boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe
NORTH END

Artist-in-residence (well, downstairs)

Artist Giovanni DeCunto's studies and work have taken him around the world. Nowadays, you can find him in a North End basement.

After 15 years at a South Boston studio and gallery, DeCunto was forced to relocate on short notice this spring.

"They gave me four days to find him a place," recalled real estate agent Toni Gilardi. "And if I didn't have a place in four days, that following Monday morning, he said, he was moving into my house with me, so it was very motivational."

Fortunately, the first place Gilardi looked at, the basement of the St. John School in the North End, was affordable, and it happened to be in the neighborhood where DeCunto lives.

So in late May, the 58-year-old DeCunto opened his gallery, one of the few public galleries in the North End. The space has private access from Moon Street and no direct entrance to the school. But in the fall, DeCunto hopes to bridge that gap by filling in as a guest speaker and teaching St. John students about the cultural aspects of art history.

"As an artist, I think integrating into the community is very important," he said.

DeCunto's work has been seen at such places as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. He has been featured in both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Science. Fan Pier developer Joe Fallon commissioned him to paint a three-panel piece that was recently unveiled at the Institute of Contemporary Art, while David Zurakowski of Children's Hospital talked him into undertaking seven paintings of local sports figures for a unit that serves critically ill children.

DeCunto has painted since he was 7 years old and began selling his work when he was 12.

"I never really did a paper route or any of that other stuff," he said. "I just kept painting my pictures."

The artist, who describes himself as having severe dyslexia, graduated from Lawrence High School in 1969 near the bottom of his class rankings. The dyslexia, he said, was one factor that steered him toward painting.

"You always have a part of you that's strong," he said.

Even in high school, DeCunto's artistic ability set him apart from the rest of the pack. His best friend was valedictorian. "Nobody could figure out why we were hanging out together," he recalled. "When it came time for colleges to come after all the kids, I got more acceptances than he did, and they couldn't figure it out."

DeCunto received scholarships to the Art Institute of Boston and the Vesper George School of Art, studying briefly at both colleges but focusing more of his attention on refining his product rather than hitting the books.

Not long after, he opened his first studio, on Hemenway Street. For about a dozen years, he set up shop alongside artists who attended various schools. The difference, he says, was that while they were still by an easel, he was running to the gallery to sell his finished work.

DeCunto started gaining attention in the 1970s, after he finished a three-year apprenticeship with Napoleon Setti, who designed some of the stained-glass windows of the National Cathedral in Washington. A few years later, DeCunto was hired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to paint a portrait of Harold Edgerton, a key player in the development of high-speed photography. The painting led to his place in the Smithsonian and other prominent museums.

DeCunto describes his style at the time as classical, but that all changed after he spent a year studying Renaissance art in Italy in 1987.

"Ever since I could remember, I followed that voice in my head," he said of the experience. "All the sudden, I had to do something else."

Several months later he began honing what he calls a "direct painting technique" in which he uses paint tubes instead of brushes. The approach allows him to compose his work by applying several layers of thick texture to the canvas.

"What I found is that I had to eliminate all my tools to be able to link it together," he said.

Most of his work is based on current events and public personalities, ranging from Muhammad Ali to Robert De Niro. In just three months at his new gallery, DeCunto has begun leaving his mark on the neighborhood by helping residents in whatever way he can -- sometimes even picking up a brush to paint a building.

During a recent visit to the gallery, his dentist, Alex Adeli, recalled a conversation with a police officer.

"Giovanni introduced me as his dentist, and the officer says, 'Oh, you must be his dentist, because he's so scared of dentists, every time he has to see you, he gets so apprehensive that he paints the entire neighborhood.' "

Backing up that notion, Gilardi told of an old chain-link fence in the neighborhood.

"If it looks shabby," Gilardi said, "he just goes out there, like it's nervous energy, and he just paints it."

Motioning with one arm through the air, DeCunto brushed off credit for doing what he described as "just my nature."

"Painting is painting," he said with a smile.

Richard Thompson can be reached at rthompson@globe.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES