A Colorful Past
Ralph Carlo Costantino has a family history of, not only gifted architectural design and sculpture, but also, infamous intrigue. His children remember his impassioned, tearful warnings to NEVER travel to Italy and under NO circumstances were they to bring his grandchildren there. The reason being that their Great Grandpa Calogero Costantino, Born in Palermo, Sicily 1879, fled to North America from the Italian Black Hand. Listed on Sicily's most wanted, Calogero faked his death and fled to North America to escape Italy's most notorious society. The U.S. Secret Service believed that he started Roma Construction Co. in New York before heading over to Chicago (the location of his son's baptismal record). Then, taking on, at times, the last name of his wife, Marie Bavuso, the Costantinos moved West.
Ralph (sitting second from the left) enjoying a family get together
Being a wanted man, Carlo kept his face clean-shaven as to not resemble the only known photo of himself
A Well Kept Secret
To the surprise of later Costantino generations, titles and records from the famed Outpost Estates of the Hollywood Hills show Calogero as having owned one of these noted lots. Not only did he design and build one of the earlier Outpost Estate homes but both his and his son Salvatore's exquisite ornamental, hand forged, ironwork grace a number of these stylish Spanish colonials. Even though it is mentioned that the metal and other materials were imported from Italy, absolutely no mention of the artists behind the artwork exists in any known publications. Given Calogero's background, it's easy to understand why.
Despite the fact that an ornamental iron "Costantino Family Crest" exists in Calogero's historic Outpost home, the Costantinos had managed to keep their name under wraps and, in doing so had inadvertently become the "Secret Sculptors" of the most illustrious community in early Hollywood.
In the mid to late 1920s, the famed "Father of Hollywood", C.E.Toberman, Purchased the famous hillside area from General Harrison G. Otis, a veteran of the Civil and Spanish-American wars and the first publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Toberman's goal for the property was to build an exclusive residential park-like setting that catered to Hollywood's elite. The lot size was kept to 10,000+ square feet and the style of homes would be kept Spanish Colonial, featuring courtyards, fountains, elaborate tile work, and beamed ceilings. The modern utility lines were buried under the roads and sidewalks. It was innovation at its finest and it seemed to hold its own through the years of the Great Depression.
Calogero's artistic genius not only graces these early Hollywood Estates but, four generations of Costantinos would also bear the genes of his creative skills. Calogero's son, Salvatore (Sam) was a master at hand forged ironwork. He went on to link his creativity with the successful Offenhauser Corporation of San Diego and, together, they tackled artistic, large structure projects such as the cages and railings at the famous San Diego Zoo as well as the Padlocks at the Agua Caliente Racetrack.
Salvatore's unmistakeable iron scrolls
at the Agua Caliente Racetrack
Photo by Charles Shelton, 1936
When Offenhauser moved their operation to Houston, Sam went with them eventually breaking away from the corporation to start his highly regarded, Ace Wrought Iron Works. Houston is sprinkled with Sam's works of art in the form of banisters, window coverings, fences, gates, archways, and fixtures. The exquisite ironwork at St. Anne Cathedral is an exceptional display of his talents. Sam was also credited for inventing a fire safety quick release for his window gaurds.
The Discovery of a Prodigy
It was in Houston that Sam taught his son, Ralph, the family trade. Ralph worked hard for his father and even decided to perfect the more technical aspects of the job by taking slide rule classes at the University of Houston. While in college, Ralph majored in art because, as he said, "...that's easy" and for him, it was! Ralph was so naturally gifted at anything artistic, that although his grades in all other classes suffered, he always received the highest marks possible in art. Professors adored his remarkable abilities, even going so far as to ask Ralph to student-teach sculpting classes. Noted Art Professor Bernhard Lemmel, once called Ralph, "One of the finest natural talents to manifest itself.."
Ralph ended up funding his schooling through art jobs and quickly became noticed by the Houston Galleries for his sculpting and painting abilities. His One Man Shows included an impressive array of galleries both in Houston and San Diego. At the height of his popularity, his beautiful paintings graced the covers and pages of magazines in the Southern California area. Among his noted collectors were Vincent Price, Lance Alworth, Joan & Ray Kroc, Stephen Tyler and Melvin Belli.
Paint Through His Veins
If there was one word to describe the artistic ability of Ralph Costantino, it would be "genius". He would tell you himself that the secret lay in the fact that he remained unencumbered from all the conventional do's and don'ts of the art theory, stating later to his students, "The secret to painting? Make a mess and then, fix it." But, truthfully, Ralph was unafraid of the canvas, the brush, the paint or whatever medium he chose to use, and it was that very fearlessness that caused him to fall naturally into those theories and paint with a confident boldness that is rarely seen. His work was unashamed of the simple and yet, profoundly complex. He made it look all too easy, and, that is because for him, it was.
Wildly prolific, Ralph thoroughly enjoyed his time in front of the canvas. It seemed to be his solace and release through every curve of life. When sales were poor he'd paint on anything that he could get his hands on. He simply had to paint.. His collection can be found on wood, paperboard, burlap, cotton, paper, foam core, as well as canvas, Literally, anything and everything was a canvas in Ralph's eyes. His subject matter ranged from formal portrait, still life and architectural to strict abstract and primitive figurative. His most popular pieces, according to longtime friend and collector, Taylor Linzey, were his portraits and figurative. "He couldn't keep them on the shelves." Recalls Linzey. Ralph had quite a way of capturing the true character of his figures and he'd often give them his own large, deep eyes. the likeness is unmistakable.
Most all of his pieces contain scrollwork reminiscent of hand pulled wrought iron, a definite salute to his earlier foundry days. Rarely would Ralph paint an actual scene. And, often times, when he did paint one, he'd sign it with an alias. It seemed that he viewed the exact reproduction of a scene with a bit of disdain and highly regarded the interpretive element of artist expression. His works are most highly prized for his strong use of color.
From his childlike pieces to his sophisticated compositions, Ralph's distinct style shines through making him a cut above his contemporaries and a true mid-century modern master.
The Costantino Family
The family work of Augustine Costantino,
his wife, Stephanie, his son, Carlo, and his Father, the late Ralph Costantino is a visual journey that takes the viewer through the artistic experience of four generations. With mediums that range from stone sculpture, ornamental iron, ceramic and wood to acrylics, oils, pastels, watercolor, charcoal and pen and ink, nearly every art medium has been explored.
This mid-century modern master is best known for his flamboyant oils and acrylics on canvas. An internationally respected artist and son of a well-known metal sculptor, Salvatore (Sam) Costantino, graduated from the University of Houston with a BSA. His style has been referred to as “abstract colorism” and “romantic expressionism”. Ralph, drawing on his experience in sculpture with his father and studying painting under some great names in the art world, rejected all such labeling, insisting that he always paint exactly what and how he wanted.
Ralph's youngest surviving son and A fourth generation artist; Augustine grew up watching and absorbing his father's creative style. Sometimes even laying down underpaint and preparing canvases for Ralph's work.
Living with his father on Maui and growing up surfing, Augustine was competing as a pro by age 15. When an auto accident on the island of Kauai ended his surfing career, he moved back to San Diego County to honor the "wake-up call" that he had just received and pursue the ministry.
Augustine's wife of 31 years, Stephanie paints also. Her pieces, primarily acrylic or oil pastel, are of a different, light, airy, almost Asian flavor, and, on occasion, the two collaborate to create a richly unique blend of their two styles. "Our pieces work together the way our marriage works together-a friendly pull and tug of rich and delicate, bold and fun. It keeps things adventurous...We disarm people.", says Stephanie, purchasers, and collectors of her own as well.