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Anthony Janello

The Mystery of Vincent Crudelle


Late in the year 2001, Vincent Crudelle’s letters and E-mails to his sister Ada ceased. Several months later she sent me a letter. The following is an excerpt from that letter:

"Since Vincent has been gone for nearly a half year, I feel it not a betrayal, no matter how my perpetually ambivalent and timid soul may interpret my present actions and state of mind, that I reveal to the world all that I know of my troubled and brilliant brother. Indeed I feel his will reaches me through dark and disturbing dreams which each night ruin my sleep and leave me ever more tired and unable to cope with the unwanted demands of the next day. Day after day the weight feels heavier, the burden more unbearable. On the bus or at work, I might doze off for a moment of delightful oblivion only to see him and awake with a start cheated again and again of what most people take for granted."

My name is Tony Janello, for over two decades I taught undergraduate studio classes in drawing and painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. I had known Vincent Crudelle as a student. He was obviously talented and bright but also moody and unpredictable. He was one of those students whom his peers perceived as a commanding presence. Such students were potential problems for control of the class. A temperamental outburst from him could have easily had the effect of grinding the class to a halt. As a result I tiptoed around Vincent as one might a sleeping pit bull.

It was a total shock to me when I received the letter from his sister Ada, that as she put it "... he thought of you as his mentor." She contacted me hoping I could help bring her brother’s work to the world. She believed his spirit demanded this of her and of me.

I was initially put off by all this as being just a little too weird, that is until I visited his studio.

The following is an attempt to recreate my first contact with Vincent’s work and his sister Ada:

When I first walked into Vincent Crudelle’s studio, I felt like I had entered someone’s private nightmare. Enormous figures, freakishly distorted, frozen in silent screams of anguish, peopled an otherwise dark, featureless environment of black painted stucco backgrounds.

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Ada stared at me with a cold clinical look as an anatomist about to dissect a lab specimen. I felt like one of the half-finished figures, which hung like so many sides of beef from the ceiling’s exposed beams.

"It was a way Vincent had of conserving space. You get used to it after a while." Ada is short in stature but strangely imposing and disarmingly perceptive.

"Used to it?" I absentmindedly repeated. I knew she could smell my apprehension.

"Yes, the more you live with them, the more normal they seem."

"And the more bizarre the outside world must seem." Ada offered no response but seemed annoyed by my clumsy attempt at levity.

She continued: "A few weeks ago I had a gas heater installed, the heating provided by the mill is inadequate and unpredictable. I overheard the plumber’s helper say to his boss: ‘It looks like a freakin’ house a horrors in here.’ "

Knowing how sensitive artists are to any form of criticism, either real or perceive, I came back with the not unpredictable response long ago fashioned for just such occasions: "Philistines!"

"No Mr. Janello," she corrected me as one would correct a child; " you don’t understand. This was an honest man’s honest response. It was exactly that which Vincent most respected. A reaction more than a response, unrehearsed, without thought or hesitation."

She went on: "Vincent liked to tell the story of how a professor at art school once reacted to one of his sculptures. The work was unique and like the works in this room not a little startling to the unfamiliar. The professor’s first reaction was an unguarded exclamation: ‘Jesus Christ!!’, then upon composing himself, he began a dust dry academic analysis of the work with strong emphasis on what he perceived to be its flaws." Her pause, calculated to allow me time to grasp the significance of the statement, annoyed me. I was beginning to wish that his hearing at critiques had been better.

"It was that ‘Jesus Christ!’ that Vincent was after." I had to bite my tongue. Although I couldn’t think of one at the moment, I knew there had to be many great come backs to that line.

"It’s OK if you laugh Mr. Janello. Laughter is a means of releasing nervous discomfort. My mother often told us that when her mother started laughing, all the kids would hide." I remember that line, the oddness of it, more than anything that happened that day.

Ada’s aggressive "perceptiveness" put me on the defensive. Once on the defensive, I tend to clam up. I think this was just her intent.

"You see Mr. Janello when Vincent and I were very young we became aware of our father’s impatient intellect. He would immerse himself in a subject and then having gotten what he wanted from his studies, he would abruptly abandon them. His memories of the classroom were of painful boredom where he was primarily fixated on the slow passage of time. In a way, to him, the classroom was like a prison. With pride and a touch of irony he referred to himself as a WOP. You do know the meaning of that ethnic slur? It means simply ‘without papers’. As such, without academic credentials, he would never be taken seriously by the elitist world of Art."

"As a result he had no love of elitism and pretension. He cast his lot with the common man. Vincent and I were raised to be very suspect of elitism, whatever its guise. The reaction by the apprentice plumber was pure and also uncanny, for among the numerous jobs my father had was the designing, building and also repairing of figures for the amusement park at Rocky Point."

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"It was an incident at the amusement park, which would change Vincent’s life and the lives of our entire family forever. Vincent was just seven or eight years old at the time."

"Since the accidental death of our oldest brother Gabriel, my father had become withdrawn. His sense of humor, which had ranged from dry and quick to just plain silly, was a tool he used to put others and especially his immediate family at ease. If you were to ask anyone who knew him at all, their first mention would be of his humor. Humor was a means of generosity to him, always aimed at inclusion never cruelty."

"His sense of humor died with Gabriel. He became withdrawn. I’m told his friends gradually fell away from him and he spent more and more time alone in his work shop."

"In a very uncharacteristic gesture Dad decided to take Vincent to see the figures in the House of Horrors. The amusement park, which had been abandoned for some years, was condemned and scheduled for the wrecking ball. Dad seemed for once aware that he had created an icy distance from his children and most especially from Vincent. Dad decided that it was now or never to take Vincent to see, first hand, the work of the Crudelles."

"For three generations, this family of artisans had lent their formidable skills and imagination to scaring willing teenagers. Dad’s father was the first, then of course Dad and finally Gabe, who at the time of his death at seventeen had already worked weekends for three or four years at Dad’s side. Our father took great pride in the work and saw beyond the superficial scariness to the reflection of an inner torment and as a result, an inner beauty which, to him, these ‘grotesques’ possessed."

"I know, had he anticipated Vincent’s reaction, he would never have brought him. They left near dawn on a Saturday morning. Mom and the rest of us were still sleeping; none of us knew of Dad’s plan. Dad wanted to slip in between the security guard shift change. On the drive to the park, Dad said something to Vincent like ‘You will see the Crudelle spirit there.’ To the child’s mind, this was a literal statement, he began to imagine ghosts and more to the point the ghosts of Gabriel and his grandfather, both of whom had died in the past few years."

"As Vincent described it to me, the House of Horrors was dark, damp, and dank, it stank of water, rotted wood and standing pools of collected effluents of a flooded basement. As his eyes began to adjust to the dim morning light that issued through cracks in the rotted roof, figures slowly began to become visible in the darkness. Like a painting by Correggio, their forms emerged into light, the edges softly blended and yet were strongly wedded to the surrounding blackness. There was a sound of dripping water. From the fissures in the rotted roof, water fell onto the figures. Their garish paint was being washed away, they stood there, pale and ghostly. Their whiteness was terrifying. Vincent thought he could see one move. Dad called to him, ‘Come here I want to show you something, but be careful the floor is rotted just in front of you, walk around.’ Dad walked past the ghastly figures and was lost in the shadows behind them. It was then that Vincent saw movement. He believed he could see the ghost of his dead brother, Gabriel gesturing for him to follow him into the shadows. Vincent began to scream. Dad, like a sleep walker abruptly awakened and suddenly fully and awfully aware, grabbed Vincent up in his arms and fled the building."

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"Upon their return home, Ma, who had been waiting in a brooding anger, suddenly exploded into a sudden fury upon seeing Dad carrying a still sobbing Vincent up the driveway steps. We kids were petrified. We had never seen her this angry before. She grabbed Vincent by the arm and violently snatched him away from Dad. Vincent began to cry, his crying, more a scream. We kids didn’t need to be told to leave the room."

"We could hear her speaking ever more loudly and as curiosity overcame fear, we snuck a peek at the door. I remember she accused Dad of killing our older brother Gabriel. ‘You’re never going to have the chance to do the same to Vincent, you bastard!’ she screamed as she pounded his chest with her fists. He didn’t try to defend himself. He just walked away. We heard the front door close behind him. That was the last time we ever saw Dad."

"The storm raged in Ma all day. We tried to hide. She decided we were all going to clean the house. She attacked the job, and us, with a vengeance. Nothing we could do was good enough. We had to scrub the floors on our hands and knees over and over until we all sat together crying."

"That evening Ma marched us all to church. We were all to go to confession. I think she was seeking an exorcism from her own private demons."

"I remember the echo of our footsteps in the near empty church, the dim light seemed to come from the flickering votive candles. It played a dark game of trickery on a child’s imagination. The shadows of the gaudily painted plaster statuary seemed to shiver and sway."

"Vincent’s experiences that morning had changed him. Although he had been in this same church hundreds of times before, had seen the plaster saints, indeed studied them carefully, he now saw them as if for the first time. His vision was reborn. He saw the horror, the pain, the anguish, and the ecstasy; the hearts pierced by daggers, the brow pierced by thorns, the hands and feet pierced by nails, and everywhere blood. Saint Lawrence was there stretched out on what appeared to be an enormous hibachi as he was grilled alive. There was a saint who lifted his robes to thigh height to allow a dog to lick a gaping wound. Mary treaded contentedly on a dark phallic snake. There were the Stations of the Cross, alive with Nazi-like brutalities, cruel tormentors, and grieving women like Ma. And above all Jesus who allowed himself to be bound, scourged, tortured, and crucified just so Catholics through the ages could feel the guilt at having killed the son of their God so that they may seek the ‘gift’ of eternal forgiveness. All these leapt forth in a frightening epiphany within this child too young and innocent to apprehend them."

"As the shadows danced and shivered on the walls Vincent imagined he saw (or perhaps he actually did see) his dead brother gesturing him to come."

"He screamed as Ma’s talon-like grip crushed the flesh of his upper arm. She had caught him as he had attempted to climb over the Communion railing to reach the beckoning apparition. He began to scream in fright. Ma was laughing in long slow breaths from a place deep inside which knows no humor, a laugh her mother would have laughed which would have once been a signal to her and her siblings to hide."

"When can you begin photographing his work?"

I was stunned at the abruptness of this statement. Yet I knew I would have no choice other than to comply with Ada’s, and through her, Vincent’s wishes.

A Letter from Vincent to Ada

The following is an excerpt of a letter Vincent Crudelle wrote to his sister Ada. It reveals an experience which sheds light on his motivation for the creation of, as he called them, his "grotesques".

" wanted to know why Mom behaves as she does. Dad’s unexpected death was a great tragedy to the whole family, but I don’t think that alone it was responsible for Mom’s decline. You were too young to remember all the fighting just before he died. I remember it, it was awful.

I believe, although no one ever talks about it, that it was my near death experience that pushed her over the edge. This is the first time I have ever mentioned it to anyone since it happened.

I know you are under the impression that Dad was a struggling artist. As you may or may not know because the family is so secretive, Dad eked out a meager living making and more often repairing figures for amusement parks, Fun House, House of Horrors stuff. Word got around and he started doing repairs to damaged church statuary.

His workshop, a converted garage was like a gateway to another world, one of chipped and broken gods and grotesques, saints and devils. With the overhead door left open to disperse the fumes from the various toxic solvents he used, it became the natural magnet for curious neighborhood kids.

He hated being disturbed while working. I remember hearing his booming voice as he yelled and swore at kids to scare them off. Of course this behavior only encouraged the kids to provoke him for the sport of it, while it did little to ingratiate him to the neighbors. Our family became the outcasts of the neighborhood.

He forbad me to go near the workshop citing dangers of flammable materials and even worse the wrath of the evil spirits inhabiting the figures. I believed him.

Remember the Pigliotzies? To this day I can’t remember their real names, you know, the awfully pink twins who, when they weren’t beating up on each other were terrorizing the smaller kids of the neighborhood. I was their favorite victim for a time. They revelled in their torment of me.

One day shortly after Dad’s funeral, they decided I would help them break into his workshop. Their powers of persuasion were both violent and effective. Despite my intense fear of the place I found Dad’s hidden key.

Once unlocked, the workshop door swung open to a black void. It’s foul, musty odor made me dizzy. Suddenly I fell forward as the Pigliotzies pushed me into the darkness. I remember the clatter of paint cans hitting the cement and the door slamming behind me. I still remember their laughter and the click of the padlock as they locked me in.

In panic I couldn’t get up. I began screaming and kicking at the door. I felt wetness spreading on the floor beneath me. A powerful odor attacked my nostrils. I was lying in a puddle of the solvents Dad had warned me about. I started getting dizzier. My eyes burned and watered and yet I began to make out vague shapes of figures as they emerged from the surrounding darkness. They were moving, towards me. Instead of the terror you might expect, I felt a strange sense of calm, even relief. I closed my eyes. They stood around me. Their spirits entered me. Good and Evil, they began a war within me.

I saw a vast battlefield. The two armies attacked each other viciously. Hands, fingers, feet teeth were their weapons yet their ferocity was so great that soon both armies were so covered with their own as well as their enemies blood and entrails, I could no longer tell them apart.

At the horizon a bright light emerged from the field of red. My spirit’s eye flew across the distance in an instant. Was this the spirit of redemption bringing peace to this place of carnage? As I approached, the figure and its movements became familiar. Dressed in immaculate white, untouched by the surrounding blood and gore, Dad slowly, methodically, in the manner of a journeyman sure of his craft, glued limbs back on to the dismembered.

He paused, turned to me and seemed to look right through me as if I were the ghost then he smiled and turned back to his gruesome task.

I awoke in the hospital. That night the garage burned to the ground along with all its contents. It was clearly arson. No one was ever charged but suspicions ranged from the Pigliotzies to angry neighbors and even to Mom herself whose behavior had become increasingly erratic and violent....."

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Vincent’s e-mail to his sister Ada

I was there, at the funeral. I know I told you I wouldn’t go. I felt compelled to go at the last minute. I didn’t want to run into all the phonies and assholes. I was the first to leave as the service was over. Out like a ghost.

I only knew Harry remotely, through Mal. Really don’t like his wife. It was Mal I was concerned for. I guess I let him down by not staying. What the hell.

I got back to my room and felt really strange, sad, angry. There were so many people there. The speakers spoke so well of Harry, of his kindness towards strangers, of his warmth, his generosity. I guess he was all of those things. I saw him at first as competition for Mal’s affection. Didn’t know at first if he was there to "cash in" on an elderly man’s desperate need for a family. As the years passed, I felt that even if he had inheritance aspirations, he had done Mal great good.

Harry was clearly very well loved by many. The service provoked in me thoughts, not necessarily a good thing.

I would never wish for such a service. I would rather go out quietly like a "vile burglar" and why? Why are people like Harry so unusual, so different, so far from the norm? Were they put here as guides, as examples, or as mocking mirrors of our own inadequacies?

I thought more: his generosity issued from an internal comfort, he was comfortable being himself. You know I have no belief in a heaven or a hell, indeed doubt the existence of any afterlife, yet the concept of reincarnation ( which I also think is ridiculous ) could be proven by the discomfort most of us feel in being ourselves. Or am I just speaking for myself?

What cosmic entity assigns souls to bodies. Is this entity ever unerring? When an actor, poorly chosen for his role, "struts and frets his hour upon the stage", the audience groans, and is made uncomfortably aware that they are watching a poorly played play. The illusion of "being there " is destroyed. Is it not so with identity? An ill fitting identity, like ill fitting shoes makes us more aware, more self-conscious more keen to the idea of the illusion not working, more aware of the machinery behind the curtains, of our own inappropriateness to the role assigned us. Through our constant discomfort we become increasingly conscious of the lie.

No more clearly do you see this than at social events where there is alcohol present. This "social lubricant" makes the fit right. The pinch is gone. We are more at comfort with others because we are more at comfort with ourselves, that is, until the fights break out.

And just who does this assigning? Is this the "spirit of enlightenment" as some would have us believe, who hands out trials, to create a ladder to our spiritual ascension? Or could it just as well be a dolt who nine times out of ten just can’t get it right. Or could it be a truly malignant entity who seeks to torture. Do we pay for the transgressions of past lives by living within an identity for which our souls have no affinity, no talent? If the last is true, he who chooses is a genius, for this life is a prison with only one hope of escape.

Harry had generosity, I have addictions, alcohol, self pity, self-loathing, art, yes above all art is an addiction. There is a catharsis in the creation of a work. This flies in the face of God and this is the reason why He hates artists so. By the very act of the realization of our ideas into a material reality we are in His business. He is a "jealous God" as says the Bible. A god of desert peoples, of want and insecurity.

Photographer Anthony Janello currently works in Hope, RI (401) 821-0075 -  ~

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