Giovanni DeCunto realized he could live with his art at the tender of age of 12, when the mother of one of his best friends bought a painting for $35. “I thought I had a million dollars!” he recounts.
Hailing from Lawrence, Mass., where his grandparents moved from outside Naples, the 67-year-old artist has come a long way since the days of selling art for a few bucks. Regarded as one of the nation’s leading expressionists, works by DeCunto can be found today in prestigious collections at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Fogg Museum (Harvard) and the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago. But despite all his success, DeCunto has remained true to his roots. “It’s important for people to know who they are, where they’re coming from and where they’re going,” he says.
DeCunto never doubted he would become an artist, despite a rocky road traveled at a very young age. “I was painting ever since I can remember,” he says while sitting in the well-lit atelier at 116 South Street, near Boston’s South Station, where he recently moved his studio. In high school, DeCunto would regularly get kicked out. “I didn’t want to be influenced by what the teachers were teaching us,” he recalls. Despite that, he managed to graduate from high school and get a scholarship to attend the Art Institute in Boston. “That didn’t work out,” he says. Neither did a second arts school. But DeCunto was starting to be noticed in the Boston area, and in 1984 Boston University offered him a full four-year scholarship at its School of Fine and Applied Arts. Shortly after completing BU, DeCunto was called to Italy to take part in an International Fellowship for Renaissance Study at the University of Padua. “It was a great experience,” he says. “When I came back, I became a liaison to the city of Padua for Mayor Flynn.”
In his art, DeCunto expresses his energy and visionary outlook on the world in dynamic and explosive renderings. “My paintings are my palette for chaos and order to collide,” he writes on his website bio. “I take the high art and the low art, which is commonplace, and let them battle it out on the canvas. Painting, to me, is the great equalizer. I paint for humanity. I call to arms; the eternal spirit of man, the builder, the organizer and the evolutionary spirit that creates civilizations. I am speaking of that common, human thread that the great thinkers of the past continue to teach to us; the common link which triumphs over adversity, poverty and injustice.”
DeCunto’s gritty approach to life as well as art stems from his upbringing in Lawrence. “It was a tough guy environment, but there was also a strong sense of community.” In the early 1990s, when DeCunto was looking for a place to open his studio in Boston, he looked for the same atmosphere, and ultimately found it in the North End. “It felt like an Italian neighborhood, and it felt safe.” But what DeCunto really appreciated about the neighborhood was the freedom it granted an artist like him. “If I had been in New York or L.A., I would have had to follow certain trends. In those places you start thinking about competition, when the only competition an artist should have is with himself.”
Throughout the years, DeCunto has always remained true to his beliefs, and has often been recognized for his honest approach. Just last year, the New England-based shoe company New Balance put DeCunto front and center in its “Made in America” advertising campaign, producing two videos in which the artist revisits his hometown and delivers an inspiring speech on growing up without cutting corners. “I don’t want to be famous,” he says. “I want to be great.” And to achieve that, DeCunto will tell you, there are no shortcuts.