Painter of mural at Dominican Center in Niskayuna – children’s book author Tomie dePaola – dies at 85

Tomie dePaola painted the colorful mural in 1958
The mural at the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in Niskayuna on Route 7 is pictured. Inset, Tomie dePaola in 2008.
The mural at the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in Niskayuna on Route 7 is pictured. Inset, Tomie dePaola in 2008.

Editor’s note: Children’s book illustrator and author Tomie dePaola died on Monday at the age of 85. DePaola died in Lebanon, New Hampshire, of complications from surgery following a bad fall.

In 1958, dePaola painted the mural at the Dominican Retreat and Conference Center in Niskayuna that is still admired today (see photos).

He was well-known for books like “Strega Nona,” which received the Caldecott Honor Award in 1976, as well as “26 Fairmount Avenue.” In total, he’s worked on more than 270 books and sold more than 25 million.

Though he was not from the Capital Region, he has a few local ties to the area. Below is a story by Karen Bjornland that ran in The Gazette on Sept. 20, 1998, which has been updated by Indiana Nash to include information — in parentheses and in bold type — about his additional ties to the area.

NISKAYUNA — The earthy-colored painting of seven women with wide, dark eyes, their hands lifted to heaven, tugged at Sister Susan Davy’s heart long before she knew it was the creation of Tomie dePaola.

“For a year and a half, I lived here and I didn’t know. I would come in here and pray with these women,” she says.

Silhouetted against a gleaming white wall in the chapel of the Dominican Spiritual Life Center (as it was then called), the eight-foot-tall figures in the mural depict the Virgin Mary, Blessed Jane of Aza and saints Rose of Lima, Catherine of Siena, Catherine De Ricci, Mary Magdalen and Maria Goretti.

One day, a second-grade teacher who was visiting Davy stopped in her tracks when she saw the seven women.

“Oh my God, Tomie dePaola!,” she said, in a burst of recognition.

Teachers and children are especially fond of Tomie dePaola (pronounced Tommy daPOWla), who has illustrated 200 children’s books and written the stories for 85 of those books.

(One book was “I Love You, Sun, I Love You, Moon,” written by Schenectady author Karen Pandell. DePaola illustrated the beloved book, which was first published in 1994 and since then has been reissued in many formats.

Pandell’s husband, Rob, said that when Pandell was writing the book, she knew dePaola would be the perfect illustrator for the story.

She was indeed correct, as “I Love You, Sun, I Love You, Moon,” has remained a popular children’s book over the years. Rob also praised the book for being among the first multicultural children’s books of its era.

Well before he illustrated Pandell’s book, when he was 24 years old, an unknown artist, he painted the mural in Niskayuna.)

And unless they have been to the Dominican center, where about 4,000 attend retreats each year, most people in the Capital Region have never seen the mural. The Dominican Spiritual Life Center, barely visible off buzzing Route 7, is not open to the public.

Davy says the modern style of the mural, which was painted in 1958, and the group of seven women as subject matter is unique. As far as she knows, there’s nothing like it in the country.

“The oval faces, the earthy, peasant colors. It’s almost festive.”

“This is a treasure for us,” says Davy, beaming as she looks at the mural.

In November 1997, when he was in the area for some book signings, dePaola himself was pleased when he went to see the mural for the first time in nearly 40 years.

“I was amazed. It looked as fresh as the day I painted it,” he said in an interview.

(According to Sister Sue Zemgulis, an administrator at the Dominican Center, it remains that way today.

“His figures have never been touched and they’re still just as bright as ever.”)

On the phone from his New Hampshire home, dePaola, a popular speaker at reading conventions across the country, is friendly and relaxed.

His manner makes it easy to imagine the artist at home: the 200-year-old barn he uses as a studio, his four Welsh terriers jumping around, the aroma of home-baked bread he just pulled from the oven.

In a conversation that rambles here and there and bubbles now and then with laughter, dePaola seems easily delighted by life’s little joys, yet reverent and humbled by its huge mysteries.

“I was painting the mural when Pope John XXIII was elected,” he says.

After briefly considering a religious life with Benedictine priests, dePaola was living in Weston, Vt. One of his friends was Thomas Phelan, a Troy priest who was active in the Catholic Art Association, a group of priests and artists who, dePaola says, “wanted to bring a modern look to the Catholic Church.”

Today, Phelan is an academic dean at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and pastor of RPI’s Christ and Sun of Justice Church.

Phelan told dePaola the sisters were looking for someone to paint a mural for the Chapel of Our Lady of Grace in the new retreat house. DePaola met with the sisters, who were “very specific in what they wanted — Our Lady and six saints.”

At first the sisters didn’t like the young artist’s sketches, but Phelan helped convince them to accept dePaola’s design.

DePaola was paid $1,000 for the mural, a grand amount of money for the recent graduate of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.

“I was high on the hog,” dePaola says.

“I hadn’t done any books. It was my first mural commission.”

The painting process

Instead of watercolors painted on wet plaster, which would be a “true fresco,” the mural was painted with pigments mixed into polymer, he says.

“This was done before acrylics were commonplace.”

Often, hour to hour, dePaola had to grind his colors into the polymer by hand.

For two weeks, dePaola lived in the Windmill, a nearby building, with an elderly chaplain. Every day he went to Mass with the sisters before starting work.

“I’d get up every morning, get up on my scaffold.”

He remembers outlining the figures on the newly primed wall, but hesitating to apply the paint.

“I was afraid to do it.”

Although the women he painted look different than the religious statues and paintings he grew up with, dePaola did the necessary research so the religious symbolism and imagery is still there.

“It’s more classic than people think.”

The 12 gold stars on and around the Blessed Mother are symbols of the Apocalypse, an ancient prophecy of the ultimate destruction of evil and the triumph of good.

All the women have their hands raised.

“In early church, nobody knelt. They raised their hands to pray,” dePaola explains.

Putting down the phone for a moment to rummage through a drawer, he returns with an old postcard of the mural. Unfortunately, over the years he has lost both the mural’s small sketches and cartoons, or full-sized designs, for each figure.

“Now I don’t throw anything away, not even a scrap of paper,” he says with a laugh.

A 1961 photograph in the Schenectady Gazette describes the mural as “unusual” but makes no mention of the artist.

DePaola says it’s “a good example” of his mural work. “I’ve always been known for the rich color, the brick tones.”

Although three or four churches in northern Vermont have early dePaola murals, the only one that he’s “very aware of” is at a monastery in Hingham, Mass.

Recently, as a gift to the pastor of a church near his home, he painted an acrylic mural of Our Lady of Fatima.

“I’ve always had a very strong attraction to the story of the Virgin Mary,” he says.

Besides Mary, the holy images in the Dominican mural, from left to right, are:

St. Rose of Lima, a Peruvian and member of the order of St. Dominic who died in 1617; Blessed Jane of Aza, the Spanish mother of St. Dominic; St. Catherine of Siena, a Dominican lay woman who cared for the plague-stricken during the 14th century; St. Catherine De Ricci, a mystic and patroness of the Dominican nuns; St. Mary Magdalen and St. Maria Goretti.

DePaola painted the 12-year-old Maria Goretti, whose sainthood was still mired in controversy back then, in an almost mischievous way, partly hidden behind Mary Magdalen.

About 80 percent of the visitors to the Dominican Spiritual Life Center are women.

“In a sense, they’re praying with these women of long ago,” Davy says of the mural and the many women who visit the chapel.

“I’m happy that it gives many people a sense of peace,” dePaola says.

“As an artist, you never know.”

Categories: Life & Arts, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

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