The 'Art' of Retirement: Time, Talent and to Hell with Inhibition
Frank Smith and Lou Castagna are staging second acts after retirement as successful artists.
Good thing Lou Castagna is an artist and not a chauffeur: He admits he likes not knowing where he's going when he's working on a painting.
"Part of the allure is not knowing what the next stroke will bring," he says. "I work by my gut and instinct."
Frank Smith is very much the opposite. A thinker who carefully considers his subject before photographing it, Smith takes a much more deliberate approach to his art.
"I'll see something, and I'll come back to it," he says. "I don't shoot every day. Something has to be inspiring me."
Despite their differences as artists, both men have more in common than not. They're about the same age—Smith is 70, Castagna 72—and grew up in neighboring areas of Philadelphia. Smith attended South Philadelphia High School in the Fabian Forte and Chubby Checker era, while Castagna attended West Catholic High School. Both live in Ocean City in retirement, pursuing art as second acts to successful careers, Smith in human resources for major corporations, Castagna as the owner of four hair salons. And both are currently featured at the Accent Gallery in the 900 block of Asbury Avenue, Castagna's abstract acrylics hanging across the room from Smith's nature photographs.
"They came to the gallery at different periods of time," says gallery director Rody O'Rourke, who has been working with Smith for almost three years and Castagna for three months. And although their artistic styles are very different, she began to see similarities in them as men.
"I started thinking about them in their second acts in life, because I'm going to be an empty-nester next year" with the departure of her daughter to college, "and I'm thinking what my second act will be."
Both men are former runners who maintain fitness regimens, Castagna as a biker and walker due to a knee replacement, Smith as a rower and weightlifter. During their working lives, both found themselves drawn to their eventual artistic outlets. In his 40 years working mostly overseas for Xerox, Black & Decker, and Revlon, Smith took what he calls "time and place" photographs, carrying his camera with him until, he says, "it became it too much of a hassle and business speeded up." Basically, he took the kind of shots snapped on vacation. Castagna's love of abstract art developed over a similar length of time.
"For 40 years, no matter where we were on vacation, ultimately I'd wind up in a gallery looking at abstracts," Castagna says. "Nine-and-a-half years ago, when I sold the last (hair dressing) place in Philadelphia, I went into a bedroom and locked myself in for three-and-a-half days. My wife finally knocked on the door and asked, 'You OK?' "
He's since built himself a studio and a gallery in his home in the Gardens. One of his first pieces sold at an exclusive gallery in Naples, FL. Castagna remembers returning home from a run on the Boardwalk and finding an envelope from the gallery waiting for him. Expecting a rejection letter asking him to remove his pieces from the gallery, he instead experienced the thrill of having a check fall out when he opened the envelope.
"When you sell a piece, it's like somebody saying, 'I want to hang that in my home,' " Castagna says, adding that memorable moment remains among the highlights of his career as an artist.
When the expansion of Shore Memorial Hospital in Somers Point neared completion, Accent Gallery was commissioned to help select the artwork for the project's first three floors. O'Rourke thought Castagna's work fit the "peaceful, tonal quality" the hospital sought. Ultimately, none of his pieces was chosen for the hospital's first decorating phase, but O'Rourke decided to keep a few of the paintings for display at Accent Gallery.
"I liked his work," she says. "To me, it's calming. I love the color. Although it's abstract, you get a sense of what it is, whether it's a seascape or a landscape."
Smith's work, unlike Castagna's, requires no interpretation, only concentration. "I consciously shoot photos to look like paintings," Smith says. "I call it abstract realism."
Studying one of his photographs—all of them are untitled because, Smith says, "You limit people when you name your work"—reveals three blurred koi in moving water. Another photograph that appears at first glance to be of a leaf also features, upon closer inspection, a spider web speckled with water droplets.
"Frank has a tremendous eye," O'Rourke says. "His pictures make me want to be where he is."
Technology has forced Smith, who has attended a number of weeklong workshops to better educate himself on certain aspects of his art, such as how to present his work, how to frame it, and how to put a portfolio together, to transition from 35mm film to digital photography.
"With film, you were careful, you would compose the photo, the thought process was richer," he says. "With digital, we've lost something. People think, 'I'll just go shoot everything.' "
Not Smith. He's selective about what he shoots and how much of it. His photograph of a white lily in a pond is one he took after noticing the flower somewhere between Santa Fe and Taos, NM. He returned to the area later and photographed the lily then, getting a more detailed and nuanced photo because it had rained since he'd first passed by.
Though their styles and approaches to their art differ, these former runners say they experience the same sort of "high" from creating as they experienced when exercising.
"When you get into that zone, you're conscious you're there," Smith says. "You've got to keep going until it stops."
"You get in a zone," Castagna says. "That's addictive. You do it so you can have that experience again."
The only thing better than that "high" is the knowledge that age allows them the freedom to do as they please as they pursue their art.
"The overwhelming majority of well-known abstract artists started as realist painters," Castagna says. "They're always trying to paint what someone will buy. When they get older, they say the hell with this, and they do what they want."
Says Smith, "I always had a fantasy of getting to a New York gallery and having a show. It would be some sort of validation. But the more I do this, the less important that is."
What matters most is producing pieces that have meaning to them. It took them decades to get to this point. Why would they compromise on any of it now?