Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster in Howard’s End. With those two simple words, the renowned 20th-century English novelist profoundly expressed a theme common to all his works: the innate but often unrealized need all humans have to grow in spirit by forging connections with others.
That same motto aptly summarizes the impact made by the works of Kansas City, MO-based artist Joseph Lorusso. Character-ized by their muted palette, serene settings, and intimate level of observation, his richly atmospheric small-scale oil portraits such as Late Edition or Another Last Drink compel the viewer to make a deep emotional connection with their subjects.
“I can’t say how many times one person has told me a painting makes him or her feel happy, while the same painting makes another person feel sad. The connection of the painting to the viewer is really all I can ask for,” says Lorusso. “There is some kind of underlying current that binds all people together, and I look at art—any kind of art—as a trigger for that connection.”
Such words would bespeak a deep sense of maturity in any artist. Coming from one who is only 34 years old, they at first seem as much surprising as they are impressive. But Lorusso has been steeped in the world of art since early childhood.
Born in Chicago in 1966 to parents who had emigrated from Bari, a small city on Italy’s southern Adriatic coast, Lorusso grew up in a family where “the arts were part and parcel” of everyday life. His father had worked as a decorative interior painter as a young man. His mother’s brothers were artistic, too. So from the moment young Joseph showed a glimmer of talent in his seventh-grade art classes, “my father really supported it and thought that art was the proper route for me if I chose to go that way,” he says.
Lorusso’s choice seemed all the more certain when, at 15, he was rewarded a scholarship to take life-drawing classes at the respected American Academy of Art, just across the street from the acclaimed collections of Chicago’s Art Institute. After graduating from Leyden Community High School, he went on to study full time at the American Academy, where its traditional studio classes grounded him in the fundamentals of fine art.
In three years of study at the academy, Lorusso concentrated primarily on watercolors. But he was educating himself in his future medium in other ways, across the street at the Art Institute. “I’d go eat my lunch there and sketch,” he remembers. “I really became aware of Sargent and Velasquez and Sorolla and Manet, relating to their timelessness and to the moods and emotions they conveyed.”
After graduating from the academy in 1988, Lorusso continued his studies independently. “I was ravenous for learning,” he says. He scoured libraries and used bookstores for books on oil painters, immersing himself in the works of artists like J. Alden Weir, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and Frank W. Benson. What appealed to his sensibilities most, he discovered, were tonalist painters like Dewing, “who didn’t use color very much or used it in a very sophisticated way to convey emotion. Their works had a certain timelessness and spoke on a deep emotional level that cannot be verbalized,” he says. “I felt that that was how I wanted to express myself.”
Just when he began to delve into the world of tonalist oils, Lorusso also embarked on another career path that would help him further hone his skills. Hallmark Cards recruited him to join their stable of greeting card artists, and Lorusso made the move to company headquarters in Kansas City, where he served as a designer from 1988 to 1998. “Their work is so focused on emotion that I learned more there about how you can impact people through art,” he says. He also continued his studies after the move, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1993 from the Kansas City Art Institute, where he has since served on the faculty.
All the while, Lorusso continued to paint oil portraits, as well as some landscapes, in his spare time, working toward the ultimate goal of supporting himself as a full-time fine artist. In 1996, that desire led him and a few fellow artists working at Hallmark to set up a joint show at a local gallery in Kansas City. Two months before the show was slated to open, however, the gallery’s owner changed his mind, intimating that there might not be sufficient public interest in the works of greeting-card artists.
“I’m a big believer in self-motivation,” Lorusso says of his reaction to what could have felt like a crushing rejection. Instead, on a visit to Scottsdale, AZ, he scouted galleries, then followed up by sending slides to a few he felt seemed like promising venues. Meyer Gallery responded positively, welcoming him into its March 1997 Miniatures Show and inviting him back to the annual event every year since. A year later, Lorusso became a full-time, self-employed studio artist.
What I enjoy about being my own boss,” he says, assessing the past two years of his career, “is the flexibility and freedom it offers.” Both are evident in Lorusso’s recent canvases, many of which are set in favorite Kansas City coffee shops, bars, and restaurants where he goes to watch people and to congregate with friends. Often he’ll bring a camera along to capture what he sees—a pose, an expression, a play of light, or just a general sense of ambiance that intrigues him. “I’m drawn to the contemplative, subdued, mysterious side of things.”
Visual references in hand, Lorusso puts the painting together back in his studio—first sketching and drawing his composition, then transferring the drawing to his panel in charcoal, next blocking it in with thin washes of paint, and finally applying thick, wet brush strokes in oil. Always, Lorusso concentrates first on his subject’s face and hands. “They are the essence of the piece, because the story I’m conveying is the person,” he explains. “And if the face and hands aren’t done to a level I’m satisfied with, then there’s no point in doing the painting.”
Sometimes the subject will gaze directly back at the viewer. “Some people find that uncomfortable,” he admits, “while others find it really inviting and enticing. For me, there is no more direct way to connect than that.”
Surprisingly, some of the strength of Lorusso’s works derives from their relatively small scale, ranging from a mere 12 by 16 inches for a single figure to no more than 30 by 36 inches for paintings portraying multiple subjects. The diminutive size “tends to give a more intimate feeling to the work,” he says. “If they were life-size or larger, I think they would lose some of that intimacy.”
Such a loss would be antithetical to the artistic path Lorusso has chosen. “I find myself wanting to do work with even more impact,” he says of his future plans. “I want to do paintings that resonate on an even deeper level, that explore people, what moves them, and what they feel. You never finish the process of emotional growth. It’s a continual process.”
For Lorusso, making a connection is what art is all about. “I remember a lot of idealistic art students saying that they would just paint even if no one wanted to view their works. And I thought, that sounds good, but it’s a bunch of baloney. I get the biggest kick out of doing a painting, feeling it myself, loving the mood it’s conveying, and then seeing other people make that connection with it. If that’s happening, then I’m really doing my job.”
Featured in October 2000