Bill Montella was part of the early years of Toll Gate High School, and now the artist wants to properly remember the man who was the school’s first principal and later the superintendent of Warwick’s schools.
Montella was the school’s first art teacher, a job he held from 1975 until he retired in 1999. Montella says the arts are in his DNA. He was born on Federal Hill and Montella’s family moved to Cranston when he was in second grade. His great-uncle, Antonio Cirino, taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. His grandfather, Philip Montella, was a sculptor. His father’s cousin, Aristide Cianfarani, was also a sculptor.
Montella views art as a “language,” like English, Spanish and Italian, that can be learned and, with practice, can be perfect. He knew that Robert Shapiro appreciated the arts but also understood its importance in education.
After graduating from Cranston High School, Montella went on the road as a musician before graduating from RISD in 1975 and attended the Rhode Island Conservatory of Music and the Recording Institute of America and the school of architecture at Roger Williams University. In addition, Montella has taught art at Union College, URI and RIC. His paintings are on display at several galleries, including one in Amsterdam where his painting of Hardig Brook in the snow was chosen as part of a special exhibit of American artists. His paintings of Jamestown and a fisherman in Narragansett are hanging in the Washington offices of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse.
Soon after Shapiro retired in 2007, Montella went to work on a likeness of Shapiro. He thought it could serve as the basis of a brass casting to be displayed in the school. The work took about four months to complete and, wanting it to be a surprise, he never said anything to Shapiro about the project. The work in clay is 18 by 24 inches and offers a profile of the former superintendent looking from the right into a clear space where his name and a brief history of his contribution to Warwick schools would be etched.
Montella shared his work with a few people in the school department, but the cost of the casting was considered too extravagant (Shapiro, himself, would have shot down the expenditure, saying the money would be better spent on education).
But times have changed and now that Shapiro is gone – he died at age 81 on Sept. 6 – Montella believes his legacy should be properly remembered. He takes issue with the plaque outside the school’s Robert J. Shapiro Cultural Arts Center.
“It looks like Casper the Ghost,” he says of Shapiro’s picture on the brass plate on the wall. “With all that he did for the school department, he gets that?”
Montella is out to change that. He believes the casting will cost in the range of $2,000 at a foundry in Summerville, Mass. or another facility at Mystic, Conn.; the foundry in Providence that used to do that kind of work has closed. The process, called the lost wax process, requires making a plaster mold of the clay piece, then a wax casting from the plaster mold. Foundry dirt is packed around the wax model. Molten bronze is then poured into the form, and when the wax comes out of the dirt cast, the pouring is completed. After cooling, the bronze is removed from the foundry dirt and the casting is finished in the chosen patina.
Montella doesn’t know how he’ll go about raising the money to complete the work, but he doesn’t think that should be an obstacle to honoring a man who spent 50 years working in Warwick schools.
“I’ll stand outside Stop & Shop, if I have to,” Montella said.
Members of the Robert J. Shapiro Foundation, which was started at Shapiro’s retirement and supports theater productions at the city’s high schools, have heard of Montella’s sculpture but have not seen the work. Shapiro’s widow, Audrey, knew Montella had worked on something but has not viewed it.
Now, if Montella can rally the support, Shapiro’s likeness will be a part of the school he so influenced for all to see.