Andy Virgil was born Andrew Virgil Calafatello in January 1925 in New York City to Sicilian immigrant parents. He was the middle child of three. His mother, Josephine, a highly skilled seamstress in New York’s garment district, was the one who encouraged his artistic expression from the time he was very young. Andy was endlessly drawing planes and cars then. He did not draw the clunky cars he saw of the 1930s,
but, as his older sister told me, “He was visionary. He drew cars of the future. Like those of today . . . sleek, modern.”
And he was fascinated by the beauty of aircraft, a passion that lasted all his life. (Below: WW1 Fokker and Richthofen and his men.)
But school was something he did not like. Often caught gazing out the windows instead of listening to his teachers, when asked what he was doing, he replied he was looking at the clouds and drawing the pictures they made.
For junior high school, he attended P.S. 83 in Manhattan and, according to his sister, Ethel Luciano, while there he worked occasionally for the WPA artists at Harlem House Settlement House. This was his contact with professionals who noted the abilities that his school teachers had to have observed.
I think it likely this is where his precocious talent was encouraged, and it is my guess these people he met up with would have known to suggest he plan after high school to attend a school like Pratt.
But after graduating from Benjamin Franklin High School at 115th and East River Drive, Andy went to work for a while in a marble-sanding factory and then was drafted into the army. He served about a year in the states as an artillery man and was, of course, with his vision, a crack shot. But a long-time arthritic condition of the spine that began to plague him in his teens led to a medical discharge. (About this condition, as about all later physical problems, he was a complete stoic. Never complained, just constantly popped aspirin.)
This, then, was the time for attending Pratt. By then he was definitely a freewheeling “artistic type.” (I have a snapshot he treasured of skinny him, wild-haired astride a motorcycle!)
He graduated from Pratt, then went on to Cooper Union. He continued to pursue his studies under Reginald Marsh at the Art Students’ League. In his very early 20s, he was also setting up his easel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where he was given permission as a student to copy huge paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt. (Below: "Lady with a Pink" and "Head of Christ" by Rembrandt)
In 1954, taken by Andy to “meet the family” before we married, I was overwhelmed by the small and very ordinary row house in Flushing, Long Island whose walls were groaning with these huge masterworks in gilded frames. (And, of course, there was also the cheery little Sicilian donkey cart on the end table by the plastic-covered gold brocade sofa! Our daughter, Jennifer, adored that trinket above all else at her grandparents’ home -- and remembers it to this day.)
Though both parents were aware of his talent, Andy’s father, Guiseppe, took a dim view of his son’s desire to make a career in art. Holding down two jobs to barely care for his family of three children, Andy’s father saw no future to his son’s dream. His recommendation was that Andy should learn typing so he could get “a real job” as a clerk for the City of New York and have security. But Andy was determined to pursue his ambitions. He vehemently refused to heed his father’s suggestion. A volatile relationship existed between the father and his maturing son. In all fairness, it must be said that many years after, when Andy’s star was rising and his work was appearing all over, his father was heard bragging about him – to others. And, it is also interesting to note that Andy’s younger brother, Mario, became a professional commercial photographer (his studio , Mario Cal, was on 57th Street near Carnegie Hall) . He still teaches his craft for the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Andy’s older sister, Ethel Luciano, became a school teacher and has helped fill in some of these childhood recollections.
I have a feeling, in retrospect, that Andy’s core of toughness derived from those early confrontations with his father where he learned to stand up against what he felt to be wrong and at the same time doggedly pursued what he felt was right. This trait was to play out mightily in his career. And it also rose to the surface on rare occasions in his life when he stood up and dealt with someone he felt was being a bully. (When you are as slight of build as he always was, you choose your battles carefully. But neither would he back down when confronted by injustices done to others.)
Growing up as he did on the streets of East Harlem, he was exposed to many types of people, and he learned to be a shrewd judge of character. He used to regale me with stories of some of the Mafia-types who collected their money from the little neighborhood stores, candy stores where there were pinball machines. He and his friends learned how to tilt them just so to make the lights light up and allow them to win too many free games! But the presence of the sharply dressed Zoot suiters of the day looming in the candy store doorway with their fedora hats acted as a governor on these young pikers’ behaviour, these street-wise little boys. Needless to say, they desisted. But there was also a touch of admiration for the, shall we say? raw power these studs emitted. I am ashamed to admit Andy’s sister told me he had a Zoot suit at one time! When I knew him, thank goodness, it was Paul Stewart on Sixth Avenue -- and delectable.
Amazing how differently people turn out from similar environments ! Some went bad. But Andy’s friends at that time shared his other passion which was music. That, too, shows up in some of his artwork, for, more than painting, Andy wanted to excel at jazz trumpet. Idols in music were the Big Bands, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and his Herd, and such. Later, his ultimate idol was Canadian trumpet player Maynard Fergusen (below).
We used to go to Birdland to hear him, talk with him. Andy would play his records while he worked on commercial jobs at home. And listen to and tape (7” reels on a Tandberg) endless WQXR late night programs on jazz with Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, Chuck Mangione (below). “Cool” jazz most reminds me of Andy.
All of one’s life feeds into one’s art. But you need to know the origins to more fully appreciate the end results.