Portrait of the Artist Deferred

"Renaissance man" is one of the most shopworn phrases around, to say nothing of the most overworked notion in American culture. Ditto for "new beginning," "starting over," and "reinvention." But when the cliché truly fits, you might as well wear it--and top it off with a newsboy cap.

Roberto Arturo Fucci did exactly that on Sunday night at the reception of his first solo art show at The Talking Stick coffeehouse/café on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice. He was nattily dressed in blue and gray for the occasion, a switch from his usual artist-y duds of jeans or khakis and sneakers. On stage, he surveyed with clear satisfaction the café walls that were lined with more than thirty of his abstract paintings, intensely detailed, lively works that recall Kandinsky and Klee--"colorist," in art lingo-- but that project Fucci's own restless energy. "You like my hat?" he said in his gravelly voice, removing the cap and waving it at the appreciative crowd. "Not bad, eh?"

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Roberto--Robert Fusey to his friends--is 85. Sunday night's opening was the culmination of a remarkable run of creativity that started five years ago, when Robert transplanted to L.A. at the tender age of 80. It was the first time he had ever put paint to canvas, very nearly the first time he'd done any art at all. Oh, he sketched some, mostly cartoon figures, but that was years ago. And there were some pictures he did in kindergarten that his mother raved about but that he, all of 5 years old, dismissed as rank amateurism. That was pretty much it. In his professional life he was an educator, a high school principal in Brownsville, a famously tough section of the Bronx in his native New York; later he worked for the IRS. Eventually he retired to Florida with his second wife, a woman he lovingly described as his soul mate. End of story, for the moment.

But things happen. The wife succumbed to cancer. Roberto moved again, this time to Venice, to be close to his daughter, singer/guitarist Stefani Valadez. It was in Venice, as Stefani's husband David said in his stirring intro to the evening, where the magic began. Or found a way out. Far from being a hobby he was hoping for, Roberto's first encounter with paint and canvas was a flash point that fired an artistic imagination that's been firing ever since. The display at the Talking Stick is only a fraction of the 300 paintings, nearly all abstracts, that Roberto's produced in the last five years. The passion frequently kept him up nights; sometimes he painted two canvases in 24 hours.

For a lounge lizard like me who's fretted forever about a lack of ambition, the math alone is mind-boggling. Where'd all this productivity come from? Is it talent that Roberto consciously thwarted all his life that's finally demanding an appearance? A well-timed statement from a higher power? An expression of the humble art of determination that's inherent in pure hard work?

A self-described "spiritual agnostic", Roberto is less interested in the esoteric idea of where it all came from than in the more pragmatic idea of where it's going: forward. He's an artist now. And he says we can all go there, whether it's painting, writing or some other creative endeavor. "Anybody can do this," he told the crowd confidently. "Just do it! Let it go. Let it come out." He talked a bit about one his favorite musicals, "Zorba the Greek," which features a song with a line that goes, "Life is what you do while you're waiting to die."

"And I realized, that's not true," he said. "Art is what happens while you're waiting to die."

Right. So what are we all waiting for?

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