicker paint in another. If my brush stroke is fast in one area, it’s slower in another.” He pointed to different areas of the painting, noticing the dead trees versus the living, the strong horizontals versus the verticals, and the contrasting areas of light.

Although his subject matter may appear consistent, Guarnaccia’s moving technique keeps each painting fresh and original.

“You have to want this more than anything,” he said. “This is one of the hardest livings to make because there’s nothing guaranteed.”

Oftentimes, that means sacrifice: Guarnaccia and his wife Kim never had children because he knew he would rather be fully committed to his work. “And I love kids,” he said.

“I’ve always been against war. I think it’s a cop-out and a waste of money. I felt like I wanted to do something that would make a difference. I was an unknown artist from a small town in Connecticut painting a portrait of a high-profile leader for peace. I didn’t go through the government or any political channels, he said.” It was unveiled in 1989 in the Olympic Hotel in Moscow and presented to Soviet officials at the Kremlin.

Guarnaccia currently has work exhibited at the Cavalier Galleries on Nantucket and in Greenwich, Conn., The Artists Association of Nantucket, Tilting at Windmills Gallery in Manchester Center, Vt., The Sharon Arts Gallery in Peterborough, N.H., The Page Waterman Gallery in Wellesley, Mass., The Banks Gallery in Portsmouth and New London, N.H., and the Salmagundi Club in New York. He has served on the board of directors of the Artists Association since 2001 and has been featured in numerous magazines, including the American Art Collector. Guarnaccia also received the Thomas Moran SCNY Award for outstanding work at the Salmagundi Club in New York City in 2005. This year, Guarnaccia won the Richard Ochs SCNY Award for outstanding work in the Fall Salmagundi Club Art Exhibition for his painting of “Last Light, Cape Cod.” He was also chosen by the Salmagundi Club president to represent American landscape painting at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

“I’ve had a lot of growth in a small period of time because I’m always willing to try something new,” said Guarnaccia, scrolling through countless photographs on his computer. He says he averages about 50-60 paintings a year. “All my paintings are unique, and they’ve all got personality.”

Gabriella Burnham is a graduate of Nantucket High School and a student at Trinity College. This is her second summer writing for Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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