Victor Lenuzza '92
Lenuzza ’92 finds rewarding, inspiring work using art
Victor Lenuzza ’92 unrolls a length of raw canvas in front of a paint-splattered wallboard in an art studio at Upstate Cerebral Palsy’s Sauquoit site, where Stephanie Giuffrida has just arrived for her weekly painting session.
“Here’s our future Hallmark card designer,” he says, as Melinda Karastury brings Stephanie’s wheelchair in front of the board, which acts as an easel. This is where Stephanie will spend the next hour painting as part of the agency’s Artistic Realization Technologies (A.R.T.) program, an art expression program designed for those with limited use of their hands and limited or no vocabulary, which allows them to express their creative energies by painting with the aid of a tracker, or studio assistant, using a laser or point system.
A.R.T. is part of Pieces of Heart, a program of Upstate Cerebral Palsy that features artistic works in a variety of media. Artists like Stephanie work in watercolor, acrylics, mixed media, and recycled materials to express their thoughts and feelings. Their work is often displayed at galleries, and helps to increase public awareness of the talents and creativity of those with special needs. The agency also offers art classes for the community.
The bond between Lenuzza and Stephanie is immediately apparent. She gives him a big smile, and immediately reacts when she sees him unrolling the canvas. She is the artist. He is the tracker, trained to be solely driven by the artist’s intentions.
“I am just her hands,” he explains. He shows Stephanie a length of canvas and says, “You tell me how big you want the canvas to be.” He moves a ruler across the canvas until Stephanie tells him to stop, indicating how wide and deep she would like the canvas to be.
This time, she has chosen a very horizontally shaped canvas, which Lenuzza attaches to the board. The next step is choosing a color from a large palette. Stephanie points to bright green, a refreshing contrast to the grey February sky.
“Stephanie loves using bright, spring-like colors,” Lenuzza says, mixing green paint in a small bowl. His attention turns immediately to Stephanie, who is excitedly waiting to begin her latest masterpiece. “Do you have an idea of what you want to paint?” he asks.
Stephanie nods, and Lenuzza affixes a laser pointer to a visor, which he places gingerly on top of her head. The excitement in her eyes is undeniable. She moves her head up, down, and around, causing the laser to move about the canvas in long, deliberate strokes, and her vision starts to take shape.
Lenuzza follows the laser point across the canvas with a paintbrush, feverishly trying to keep up with Stephanie’s quick brushstrokes while replicating her speed and movement.
“As you can see, she’s pretty energetic,” he says, as he chases her laser point about the canvas. “It’s tough to keep a loaded brush, she paints so fast.”
After a while, the entire canvas has taken on a bright green hue.
“It’s all very calculated, as you can see,” Lenuzza says, pointing out the different brushstrokes and paint textures. “She makes sure the whole canvas is covered. Then, when the paint dries, you see all of her movement in the paint strokes.”
For a few minutes, he holds a small hairdryer up to the green canvas and dries it so that Stephanie can move on to the next step in her piece. Stephanie studies the canvas, deep in thought.
“She likes to analyze it and think about her next move,” Lenuzza says, looking at her expectantly.
Using the letter board on her wheelchair, Stephanie spells out what she wants to paint next: “Red Heart.”
Lenuzza mixes red paint into a bowl. He then holds a ruler up to the canvas and moves it slowly, waiting for Stephanie to indicate where she wants to paint the heart. She ultimately centers it. He helps her mark the size and shape using a plastic strip with a pushpin, which he uses to bend into the shape of a heart with Stephanie’s guidance. The laser-equipped visor goes back on, and Lenuzza follows the laser point within the heart shape, painting it red. Stephanie traces the lines and fills in the empty spots of the heart with her movement.
Lenuzza, an artist who grew up in Utica, has been working at Upstate Cerebral Palsy since 2012, when he and his wife, Kristy, moved back to the Mohawk Valley after living in Boston.
“I was able to find a rewarding career using art,” he says. “Some people knock Utica, but for me, it’s my family, my friends, everything is here.”
And that is what keeps bringing him back. He has lived in many different places, including Brooklyn, Italy, and Kansas City – and each place has influenced his artistic vision. In Kansas City, he lived with other artists and worked with illustrators at the top of the industry, such as Mark English, Gary Kelly, and Fred Otnes. He traveled to Italy to be closer to his roots, and he learned to speak Italian and was surrounded by art. He would sit and draw from life, then turn those sketches into paintings.
He had lived away from Utica for so long, that the prospect of returning and having his first art exhibit was daunting. “I was nervous,” he says, “But so many people packed into that tiny room for my first show. It was great to have all that support.”
Lenuzza’s interest in art began at a very young age. “My mom would take me to Munson-Williams, and I always loved it,” he says. “I started drawing seriously, from life and from photos, when I was in fifth grade.”
In high school, his art teacher pushed him to apply to art schools in New York City, as well as MVCC, which was known for its Advertising, Design & Production program. “I found out that MVCC had one of the best degrees in the country,” he says. “And I loved it – it was different than anything I had done. Having art all day long was fascinating. I never worked so hard. It was like I just lived to draw and paint.”
He fondly remembers instructors in the program, including Alex Piejko, Larry Migliori, Bob Clarke, James O’Looney, and Hattie Hilliard. “They were all solid, strong professors. It was a great experience.”
Lenuzza adds that MVCC’s program was very thorough and diverse. “I loved that MVCC had drawing, painting, photography, and production. I got to learn it all.”
After graduating from MVCC, Lenuzza, with some prodding from MVCC Professor Alex Piejko, decided to transfer to Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, which he learned had one of the top illustration programs in the country.
“The instructors at SU said that MVCC students had a way better foundation than other students,” he says. “So by going to MVCC first, I saved a lot of money and built a strong base for my bachelor’s degree.”
In his own art, Lenuzza employs oil and acrylic on canvas, collage, and abstraction to shape impressionist scenes of gently lit figures in everyday life, eating at a café, having a drink at a bar, or dancing on a stage.
“There are always moments to capture,” he says. “And there will always be new work. Sometimes I don’t know what I want to paint, so I just start. I feel compelled to cover the white canvas – it’s very gratifying. I have to keep moving forward.”
He has exhibited widely in the United States and abroad, including in New York City, Italy, and Switzerland. Some of his paintings are currently on display at Ancora Tapas Bar & Restaurant in Utica, where he worked for several years.
“Sometimes it’s like having a personal gallery,” he says. “A lot of the people who come in know those are my paintings on the wall, so we talk about them. I love making those personal connections.”
Back at Upstate Cerebral Palsy, as Stephanie finishes up her session with trackers Lenuzza and Karastury, it is clear that this personal connection is a powerful one. After she gets all suited up to brave the elements outdoors, she pauses to send a message using her letterboard.
“I love you all,” she says, eliciting smiles from everyone in the room before leaving the studio to catch the bus.