Debbie Viola watched in disbelief from her Midtown perch as the second plane erupted into a fireball. By the time the Twin Towers fell in a blinding ash heap on Sept. 11, the legal secretary was attempting to flee her office when her boss handed off a thick stack of work to take with her.
That’s the moment she decided that any career was better than her present one and how, at age 43, she picked up a paint brush to pursue life as a decorative artist.
Viola, now 60, has repeatedly been voted Best of Long Island’s top artist and boasts a social media following to match. In fact, her second act proved so successful that the Massapequa Park grandmother does a healthy business these days juggling opportunities as a decorative artist, abstract painter and art teacher. She credits Facebook and Instagram for a steady stream of inquiries, job offers and art sales.
“When people see something they like online, they’ll send me a private message,” said Viola, who goes by the moniker “Art by Debbie Viola” and specializes in designing and painting decorative walls that leave customers searching for wallpaper seams. “Most of my sales are through social media.”
While art was once the province of galleries in tony neighborhoods, the internet has unleashed a creative revolution that’s allowed artists to bypass the auctioneer and dealer in favor of a direct connection with collectors. Anyone looking to buy doesn’t have to wait for summer in the Hamptons to explore the Long Island art scene.
Scan countless websites on any given day and you’ll find a vibrant community of local artists hawking their wares, many of them defying the notion that Millennials rule the web. Viola is one among a growing number of Long Island artists turning to the power of the social web and e-commerce to be seen and connect directly with customers.
“Let’s face it, you can reach a lot more people on eBay,” said Paul Vetrano, 70, of Glen Cove, who shuttered his antique store in 2017 and now sells custom signs on Craigslist, Etsy, Facebook and eBay. “It’s a sign of the times.”
Vetrano, who has an art degree from NYIT, made custom furniture in New York City for many years before relocating to the suburbs. He owned Manor House, an antique store in Locust Valley, before ultimately giving way to Amazon and closing shop. Today, Vetrano goes to garage sales for inspiration, often buying vintage golf clubs and tennis rackets to recast as part of interactive signs that can fetch up to $400.
The woodworker also paints Parisian-style tabletops and makes pet beds from wine crates. But the online sales success of Viola and Vetrano goes against the grain.
“Older artists in general are less likely to be so up on technology,” said Kevin Larkin, who is president of B.J. Spoke Gallery in Huntington, a cooperative owned and operated by its 20 members. “A painter needs to paint. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of technology and art. Whatever you can do to survive.”
Survival is a powerful motivator.
Still recovering from recent surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, 79-year-old John Remsen shuffled down creaky stairs into the cool, dim basement that housed nearly a half century’s worth of paintings and drawings — a treasure trove representing his life’s work.
Remsen was happy to get the exercise and grateful to discuss the art as he showed off canvas pieces spanning decades, mediums, styles and genres to an interested collector. The Long Island gallery owners Remsen once did steady business with are no longer in the game, and his ability to practice his vocation has been beset by a series of unfortunate events.
The ancient, unheated red barn on a friend’s Setauket property that doubled as Remsen’s artist studio was sold off as his benefactor moved away to a warm-weather retirement. Health problems made it a moot point, anyway.
But Remsen, a Pratt Institute and New York University graduate, is still here and so are innumerable works of art — paintings defined by bold strokes and eye-popping colors that dazzle and amaze. His works have appeared in galleries and exhibitions throughout the East Coast, including the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook.
“These birds are lovely,” the collector said, admiring an abstract 28-by-28-inch canvas swooshed in green and blue, and dotted with what appear to be a variety of wispy shorebirds.
Remsen turned the artwork around and deciphered notes written in his hand long ago. “I called this ‘Backyard birds’ because my property backed up to the Nissequogue River,” the artist said, followed by a laugh at what his shorthand revealed.
As is his custom, Remsen made significant revisions to the painting twice after its 1979 creation; in 1990 and again in December 1991. Pieces like this have what Remsen calls “pentimento,” which refers to the many layers of paint underneath a finished piece that imbues the work with history and depth.
Nearly 40 years later, he finally parted ways with “Backyard birds,” along with another more conceptual piece. “I’m glad it’s going to a good home,” Remsen said.
How was this deal — and other recent Remsen art sales — brokered? On Craigslist.
While the high-end art market still revolves around auction houses and Manhattan galleries, the internet is awash in prints, lithographs, sculptures and more works for sale. Among the purported works of such 20th-century giants as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Alexander Calder and Peter Max are the lesser-known but no-less-serious artists like Remsen.
Though almost nothing is off limits on Craigslist, newspaper classifieds gone digital, the sight of Remsen’s colorful collection can be a surprise and revelation. That Remsen’s work is being shown at all — it’s currently featured on eBay and Craigslist — is the inspiration of friend and Connetquot High School media teacher John Hargrave.
“This is about his livelihood, his life’s work,” said Hargrave, 37, who first met Remsen when he was a substitute art teacher in the district. And Hargrave is doing whatever it takes to ensure Remsen’s work is still profitable for the artist while he’s around to enjoy it.
While an admirable sentiment, the overwhelming majority of artists toil in relative obscurity, driven by passion more than a payday. Yet commercial success is not as ethereal as in earlier times. David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist” fetched $90.3 million in November 2018, making the English-born painter the world’s most expensive living artist.
Hockney defied another truism in the process: Most immortal painters aren’t recognized in their lifetime. Look no further than Remsen, who is simply trying to live off his legacy while finding an afterlife for his work.
“I’m the proverbial starving artist,” Remsen said.
On the other hand, Viola eats well these days, as many of her customers, like Olga Langis, own restaurants.
When she walked through the door at Zona in Massapequa Park on a recent Sunday, Viola was greeted with a hug by Langis. Patrons’ eyes immediately gravitate to the walls. Viola’s signature style is evident throughout, a perfect pairing with the tables, chairs and fixtures.
“Everyone thinks it’s wallpaper,” Langis said of the faux finish that makes the Italian eatery’s dining space pop. “People scratch their nails against the walls all the time looking for a seam. It’s been here for four years now and still looks like new, which speaks to the consistency and quality of her work. Debbie delivered exactly what she said she would — and then some. It’s beyond what I expected.”
Countless websites make art and artisans more accessible than ever before. And while there’s something lost in the digital translation of the work, Viola, Vetrano and Remsen are just a click away. That makes them relevant, even at an age when their contemporaries contemplate retirement.
“I don’t like to use the word retired,” Vetrano said. “Artists are always creating something.”