How did you get your start as an illustrator? What artists most influenced you?
My approach to illustration was not the normal path that most artists take. I graduated with my MFA in painting in 1995. I thought I would show my art in New York, but what I found was it was really commercialized and contrived on many levels. They were giving the public what they thought they wanted in modern art, and realists had to take a backseat.

So I decided to forge my own path. I immediately started doing gallery shows around the United States and approached it like an independent band on a tour. I felt the only way people were going to get to know my art was to see it. I really took my time and sought out the galleries that were willing to show fantasy, surrealism, and art that dealt with the human condition. I started showing in Santa Barbara at a gallery called Darks Art Parlour, in L.A. at La Luz De Jesus with Billy Shire, and in Minneapolis at Gallery 360. Omaha had Visions Darkroom and Chicago Echo Gal­lery, etc. Every city around the United States had underground gal­leries that were selling my kind of art and doing really well at it. There had been this belief that realism was dead, but that was not the case.

I also decided to create a website around 1994, and took HTML and Javascript classes. It was in the early days of the web, but it was a good way to get my art and ideas to the public. In 2000, after a long night of painting, I sat down at the computer to check my comment/blog page and found a note from author Doug­las Clegg, asking if he could buy rights to use one of my paintings on his latest book cover. I wrote him back and the rest is history, as they say. Publishers and movie companies contacted me, and I really enjoyed working on the projects that they had.

I feel fortunate in that almost every movie com­pany, publisher, and art director I have worked with has given me the freedom to create without compromising my art, personal vision, and inter­pretation. As I start my 13th year in the field, I now realize how lucky I have been that they trust my creative vision.

I have a lot of artists who have influenced me, but by far the five that really blow me away are Cara­vaggio, Kathe Kollwitz, Thomas Eakins, Howard Pyle, and NC Wyeth. These artists all possess the drama, horror, fantasy, and redemption that I love in painting.

What’s more important – inspiration or perspiration? Is being an artist a higher calling, or a craft like any other?
My art has always been about inspiration and perseverance. I have always painted subject matter and worlds that inspire me emotionally on differ­ent levels. Sometimes those elements were found in the books that I read, experiences that I witnessed firsthand, or in my family.

The way that I fell into the arts or that the arts fell into me was a higher calling. Certain things led me to this path, and as I look back over 20 years of painting, I know it was a road that I was meant to forge. When I am in my studio I feel inspired to bring worlds to life. My work rises on the thick brushstrokes of wind­swept earth tone palettes that show humanity’s hardships and strengths.

Why did you choose to focus on horror/fantasy?
People always ask me why a majority of my art centers around horror/fantasy, birth, and death. It helps me understand the impermanence of life on this planet.

My work has always been about the human condition, and the hardships and triumphs that life gives us. I grew up in a real blue collar family. My grandfather had immigrated to America from Sic­ily to try to give us a better life. My father was a carpenter who was often out of work in the winter. I watched my parents struggle to take care of us in the most impossible conditions, always sacrificing the little they had for us to survive. Those were tough times, and really felt like I lived in a surreal Dickens world. When I first started painting I wanted to bring some of the things I witnessed to life.

Another reason was the influence of my cousin Angelo Rossitto (1908-1991). Angelo’s mother Carmela Caniglia left Sicily when my grandfather did and came to Omaha, Nebraska. Angelo decided when he was in his twenties to make a living in Hol­lywood. He met John Barrymore, who brought him into the business, and made films with Lon Chaney and Bela Lugosi. He also starred in the famous 1932 Tod Browning film Freaks. He would come back to Omaha and tell us about his career and working with great writers like Ray Bradbury in the film Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Is there one work you’d particularly like our readers to see, either because it’s most representative, or because you’re especially proud of it?
At the moment I am very proud of the last three projects that I have worked on.

The first is William Peter Blatty’s 40th Anniversary edition of The Exorcist. I read the book when I was in high school. My uncle, Father Joseph Haller S.J. had been a Jesuit priest at the time in St. Louis MO in 1949. I remember him talking about the incident. So I felt very honored when Blatty and Cemetery Dance chose my artwork for his 40th anniversary for the limited edition hardcover.

The second project that I was honored to work on was Max Brooks’s World War Z (soon to be a major motion picture). Max created a brilliant surreal story of the ‘‘Zompocalypse’’ at its finest. When I was brainstorming his cover for the new limited edition, I wanted it to be a painting that was gripping and visceral. My idea was to have a single powerful image on the cover of an animated screaming zombie corpse that has come back from the dead. I wanted the image to feel aggressive, harsh, and full of terror. In my oil painting, I tried to make my corpse a truly living dead soul that has the qualities of heaven and hell, hence the halo (gold leaf) above the creature’s head.

The last and latest project that I am currently working on is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol 170th anniversary edition from Easton Press. Working with Easton Press has been an amazing experience. Their company really gets into the art­ist’s vision and lets you take the books and stories as far as your imagination allows you to go. So far I have created over 25 drawings and 10 paintings that will be featured in this rare edition. Dickens was one of my literary heroes, and to have the chance to tell the story through my art has been a dream come true for me. I have already started working with some museums and galleries to create a show to coincide with the release of the book. I will show the entire process of the project from preliminary sketches to drawings and the final artwork.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your work?
I feel very blessed to have made a living at something that I love to do. Painting is my life and blood. For years people would tell me that my art was sick and demented without purpose. So many times I was left behind on the downside of up. Instead of giving into their insults and views of my art, I dug deeper and persevered. I channeled that energy into my art, and I stayed in the realm of what made me whole and who I am. I knew that it would come around someday and even if it didn’t that would be okay, because I was so happy living the worlds that I created.

As artists, it is up to us to create our own sense of reality. In an age of social and political upheaval, the artist is an anomaly. My art searches for the new spirit in modern figurative painting. Like the old masters, I have found vitality and life hidden amongst the layers of the human condition and have started breathing new life into the human form with visceral brushstrokes that are intimate, piercing, mesmerizing, and at times distressing.

Do you have any art shows, lectures coming up?
Yes, I will be giving a lecture and art demo at Creighton University in Omaha Nebraska on April 12. Then I travel to Iowa State University (April-17-21) for a lecture and solo art show. July 18-22 I will be heading out to NECON (Camp Necon). I am the artist guest of honor at this year’s event. I will also be at the Allentown Art Museum for this years IlluXcon (September 11-15). That is going to be one amazing show.