As children, one of the first things we learned about the classical music composer Ludwig van Beethoven was that he lost his hearing as an adult. What a hardship, what a burden, we thought. And while that is certainly true on one level, it may never have occurred to us that Beethoven’s deafness added an additional complexity and uniqueness to his later works.
Renowned Lowell artist Bernie Petruziello is a living example of how what might seem on the surface to be a career-ending loss can be transformed, over time and with patience, commitment and love, into an immeasurable gain. Our own Jim Barrett sat down with Bernie recently to discuss his fascinating life and the part that his art has played in it.
Bernie was born in January, 1936 in the predominantly Italian North End neighborhood of Boston. “It was a wonderful place to grow up in. It was very boisterous, noisy, everybody was a Caruso. It was a wonderful time. I really enjoyed it,” Bernie recounted with obvious pleasure. Part of a close-knit family and community, he had four siblings. As a boy, he strolled the winding streets and alleyways of the North End, noticing the fishing boats, butcher shops, the markets and the harbor. Although he might not have realized it then, these strolls were his first lessons in noticing and capturing in his mind the various scenes around him. Later in his life, it was these very skills that would gel to form the foundation of his art.
Even as a tiny boy of four or five, the urge to draw was a strong presence in Bernie’s life. Perhaps it was inherited from his famous artist Uncle Victor, known to many as the Michelangelo of the North End. Victor’s work graces the Hall of Flags in the State House and can be seen elsewhere in Boston as well. And yet, in spite of his fame, he took the time to become little Bernie’s mentor. They spent countless hours roaming the streets and galleries of Boston, discussing the visual details of the streets and architecture. They also went to the Boston Museum of Art and spent countless hours looking at the various paintings. “He would dissect them for me, tell me how to look at a painting, what to see in it, how the painter painted from left to right or right to left, how the strokes made the painting even more visual,” Bernie explained. “I learned an awful lot from Victor.” He began to focus on drawing the people and places with which he was most familiar, focusing on the North End in many of his drawings.
Other than receiving invaluable advice from his uncle, Bernie remained largely self-taught as an artist until high school. On a particular day, his class was asked to draw what they saw in a photograph of their choosing. Instead of following this instruction, Bernie drew a scene from out of his vivid imagination. When the teacher asked to see the photograph and he explained that he had none, she knew she had stumbled upon true talent. For the next two years, she mentored Bernie and helped him compile a portfolio to be used in applying to art school. Thanks to her support and to his hard work, he was accepted and studied at the Museum School in Boston where his uncle had gone years before.
His time at art school provided him with the opportunity to refine his skills. He also spent untold hours gazing at the many paintings housed in the museum, studying their technical details and integrating the knowledge into his unique style. While a student, he focused on graphic arts. Specifically, he did etchings on stone via lithography. The process consists of drawing the image backwards on stone, etching the stone with acid, placing a damp piece of paper on the acid-treated stone and running it through a press. In the end, the picture is right side-up.
Lithograph is only one of a wide variety of mediums in which Bernie has worked. He has used oil, water colors, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, and pencil mediums. Now that he is totally blind, he prefers working in acrylics, since they are easier to mix and they dry quickly.
All of this is fascinating, you may be thinking, but how can a blind person possibly paint and draw? It is obvious that Bernie has spent a great deal of time and energy grappling with this issue, moving from incredulity to depression and ultimately to much more than acceptance. Bernie first learned that he was losing vision in the 1970s, when he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. He knew that the day would come when he would be totally blind, and he struggled a great deal at times. “When I first lost my sight, it was rather depressing,” he said in his quiet, understated way. “But I have such a wonderful wife and great kids and they brought me over the hump. As a result, I don’t really think about my blindness at all. I think about just moving ahead. . . . I do this for my own satisfaction; I don’t really care what it looks like in the end.”
After his sobering diagnosis, Bernie and his wife, Kay, decided to make the most of the time he had left as a sighted person. They traveled to Italy, the British Isles, Greece and even to China where Bernie’s daughter and husband were living. Throughout their voyages, Bernie drank up the sights and captured them for permanent retrieval in his memory. From Roman cathedrals to Greek architecture, Celtic designs to the elaborate scroll painting of China, he used every bit of his powers of observation to notice and remember what he saw.
Since 1997, Bernie has been totally blind, but don’t believe for a minute that his lack of eyesight has stilled his hands or stopped his constantly curious mind. Yes, he has had to make some definite changes in the way he works and the media he uses. But he still mixes his own paints, using a fingertip to take a dab of color, dropping it into a small bowl, adding water and another color or two and blending his concoction with a brush. His colors are meticulously laid out in front of him, always in the same pattern so that he can simply count around the wheel to get the shade he wants. Then he uses the 20/20 vision of his mind’s eye to direct his hand. Often, he will play music to assist in this process: jazz for a more colorful piece, classical music if he is in a more subdued frame of mind. No longer able to draw intricate detail, he instead focuses on doing abstracts and landscapes according to the dictates of his internal muse.
Bernie describes his approach to his work this way: “When I was painting when I could see what I was doing—in my own mind; I never said this to anybody—I was a humanist because I was doing figures. It was people doing things. I was always feeling like I was close to earth. Then as I progressed and lost my vision, I did a lot of series of prints and paintings. . . People said some of them worked out pretty well. . . Then I got to a point where I started thinking about what I was doing, and I said ‘You really don’t need to have vision if you want to be a painter. You might not be able to see what you’re doing, but you can sense it and feel it.’”
These days, Bernie’s blindness has given him an unexpected gift, forcing him to draw outside the lines, so to speak. His paintings are, by necessity, creations of the moment. He cannot see what he has drawn; therefore, making corrections and tweaks is not an option. Just as he glories in each member of his family, including his wife, four children and eight grandchildren, and appreciates them for exactly who they are with all of their flaws and qualities, the same is true of his paintings. He credits an old friend from the Brush Gallery here in Lowell for helping him to reach that profound insight.
Last September, Bernie had a show of some of his earlier pieces at the Brush Gallery, the most recent of many shows that he has done in various galleries over the years. Although he thinks that may have been his last public exhibition, he isn’t ruling it out in the future. These days, he continues to draw the abstracts and landscapes he loves, keeping a sketchpad close at hand to capture his inspirations. You might also find him speaking to students at UMass Lowell or Middlesex Community College or spending time with his close-knit extended family. If you’re interested in viewing images of some of Bernie Petruziello’s work, visit the following website: http://ecommunity.uml.edu/bridge/review3/petruziello/index.htm. He can also be reached at the following email address: kPetruziello@comcast.net.
If you would like to hear the complete audio version of Jim Barrett’s interview with Bernie, please see below.