By Nancy L. Nierman
If William A. Bouguereau were to step into the 21st century, he would probably appear in the body of Dino J. Massaroni.
Massaroni has an affinity with the 19th century painter through his European heritage, the love of realism, classical styles of painting and Bouguereau’s philosophy. A prolific and disciplined painter, Massaroni explores the sublime and creates the ethereal from life and the many sketches he does before beginning to paint.
Creating the figure and portrait to be true to life is important. For Massaroni, creating soul is essential. He strives for perfection of skill and craft. His love of figure, portrait and genre paintings of town and countryside have increased in significance over the years starting with the exploration of his Italian heritage.
Massaroni’s father, Anthony, came to America as a prisoner of war during World War II and was detained in Camp Perry, a working camp in Port Clinton, Ohio, near the Erie Proving Grounds. “These prison camps must have been light-hearted and more social than what we think of when we hear of prisoner of war camps,” Massaroni says. Italians weren’t a threat to the United States. When the war was over and the prisoners released, Anthony married Massaroni’s mother, a first generation American, whom he met when she visited the camp with her parents. The couple had two children, Sandra and Dino.
As a child, Massaroni enjoyed trips to the Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Museum of Art, while his mother encouraged him to draw and create music as early as age 5. When they visited the Smithsonian, his mother made sure her son got to the Corcoran and National Galleries, but much of the abstract and modern art bored Massaroni. Then, at age 9, during a school trip to the Cleveland Museum of Art, he discovered the realists: Bierstadt, Chase, Church, Whistler and Sargent, while wandering down a stone staircase away from the group. At the bottom, a large painting caught his eye. While his classmates were upstairs acting out, Massaroni was downstairs studying Bouguereau’s “Le Repose” (The Rest).
“The natural color and tonality [of the painting] and the life-like quality took my breath away. This and the size of the painting really impressed me, and I decided then I wanted to paint like that,” recalls Massaroni, who has always been consciously and subconsciously influenced by what he sees, both the technique and artistic content.
When Massaroni was 14, his mother enrolled him in classes with Jack Richard, an artist earning a living from his painting and teaching. That impressed Massaroni. In junior high and high school, Richard became a mentor to him. He was also influenced by Frank Susi, his school art teacher.
After high school, Massaroni attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh on a full scholarship, and earned an associate degree in visual communications, which included commercial art, advertising design, photography, cartooning, typography, fashion illustration, merchandise illustration, figure drawing and painting. However, it was Albert Handell in Woodstock, New York, who gave credibility to Massaroni’s conceptual drawing and blocking in of the figure.
In 1976, after working nine months in a small ad agency in Akron, Massaroni realized painting was much more fulfilling than graphic design. Though he still did part-time graphics and illustration, he became a full-time portrait painter. Not long after, his mother passed away suddenly. “Understanding that being a painter in Akron, Ohio, wasn’t really lucrative, she still encouraged me to do what I loved best,” he says. This was a dark time in Massaroni’s life, but he found strength in his faith and ability, and continued to paint. He dedicated his painting of Christ, “Light of the World,” to his mother’s memory.
After his mother’s death, Massaroni started a new chapter in his life. He and his father took their first trip back to Italy to visit his father’s birthplace, and he finally met his paternal grandmother and other family members. “They still continued the traditions and customs from the past. I was impressed at how open they were, welcoming me as if I’d grown up there,” he says.
For a day-after-Easter celebration, the family drove to the Mediterranean and to the mountain tops where they owned property. “I hope to someday paint that panorama,” Massaroni says. Picnics were feasts grilled in open pits. “It was an enchanting first experience with my country of heritage,” he adds.
He took a train alone to Rome and Florence and visited with another Jack Richard student, Charles Pfahl, an accomplished artist. Pfahl’s apartment overlooked the Arno River and skyline in the Oltr’Arno region of Florence. Massaroni saw all the art and architecture and Il Duomo, the main cathedral of the city and Michelangelo’s David, “everything reinforcing my love affair with this country,” he says.
Massaroni didn’t return to Italy until 1996, this time with artist friends to paint the landscape. This prompted more trips in 2001 and 2004, when he visited the Island of Capri and the little town of Positano on the Amalfi Coast, which, according to Massaroni, “is like paradise. All my training has culminated into painting my heritage country.” Wanting to share the beauty and culture of Italy with others, he began teaching workshops in the Tuscany region and Amalfi Coast. In 2009, the workshop schedule includes the Tuscan hill town of Cortona in June and the Italian Riviera in September. The tours include hotel accommodations, three sumptuous meals a day, ground transportation and day-trips to Florence and Assisi.
On one return trip from Florence to Cortona, the group learned they were to have an impromptu cooking lesson from Donotella, a well-known chef and friend of Frances Mayes, the author of “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Mayes’ second home is in Cortona and Dino and friend, Vickie Callahan (aka “The Wallpaper Lady”) met Mayes when she was promoting her book that also became a movie with the same title.
Massaroni, who also expresses his musical talents as the music minister at Our Lady of Victory Church in Tallmadge, plans to continue to paint Italy, the country and its people and conduct the yearly workshops. He hopes to also make closer connections with his family.
Massaroni’s work continues to evolve and he finds joy in painting portraits of family members, Italian town folk, street scenes and panoramic landscapes — a legacy handed down to him by his family. His love of painting outdoors has prompted his involvement in the Ohio Plein Air Society.
Though Massaroni prefers painting with brushes he found in an Italian art store, he has since found a U.S. source that recreates the brushes, personalized with his name. He works primarily in oil, pastel and some watercolor. Massaroni says he still has the same enthusiasm and excitement every day when he steps in front of the easel to paint as he did nearly half a century ago as a 9-year-old boy. Just as it was for Bouguereau in the 19th century, for Massaroni painting is not only a pleasure, it is a necessity.