Dan Ravasio, of Chestnut Hill, grew up in a Western Pennsylvania coal mining and steelworker town that wasn’t noted for nurturing a young man’s artistic side.
Dan Ravasio, who now lives across the road from Chestnut Hill College, grew up in a Western Pennsylvania coal mining and steelworker town that wasn’t noted for nurturing a young man’s artistic side.
Nonetheless, today he finds himself garnering attention for his creative muse with an upcoming exhibition of his paintings in Ambler. The works are entitled “Wissahickon Wonders,” a collection of acrylic landscapes depicting the marvels of Wissahickon Valley Park.
“Growing up in Monongahela [Pa.] doesn’t facilitate planting a seed of creativity,” Ravasio said in a recent interview with the Local. “But it was something I always did. I was always involved in some level of creativity.”
The way Ravasio tells it, his childhood was not one that celebrated artistic expression. He remembers an uncle who, unafraid of his feminine side, would knit and do creative things that Ravasio would later pick up and try for himself. Then, after fashioning some small artifact and showing it to his grandmother, she would say “Danny, that’s really beautiful. But don’t let your Daddy see it.”
But Ravasio continued to do art whenever he could, using all the mechanical tools that he grew up learning how to use. His grandfather, a steelworker, was a hoarder who during hard times would take something like a wooden crate and turn it into a planter – fashioning something out of the detritus in his life. Ravasio, who also worked in a steel mill during the summer, would follow suit - creating little artistic mementos and giving them to his coworkers.
“I was always interested in art, and in photography that illustrated the rough level of living in a steel town where there is a sense of decay and rust and hardiness and the mechanical, all those qualities,” Ravasio said.
Ravasio attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he barely earned a degree in psychology. While there he took some sculpting classes, another creative endeavor which he would use later on. But he did want a degree that could help him to eventually land a job outside of factory work, so he applied and was accepted to the graduate school at Penn State, where he earned a master’s degree in vocational rehabilitation counseling.
“The only reason I was accepted into this select school was because of my industrial background,” he said. “My college grades sucked because I didn’t take it seriously. Vocational rehab was about work and I was one of the few people who applied there who had a blue collar background.”
Upon graduation in 1975 he continued his eastward journey. Newly engaged to a woman he met while at Pitt (they would divorce years later, the proud parents of three children), he took a job in Doylestown with what is now BARC Developmental Services, a group that serves people with intellectual disabilities and autism..
“My job there as a rehab counselor allowed me to start putting to work what I learned in the steel mills,” Ravasio said. “What I learned in graduate school was valuable but what I learned from growing up in a steel region and working in factories allowed me to be successful in what I did.
“Typically those programs are Mickey-Mouse efforts by people who don’t have an industrial background to try and teach people to work. So I started applying intellectual technology, motion economy principles, assembly line operations to these tasks they were performing, which were nothing more than menial, ‘give-them-something-to-do’ jobs.”
Along with another man, Dick Wagner, who himself had a son with a disability, they recreated the program and wound up contracting with companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Air Shields-Vickers and Merck on projects that were billed at levels never before achieved by the agency. By using real technology, their students were able to produce at a level needed to run those businesses – and become a valuable resource.
Word spread. Then, in 2004, The ARC of Camden County, an organization with a mission similar to that of the Doylestown group, , asked Ravasio to do the same type of work. Turned out, using the same principles that proved successful in Doylestown brought the same results for Camden.
All the while, Ravasio kept up his own artwork, using all the tools at his disposal. He did portraits, sculptures, haikus, photographs and paintings, cement and carpentry work as well as fashioning the frames and materials needed for their display.
Finally, in 2020, he quit his day job – encouraged by his partner, Yulan San.
“Yulan was the most instrumental of all the people in my life who helped drag the artist out of me,” he said. “She convinced me that I could retire and be alright. She believed in me.
“I wanted to do two things,” Ravasio continued. “I wanted to learn something I didn’t know before. And I wanted to use my failures to build a thicker skin, so that when I put things in front of people I could weather their criticisms and move on.”
Today, as Ravasio creates the next chapter in his artistic story, he’s discovered a new source of inspiration other than the workplace – walks in the Wissahickon.
“It’s become a spiritual awakening. Walking in the park I’ve learned there are other things in the world that aren’t gritty,” he said.
Ravasio’s paintings of those walks will be on exhibition at Art in the Storefront gallery in Ambler for two months beginning March 17. To view Ravasio’s artwork, visit wissahickonwonders.blogspot.com.