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Purloined Letters

A giant sloth, a rabbit who steals portfolios, and a message for Jared Kushner: a portrait of Providence-based artist Franco Colavecchia.

Transcript

FRANCO

Since I retired, I have been trying to put down on paper most things about my life. It’s a compulsion…some people…some people collect things, you know… what else do people do, what do you, I mean, do you have a compulsion? You’re interviewing me, you want to be in media…

TAMMUZ

I’m not sure—

FRANCO

Yeah, yeah…but my compulsion is to put on paper, is to put history, however large, however small, on paper before I die.

NARRATION

That’s Franco Colavecchia, a retired artist in Providence, Rhode Island. Before moving here, Franco was a prolific set and costume designer, and taught at conservatories and art schools around the United States.

If you look closely enough, you can find Franco’s art scattered all over Providence, in places ranging from the Avon Cinema on College Hill to the Biltmore Garage downtown. I first encountered Franco on the walls of the Small Point Café on Westminster Street. His art exuded a frenetic energy—it seemed to scream off the page.

So I emailed him asking for an interview. Franco’s responses seemed less like emails and more like poetic missives. In one, he wrote:

Will there be an ascribed

Subject of questions

In another:

Tammuz

I agree

Friday afternoon yes

[SOUNDS FROM OUTSIDE FRANCO’S HOME]

It’s Friday afternoon. I’m standing on Franco’s street. I don’t have to check the addresses to know which house is his—it’s the only one painted purple on a strip of otherwise drab Victorians.

Franco greets me at the door. He’s wearing paint-splattered overalls aggressively cropped with a pair of scissors. Franco susses me out from behind a pair of mustard colored glasses.

FRANCO

You know how many times I’ve been filmed and videoed. Scores. I’ve been in a movie—the poster’s in the window. Did you see the poster? There’s a movie. National Public Radio, I’ve been on. I’ve been on television. I’ve been all over. I’ve been done to death. New York, Houston, LA, and every time I worked on operas I would be interviewed, usually on television.

NARRATION

At this point I hadn’t even set up my recorder—in my echoey phone recording you can tell I am flustered, only able to muster “yeah” and “absolutely.” A part of me is worried that Franco won’t want to do the interview after all.

And then he opens the door to let me in. And I’m astounded.

Franco had told me in an email that he was just settling in after moving. But the house is already overflowing with his art, each work more impressive than the last. One painting is so large takes up an entire wall.

TAMMUZ

Do you think maybe we could walk around a little bit?

FRANCO

Yeah… Ok… Uh… Like, here’s one, this is painted on an old sketchpad, right…you can see this one…

TAMMUZ

Can you read what it says?

FRANCO

This says… “My turn as guard in the jungle camp. Operation Lampo[ph]”—Lampo[ph] is a terrorist which we tried to kill. “I meet the giant Malayan tree sloth.” The giant Malayan tree sloth. That’s me. I communed—I didn’t touch him, I didn’t go anywhere near him—but I sat there for like an hour whilst this tree sloth would look at me. And they’re big—this is a giant. They’re quite small, but the Malayan tree sloth, they’re called the giant Malayan tree sloth. So, I’ve been making paintings of him.

TAMMUZ

Does it feel therapeutic to work through your past in this way?

FRANCO

I did some sketches and ink drawings in Malaya but I lost… they somehow all got lost…later in my life, I began to examine my memoirs, I’ve been doing these Malayan drawings.

TAMMUZ

Wow.

NARRATION

By memoirs, Franco doesn’t mean his writings. Instead, he’s referring to his drawings and paintings. For this particular image, there must be a hundred other versions lying underneath, tiny variations between each.

If the sloth is just an entry for Franco, then his entire house must be a journal. Franco tells me that he’s “obsessed” with painting. For every painting, there seems to be countless copies lying in close proximity. Franco keeps returning to the same images—the war in Malaya, former students and colleagues, his time in SoHo in the 80s. Taking a walk through his house feels like taking a walk through his mind.

FRANCO

Here’s something I’ve been doing. These are great liars. Paul Ryan. Governor Christie. Donald Trump. I invented a character, the rabbit that steals portfolios. Here’s Adolf Hitler. And I made this up: “Great Liars: Series Number 6072.” These are all the people I knew who tell lies.

NARRATION

Even at number 6072, Franco’s caricatures are unbelievably detailed. But, unlike his lovingly-rendered memoir-drawings, these are warped and sometimes even grotesque. I asked Franco about his other political art.

FRANCO

I’ve made envelopes—exposé envelopes—about Harvard, about Juilliard, about different universities.

TAMMUZ

So wait, what brought you to painting envelopes of any –

FRANCO

I began doing pen drawings and sending them in closed envelope—my graphic work is whistleblowing bad behavior in higher institutions—and I began by doing pen drawings and putting them in envelopes and then said, why bother, why not buy big envelopes and paint them on the envelope, and send them. And since then, the post office loves what I do.

NARRATION

Franco tells me that he began this project while a professor at UNCSA. When he first came to the university, he learned about an alleged assault that the school failed to investigate. In response, Franco sent envelopes to all the administrators depicting the accused professor lunging at a college student with his eyes ablaze.

There is something brilliant about the practice of painting on the outside of large-scale envelopes—it takes the private act of sending letters and turns it into a site of vivid public protest.

Franco and I sit down on his couch and he shows me photographs of letters he sent. The envelopes are addressed to news reporters, politicians, and professors—I even spot one that bears Jared Kushner’s name.

FRANCO

…and it shows you an obese Trump sitting on the lavatory. And the film’s called: “Shithole: The Movie.” This one is the Titanic. Donald Trump is on the back of the Titanic and he’s saying “Help!” and the people in the rowing boats say, “Row faster, leave him.” Okay, let me see what else I’ve got going here…

TAMMUZ

How many of these do you think you did?

FRANCO

They go all over… possibly, possibly 600. I had this idea—if everyone wrote on the outside of an envelope and you mailed it to the White House, you could have 300 million—200 million— envelopes with a statement on it. And that’s not going to stop him, but it’s a statement.

I don’t want to put my name with them, but I’m a big fan of Hogarth, Goya, Cruikshank, Gerald Scarfe, the great political cartoonists that we have. And I did 3 or 4 a day on envelopes, I mailed them all over.

I get fan letters.

TAMMUZ

Yeah? What do they say?

FRANCO

Keep going!

TAMMUZ

If I could choose two words to describe Franco, they would probably be “Keep going.” Franco paints incessantly, obsessively, and perpetually. His art bridges the gap between highbrow and lowbrow, public and private, past and present.

I thank Franco and say goodbye. During the interview, Franco had told me that he listens to opera as he works. And as I walk down the steps of his purple Victorian on the East Side of Providence, I swear I can hear the refrains of an aria begin to drift out of his window.

[CARMEN – HABANERA]