Mo Pagano – Artist

RIP Morel "Mo" PaganoMorel Pagano was a very close friend. People ask what I would have in common with an 86-year old man, a person 32 years my senior? No, Mo wasn’t a father figure. He was more of an overgrown juvenile delinquent. As am I.

Mo and I shared a love of jazz. We were both artists. We shared a fondness for female derrieres.

I have never been one that enjoyed funerals or memorial services. I never wanted to mourn the departed, but rather to celebrate their life and remember the good times. “Good TIMES!” Mo always said “Good times” in our conversations over the phone, in our infrequent phone conversations since I moved to Arizona.

I am sorry, however, to have missed Mo’s funeral. Rob Shannon set up a “studio” vignette at the funeral home.  one of Mo’s self portraits, and his palette and brushes. The parlor was a mini gallery with a retrospective of sorts, showcasing many of Mo’s self portraits. A fitting farewell.

There are two people I regularly call on my phone – my mom, and Mo.  Now it is one person. I am not a phone person. To me, phone calls are like getting teeth pulled, necessary, but not necessarily pleasant.

The tie that bound Mo and myself, and Mo and Liz, and Mo and many others was that we were artists. Mo was first and foremost an artist. He was a prolific artist – putting me to shame with his ability to continue producing. And so, it is only appropriate that the final unpublished story/chapter that Mo sent me was titled “Artist”. And so, here is Mo’s final chapter…


My parents could hardly draw a stick-man but their four children were born with draftsmanship talent. We were asked to make posters for school and town. Brother Jules stopped drawing when he entered high school and found out it didn’t attract girls, Leroy drew much longer for himself with pencil and colored pencils, Joy did art work all his life, mostly posters and labels on everything around him. Me, I could never resist the temptation.

There was artwork, prints, hung on our walls mostly American social comment works and Italian satire works by Pietro Longhi, the Carracci brothers, my father’s favorite was Veronese’s “The Marriage at Cana”. Pop and Lee were always showing me fine art but I was in love with comics, wanted to be a cartoonist.

Whatever extra money I made was saved for the first of the month to buy that months comic books. The first ones were a copulation of the Sunday news paper scripts, later they became an identity of their own and exciting super hero’s came on the scene. At first many of the originators did not draw well but as they became popular hired skilled trained artist to do the drawing and some of the art work was magnificent. There was a Sunday supplement in our newspaper,” The Spirit” by the artist, Will Eisner, and in 1942 they had a Spirit coloring contest; I was in the top ten and was awarded a $50.00 war bond. This was my first recognition beyond hometown. Confident, that summer took a mail correspondence cartoon course and did well. Then the first money earned was copying those pornographic small comic books that that my friend Gabe sold for us. Confident that same summer created my own script “Korky and his Kat” brought a dozen examples to our local newspaper. A very nice man took me and showed me the printing process and that they did not hire the cartoonist but got the scripts through a syndicate and they were already on plates for printing. My favorites were Krazy Kat, Li’l Abner, Captain and the Kids, Joe Palooka, Pop-Eye , Dick Tracy and so many others, later it was Peanuts, Beetle, B.C. and especially Calvin and Hobbs. I still believe George Herriman (Krazy Kat) is one of America’s greatest artists. Some of the comic artist were the most skilled draftsmen in the world, people like Lyonel Feininger, Alex Raymond, Harold Foster, Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, Raeburn Van Buren and so many others.

One of the papers we had delivered to our house was the Camden Courier Post; they had a political cartoonist, Jerry Doyle, he drew with a lithograph pencil and could be as caustic as Daumier. He was a master draftsman. The other political artist that was highly respected was the legendary Herb Block of the Washington Post. I still admire skilled, creative draftsmanship in all forms of art.

In high school took the college prep course so could not fit art classes in my curriculum but still did some kind of art work; some of my best friends had a print shop course and made personal cards for people I helped them design, many also still made signs and posters for occasions.

I was 2 and1/2 credits short to graduate in 1947 and had go back to school for ½ day, ½ year to make up those credits and graduate. Took art and music appreciation to make up the credits, loved them and got all A’s .The art teacher inspired and motivated me to continue art work.

After graduation, took evening courses with Matilda Phifer, she was the best artist in the area at that time and taught discipline and basic rules, even how to clean one’s brushes properly.

Then drafted into the Army. They too, after basic training let me continue some art work as long as it was on my own time. Drew cartoons of the history of our company and some posters for officers dances and other functions. My company commander asked me in I would paint those cartoons on the walls of the mess hall, they turned out good and the men enjoyed them.

In 1953, the division closed down Camp Polk and we moved to Fort Reilly, Kansas. Later Camp Polk opened again and became a Fort. Anyway Fort Reilly was different, nearby was a college in Manhattan, Kansas, there were many cultural events, art shows, concerts.

Most of our officers were from Louisiana and missed their home State. I was taken from my cooking duties and given a special assignment to paint murals of Louisiana scenes in the Officer’s lounge. Each day a pleasure so I took my time, The painted panels were composites from postal cards, magazine pictures and photographs of Louisiana, jazz bands, southern mansions, river boats, the French quarter, bayous and the Mardi gras. They loved their Nola. The murals turned out good, still have the letter from the officers thanking me.

Honorably discharged as a Sergeant, we went back home to live at my in-laws home until we got settled. We had one room, I set up an easel and continued to paint in my spare time. Went back to bricklaying and in a short time we got our own apartment across the street but I was addicted by the blessing or curse to paint and enrolled as a full time student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts on the G.I bill. Hard decision to make, give up “security” to follow a dream?, best move I ever made.

At the Academy I was a hard working, inquisitive student and popular with both students and instructors

In my 2nd year there was a major juried show at the Philadelphia Museum of art with a New York jury, many of my instructors were rejected, I got a painting accepted. Imagine my elation, 26 years old and a painting on the walls of the Philadelphia Museum. Since then I got enough rejection slips to wall paper a room. Back in the day there were National juried shows at the Pennsylvania Academy, the Whitney, National Academy of Design, Corcoran, Cow Palace (San Francisco), Chicago Institute, Dallas museum and an International biennial in Brazil. I was rejected from all except the P.A.F.A. I also got rejected from a Fulbright, Prix de Rome, Guggenheim, Tiffany and Gottlieb grants.

Then my 3rd year, the year for me to compete for the Cresson European scholarship. That was 1958, on February 2nd, blood clots within inches from my heart, in the hospital for more than eight weeks, had to drop out of school. Had a recoup for a month at home. Doctor said I could never lay bricks again, Jules got me a job as a commercial artist in Washington D.C. Worked and lived there for about seven months.

Still had time on my G.I. Bill, that September decided to go back to the Academy and try for the European Scholarship, got it in 1961 and me and Elizabeth spent that summer in Italy and Paris. A fun and memorable time in our lives. With the award is a scholarship for a year more at the Academy. But having no means of support and Elizabeth was pregnant so I could not take advantage of it. Went back to bricklaying, wore protection but still got clots and sometimes had to leave jobs.

There were struggle  ,ups and downs like everyone’s life, painting helped so much, Teaching, lectures, sales, commissions sometimes brought in money and always brought pleasure in so many ways.

I was still working as a union bricklayer but had rainy days and cold winters months off to paint, never kept a record but painted well over 2000 paintings and I ain’t finished yet. I sometimes painted to earn money, commissions and local scenes that pleased people because of the subject matter. At others times painted to create art, these make me proud, hope I did enough of them. When trying to create there is always self analysis, starts with inner compulsions to create our own world, often this becomes difficult, are we one of a kind?  – there are easier ways? Give in to the wider appreciative public they are willing to pay for paintings they like. If I do this am I allowing myself to be seduced by the market place? With all of the great creative artists of the past how can I produce a work that will have durability to have cultural longevity or be aesthetically valid and stand the test of time over generations and cultures.

I left the Academy believing that working with systematic discipline directly from nature with maturity a natural style would evolve, with this belief I gave subject matter a more important place than it deserves in art. After about 10 years painting directly from nature, developed a formula. It was well received, But art must be a growing, creative process. Then I started to explore other things, when back to my early loves and started collages like the comic script’s, movie and travel poster’s for their ability to reveal attitudes and values with their colorful vignettes, collage offers me freedom for me to put out messages, thoughts and feelings, words were often used. After a few years I tired of the literal aspect of this work, but fell in love with the segmented shapes, coarsely painted contours and jarring colors around the drawings, photos and words. This led to the next period – fragmented paintings. These paintings were done from sketches and photos, I felt I was on the brink of Modernity. Often I went back to academic painting, sometimes because they sold when we needed money others times because I loved to draw interesting people, could never resist the beauty of the human face or figure, my favorite artist are those that captured this, Valazquez can bring tears to my eyes.

Spent one year with a 27 year old neighbor as a model, 18 paintings and many drawings, she was a great model.

Then went back to a quasi- abstract style, still at times paint “realistic’ portraits, can’t help it, love drawing in this manner at times

The battle to “understand “art. Having been educated in academic elements and principles of design, worked at teaching myself to “read” contemporary art. Looking at art is by no means passive, requiring a concentration, an active participation on the part of the viewer, ideally the spectator enters into a compact with the artist. Time and study will create a dialogue between the work and the viewer. Basic valves with technology changes them but they remain and can still be used.

The cause of painting is more important than the result, a painting is an attempt at building a progression, each application of paint changes what is already there and also anticipates what the next stroke will be.

Multi-media brings a world of discovery and exploration in art. With today’s technology the assembled components; conjunctions are significant in constantly building the composition. This requires the viewer a considerable amount of work.

Robert Frost made a couple of profound statements one was something like; “If you want a challenge in life, choose to be artist” the other; “When you come to the fork in the road, choose the one less traveled on”.

Rejections are a disappointment, but serve a purpose, it’s an opportunity to evaluate and analyze.

It wasn’t always rejections there were a few National shows, several at the Academy’s Fellowship exhibits, State exhibits and regional shows that excepted my work and there were prizes.

Looking back on the past 60 years, I am not disappointed, but I do feel my accomplishments should have been more, I worked hard but even so there has been time and effort dissipated. There were periods of experimentation, when nothing happens. There are times one feels empty and sterile and everything done must be destroyed.

Spent my life gazing at great work of the venerable masters of the past and they still remain the source of my faith and inspiration.

There have been diversions, the world of rebellion and boundless freedom!!! Collage, expressionism, fragmentation, Cezanneism ( still trying to absorb that), cunning innovations, cerebral cults, aesthetic formula’s.

Perplexity overtakes me when I think about my aims in art.

It is a rewarding journey.

I am a small town person that enjoys living “where everybody knows my name”, meeting old friends at the Post Office or the Diner, mostly have the same conversation over and over, but you can feel the warmth and affection and enjoy distorted stories of the past.

So I settled back in Hometown U.S.A., a peasant son?

The road


Made of paint







No complaint.

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