American Italian Historical Association Newsletter
Western Regional Chapter
French, Baltimore’s Own Little Italy Artist: The Artwork of Tony DeSales,
Genovefa Press: 2003.
In many ways, Tony DeSales was a uniquely Italian American phenomenon—in
the tradition of self-taught visionaries like Ralph Fasanella, Sam Rodia
and Baldessare Forestiere. Though he was trained to teach math, and did for
several years, his real genius emerged when he decided to take his mother
home from the State Mental Hospital where she had been consigned, and care
for her himself. Renting a small apartment in a rowhouse in Little Italy,
he provided his mother with all she needed, supporting them both by setting
himself up as a street artist on a corner of the revived Italian neighbor-hood.
For 35 years, he did this, specializing in drawings of Baltimore’s historic
buildings, making a practice of providing his patrons with postcards of his
work, which they would send to him from distant places they traveled. All
the while, he kept his mother nearby, an integral part of the scene he created.
As one drawing describes it: “This is Tony DeSales’ corner, at Fawn
and High Streets, where, for 35 years, he set up his easel and his display
boards, sat his mother in a folding chair, and engaged the passers-by in
conversation ranging from Greek Philosophy to the merits of the Bic pen.”
sister, Rita French, along with her husband, Perrin French and designer Irvin
Lin, have made of this life story one of the finest self-published books you
are likely to see. Like Tony DeSales’ life itself, the book is a labor of
love. Its inside cover is decorated with the postcards DeSales received over
a lifetime. Then there is a short sketch of Tony DeSales’ life, which reads
like a novel. The main portion is filled with the drawings he did, often
with simple ball-point pens, all lovingly rendered, and described. The drawings
and descriptions tell the history not only of Little Italy—though there
is a great deal of that—but also of Baltimore, one of America’s oldest, and
most architecturally interesting cities. And since DeSales took numerous
trips to his favorite cities nearby—Annapolis and Washington, DC—there are
sections with drawings of those cities as well. Many of the drawings have
photographs of the buildings on the facing pages for comparison. Some have
Tony’s handwritten comments along the bottom, such as the one of “Little
Italy--Stiles & Albemarle...Look down these old streets for their proud
or hidden histories, for the record of our joys and tragedies...” To get
a copy, contact Rita French at (650)324-0575, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 28, 2003
By Tom Chalkley
than 35 years, a neatly dressed man sat at an easel at Fawn
and High streets in Little Italy, drawing and painting scenes
of Baltimore and Maryland. Handsome and dignified, Tony
DeSales was a full-fledged Baltimore character, hailed by
restaurant patrons and lifelong neighbors, dubbed Little
Italy's "ambassador" by journalists and politicians.
his tenure on the street corner, DeSales turned out hundreds
of drawings, mostly postcard-like images of local landmarks,
rendered with a ballpoint pen on inexpensive paper, then
variously copied and/or hand-tinted.
same years--the last third of the 20th century--DeSales
also wrote and published a community newsletter called Piccolo,
dabbled in poetry, composed organ music for the Church of
St. Leo, and passed out hundreds of self-published, self-addressed
postcards that were mailed back to him from all over the
world. From 1966 to 1998, his mother, Genevieve, often sat
near him on the sidewalk as he worked. DeSales died in 2000
at the age of 59.
to an eccentric public person, the term "character" expresses
affection but, at the same time, diminishes the actual person:
The character himself is at risk of becoming a scrap of
local color, a living stereotype.
this year, Rita DeSales French rescued her brother's memory
from one-dimensionality by publishing, at her own expense,
the hefty book Baltimore's Own Little Italy Artist: The
Artwork of Tony DeSales. Like DeSales' meticulous renderings
of his built environment, the book is a labor of love.
is a bit misleading. The 225-page tome, of coffee-table
proportions, displays 100 or so reproductions of DeSales'
drawings and watercolors, but the accompanying text isn't
really about the artwork. Instead, it's about DeSales himself
and his subject matter--buildings, monuments, scenery, and
sailing ships. As a compilation of local lore, this one belongs
on the Baltimore bookshelf alongside Bert Smith's collections
of local postcards, Frank Shivers' walking tours, and that hard-to-find,
out-of-print collection of Charmed Life essays. The brisk,
literate prose accompanying DeSales' drawings--plus dozens
of lovely photographs and a few window-screen paintings by
Tom Lipka --amounts to a respectable Bawlmer guidebook. French
and her co-authors draw on many sources, yet manage to boil
the copious material down to its most interesting essentials
and gemlike factoids. (For example, do you know the connection
between Little Italy's annual St. Anthony's festival and the Great
Baltimore Fire of 1904? During the fire, the community prayed
to the saint en masse for protection, and--lo!--the flames
never crossed Jones Falls. Thankful Little Italy has held
the festival ever since.)
life story, tersely related here, is a heartbreaker: the
tragedy of a man with native talent and a restless spirit
who, due to poverty and his own stubborn integrity, never
got to develop his gifts fully. As the eldest son of a mentally
ill mother and a father who drifted away from the family,
he shouldered household responsibilities from an early age.
DeSales is quoted as saying "I was born 40 years old to take
care of my mother." He also took care of his siblings. His
hard-won career as a math teacher was cut short in the early
'60s by his decision to care for his mother at home rather than
let her languish in a nursing facility.
rest of his life he was, as the authors assert, truly an
"outsider artist" by virtue of being self-taught and self-directed.
He was never the sort of mystic naif displayed at the American
Visionary Art Museum.
his drawings were intended to be faithfully descriptive.
He was more concerned with the exact number of panes in a
window than with the vagaries of natural light and shade.
Even so, the art allows some insight into the soul of the
artist--his personal rigor, his fixation on the solid, reliable
facts in the slippery world around him. Although the writers
remark that he nearly always included people in his scenes,
the cityscapes look lonely, with small, scattered figures,
often in silhouette. Meanwhile, light, shade, and atmosphere become
free-form decorative patterns that dance around the hard-edged,
obsessively detailed buildings. Aesthetically, some of the
most pleasing drawings represent the least beautiful buildings,
such as La Fontaine Bleu catering hall in Glen Burnie, where
large glass surfaces gave DeSales an excuse to go wild with
As a small-time,
largely self-taught artist myself--and one who has counted
his share of window panes--I can't help but feel a pang
of empathy for Tony DeSales. Success, in the world's terms,
is an odd interaction of talent, ambition, perseverance,
and sheer luck. One's dice start shaking before one's life
begins. What would Tony DeSales have become, given different
place and time of birth, given different parents? A classical
musician? A commercial artist? A high school principal? Instead,
he got some raw deals--and in his own dignified, creative
way, he triumphed over them. More than being "a character,"
he had character. In the end, that's what justifies the book. It's
doubtful that a happier, more conventional life would have garnered
such a tribute.
As of this
writing, Baltimore's Own Little Italy Artist is one of three
finalists for a Benjamin Franklin Award in the category
of biography and memoir. The awards will given out on May
28 by the Publishers Marketing Association, an organization
of independent publishers.
2003 Baltimore City Paper. All Rights Reserved.
for more about Baltimore by Tom Chalkley, visit
the archives at www.citypaper.com
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Hopkins Medical News Spring/Summer
Own Little Italy Artist: The artwork of Tony DeSales
by Rita D. French, Perrin L. French and Irvin F. Lin
(Palo Alto, Calif.: Genovefa Press, 2003)
from the part of Baltimore where immigrants lived in rowhouses
lining the harbor to be close to the shipyards and canneries
where they worked, at a time when screens were painted with
scenes of swans and waterfalls, and marble steps gleamed
white from regular treatment with Ajax and a scrub brush,
then something about this book will grip at your throat.
There’s love and quirkiness emanating from this lush coffee
table book—a mood entirely fitting its subject.
volume is a tribute to “Baltimore institution” Tony DeSales,
a self-taught artist who worked on the corner of Fawn and
High Streets in Little Italy for 35 years. His drawings, rendered
with colored pencils and Bic pens, are architectural scenes where
the perspective sometimes goes awry; there’s a slight Van
Gogh quality to them.
begins with a brief but well-done biography of Tony’s hardscrabble
life, lovingly written by his sister, Rita DeSales French.
We learn that Tony, one of five children of first generation
Polish and Italian immigrants, not only took care of his
siblings but spent a lifetime looking after his mother, who
suffered with schizophrenia.
the drawings is accompanied by historical information written
by Rita’s husband, Perrin L. French (M.D. 1968). Even Baltimore
natives will learn a lot here. For example, the idea for
painted screens began with an East Baltimore grocer and artist
with a practical problem—he needed to shade his wares from
died in 2000, at the age of 59, after burying his
mother just two years earlier. It seems that he managed to meet
just about everyone—from governors, senators
and movie stars to ordinary folks—at his
carefully selected corner in Little Italy where four
famous restaurants met. His sister, Rita, thinks that was the
point. “How does a talented young boy find expression for
his artistic gifts with no support from anyone?” she writes.
“He turned himself over to the people of
Baltimore. He sought out their notice and their
praise—he wanted them to love him. And what did the people
of Baltimore do? They loved him back.”
"Baltimore’s Own Little Italy Artist
— the Artwork of Tony DeSales arrived today. I had a
chance to look it over tonight, and it is beautifully done!
I very much like many of the more intricate (detailed) of
Tony’s drawings (Baltimore, Little Italy, Fells Point, Annapolis,
Wash DC, & other locations). One really gets a feeling for
the man–a good man, community man, a people-person, a man
who took care of his mother lifelong, a man who loved his
surroundings, as depicted in his drawings. Rita did a beautiful
job of putting this together–the artwork, the photographs,
the biographical element and the descriptions of Baltimore
neighborhoods & landmarks (and other). Furthermore, I
am pleased with the way my photographs and credit came out.
I am impressed with the product that one woman (Rita, along
with her two co-authors), working independently, can produce."
— Keith Stanley
Baltimore's Own Little Italy Artist - The Artwork of
Tony DeSales, one gets a sense of the special character
of communities and neighborhoods in and around Baltimore
-- Little Italy, Fells Point, Annapolis, Washington, D.C.
The drawings, accompanied by rich historical text, depict
the special architecture of neighborhoods, houses, churches,
and a variety of institutions, as well as life on the water. The
book serves as a valuable resource to anyone wanting to gain
a full appreciation of life in Baltimore and its surrounding
— Freeman Hrabowski,
President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Warm Visual Embrace of Baltimore's Little Italy
This lovingly crafted book Rita and Perrin French traces
the work of Rita's brother Tony DeSales. The prints are
warm,evocative and touch the spirit of place, They show
artist and scene as one; his trying to make you observe
the vision of Baltimore that he had embraced. Many are hauntingly
beautiful renderings and show a warm remembrance of his
vision. You will see many nuances of place and look again
at places found in this wonderfully crafted editon.
— Ilo Soovere
from Perry Point, Md
I am not usually an art fan, I found this book to be a delightful
view into the life and work of Tony DeSales. If you love
Baltimore (as I do) then this book is for you. The many drawings
and photographs of local landmarks will give you a different
view that only Tony DeSales can provide. This is a great
— Gilbert M
Bohannon Jr from Baltimore, MD USA
'GREAT JOB.' I know the time, the effort that goes into
such a project. You are to be commended for an outstanding
I am the Historian
for the USS SHANGRI-LA Association and just finished a book
on the history of our aircraft carrier. Although I was really
happy (and relieved) when that project was completed, it was not
until I began to receive feedback from our members, that I
realized what an impact such a project can have on people.
I showed your book to several other Shrewsbury neighbor's
who are Baltimore natives. They were elated and immediately
wanted to know how to get a copy. They also shared stories
about seeing or talking to Tony on the street corner. Not
only have you preserved a special part of Baltimore's history,
you have also produced a 'Family Album' for those who grew
up in and around Baltimore. As we said in the Navy, Bravo
Zulu (Well Done).
USS SHANGRI-LA Association
The Star-Spangled Banner in the collection
of the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore is a
replica created in 1964 for the World's Fair
in New York City.
Star-Spangled Banner was given to Major George Armistead,
commander of Ft. McHenry, after the bombardment in 1814. The
flag was kept by the Armistead family until
July 6, 1907 when it was given to the Smithsonian
Institution. The flag is currently undergoing restoration
at the National Museum of American History. You can actually
see the flag as its being restored at the
museum. It's a pretty fascinating display if you
get a chance to visit!
— Eric Voboril,
Star-Spangled Banner Flag House
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