By Tom Cesarini
It’s April in San Diego, spring is in the air, and a sense of hope and renewal can be felt through our city streets. This month also signals that baseball season is upon us—another crucial milestone being met, perhaps, in our collective grasp for a return to normality. While we root for a great season for our beloved Padres, however, another important connection to baseball comes to mind and one that is also a relevant part of San Diego’s Italian American history: sports art.
Many legendary Italian American ball players (their names don’t even need to be mentioned at this point, do they?), as well as sports figures in general, owe a great debt to one man for emblazoning their images in our minds and hearts through his uncannily realistic renderings of them. Christopher Paluso’s talent is well known in sports circles, and his artwork can be seen throughout different channels and media: Elaborately designed pieces sit in museums, brilliant illustrations have graced magazine covers, and (departing from the sports realm for just a moment), even landmark signs in Disneyland Hong Kong capture his work. Mr. Paluso has met with and illustrated the best of the best—icons and legends alike. We sat down with Mr. Paluso for a brief interview to discuss his passion and his own legacy—combining both his artistic heritage and his Italian American one.
What was the impetus that set you on your artistic path and how did you develop your craft?
Growing up in a family of five boys, there was always an emphasis in playing some kind of sport. So when a brother challenged me to do a summer school art assignment with him and my drawing turned out better than his, it was game on. From there it was taking commercial art classes at Mission Bay High School and getting the encouragement of both my family and my art teacher that gave me the confidence to improve. My dad’s favorite phrase was “never say can’t.”
From that point, it became working to improve and showing what talent I had in our family unit.
How did your Italian American upbringing influence your work?
Growing up I always saw in church or in prayer books paintings from the Italian Renaissance period and was inspired by the look and artistry along with the fact that I might have that ability in me. After all, both sets of grandparents came from Sicily. There was always a sense of pride coming from the old world.
Who were some of your favorite subjects captured through your artwork? What characteristics stand out about them?
For sure Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Eddie Arcaro, and Lou Costello, because they were also Italian Americans, along with astronaut Capt. Eugene Cernan and Muhammed Ali. They all embodied that sense of pride in their endeavors and hard work to achieve their goals—something I wanted to show in my art of them. There was purpose to what and who they were.
Tell us about some of the museums that have displayed your artwork?
Most art on display like that are associated with sports, like the San Diego Hall of Champions, Breitbard Hall of Fame housed now at Petco Park in the Western Metal Supply Building (172 members—all my artwork); the San Diego Air and Space Museum (26 members of their hall of fame); the Hawthorne Race Course Jockey Hall of Fame in Chicago; and the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in the same city.
How did you get into teaching? And how did you manage both professional pursuits (commercial art and education) and what notable differences have you noted between the two in terms of your approaches?
I was able to enter the classroom through the East County ROP as a professional to teach graphic design and desktop publishing, fulfilling the desire to make a difference with young people. I was able to follow that seven years later getting the opportunity to start an art program at a public charter middle school. Through both I maintain a few of my clients and used my method of work teaching the creative process. It is a building process taking a simple sketch and working towards a finished assignment understanding changes are needed along the way.
Tell us about your fascination and passion for all things Disney. How did that begin?
From early on seeing Disney animation at the movies and watching Walt Disney every Sunday learning about his dreams and building on them, I wanted to work there. The first things I drew were some of the classic Disney characters, which gave me confidence I could draw. My dream came true when, in 2004, I got to paint on two signs for the Jungle River Cruise ride at Disneyland Hong Kong.
What’s next for you in your professional pursuits, considering that retirement is likely not in your vocabulary?
I would like to work with an organization like the San Diego Zoo and teach both children and adults using a time traveler-zoologist-explorer-conservationist-artist character, to learn how to draw wild animals and facts about these animals and their habitats—while in the process, understanding the need for conservation in the natural world and the fight against extinction.
What do you see as your legacy, professional and personal?
I was told by an uncle that when the Union Tribune ran a full-page article on me as an artist, that I brought pride to our family, that I had the opportunity to be a historian of the past greats through my talent and honoring contributors to the fabric of America, especially Italian Americans.
— Tom Cesarini is the executive director and founder of Convivio and also serves as the Italian honorary consul in San Diego. Convivio cultivates community and fellowship, advances Italian cultural identity, and fosters multicultural awareness across myriad disciplines through education and research, social enrichment, and innovative programming. Visit: www.conviviosociety.org or follow at @conviviosociety on social media.