by Len Lear
One does not have to be an art professor or aficionado to be impressed by Chestnut Hill artist Michael Ciliberti’s stunning renderings of nature scenes inspired by visits to Morris Arbortetum, the Wissahickon Woods and Pastorius Park. But even more mind-blowing is the fact that Michael, who paints for four or five hours on a typical day, is 93 years old. The viewers cannot help but ask themselves how Ciliberti is able to keep painting at the very highest level of skill in his 10th decade.
“I have kept myself in shape physically with swimming, playing, tennis, working out and being generally active,” Ciliberti explained in an interview last week. “My passions for art and music and my love of nature and the beauty it presents to me keep me going. My wife, Valerie, is also an artist, and that has been an important part of our relationship ever since our courtship days. We are able to support, encourage and challenge each other to keep creating.”
Ciliberti, whose landscape works are in both oil and watercolor, is currently exhibiting his recent works at Borrelli’s Chestnut Hill Gallery, 1 E. Gravers Ln., now through April 30. Looking at the paintings, it’s easy to see why Ciliberti likes to quote famed educator William James, who wrote: “Scenery seems to wear in one’s consciousness better than any other element in life … I have often been surprised to find what a predominant in my own spiritual existence it has played.”
Ciliberti grew up in South Philadelphia and graduated from Bok Vocational High School, where he studied commercial art. He then studied at Fleischer Art Memorial and later at the Barnes Foundation, followed by five years of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He made numerous trips to Italy and visited many of the great museums of European cities to observe the works of the great masters.
He first started exhibiting with the Philadelphia Abstract Artists in a series of group shows in Philadelphia and New York, but abstraction gave way to realistic representations of nature at Saranac Lake and his first solo show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Working watercolors al fresco and developing oils in his studio, Ciliberti has had several solo shows and has participated in many juried shows.
“I spent my childhood summers by the sea. I am fascinated by reflections in water and the effects of movement,” the artist explained. “My travels recently have taken me to scenery near water, be it oceanside or mountain lake. Working plein air with watercolor, the excitement of the moment can sometimes be captured with a surface freshness that is compelling.
“When I take this experience with some photographs back to the studio to start an oil painting, a different process evolves. What was once a momentary image spreads out to several months of shifting views. This slower process challenges me as I observe the intricacies sunlight can produce on water or land. Memories of the original experience slowly unfold.”
Ciliberti never taught art but did have a career in visual merchandising. He has had exhibits of his work locally at the Art Alliance, Artists’ House, FAN Gallery and Chestnut Hill Gallery.
“My first show of watercolors at Artists’ House, which took place just after I completed my coursework at the Academy, was very important to me, as I had been encouraged by two of my instructors: Seymour Remenick and Elizabeth Osborne.”
Ciliberti’s own favorite artists, past and present, are Giotto, Massaccio, Cezanne, Monet, Daniel Garber, Willem de Kooning, Winslow Homer and Joan Mitchell.
Ciliberti’s daughter, Victoria, is a writer about art in the Broad Street Review and elsewhere. Has she ever written about her father’s work?
“No, but I expect she will someday,” Ciliberti said. “My daughter is very devoted to the arts, and my two granddaughters are both active in the art world … I am proud also of my other daughter, a world traveler and an engineer with the Coast Guard, who earned her degree in night school while holding a full-time job.”
What was the hardest thing Ciliberti ever had to do?
“Live in this country since 2016.”
What is the best advice Ciliberti ever received?
“The encouragement of my father, even in my childhood, to become an artist. He was so excited to see that I had talent and interest that he built a studio for me in a spare room in our house.”
If Ciliberti could meet and spend time with anyone on earth, past or present, who it would be and why?
“My father, who died when I was a teenager, was an Italian immigrant who did not speak English. But he was full of the excitement of being an Italian, and he loved the music and art his native country produced. Since my wife and I visited relatives in Italy and fell in love with the country, I would love to be able to talk with him about it and about the love of music and art that we share.
For more details about Ciliberti’s exhibit at Borrelli’s Chestnut Hill Gallery, call 215-248-2549. You can reach Len Lear at firstname.lastname@example.org