by JB Hyppolite
When you walk up to his checkout counter at Weavers Way in Chestnut Hill, there is no way you could know that Alphonso (“Al”) Lassiter, 63, the smiling, always-jovial cashier, is also a talented artist and illustrator who was a senior staff artist for the Cable TV Guide, supervising a staff of 15 freelance artists (the publication was later purchased by TV Guide), an instructor for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Philadelphia (now located in Chestnut Hill), a child care worker for disabled youth and a customer service rep for a Bucks County company that made printing plates.
Like so many almost-senior citizens these days with impressive backgrounds, even one with 35 years of the highest-quality work, Al is a victim of the economy. He was laid off from his last couple of full-time jobs because the work was no longer there, and the odds of a 63-year-old person, no matter how skilled, getting a full-time job in his/her field of expertise nowadays are about the same as being hit by lightning.
So six months after Weavers Way opened its Chestnut Hill store in 2010 in the location of the former Caruso’s Market, executive chef Bonnie Shuman hired Al, who started out as a dishwasher in what he described as a “taxing job.”
But while Weavers Way is his day job, Alphonso has always been about art. He and his wife, Rose Caporaletti, have been a part of the Artists League of Mt. Airy (ALMA) since the early 1990s; it was an artist and volunteer association and membership organization. The two maintained a gallery space at the now-defunct Sedgwick Cultural Center and held an exhibit every six to eight weeks. The two were elected as co-presidents and leaders of ALMA for several years, also developing a gift shop for members and non-members to sell their own art work.
“Over time it built to a pretty substantial business…I guess at its peak, the craft show earned somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 (total take, not profit).” The membership numbers fluctuated, but the skills were diverse; local photographers, fiber artists, painters and sculptors were just some of the contributors.
Lassiter may not produce much art presently, but there’s no doubt that it’s able to take him to another place. You can see 14 of his watercolors by putting the name Alphonso Lassiter in the tool bar of www.behance.net, and his work shows up. These colorful illustrations feature everything from the joyful “Newlyweds, 9/2011” to the wonderful depiction of “General Lafayette Inn, Lafayette Hill, PA.” Al intends to sell reproductions and original versions of the artwork featured on the site. Al has also had his art exhibited at Woodmere Art Museum and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, and while still a senior in high school, Al won the top prize in the entire state of Virginia in an art contest sponsored by the Hallmark Card Company.
“At this time I’m primarily working in watercolors. I’ve done sculpture, I’ve painted in oils, pen and ink, pencil, as well as certain crafts such as copper, enamel and ceramics,” said Al, who works on representational, free-flowing and abstract watercolors, including many landscapes.
Al attended Carnegie Mellon University after showing his portfolio and being awarded scholarships and grants. He majored in fine arts but left school during his junior year while dealing with a bout of depression. Al grew up in the 1950s in public housing in Norfolk, VA. The world was a different place back then, especially in the south; racial segregation was the norm.
“I remember when I was growing up, things were very separated in Norfolk at the time,” said Lassiter. “Segregation was the law. Wherever we traveled, we would see signs designating areas for ‘colored’ and areas for ‘white.’ We weren’t allowed to go in to the areas that were marked ‘white,’ and whites could not go into the areas marked ‘colored,’ either. I think a lot of people forget that there were whites who didn’t like (segregation), but they were forced to adhere to it as well … Even the cemetery was segregated, which seems kind of — um, ridiculous. I remember going to the beach, and a fence separated whites from blacks. And the white side had the amusement park.”
According to Al, it took a long time for the Brown vs. Board of Education decision (Topeka, Kansas, 1954; the Supreme Court case that found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional) to be implemented in Norfolk, VA. “I was only four years old when that case was decided, but when I was in junior high school (nine years later), our school was still segregated. The year after that, they began to bring white students into the school.”
Alphonso, who grew up in a public housing project, recalls, “They changed the boundary to include a white neighborhood, so the people in their neighborhood would have to send the kids to our school. It was an actual mass exodus of white families moving out of their neighborhoods. Initially there was only a small number of white students attending my school…By the time I was in high school, I began to develop some contact with whites on a personal level, meeting other white students and a number of white teachers, and I began to feel more comfortable experiencing integrated situations.”
When Al got to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he noticed that while there was no segregation in terms of law, there were still all black and all white neighborhoods. In this transition, he noticed that most people treated him with respect, but unfortunately he still dealt with instances of bigotry when he looked for off-campus housing after his freshman year.
“I remember making calls, and the person would say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a great place; you’ll love it; come and see it,’ and then when I would arrive, they’d open the door and see me; you could see the color drain out of their face. ‘Sorry, I just rented it to someone else.’ I had that experience a number of times.”
Al left college during his junior year due to a bout with depression and began meeting with a therapist who helped to change the direction of his life. “I had developed a crisis of lack of confidence in my ability to cope with life…When I finally reached a ‘crisis point’ where things seems darkest, I reached out to a really good therapist named Peggy Herr…She didn’t make me dependent by telling me what to do. She actually had me come up with a plan for how I was going to deal with it.”
Al, who has no children, moved to Philadelphia in 1978 with his former wife and reignited his art career while going through a divorce. He attended night classes at the Philadelphia College Of Art (known today as University of the Arts) and eventually got a job at cable publishing entity, TVSM, as an illustrator and graphic artist. It was there that he met his current wife, Rose. The two have been married since 1993.