I’ve had the distinct honor of interviewing Buffalo, NY artist and Vietnam Veteran Ralph Sirianni, who uses his considerable talents to help fellow warriors deal with the emotional and physical challenges that accompany combat service. Ralph’s art, whether it’s in the form of paintings, sculptures, or monuments, has enjoyed a national audience. Ralph was gracious and candid in his responses, which I’m pleased to be able to share with you here:
// 1.) You have a unique background as an artist, and your experiences as a Marine in Vietnam have had a significant influence on your work. Can you talk about that?
- I would consider my background in art as having been very well rounded. I enjoy exploring new areas. New challenges keep the thought process fresh and provide a contemporary approach to upcoming pieces.
My experience as a Marine Infantryman in Vietnam has certainly added credence to the war related works, as well as the Veteran’s monuments. I’m sure it has affected most of my post Vietnam art. There is a capability to provide insight that is both believable and educational while also stirring the emotions.
2.) Your art covers a variety of topics, all of which seem deeply personal. What inspires you to create?
- Inspiration, if you will, is a fruit bearing plant. You can sow a seed and hope that it grows. However, if you provide the right conditions for it to prosper the chances of its success become greater. I’ve learned that a clear and healthy mind enable an awareness that allows for keen reception of everyday surroundings. This intake becomes automatic and often fleeting. With all of the things going through one’s mind, recognizing an item that might prove inspirational can be difficult. If we’re not providing ourselves with an atmosphere of appreciation for life, we may miss an opportunity to become inspired. There are many topics that move me to create. The works involving Veterans reveal a substance that is often both thought provoking and gut-wrenching.
3.) Among your areas of expertise is caricature, which seems very different from the more serious and intense paintings you’ve created. Are there times when your creative energy influences you to produce art in one form over another, such as a lighter, more humorous form rather than the intensity and passion of your paintings and vice versa?
-I’ve read books that have required much effort in understanding. Each sentence is a task that sometimes demands research in order to finish a paragraph and move on. When I’ve completed such a challenging read, I look forward to something lighter. In art, character provides a more casual outlet for creativity. That’s not tosay that it’s effortless. Caricature can be complex.
4.) How have you been influenced by your fellow veterans, as you encourage them to express themselves through art as they deal with the physical and emotional scars of war?
- I began my employment at VA Western New York Healthcare System in 1977. AT that time it was simply referred to as the VA hospital. I’ve been working in Recreation for most of my career as a Creative Arts Therapist. I’m extremely grateful to provide Veterans with a therapeutic resource for their mind, body and soul. The creative outlet that art furnishes is an invaluable tool in their recovery process. Through many of my own life experiences, I’m often able to share in what Veterans are having problems with. That common ground affords the opportunity for a more communicative art session, one that can aid in the clinical recovery process.
There is a potential for our identifying to open that proverbial can of worms. I sometimes find myself in the midst of a topic that caused much personal distress for the same reasons as the Veteran disclosing them now suffers through. During these times I employ the use of disassociation. I’ve found this to be an effective tool during many facets of my life. Being able to focus with the matter at hand, without letting it interfere with individual emotions, is a discipline that can deliver powerful results. I use this approach often while interviewing victims for police sketch-work and during court room drawings.
5.) You’ve worked in a wide variety of mediums – from caricature, to painting, to sculpture. Can you describe your creative process?
- My philosophical approach as an artist is to produce work that is meaningful. I strive for an end result that merits signing my name to.
Personal growth, as a person, is crucial in developing as an artist. We must always be learning and willing to explore new areas of creativity. Through the exploration of new mediums and styles we dare ourselves to kindle an innovatory flow.
6.) Who were your artistic influences as you were developing your unique style?
-As a child I was raised in a home that encouraged the arts. My brother Mario, who is ten years older, always shared his talent in art with me. Aside from him my influences were mainly Michaelangelo and DaVinci. I learned to appreciate Rembrandt and others as I progressed. True growth would not come until after my military duty was completed. The period following Vietnam could best be described as emotionally troubling times. I enrolled at the University of Buffalo in 1974. It was there that I met Walter Prochownik. He became a mentor, friend and the most powerful influence in my art. Through him I learned to express much of those troubled times. He taught me the meaning of substance in art. We would spend countless hours discussing the works of Diebenkorn, Picasso, DeKooning, Monet and so many of the others who had awakened the art world. Through all of this he would constantly reaffirm the importance of Realism, referring to it as the true core of art.
So, through my explorations in Expressionism, Surrealism and other styles of art, I would constantly create portraits using Realism. I’ve continued this practice to the present.
7.) Of the different mediums you use to create, which are the most comfortable for you?
- I’m most comfortable with drawing and oil painting. I like water based paints but use them mostly with my patients or on pieces for which they are best suited.
8.) How would you characterize the art scene in Buffalo, New York?
- The art scent in Buffalo New York is solid. Ours is a city that suffers through economic strain. However, we have much to offer. The small galleries, art communities and museums constantly adapt to the ever present budget cuts. We continue to make our address known in the art world directory.
9.) Where do you see your art going from here? Are there projects you are excited about creating, and what is on your easel now?
-I would hope that my work will continue to reflect growth. I’m always up for a challenge. Set design, for theatre, is something I’ve always wanted to try. Currently I’m working on private commissions and two monument designs. I’m also reworking a piece I had painted in 2008.
10.) Digital technology has had a massive influence on art in the last decade, particularly commercial art. Has that had an impact on your creative process?
- I’ve seen the representation of my work on book covers, posters, etc. As digital technology continues to improve, so does the presentment of my art. I find it most enjoyable to team up with a talented graphic artist. I may explore this area myself one day.
11.) What advice would you give to aspiring artists of all ages as they begin their journey?
- In addition to working with a Veteran population, I teach a portrait and caricature class to students of varying ages. I also speak at schools and colleges. If anyone is interested in an art career I encourage them to pursue it with the same diligence required of any profession.
Art for personal pleasure is fine. However, selling your art is both competitive and demanding. I suggest finding your specific areas of interest. Work on those areas and develop a command. Strive to feel good about signing your name to anything that you create. Most of all, continue to learn. A serious artist is no different than any other professional. There is always a need for growth.
To see more of Ralph’s work, please visit Sirianni Art