Interview conducted by Emily Tallo
People who know him call Tom Cascone the Lord of the Ice House, in reference to the art studios located in the same building as his frame shop called The Frame House. It’s a funny joke, since everything about Mr. Cascone rejects the pretension of this title. Although he has been exposed to art his entire life, he makes sure to tell me that he’s not an artist. Artistic ability notwithstanding, Tom’s candid words about Anastas reveal an understanding of the art world that could only result from a lifetime of exposure to it. This makes the praise he bestows upon Anastas very meaningful indeed. Continue reading to hear more about yet another cross-cultural friendship that formed as a result of the US Project.
Tell me about yourself and what you do.
I grew in an art supply business. My father was an artist and very active in the arts in Pittsburgh, so I’ve been surrounded by artists of every caliber all my life.
Where did you first come into contact with Anastas’ work?
I first met Anastas here at the Ice House where he had his studio. I manage a picture frame shop and gallery in this site.
What did you do for Anastas when he was here in Pittsburgh for the US Project?
The studio where Anastas worked out of is here at the Ice House, the same place as where the business is; the business is known as the Frame House. I manage the business and in this facility there are mostly studios and we’re really the only retail space that’s open during regular hours. I already had a relationship with Michelangelo, so it was just kind of natural that I would meet Anastas. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be able to help somebody like who you could tell almost immediately was a class act. Here he is, a foreigner, who speaks better English than I’ll ever speak Bulgarian. I enjoyed being a help to him. I was willing to do anything I could do to make his stay and his work here more doable. Whatever it took. When he needed a break he’d come down into the shop. I always enjoyed whatever time I had to spend with Anastas. I hooked him up with a shelving unit that he ended up using just to situate his paints on. I helped put plastic on the floor or if he needed a ride somewhere. It can be truly said that my wife and I really love Anastas. We connected personally to him and had him over to our house a couple of times.
Why did you want to help him so much?
Initially it was just the fact that here’s this guy, who barely speaks the language, dropped into a place he not that familiar with. You know I would help anyone who’s under those circumstances. I would’ve helped him whether I liked his work or not. I wasn’t even initially drawn to his work. But you can’t be around Anastas very long and have any appreciation for the arts and not recognize that you’re dealing with somebody that’s really a rare bird. I’ve been around artists my whole life—many good artists, some amateurs. You can tell when somebody’s special. My dad was special—never trained, totally self-taught. It didn’t take long to figure out that Anastas was one of those people. Quite frankly, in my 61 years of experience in the art supply business, he might be the most gifted artist I’ve ever encountered.
What made that apparent to you?
His work. Initially I wasn’t drawn to his style, but his work has a life of its own. I know he creates it, but it’s bigger than him. There’s something about his work that touched us emotionally and, well I hate to use the word spiritually, but it’s not a mental thing. It goes beyond understanding. It connects on a very unusual almost unreal level. As a matter of fact, I made the comment one time that I would love to visit the planet Anastas is from. The images that he creates are really not of this earth. It’s a very hard thing to explain—you can’t help someone get it.
Why didn’t you like his work at first?
Not didn’t like—wasn’t drawn to. I saw his work and didn’t know what to make of it. But it didn’t take long for me to connect to whatever it is that is the mystery of Anastas. That’s sort of what art is all about on any level. There are places that are more complex than science or medicine could ever understand.
I was reading an article that Encho Mutafov, a famous Bulgarian scholar, wrote about Anastas. In it, he says that Anastas’ art says, “I am of your world, but I am an alien.” How do you react to that?
Yeah. It might be because he’s Bulgarian and his ancestry goes back thousands of years. What do Americans know about this, you know? America’s been around for two, three hundred years. He comes from a land that’s been relevant for millennia. But I still think it’s even bigger than that. I can’t help but use the word “spiritual.” It’s like looking into another place, another dimension when you look at his work. He takes our humanity and connects it to the spiritual, however you want to define that.
Do you have any of Anastas’ paintings? If so, how did you come to acquire them?
He’s given me a couple of pieces. One was a mixed media. The theme is something he does from time to time, sort of a version of a butterfly. That was the main piece. The other piece was a portrait of someone he described to us. When Anastas is moved to do something, you know he is inspired and he has to do it. So we scrambled around the house looking for something worthy of him. We had an 11 by 14 sketchpad and some pretty high quality colored pencils. He basically just drew a head of a man. The funny thing about Anastas is we didn’t really communicate verbally all that much. It was just a connection.
What do you think about the central goal of the US Project, of building a reputation for Anastas in the United States?
I don’t know if he’ll ever get the recognition in this country that he honestly deserves. I know he’s collected all over the world and it would be a pity if America didn’t embrace him and really recognize him for who he is. His work really should be in multiple museums in this country, absolutely. I’ve seen artists on both ends of the spectrum. Why are some artists recognized and others not? Sometimes it’s just a matter of who is in power and who’s not. Michelangelo used to say that Anastas is one of the greatest painters alive in the world today, and I used to think that was a little overstated. I don’t anymore. He just needs to be shown. Maybe I didn’t even have a choice whether I wanted to help him or not. Maybe it went beyond who I am. But I really don’t feel like I did enough to help him.
We appreciate your input, Tom!