War Interrupts Painting

by Leah Campanella

From Vincent Campanella: Classical Abstractionist, The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, St. Joseph, Missouri, Septeber 15 - November 4, 2007.

When I met Vincent in September 1944, there were still several major battles to be fought before World War II finally ended the following year. During the four years of the War, Vincent did not paint. He worked long hours almost every day in a machine shop making parts for the U.S. Army and Navy.

As a child, Vincent had always been interested in mechanical objects and could figure out how to make things. At age eleven, he built a kayak from a sketch in Popular Mechanics and actually paddled it in the East River, a very dangerous thing to do. He stitched the canvas on his mother’s sewing machine. He was a frequent visitor to the discount tool stores on Canal Street, too.

When the U.S. entered the War, Vincent was of draft age and expected to be drafted. While waiting for his number to be called, he went to work in a machine shop. He started at the lowest level but very soon was supervising and teaching others how to make the parts perfectly to specifications. The firm received a Navy citation for making the hook that grabbed planes as they prepared to land on the aircraft carrier deck. This work earned Vincent a military exemption as well. He loved the work despite the long hours and the accompanying stress.

As the War ended in its European phase, Vincent began to think about his future. There were a number of possibilities open to him to continue doing this work and leading to a more prosperous life. He began to consider the pros and cons of returning to his life as a painter and teacher, and I was asked for my input. For me, Vincent’s persona was that of a painter whose whole life from early childhood had been fueled by art school and exposure to the museums of New York City. He had accomplished a great deal already when the War interrupted his career. He had exhibited all over the country and received many awards. At age seven he received the Wanamaker gold medal in a citywide public school art competition. In later years, he won awards at the San Francisco, Denver and Newark Museums. But he had yet to find an agent for his work and broader recognition as an American Abstractionist painter and for his years on the WPA Art Projects that were a defining period of growth as an artist and a mature person.

I thought he should return to painting and Vincent did so by the summer of 1945. Since our apartment was also Vincent’s studio, I soon learned what being the wife of a painter meant. I could not remain anywhere in the apartment when Vincent was working. My very quietest movements, footsteps, even my breathing, disturbed his concentration. During the week, I was attending graduate school at Columbia University so I was out of his way. On weekends it was another matter. He finally exploded and I was banished from the apartment when he needed to work. It was a shock at first and I suffered some mixed feelings. But Vincent’s work was my first priority. I had no doubt that he was a good painter and hoped he would receive the recognition he wanted so much. After a very productive year of painting, the Frank Rehn Gallery accepted him. When Vincent brought his paintings for Rehn to evaluate, Vincent was the happiest person to be told, “You are a painter!” Rehn agreed to give him a one-man show.

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