Gene Costanza | Artist of the Week

Gene Costanza is a retired police officer with over twenty-five years of public service. As a child, he wanted to be an artist and even pursued its study while attending Community College. But at that young age, he didn’t have a clear direction and decided to walk away from art — burning his drawings and abandoning his supplies in a rental property. Growing up in the 1970s, Costanza describes his early life as turbulent. Looking for structure and meaning, he turned to a Taekwon Do School. One day, while practicing alone in the studio, his teacher asked if he wanted to beat up some cops. “Sure, who doesn’t,” he said. And the rest is history. Costanza “encountered three of the finest men [he’s] ever known” that day, and quickly became enamored with the profession. One ride-along and he was hooked. In his decades-long career as a public servant, Costanza served seven years on the SWAT team, ten years as a Patrol Sergeant, and five years as a K9 handler/supervisor. 

During all that time, his love for art remained present. Oftentimes, encountering a beautiful scene and wondering how he would paint that. Truthfully, he didn’t know. Over two decades of trying not to get killed, maimed, sued, or fired while trying to remain physically and mentally healthy didn’t leave much energy for other pursuits. 

While he describes his return to art as late in the game, Costanza knew if he worked hard and didn’t give up, he could apply himself and learn something. To this day, his mantra is “I’ll never be as good as I want, but I can be better next year than I am today if I work at it and don’t give up.”

Costanza at the easel.

Costanza is a contemporary realist painter of traditional subject matter, focusing primarily on landscape. He orchestrates paintings that engage the viewer and invites them to enter his world. By capturing the light and atmosphere, the feel and smell, the wind and wave, he hopes to share places that mean something to him and the moments that evoke common feelings we share. One person summed it up with, “I love to watch your landscapes.” Task accomplished in that case.

Costanza painting en plein air.

A Studio Tour with the Artist

While some folks, who don’t know any better, might call it a garage, I call it my Art Fort.  Or my wife called it that. I have a third bay in the garage where I can work with the door up in summer but in winter it gets really cold. I bought a 10×10 canopy with sides that just fit. I can heat it with a space heater so it becomes a little cocoon. I feel like I’m in a Sci-Fi movie, in a white sterile cubicle but in my own world. It was an idea that worked this past winter anyway. When my wife said it reminded her of a fort, like kids used to build when I was young (hello Boomer!), I put a “no girls allowed” sign on it. I’ve never had a remote studio, so I don’t know if I have the discipline to go to one and work. Maybe someday. When I first set up my garage tent, it was really clean and sterile — only my easel, taboret, and trash can. I soon fixed that anomaly, and it is messy again. 

Costanza’s “Art Fort”
Costanza’s Taboret
Inside the “Art Fort”

Q&A with the Artist

Why do you do what you do?

I paint traditional subject manner in a “contemporary realist” way. At this point in history, I think of it as being kind of an “ecclesiopressionist.” I made that terminology up. It means to me, to borrow from every other “school” or movement, whatever wisdom and knowledge or technique that can be gleaned, and apply it to make a compelling 3D image out of 2D materials. Given the immensity of information available today, that is a big endeavor. One which I will fail at, but it’s worth a try.  

Art. An inner drive that demands attention, almost like an entity in and of itself. I see that in other artists as well. The internal engine to create takes on a life of its own. A desire to explore the rich visual world in the fundamental questions I think we all share. What does this life mean? Does it mean anything at all? Why am I drawn to this? When I watched the Sir Roger Scruton documentary on beauty, it affirmed why I decided to paint, and why I moved mostly to landscapes. Beauty has been a motivator in artistic endeavors for as long as we have been social creatures. I decided I did not need to change the world. I tried police work for that. I decided to try to make it a better place one painting at a time. Other folks can make social commentary. I’ve seen enough ugly.  

I paint the landscape mostly. It is ever-present. It demands your attention. Like police work, one must be ever-vigilant and miss nothing. So much evidence to be recognized, categorized, interpreted for what is true and what is misleading. That evidence must be presented in a meaningful, organized way so the jury has the ability to make a decision on its veracity. Outdoor painting, en plein air, is immediate and there is no time to waste. One must bring years of preparation to the endeavor, like a foot or vehicle pursuit, (the fun part of law enforcement). I loved it when the game was afoot. You are in the moment, and you must not fail. I felt painting on location was similar – trying to wrestle a worthy result from a resistant landscape. There is a saying in military engagements that in spite of great prior planning, “the enemy has a vote.” Many times I feel like it’s a pugilistic event, in a tussle with nature to wrestle my result away from “her.” I am looking to touch the small places deep within the viewer’s mind and soul, and hopefully add to the beauty of the world around us. I try to balance discipline with enthusiasm and overcome my personal undisciplined proclivities. 

Up There | Oil on panel | 30 x 36″

How do you work?

I try to manage my personal shortcomings and apply myself to the problem. The problem is that making a picture is more than just making a picture . . . I hope it makes someone stop, think, and enjoy. Once, a client said to me, “I love to watch your landscapes.” That felt like a success. 

I try to make a solid plan after getting a good idea. I gather information and act on it. I am always looking for ideas. I haven’t painted “everything” by any means, but to get the most out of my limited time, I hope to have a clear idea and goal when I commit the resources to an outcome. I am asking questions and seeking the answers on linen, with mostly oil paint. Then, I buckle down and try to pull the painting off.  

I work outside. When I see something that looks really damn hard, I think to myself, “I probably can’t do it justice, but it’s worth a try.” As I get older, I tend to wander less distance from the car.

For many years, when I was closer to the start of my career, I began each year with a new goal or goals. I worked on weaknesses or things that need to be developed — like the elements of a good painting. I might focus on water or skies, or foregrounds and lead-in. I still do this, but in the past few years, I’ve mostly focused on composition and how to make a landscape with a story. I think it’s subtle and very hard.

I keep a number of big paintings going all the time — working on them over time. I love to see how they develop as ideas and attempts become more clear — make them more complex, then simplify. Tonal harmonies arise that at times could not have been preplanned. One of my favorite pieces was “under construction” for many years, and became like an old friend. I used it to “warm-up” before launching into a piece I really wanted to work on. It seemed to get the “yayas” out, like loosening up before an athletic event. It was just plain fun! 

March Thaw | Oil on linen | 40 x 48″

What role does the artist have in society?

I do think the artist has the responsibility to remind people of the important things in life.  Foremost in my mind is Beauty. We live in a broken world of our own making. When I watched Sir Roger Scruton’s video work on beauty and why it matters, it codified to me the reasons I started to paint again in the first place. A selfish desire to give first aid to my own soul, and then, maybe, to touch another’s soul with the images of a wonderful natural world.  

What is an artistic outlook on life?

Observing and analyzing everything. Similar to police work. You have to see and weigh everything, rank its importance, and how it relates to every other piece of evidence. It is a great way to be a tourist. With a paintbrush in hand or not, you are gathering information continually. Looking at and into faces and places. I think you see more as a “Creative.”   

What your favorite or most inspirational place?

Usually near water: the ocean or a trout stream. The sound of moving water and the ambiance it lends is usually my happiest place. Yes, as I look around my studio I have about ten paintings underway in one stage of finish or another. All have water as an element. Of the places I love most, the California Coast: Carmel, Big Sur, and the Pacific Grove rank right up at the top. However, I moved to dry Central Oregon two years ago, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of my new digs.

Professionally, what is your goal?

Simple really. Make more true and inspired paintings that communicate the wonder of the natural world. Figure out how to “tell a story” more completely. To paint “less by rote, and more by emote,” but remain true to “realism.” John Carlson said that eventually, an artist would feel color more than see color. I want to feel my way to a successful painting (keeping good thinking intact too). Draw more, lots more. Work on “the figure,” which was my first love – paintings of people and stories.  

Lily Pad Gallery