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Obituary of Edward Boccia: Renowned artist, poet and professor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 7, 2012 - Edward Boccia, who merged abstract expressionism and figurative styles to create powerful paintings that hang in art museums from St. Louis to Athens and in hundreds of private collections, died Monday (Sept. 3) at his home in Webster Groves. He was 91.

Mr. Boccia had recently developed pneumonia following vascular bypass surgery, said his daughter, Alice.

By the mid-1980s, he had added poetry as a medium of artistic expression, creating word pictures with the same vivid exuberance that he painted canvases.

“As long as this man breathes the planet’s air, he cannot stop painting,” wrote Missouri’s then-poet laureate, David Clewell, in 2010. “Nor can he stop the pursuit of another of his passions: making poems.”

The artist said it first.

"For as long as I can remember, drawing and painting have been as natural to me as breathing," Mr. Boccia told the Webster-Kirkwood Times in 2003. "I can't conceive of not producing artistic work."

A mural he painted, Path of Redemption, dominates the Washington University Catholic Student Center Chapel where a memorial service will be held for Mr. Boccia on Sunday.

A ‘teacher’s teacher’

His talents were recognized early and carefully nurtured. 

While still in high school, Mr. Boccia took classes in his hometown at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts, an elite vocational school. After graduating, he attended the Art Students League of New York. He continued his art education on scholarship at the renowned Pratt Institute in New York, where he met his future wife, Madeleine Wysong.

With World War II raging, he withdrew from Pratt in 1942 to join the Army. He served until the end of the war.

When he returned home in 1945, he married Madeleine, and picked up right where he left off on his art education. He earned his bachelor's and master’s degrees from Columbia University.

While completing his master's, Mr. Boccia was a dean and taught painting and drawing at Columbus Art School in Ohio.

He came to St. Louis in 1951 to serve as assistant dean of fine arts at Washington University, a position he held until 1954, when he became associate professor in drawing. 

“He would say, ‘I started at the top and worked my way down,’” laughed his friend Dickson Beall, art critic for the West End Word.  “He was very modest.

“He didn’t want to be a dean. He wanted to be with the art students,” Beall added. “He was a ‘teacher’s teacher.’”

Mr. Boccia was named professor of art in 1966, a position he held for the next 20 years, when he became professor emeritus.

The idol

Mr. Boccia’s creations are slashes of luminous colors or powerful streaks of dark foreboding, abstract musings or slices of real life.  Many contain a surprise, like Webster Groves Landscape, in which a reclining nude is tucked among the scenery.

“Ed said that he felt he was both a classical figure artist and an expressionistic artist,” said Larry Kozuszek, retired associate professor of art at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley.  “His work had two poles, but it was all a part of him.”

Diptychs, triptychs and polyptychs were favorite devices to depict multiple and often large dimensions of a single concept, particularly Christian imagery.

He was a prolific artist whose creative vision seemed limitless.

His work hangs in numerous museum collections, including the St. Louis Art Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale and the National Gallery in Athens, Greece. His creations are in religious and public institutions and are part of more than 600 private collections.

Mr. Boccia’s art reflects the influence of many artists – Picasso, Cézanne, Nolde – but none is paid more homage than the German expressionist painter, Max Beckmann. 

Mr. Boccia barely missed being a colleague of his idol, who taught briefly at Washington University in the late ‘40s. He consoled himself with Beckmann’s easel, which he came by through an indirect inheritance.

"He became my God after I came here," Boccia told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1996.

He was introduced to Beckmann’s work by Morton D. “Buster” May, head of the May Department Stores Co.

May was a major art collector who filled a carriage house with Beckmann paintings; between 1951 and his death in 1983, he would amass an equally impressive collection of Mr. Boccia’s work.

Timeless legacy

A whole new generation has come to appreciate Mr. Boccia’s paintings, particularly what A.J. Brewington calls his “vintage” work.

Brewington, owner of Brewington Art & Interiors, represented Mr. Boccia for the past seven years. 

“My collectors and buyers seem to prefer his really early paintings — late ‘40s through the early ‘80s,” Brewington said. “They love his work.

“Mr. Boccia’s work is so strong and so striking, they just, one by one, began to buy it,” Brewington said. 

The power of his work has earned him abundant honors, including the “Borso di Studio” from the Italian government and a knighthood by the “Cavaliereal Merito Della Republica” in Italy. 

Saint Louis University, where more than 100 of Mr. Boccia’s works reside, made him a member of the Order of the Crown of King St. Louis IX in 1990.

In 2010, he received the Webster Groves Lifetime Achievement Award.

The poetry man

At an age when most people are retiring, Mr. Boccia found a new creative outlet for his talents. He became a poet.

He credited a student in one of his painting classes as the inspiration for his new career. The student interrupted a lecture to declare that Mr. Boccia’s descriptions of art and artists sounded poetic. His admirer suggested he write the words down.

Years later, in his mid-60s, he took the student’s advice.

David Clewell, who was teaching poetry writing at Washington University’s University College at the time, read and evaluated his poems.

Clewell deemed them excellent.

Replete with his illustrations, several of his books of poetry, including Moving the Still Life, have been published. His poems have garnered national and international awards.

The Death Series: A Visit from Raphael is a trilogy of poems titled Death is Always Flat, Death Comes in Layers and Death is Easy to See.As he faced the end of life, he began recording the experience, artfully.

He was a serious poet, but his daughter said, “From his core, he was a painter.  He was born to be a painter.”

Edward Eugene Boccia, born June 22, 1921, in Newark, N.J., was the younger of Frances Jacobitti Boccia and Cono Boccia’s two sons.

He was preceded in death by his parents, his brother, Francis Boccia, and his son, David Boccia.

In addition to his wife of 67 years and his daughter, Alice (Hillary Kapan) Boccia, of Los Angeles, Mr. Boccia’s survivors include a granddaughter, Jennifer Pateraki.

A memorial service will be at 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 9, in the Catholic Student Center Chapel, 6352 Forsyth Blvd.. A reception will follow.

Memorial contributions in memory of Mr. Boccia may be sent to the Catholic Student Center at Washington University, 6352 Forsyth Blvd., Clayton, Mo. 63105, or to Petruta Lipan, Director, Saint Louis University Museums and Galleries, Saint Louis University, 221 North Grand Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63103, for the development of St. Louis University Museum of Art’s collection.

REQUEST FOR SUBMISSIONS: A Catalogue Raisonné of Mr. Boccia’s works is being developed. Scholarly contributions and information regarding the location of Boccia artwork are requested for inclusion in the catalog. Entries may be submitted directly from the website edwardboccia.com.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.