Tony Bennett: A Symphony of Creativity
On July 21st, 2023, I walked into the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. for some air conditioning and free art. We were on a family vacation and were walking around the city searching for something to do, when I pointed to the building on the corner of 8th and G streets. We scrambled up the marble steps and into the gallery, grabbing a map from the information desk as we went. As soon as we got in, we all sat down to study it in silence, taking in the tranquility and peace that art museums always seem to have.
My brother, the athlete of the family, went to check out the paintings of his favorite sports heroes, while my parents headed down the hall to look at the presidential portraits. As for myself, I journeyed to the top floor of the building, out onto the mezzanine, to the entertainment section. There, I saw pictures and sculptures of all the great American stars: Roy Rogers, Elvis Presley, Ginger Rogers, Shirley Temple, and Dizzy Gilespie, to name a few.
At the very end of the hall, almost hidden from view, was a portrait of world-famous singer Tony Bennett. Painted by his good friend Everett Raymond Kinstler, the picture displays Bennett as a jovial man, his bright blue eyes piercing through the canvas as he smiles softly at the onlooker. His cheeks are rosy, and his hair just turning gray, streaks of brown shining through.
I admired the portrait as I walked by, having grown up with his music playing at every family function. I thought nothing of it as I walked out of the building with my family, or even as we drove away. It was not until I reached for my phone and saw the news notification that Bennett had passed away that I realized the weight that portrait carried.
I knew I wanted to write about Bennett. He had an impact on so many people’s lives, shaped their childhoods, adulthoods, those moments where they listened to his music for comfort and reassurance. But what connection could Tony Bennett have possibly had with Ohio?
As it turns out, Tony Bennett was not only a singer, but a painter as well. While music is what made him famous, visual art is what gave him peace, a subject which he truly loved. While people were painting him, he was painting others. And it was an art museum in Youngstown, Ohio that discovered his talent and finally put it on display.
Many years ago, Tony Bennett was guest starring on a radio show, discussing his love of art with the host, when Dr. Lou Zona, director of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, called in. Having grown up in Newcastle, Pennsylvania with Italian parents, and living with a brother involved in the art industry, Dr. Zona had been exposed to art at a very young age. He had combined his love of art with his passion for education when he became an elementary school art teacher, before being promoted to a high school position. After studying at Carnegie Mellon University to get his doctoral degree, Dr. Zona took a position as a professor in the Fine Arts department at Youngstown State University. This, combined with his role at the Institute, made a conversation with Bennett about art quite easy. At the end of the show, Dr. Zona invited Bennett to Youngstown and the Institute, and Tony Bennett went, eager to be able to share his art with his new friend.
Over the years, Bennett and Dr. Zona developed a wonderful friendship. Dr. Zona remembers the many concerts that he was invited to fondly, the road manager showing up with his tickets and leading him to his seat at the front of the theater, or even backstage. One of his most cherished moments with Bennett occurred at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh, PA, where Bennett pointed Dr. Zona out to the audience and introduced him as his close friend. Dr. Zona still wonders if he had died that day and gone to heaven.
To Dr. Zona, as well as many others, Tony Bennett’s art was sincere, and showed a true love for his craft. Having used his given name, Anthony Benedetto, to sign his pieces, he showed onlookers that there is no glitz and glam in good art- he could be himself in his paintings, and that was enough. Bennett had struggled to the top of the music industry, creating a life for himself that his Calabrian parents were proud of. Having been discovered by Bob Hope during one of his performances, he had changed his name to sound more Anglican. Bennett wanted to use his real name in one of his passions, so he finally settled on art.
The best painting that Bennett ever did, according to Dr. Zona, is called “Homage to Hockney,” and sits on permanent display at the Butler Institute of American Art. Referring to David Hockney, famed painter and friend of Bennett, the portrait shows a vase of vibrant yellow flowers situated on a small table looking out onto the California coast. The ocean peaks through one side of the open bamboo blinds and pulls onlookers further into the painting. The effect is breathtaking.
The Tuscan countryside, New York City, and Central Park were some of the other places Bennett found inspiration from and painted. When he was not performing on stage, he was in his studio directly overhanging Central Park, looking for his next subject. His range was so wide in terms of styles, that one never knew what he was going to paint next.
About two years ago, Dr. Zona got a Christmas card from Bennett, as he did every year, with one of his paintings on it. This card in particular boasted a beautiful winter scene in Central Park, a white horse-drawn carriage set against a mist of flurries. Even in his ill health, having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years earlier, Bennett was creating magic with his paint brush. Whether he was singing or painting, crooning or drawing, Tony Bennett was selflessly using his creativity to make other people happy.
Art brings people together. It brought Dr. Zona and Tony Bennett together, and it brought me to them both. Through its connections, art has woven a tale between two individuals who knew seemingly nothing about each other until it touched their lives. Both Dr. Zona and Bennett shared many qualities that art only highlighted: their similar upbringings, their Italian heritage, and so on. Through the power of paintings, a friendship was created, one that would last many decades and provide great happiness and joy to both people. I only have art to thank for letting me discover and share their story.