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My Turn: Sustained for decades by making art

It pleases Frank Salerno of Mt. Sinai that

It pleases Frank Salerno of Mt. Sinai that his children's homes display some of his many paintings. Photo Credit: Ashleigh Salerno

From the time I was able to hold a pencil in my hand, I was drawing pictures. On blank sheets of paper; on schoolbook covers made from brown paper bags; with chalk on the streets and sidewalks. Drawing pictures was my favorite thing, and it never waned.

In grammar school, I would always volunteer for projects that required some artistic talent. The first that I can remember was an event to honor St. Patty’s Day. I made the cover drawing for the school’s entertainment program, a picture of a harp. For another project illustration I needed to go the local fire station to make sketches of a fire truck. I loved doing stuff like that.

At 18, I was drafted into the Army and found myself assigned to Signal Corps training, where I learned how to transmit and receive the Morse code. As I sat there learning my craft, I could not stop my need to doodle. One day I sketched out a cartoon in which an Army officer, standing tall and crisp, was shaking the hand of a soldier who was disheveled, hunched, and maniacal looking. The officer was saying, “Congratulations, you can now be called a code operator.”

One of the class monitors saw the drawing and took it to the head of the class to the officer in charge. I worried, thinking I was going to get into trouble for malingering. But the officer loved the joke and arranged to have it printed in the camp newspaper. For the rest of my stay in the training course, I had cartoons in the newspaper with some regularity.

Army service over, I applied to an art school and was ignominiously rejected. I was terribly disappointed, but there was a new great thing on the landscape — television — and trade schools were opening up where veterans could learn how to repair these newfangled things that were about to take the world by storm. I responded to an ad, and months later I completed the course and got my first job at the Emerson Radio factory in Manhattan. As time went on, I worked several places as an outside TV repairman and eventually opened my own repair shop.

While this was going on, life was taking shape. I got married and started having kids — four eventually — and my attachment to art grew. I advanced from drawing to painting and immersing myself in art books, biographies of the great painters, and visiting New York’s great art museums.

Arriving home from work, there was no such thing as me being too tired to paint. After dinner, I would stand before my bedroom easel and paint until 1 a.m. Again, the next night and again, the night after that.

In 1989, after nearly 40 years of fixing TV sets, I quit work. It was easy to do because the changes that were taking place in TV technology began to render TV repairmen obsolete. I joined several local art clubs and quickly met people like me, people who if asked if they would rather eat or paint, would be hard pressed to answer. I made several art buddies. We had lunch every week, went into the city to visit art galleries and museums and shared our views. Sadly, most of them are gone now, but what we learned from each other was that painting is not just a hobby — it is a passion that must be constantly fed.

Life has changed for me in many ways in recent years, and what has most changed is that I have not touched a brush in a long time. The passion and the drive are gone. Happily, my children have their homes filled with my paintings. And recently, I had some nieces and nephews visit me. They loved looking at the stacks of paintings I still have and they even took a few home with them. It was fun recalling for them the when and why of each painting.

Frank Salerno,

Mt. Sinai

LET US HEAR FROM YOU Letters and essays for MY TURN are original works by readers that have not appeared in print or online. Share special memories, family traditions, goals, life-changing events, a lesson learned, or unforgettable moments for possible publication. Email act2@newsday.com, or write to Act 2 Editor, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747. Include name, address and phone numbers. Photos if available.

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