A painter’s legacy

Arts community shows up for Sal Casa memorial exhibit

A re-creation of a portion of Sal Casa’s downtown Chico studio surrounded by his artwork, including the last portrait he painted (on desk).

A re-creation of a portion of Sal Casa’s downtown Chico studio surrounded by his artwork, including the last portrait he painted (on desk).

Photo by Jason Cassidy

Sal Casa: Through the Eyes of Friends, Collectors and Students shows through March 1.
Chico Art Center
450 Orange St., Ste. 6

When Sal Casa died, on Dec. 4, at the age of 91, Cameron Kelly knew right away that she had to do something to honor this iconic figure in Northern California art.

Kelly is director of the Chico Art Center, where Casa had taught drawing classes for many years, after retiring from teaching at Chico State. If any organization was going to celebrate his remarkable career, it had to be the CAC.

Short on both time and readily available works (Casa liked to sell his paintings as soon as he finished them), Kelly contacted people who knew Casa and his art well. One was Lorraine Slattery, who with her husband, Steve Johnson, had collected numerous Casa paintings over many years. Another was Gwen Curatilo, a fabled Chico singing teacher whose home showcases wall-to-wall works by local artists, including Casa.

The CAC had previously mounted (in 2014) a chronological retrospective of Casa’s 75-year career, which began when he was a teenager growing up in New York City. The retrospective was “before my time,” Kelly said during a recent interview. She wanted to do something different.

Talking to these two collectors and several others, Kelly realized that Casa’s story wasn’t separate from his life in Chico. He sold mostly to local collectors who lived in the town he loved, but Casa also was a nationally recognized master painter who won major awards in prestigious competitions and whose paintings have found permanent homes in galleries and museums across the country.

Kelly decided to invite a number of local collectors to lend their Casa paintings to the CAC and also to write something about the artist and what his friendship and artwork meant to them. These often touching portraits add a profoundly personal dimension to this exhibit.

So does the nicely written biography penned by his daughter, Kate Casa, and included in the exhibit. In it she traces his life, beginning with his birth in 1927, in Brooklyn, as the “beloved only child” of Italian immigrants and describing his early fascination with the treasures in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It was clear early on that he was destined to become an artist. As Kate Casa writes, “To say he loved art would be to diminish art’s influence on the boy and later the man. Art was part of him, a way of being that informed everything he would become and every choice he would make.”

In 1957 Casa and his wife, Jane, longing for space and, as Casa put it, “a place to spit,” moved out West to live on a farm in Capay, from whence they eventually moved to Orland and, in 1968, Chico, where he began teaching at Chico State.

This exhibit, titled Sal Casa: Through the Eyes of Friends, Collectors and Students, does a superb job of illustrating Casa’s eventful life and career. In addition to the paintings, collectors’ statements and Kate Casa’s highly readable biography of her father, it includes a 15-minute video interview done by local collector Reed Applegate, a recreation of part of Casa’s downtown studio, examples of works in progress, and much more.

A video of the opening reception, held last Saturday (Feb. 8), is in the works. More than 300 people listened to the collectors’ often emotional descriptions of what Casa’s friendship and his paintings meant to them and to the people of Chico.

As his daughter writes, “He leaves a community that he loved; a community that loves him.

“His extraordinary body of work lives on.”