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Sean Kirst: How Buffalo artist copes with losing son to heroin

Ralph Sirianni took his cue from Walter Prochownik, his mentor in life and art. Siranni studied under Prochownik, a renowned painter, in the 1970s at the University at Buffalo.

Sirianni, 68, raised on the city's West Side, was a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam. Prochownik, who left Poland as a young man to escape the invading Nazis, resettled in Buffalo and saw combat during World War II.

Their shared understanding of war fueled their art.

"What's inside of you, you've got to get it out," Prochownik told Sirianni. He'd gesture at a canvas and say:

Put it there.

Siranni did. It was one of the great revelations of his life. You see the result in his basement studio, in a series of paintings on bare-knuckled boxers that he's worked on for several years. Each one explodes at you as you enter the room, speaking to both suffering and violence, red paint illuminating the force of every blow.

With one of those paintings, "A Brush with Bare Knuckles," Sirianni pinned it to a mattress and then struck it repeatedly, his own fists leaving distinct marks in the canvas.

He has designed monuments for civic parks. His paintings are displayed in galleries around the nation. The work comes together as passion, grief and medicine.

It is how he sought peace, when he came home from the war.

It is also his way of dealing with the loss of a son.

Ralph Sirianni, in his basement studio in Tonawanda. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

Gabriel Sirianni, his youngest child, died in March at 33 of a heroin overdose. Ralph Sirianni, in longtime recovery from the same addiction, goes to the only place he knows for release and solace.

He paints in explosive fury, completing some pieces in days or even hours. One Sirianni painting, entitled "POW," depicts a starving figure, ribs protruding, skeletal arms holding out a dish for food.

It is one of three Sirianni paintings now displayed in "Veterans as Artists: Transitions" in the WNED Horizons Gallery. The exhibit was inspired by "The Vietnam War," a Ken Burns documentary film series airing on PBS.

Yet there is another piece in Sirianni's basement studio that he expects he will never allow himself to truly finish.

To the best of his knowledge, it is the last painting Gabe touched with a brush.

Sirianni and his wife, Michelle, now divorced, named their three boys after archangels - Raphael, Michael and Gabriel - Biblical figures that fascinated Sirianni. "I always believed in them," he said.

Once, he said, as he prepared to skydive, he sensed the presence of angels in the clouds outside the plane. His faith in their existence, in a beauty beyond the pain and ugliness of everyday life, provides his hope during the hardest time of his life.

"These things have weighed very heavily on me since I lost Gabe," Sirianni said.

He remembers his youngest son running through the door after school, thrilled to show his father some drawings he'd done in class, or the way Gabe loved to spend time in his studio.

He remembers how Gabe and his brothers would often serve, with patient humor, as models for some of Sirianni's paintings.

Yet Gabe, who became an artist in his own right, carried a sadness the father could never quite define. Sirianni believes it is part of the fabric that caused his son to begin using heroin, the burden that would eventually claim his life.

Gabriel Sirianni (family photo)

Gabe had admitted his addiction to his father. "He sat right over there," said Sirianni recently, in his Town of Tonawanda living room, "and he told me he was using heroin."

His son wept as he tried to explain, and Sirianni – who understood the hunger all too well – responded with a truth he'd learned himself: "You've got to stop. You know there's no winning in this thing."

Twice, Sirianni said, emergency workers used Narcan to save Gabe when he overdosed. After the third time, there was no road back.

Gabe held on for eight days, unconscious, in Kenmore Mercy Hospital. Sirianni spent hours with his son, praying, quietly urging him to live.

In the silence after that vigil ended, Sirianni went to Gabe's apartment. He found the unfinished painting, still on the easel.

It is an abstract portrait of a figure raising a disconnected fist to its chin, beneath eyes that seem weary and far away. Sirianni knew how much his son cared about his work. He brought the painting home and set it up in his basement.

For a while he worked on it, adding color, whenever he went downstairs.

Now Sirianni sometimes puts it away, or else it consumes him.

Losing Gabe left him reflecting on his own years of addiction. He never tried hard drugs while in charge of a Marine infantry squad. "There was no time, no place for it," he said.

Instead, he was snared by heroin when he returned, faced with emptiness and grief in a nation that did not want to know what happened in Vietnam.

Sirianni used heroin for years, until his sons were little boys. The night he stopped was the night they all came to the closed bathroom door, calling to their father on the other side, "Daddy! What are you doing in there?"

It was his pivot, the moment he later prayed Gabe would someday reach.

"I thought of my family," he said, "and I knew I didn't want to bring them down with me."

He spent 38 years as an arts therapist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo, before retiring. A friend there, his sponsor for more than 25 years, helped him find his way to a 12-step program. He speaks of both his sponsor and a close friend, Pam Kaznowski, as "angels" in his life who steadied him as he regained his footing.

In recovery, he draws strength from honoring his bond with the Marines. He embraces what he believes are his obligations to his fellow veterans. He's served as a sketch artist for the Buffalo police, aiding in efforts to identify suspects.

Today, amid an opioid epidemic that claims tens of thousands of lives every year, he thinks of how Prochownik told him to empty his grief and despair on canvas. That provided an outlet, a respite and an answer.

"The reality of addiction," Sirianni said, "is that you come to a place where your body needs it. But there's also the truth that if you have something that's eating you up inside or a pain you can't get past or something in your life you can't get over, there's the artificial relief, right there. Once you do it, it'll take care of everything."

Heroin's raw power, he said, is defined by the clarity of the outcome for his son and so many others:

"They see all these people dying, but they continue, and they die."

The unfinished painting Ralph Sirianni found in his son's apartment, along with Gabriel's hospital band. (Derek Gee/The Buffalo News)

What Sirianni witnessed in Vietnam became impossible to bury. His life transformed into a long attempt to cope with the pain. His drug use gave way to more redemptive outlets - to marathon running, to deeper community involvement and, beyond all else, to his art.

For this newest pain, his hardest loss, he has no illusions about any means of peace.

Sirianni maintains two home studios, upstairs and in the basement. They allow him to follow Prochownik's advice, to put whatever he is feeling at any moment on the canvas.

For that reason, he knows why he can never truly finish Gabe's last painting.

He will stay with it for as long as he misses his son.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at or read more of his work in this archive.

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