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Falls history comes alive through mural art

NIAGARA FALLS -- Gabriel Porto is painting his memoirs. The 70-year-old retired teacher is putting his life -- and a large slice of the city's history -- on canvas.

Porto taught art at Niagara Falls High School for 25 years. Eight years ago, he put down his chalk and took up a paintbrush in earnest, working on canvases in a spare room of his house on Sy Road in Wheatfield, where he lives with his wife, Josephine.

His son, Joseph, owns a carpet cleaning business in Wheatfield, and his daughter, Damita DeBowes, is a psychologist in West Haven, Conn.

Three years ago, Porto, who has six grandchildren, stopped messing around and built a studio in the back yard of his house.

"The studio was a gift to myself," he said. "It's like a dream come true. I make a mess and don't have to clean up."

He's making more than a mess. He's making history come alive on his canvases and murals.

Porto was raised in the Little Italy section of Niagara Falls, and Little Italy, particularly Pine Avenue, is his new subject. A large oil painting he did of the late Nick Antonacci, who founded the landmark Como Restaurant with his brother, Mario, was recently installed on a wall of a building across the street from the Como.

An 8-foot-long painting of 1950s-era customers shopping in the famous specialty food shop, Latina's, on Pine Avenue, hangs on the wall behind the counter. Porto is currently refurbishing a 6-by-4-foot mural of famed baseball player Sal Maglie. In his most ambitious project yet, Porto plans to paint a huge outside mural -- 32 feet long and 8 feet high -- depicting the bustle and life of the City Market on Pine Avenue in the 1940s and 1950s.

What does the City Market mean to you?

I grew up in the market. I was born in a house on Elmwood Avenue, facing the market. I was one of 10 children -- two boys and eight girls -- and the market was a playground for all of us kids. We played stickball, basketball and street hockey in the parking lots. When the farmers came, I'd sit on the front porch and watch all the activity. I couldn't have had a richer childhood.

How vibrant and vital was the City Market in the 1940s and '50s?

The market was the center of our community and, from my point of view, the center of the world. Literally hundreds of farmers would come from all over Niagara County to sell their goods. They were there from early in the morning until late at night every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with Friday being the biggest day. On Fridays, my father would buy a live chicken, bring it home and put it in the basement. On Saturday, he'd dispatch it, and my mother would pluck the feathers. I can still smell those feathers. On Sunday, we'd all sit down and enjoy a chicken dinner.

You want to re-create that era and that life in the mural you plan to do?

I love to tell a story through my paintings, like the one I did for Latina's. In the picture, bread is 10 cents a loaf. The older women crowding around the counter have their hair in buns and are wearing black because they've lost a member of the family. The younger women are beautiful and full of life. I knew every one of these people. The little boy looking in the barrel of olives could have been me. In fact, it probably was. Doing the market mural would be like reliving my childhood.

Did your family immigrate to Niagara Falls from Italy?

Not directly. My father, Gasper, landed at Ellis Island in 1920 and like many of the immigrants at that time headed for the coal mines of Pennsylvania. He worked there until the mines ran out and then came to Niagara Falls in the 1930s because that's where all the chemical plants were. He worked hard to make a home here for his wife and 10 kids. He died of black lung disease at 76, from the mine I'm sure.

You're 70 but could pass for 60. What's your secret?

Well, first, I still have my brown hair; it never turned gray. My mother and father never went really gray, either. Second, I think, is complexion. My brothers and sisters -- there are still six of us left -- all have clear complexions, which we attribute to my mother. She lived to 83.

Did you always want to be an artist?

In school, the only thing I excelled at was art. The people in history I admired were all artists, running the gamut from Norman Rockwell to Picasso. But most people who paint can't make a living out of it. The materials, alone, are very expensive. I had a wife and two children and I had to bring home the bacon, and the chicken, too. So I did the next best thing: I got a bachelor's degree in art and a master's in art history and went to work as a teacher. And I just kept at it until I reached that first retirement plateau of 62.

Is this stage of your life, then, the beginning of what you always really wanted to do?

Absolutely. I really get into it. I don't just paint a picture, I'm in that picture myself. I become part of the painting. I love going to the Niagara Falls Library to research the history for my paintings. . . . I love doing Indian paintings. I've always had a great interest in the Indian culture. During a sabbatical from teaching in 1978, my family and I drove around the country in a motor home and visited 50 Indian reservations. I studied their culture and their art, and now I'm putting it down on canvas. . . . I'd like to do a mural for the Seneca Niagara Casino.

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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