Cards from Little Italy -- and the world

Artist: For years, Anthony Gerard DeSales sketched scenes of his hometown and won the hearts of visitors.

February 28, 2000|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN STAFF

ANTHONY Gerard DeSales -- also known as Tony the Artist, also known as Petey, and certainly one of the most interesting men I've ever met -- stood for years on the corner of Fawn and High in Little Italy, giving postcards to people destined for places he knew he'd never see.

He took great delight in this. Tony drew the scenes on the postcards -- scenes of his beloved Little Italy and the Inner Harbor, usually -- and he addressed the postcards to himself, then asked tourists coming from the restaurants to mail them once they got home. They did it -- by the many hundreds. The postcards came from Japan, Bali, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, Swaziland, Egypt, the capitals of Europe and Latin America. I remember reading one from Shanghai.

Too poor to visit any of those places, Tony would sit at the kitchen table in his chilly apartment in Little Italy, wearing a heavy sweater and scarf, and he'd savor those postcards as if they still held warm sunlight from the distant corners of the Earth. It was Tony's way of traveling far from a home he never cared to leave, especially during the many years when his mother was ill and he'd left a mainstream job -- teaching mathematics at Polytechnic Institute -- to care for her.

He considered each stranger who returned a postcard a friend, each note a confirmation of someone's satisfaction with their trip to Baltimore. Tony considered promotion of his hometown part of his job description.

It is safe to say that thousands of people all over Maryland, the United States and the world were touched in some small and positive way by Tony DeSales, the eccentric street corner artist from Fawn and High. By the time he died of a heart attack in his apartment Friday morning, he had drawn, colored, printed, signed and sold hundreds of sketches of Baltimore, and he had printed and sold thousands of postcards and given even more away.

He was 59 and had been working at his easel, with pen and ink, for half his life. He was a fixture at Fawn and High since 1970 -- a starving artist who was wise enough to work at the intersection of four Italian restaurants, Germano's Trattoria, Rocco's Capriccio, Sabatino's and Chiapparelli's.

All the restaurateurs knew Tony. Some would feed him or treat him to a cup of coffee, maybe a piece of cake on his birthday. Chiapparelli's stored his easel and chair during the day, and the management there made sure he had something to eat at night. Tony worked late, until the waitresses and busboys came out to share a smoke. He worked in unbearable humidity and big chills.

He barely managed to live off the few dollars he made as a self-taught artist. "My brother may have been poor," says one of his three sisters, Joanna Sales, "but he was very rich in God-given talents."

He once published Piccolo, a newsletter of political commentary and nostalgic stories. He was a great reader. He'd read anything -- poetry, foreign newspapers, biographies -- and he was good at mining the used-book stores for treasures.

He was a self-taught musician who wrote operettas. He played the piano in Capriccio and Luigi Petti's, another restaurant. He played the organ in St. Leo's, the Roman Catholic church in Little Italy. He played during his mother's funeral there a couple of years ago.

"I've got to take care of Mama," he'd told another sister, Anita "Tootsie" Korpisz, in 1970. A man who enjoyed complicated math problems and who developed theories of advanced calculus, Tony quit his teaching job to work closer to his boyhood home. That's how his street corner art studio developed -- a way for him to make a few bucks doing something he loved while watching after Genevieve DeSales.

This woman was thin and frail, but she had a feisty presence and a remarkable visage, the strong face of Old World motherhood. A photograph of Mama DeSales sitting in her rowhouse vestibule on a summer day became very popular in this town during the 1980s. Tony used to sell copies of it to tourists, who found it amusing and nostalgic. When actor Danny DeVito visited Baltimore, he came upon Tony's setup at Fawn and High and his eyes locked on the photograph.

"Who's the old lady?" DeVito wanted to know.

"That old lady's my mother," Tony said.

DeVito bought a copy.

At his post in Little Italy, Tony DeSales met a lot of famous people -- Luciano Pavarotti among them -- and he loved conversation. He could talk about anything -- music, ancient history, the best dishes at the local restaurants, contemporary politics. Sometimes his mood affected his opinions. He could be charming and deferential one night, opinionated and sarcastic the next. "You never knew what kind of mood you'd find him in," says Korpisz.

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