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After years teaching others about art, Lockport’s Jack DiMaggio now creates it himself

LOCKPORT – Acrylics as warm and gracious as their creator join intimate pencil sketches, while sharp pen and ink drawings vie for attention alongside tranquil watercolors in artist Jack DiMaggio’s elegant Lockport home studio.

Studies of solitary figures from New Orleans to Ireland – their realistic postures reflecting the artist’s eye for detail – are interspersed with fluid landscapes and recognizable landmarks.

DiMaggio, with a well-known smile that lights up a room, is also a mentor, community volunteer and avid golfer, who retired after 34 years as an art teacher.

He will talk about the “Imprints Behind the Smile” at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Wheeler Room of the Lockport Public Library. He is this year’s guest lecturer for the John and Dianne Koplas Memorial Lecture Series, which is free and open to the public.

Lifelong local educators, John and Dianne Koplas long remained active in a variety of community endeavors. DiMaggio knew the late couple well, having spent three decades as an art teacher at Lockport High School with John, an English teacher.

Charles Begley also knew the Koplases well, and has known DiMaggio since they began teaching together in 1967. He now teaches Latin and Greek at Niagara University.

“You can’t teach someone how to be a teacher,” Begley said. “Jack is an inspiration to artists and to young people. He’s well respected by his students. And Jack taught that even if you don’t draw, you still have the ability to appreciate art.”

Following years of inspiring students to explore various mediums, when DiMaggio retired from Lockport High School in 1999, he said he was ready to devote time to creating art, himself.

“It was an opportunity to really get into the variety of mediums I taught,” he recalled. “And when we had enough inventory, we decided to open our own gallery.”

DiMaggio and his wife, Kate, opened the studio in their beautifully appointed home at 667 Walnut St. 9 years ago. It’s a place filled with art and light, which they have called home for 39 years. He said he is never as delighted as when his former students stop in for a chat.

“I loved the kids, I loved the classroom,” he said with smile. “You know how some kids will say, ‘I can’t draw?’ Well, this was a prideful thing with me. I would say, ‘Yes, you can.’ I enjoyed motivating them.”

After helping his Lockport students prepare their art portfolios for college submissions for many years, DiMaggio’s methods caught the attention of state educators and a new, statewide, credit-bearing high school course was developed. He said this is something he is still very proud of to this day.

DiMaggio recently gave a tour of his studio and sat down for a chat, even though he and Kate were preparing for their annual trip to Alaska to visit their youngest son, Paul, and his family.

How did you first become interested in art?

My first art teacher was Wayne Cardy and he introduced me to stick figures and they fascinated me. In junior high, Marion Hazen brought art to a level for me where I really became intrigued. She pulled me aside and said, “I think you should think about art education someday.” But I just laughed.

Then, in high school, Bill Storrs was my art teacher and he was a remarkable man. I knew then that art would be in my life. But I didn’t want to go to college. My Dad was a bricklayer and a contractor and I thought that was what I wanted to do. My assistant principal, Fred Case, asked me if I was going to college and I said, “No.” He said, “Yes, you are.”

I ended up going to Edinboro University in Pennsylvania for three years, then transferred to California State University at Fullerton for my bachelor’s degree and California teaching credentials.

So you started teaching in California?

I taught one year of high school in California, then got a phone call to come back and teach at Lockport High School, so I did. But the third year, I went back to Southern California. I knew on the way there it was a mistake, but I finished out the year and then came back to Lockport. I was at Emmett Belknap that one year and then went to the high school until I retired.

Were you able to draw or paint much in the years you were teaching?

Just little things. I was also always very involved in sports. I coached my first 10 years of teaching. I coached varsity wrestling, gymnastics and football. And, I was still participating in sports – it was fast-pitch softball by then. Later, I took up golf.

And, you also had a family, right?

Yes. My oldest son, Dan, is now a retired Air Force pilot and he’s a captain for the Emirates Airlines who lives in Dubai with his wife and twin daughters; my son, Jon, is a former business owner and he and his wife have four boys, so he’s a stay-at-home dad right now; and my youngest, Paul, has his dream job as a forester for the Alaska State Parks Department and he and his wife have two daughters.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I wake up with ideas, but my (time for) painting has been all over the board. I seem to work best under pressure. But I’m going to be 74 and I’m still trying to work on a more regular basis. (laugh)

I’m not regimented – I see what I like and I go for it.

What medium do you prefer?

I started with pencil drawing and I love it. I never had a painting lesson – I’m self-taught. I love doing figures and faces and I’ve enjoyed having fun with landscapes.

Do you work from photos?

I will work from photos – but only ones I take myself because I know what I’m looking for. I work from sketches. I work from life.

Who does your beautiful matting and framing?

I do all of it myself in my studio, which is in our completely remodeled attic. And I do matting and framing for people who bring me work from other artists, too.

Who has done all of this remodeling work?

We have. My dad was a bricklayer and he passed along his work ethic.

Kate is an artist, too – she’s very talented. This has all been a joint effort. She’s very good at decorating, at putting things together. She recently did some paintings of animals as gifts for our grandchildren – they love that.

Can people make appointments to tour your gallery?

Yes – they can call us at 434-4941.

We also have a two-day Open House every November, on the weekend before Thanksgiving and we get 150 to 200 people who come through. We also have unique shows by invitation on occasion.

We’ve had a “Naked in Winter” show of nudes in February with a Mardi Gras theme, and we’re planning an outdoor backyard show sometime in late July with a ceramist, Mike Bieter, from the Albany area. My work is also in Gertie’s Restaurant in Clarence Center and I will have an exhibit Aug. 25 to Oct. 1 at the Lockport Historical Society.

People can also go to: www.gallerydimaggio@blogspot.com.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.