Interview conducted by Emily Tallo
Tom Celli’s engagement with the US Project began on the day the initiative was conceived. It was his business affairs that drew Michelangelo Celli, his son and the current director of the US Project, to the Gallery Anastas in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, by pure chance. Michelangelo and his father’s shared love for Anastas and his work has led to a friendship and partnership that has crossed barriers of language, culture, and time.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m Tom Celli. I’m an architect in Pittsburgh. I’ve had the good fortune to join the Board of Director’s at the American University in Bulgaria.
When did you first come into contact with Anastas’ work?
During one of the Trustee’s tours of Bulgaria, my son, Michelangelo, and I were taking a bus tour of some parts Bulgaria, and we went to the gallery as part of the tour. They had some Bulgarian singers in the gallery for us as a gesture of Bulgarian culture, but I didn’t listen to the music—I paid attention to the art on the walls and so did my son. We were both enthralled with the work but I think he was more touched by it. Since I was part of the Board of Trustees, I went on to the dinner meeting, but Michelangelo stayed to have dinner with Anastas and his wife and a cousin that spoke better English than they did. He spent five or six hours there that night and when he came back to the hotel that night he said, “I just had dinner with Picasso.”
What’s your impression of his work?
I think Anastas is a political scientist. Political scientists comment on communities. They talk about the way mankind is organized and relationships between people. In Anastas’ case, much of his work has a political overtone because of years of Russian oppression in Bulgaria. He was certainly looked down upon by the government. He had difficulty selling his paintings and showing his work. In addition to that, somewhere along the line, Anastas became a very spiritual person. Of course, most of the Bulgarian population is Orthodox Catholic. So he really does explore spirituality and how spirituality relates to oppression in his artwork. I think we also have to understand that not only does he reside in Plovdiv, the oldest organized government on the European continent, but he also lives in and has restored a building that is several hundred years old. It’s an old medieval stone building that he has meticulously restored room by room to become his home, his studio, and his gallery. So everything in his life circulates in something that is very old but that he has influenced greatly, from the mosaics in the floor to the lighting in the gallery. He has done so himself by hand to put the building in the shape it’s in today. Anyone who visits there is enthralled not only with the artwork, but also with the restoration of the building itself and the character of the surroundings in Plovdiv. He lives in a historical area of Plovdiv, and many of the buildings around his have also been restored, although they are more recent in their architecture.
Do you have any of Anastas’ paintings? If so, how did you come to acquire them?
I own one painting of myself. My son asked Anastas to paint a portrait of myself and it’s stunning. I have it hanging in my home. Everyone who sees it is flabbergasted by it. They can’t believe the likeness is so accurate, but it’s also the color and the symbolism that he put into the painting. I will own other Anastas paintings in the future; this is just the first one.
Tell me a little more about the story of how you received that painting.
Michelangelo told me that he’d asked Anastas to paint a portrait of me. So when I was in Bulgaria for another one of the Director’s meetings, Anastas took a bunch of photographs of me, which is what he used to make the painting. When he was done, he shipped it to Michelangelo in Pittsburgh and my son threw a party. We had 25 or 30 close friends and we had an unveiling. I had never seen it before! It was exciting because everyone in the room loved it. We spent that night talking about Anastas and talking about the painting and so on.
What makes Anastas’ paintings so unique and remarkable?
First of all, it’s the subject matter. Second of all, it’s the use of color. He uses bright colors and applies the paint differently. But what I like is that he paints on inspiration. I don’t know if Michelangelo told you the story of the little African American girl. Michelangelo and Anastas were in a coffee shop in Lawrenceville and there was a young black girl with her dad and she had on little blue checker print dress. She had these dread locks that were flying everywhere. Anastas went back to a studio that day and produced a portrait of her. He was so taken with her smile and her hair, even in spite of the language barrier. It’s an enormous painting. He gets inspiration quickly and he’s able to translate inspiration into a painting in just a few hours sometimes—one afternoon, that’s all he needs.
What do you think about the US Project’s goal of creating awareness for Anastas in North America?
Michelangelo has done a good job of getting the word out about Anastas. I think that the US Project by nature of the art itself will become a very successful venture. In the United States people aren’t exposed to that many paintings in contemporary art venues that are as spiritual or political as many of Anastas’ paintings. It’s because of his background of oppression that his paintings stand out. When he gets more exposure in the United States, you will certainly see people start to recognize that and understand him.
What status do you think he will achieve in the North American art market?
Once he gets exposure in New York City (and let’s face it: if you’re going to have be a big time artist in the United States you have to have exposure in New York City or Los Angeles, those are the only places that matter) the sky’s the limit on where he can go in terms of success in the United States. There’s nothing holding him back other than lack of exposure. I’m not savvy enough to know how long that might take or what vehicle is the right one, but certainly getting gallery representation for Anastas in New York City is going to be very important. He does have a couple of paintings in private collections in New York and he has an upcoming solo show in Algeria—this is exactly what he needs.
Tom, your insight is very much appreciated!