Jay Cusano: A busy winter making up for lost time

Jay Cusano spend most of his twenties in prison. Now at 30, he seems to be trying to make up for lost time.

The West Haven artist been breathtakingly active in the art world since his release from prison, a situation he’s disarmingly up-front about.

Susan Campbell wrote about Mr. Cusano in the Hartford Courant about three years ago. The whole sad story is there — Mr. Cusano was driving drunk and ended up responsible for the death of his friend in 2002. He ended up with a 10-year sentence, suspended after seven. It was in prison where he discovered his artistic gifts, teaching himself drawing and, using what tools were available, soap sculpture — all in the context of tragic circumstances.

“I needed a way to express my past,” Cusano told Campbell. “Most of my feelings were about my friend. If this hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t know I had any talents, but the conflict is that I took a life to get here. Something really bad happened for this. Every time I do art, a little bit more of it goes away.”

Mr. Cusano, who I have met at more than one gallery opening — and whose work I’ve admired — provides an update since his release.

“I returned home from prison 9-23-09 and just started going to a bunch of art shows and meeting people everywhere,” he says. “I quickly built myself a network of artist friends and gallery owners. Around this time I started a studio art program at Gateway. About and five months ago I rented my own studio in West Haven and have been creating and doing art shows ever since.”

Galleries and arts organizations have seen something in his sculptures, pastels and photographs.

His first show since his release was at City Lights Gallery — a venue that had exhibited his work earlier in the Community Partners in Action prison art exhibit. Then there was  a show at Umbrella Arts in the East Village and then a very large show at Governors Island. Finally, Cusano was able to attend his own artists’ receptions and interact with the public — something strictly verboten when he was behind bars. In between, Cusano participated in Artwalk in New Haven, New Havens Open Studios, Orbit Gallery, Artspace of New Haven, Church Street Open Studios, a private showing at his own Studio, and Hartford Open Studios.

Right now, he’s showing his pastels at KCK Gallery on Campbell Avenue in West Haven and in Wallingford at “The Art of Collaborative Giving” where his soap sculptures are on view.

And there are three more shows this month. On Dec. 5 he was one of five students picked from Gateway Community College to open at the John Slade Ely House in New Haven for the 2010 Connecticut Undergraduate Exhibition. The same day, he debuted at another show in Wallingford. On Dec. 9, he is showing his photography with the New Haven Arts Council in “Small Works, Big City,” curated by Jennifer Jane, formerly of Jennifer Jane Gallery. That show is special because another artist showing there is his girlfriend Angela Gately — they both have six pieces hanging there.

Another show, in Hartford, is called “Snowball Art and Music Fest” at the Charter Oak Cultural Center on Dec. 18-19. Then one more show, Artspace Hartford. “Un-Art 4,”  which will benefit South Park Inn Homeless Shelter, opens Jan. 15.

Mr. Cusano, his compelling story and his finely rendered artwork have caught the eye of documentary filmmaker Lori Petchers. He says she will be filming scenes of the artist in his studio and at his shows.

“I am actually giving her a ton of video I took myself while trying to document the struggles of returning from prison after so many years away,” Mr. Cusano says.

You could spend the rest of your day clicking all these links, but you take the time to do so, you just might end up with a good art-driven itinerary for early winter.

More posts from Lee Steele here

Lee Steele