by Fred P. Gusoff
A picture is worth a heck of a lot more than a thousand words to John Sappington.
The longtime Mt. Airy resident recently called it a career after 35 years as an art therapist and is beginning the next chapter in his life as he prepares to write his memoirs that include memories of 18 trips to Spain.
He retired from Brooke Glen Behavioral Hospital in Fort Washington in July, one week before his 70th birthday, and he’s now on the road to enjoying a busy life of leisure.
He has always loved all things related to Spain, including its flamenco dancing and its art history, and at age 23 spent nine months hitchhiking in Western Europe.
Much of the art in Sappington’s personal collection not surprisingly is Spain-inspired, including a pastel of Medieval pilgrimages, flamenco images and a portrait of his first flamenco teacher.
“I still read obsessively about Spanish art and culture,” he said. He’s also been to Italy three times and wants to do more traveling now that he is retired.
Born in Baltimore, Sappington moved to Lawrenceville, N.J., at age 15 and then moved to Philadelphia to study art therapy. He lived in Center City and West Chester before moving to an apartment, surrounded by trees, on Upsal Street, where he has lived for nearly 30 years.
After earning a bachelor degree from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in 1967, he began graduate work in art therapy at Hahnemann University in 1973 but stopped short of writing his thesis.
“I just decided I wanted to work,” he said.
He confesses to having been being part of the hippie movement in the 1960s and using a lot of drugs in those days. Because of that, or perhaps despite it, he has somewhat fond memories of Woodstock, which he attended with a special friend, a girl named Sue.
“Woodstock was overwhelming,” he said.
He recalled driving his “flower-covered Volkswagen” at the August, 1969, event, and he has an entire folder of Woodstock memorabilia, including a brochure and the original tickets – which cost $18 for all three concert days – that, like so many others from the mudfest in the Catskills, were never collected at the show, which attracted about a half-million people.
Sappington said he dated a lot in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including both men and women.
“That was the period when, ‘If it feels good, do it,’” he recalled, adding that the onset of the AIDS epidemic prompted him and others to exercise caution. “We were the lucky ones” who did not get AIDS.
Sappington said he was “just a miserable little sissy boy in the 1950s” whose parents divorced when he was just 4 years old, after which he and his mother moved in with her mom’s Ukrainian-born parents in Baltimore.
“It was a loving home,” he recalled.
Sappington first got a hint that he was gay at age 5, when he was shopping for eyeglasses and realized he enjoyed looking at frames designed for girls. After he received a bloody nose during a fight with a bully a few years later, his family urged him to learn how to fight with a punching bag, but he found he would dress the bag up as though it were a princess.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s when Sappington starting officially coming out of the closet, when he began to acknowledge to himself and to others that he was gay. He joined the Homophile League, a gay activist group located at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.
He recalls a “gay bashing” incident in the late 1980s when he was nearly killed after three men attacked and robbed him on South Street near Graduate Hospital in Center City. One of the men flirted with him while two accomplices approached, and all three pushed Sappington down onto the ground and kicked his face and head.
He had to have a sliver of his skull removed, but aside from a resulting eye injury that requires the daily use of eye drops for glaucoma, he has fully recovered from the attack. The suspects were never caught, although Sappington provided police with a portrait of one of the suspects.
After that brush with death, he did not seek psychological counseling and instead delved into his artwork for therapy.
Sappington seems to have taken the attack in stride and now keeps company with his partner, Tom, 63, whom he met four years ago on silverdaddies.com, an online dating service for older gay men.
Before signing on for online dating, Sappington had been in four relationships, but none worked out. “Before I met Tom, I had given up,” he said, but he knew it was important that he “not give up the faith.”
At the end of their first date, Tom asked Sappington if he would mind taking things kind of slow, the newly retired artist recalled. “I’m very glad we did,” he said.
He and his partner recently visited Spain together; it was Tom’s first visit there.
Saying he has never wanted to stay “cloistered in my apartment,” Sappington and his partner and Violet (“a very dear friend”) go to art exhibits and concerts together. Sappington loves Philly’s cultural life and has season tickets to the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Sappington said Tom lives in Pipersville, Bucks County. “I’m city mouse; he’s country mouse,” he said. Sappington enjoys residing in Mt. Airy. Both rural areas and city life are nearby, he noted, and another cultural hot spot, New York City, is only two hours away. “I feel very lucky to live where I live,” he said.
Looking back on his days as an art therapist, Sappington said he encouraged all of his clients to be proud of their art projects by telling them, “If your picture looks like a little kid did it, that’s fine.” Pictures are “immensely powerful,” he said.
“We all have monsters in our lives,” he said. “It’s challenging, but boy, it’s intense.”
Sappington spends his retirement days doing yoga and Pilates, and he designs New Year’s and Valentine’s Day cards, which he distributes exclusively to friends who are not involved in romantic relationships.
“I love Valentine’s Day. It’s the only day we have dedicated to human feelings such as love,” he said.
Sappington began working on his memoir on his 70th birthday, July 16. He’s been filling notebooks with stories about his life and he just signed up for a writing course, “Memoirs: More Than Memories,” which is being offered by Mt. Airy Learning Tree at Chestnut Hill United Church, 8812 Germantown Ave., starting Oct. 8.
“I’m very serious about this,” he said of his long-term project, adding that he could fill an entire book alone with stories about his travels to Spain and the folks he met there. “They’re astonishing people.”
Sappington plans to open each chapter of the memoir with poetry. He figures the project could take up to five years to complete. “My life has been and is an amazing experience that I don’t want to disappear when I’m no longer here,” he said. “Plus, I can illustrate it myself.”
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