The artist Richard Pepitone died on Nov. 8, 2022 at Seashore Point in Provincetown. The cause was bladder cancer. He was 86.
As a teenager, Richard spent two years at the Rockland State Hospital in New York after having run away from Brooklyn to Los Angeles before his 12th birthday.
“Determined to control my fits of rage,” he wrote in his 2015 memoir, Gone for the Day, he met the future heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson, who at 15 had been sent to Rockland for observation.
The two “bonded immediately and became close friends,” Richard wrote. The friendship included helping Patterson train. Richard weighed about 100 pounds at the time.
When Patterson inadvertently knocked him out, Richard brushed it off. “I was the first person to be knocked out by the future world heavyweight champion,” he said.
That relationship marked a turning point in Richard’s life. His street smarts were supplemented by self-control, which might not have happened, he wrote, “if it hadn’t been for Floyd.”
“This guy was a unique artist,” said Provincetown’s Sal Del Deo after Richard’s death, “troublesome, crazy, but a real artist. Some of us have to acquire it through trial and error. Richard didn’t have to do that. Whenever he was interested in something, he hit it right on target, whether it was photography, sculpture, ceramics — any form of expression — Richard could do it, like that.”
The youngest son of Frank and Jennie Di Fazio Pepitone, Richard was born on Jan. 2, 1936, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His three older brothers, whom he did not meet until he was eight, had been sent to live in an orphanage. The Great Depression had not yet been alleviated by World War II, and Richard was left pretty much on his own from the time he was two.
“A hearing loss in both ears and a slurred speech problem made it hard for me to make friends,” he wrote. So, he roamed the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan alone. Petty thefts from his mother’s purse and opportunistic “finds” outside shops provided him the funds to go to movie theaters and, surprisingly, museums.
Richard loved doing art in kindergarten, but after that there wasn’t much time in school to be creative. He stopped going to school after fifth grade. His truancy landed him in juvenile court and then in and out of a series of institutions — from a school for the deaf to a mental hospital — over the next decade.
When he was 10, during a stint in Kings County Hospital, he took an arts and crafts class in which he could cast “life-size polyester resin figures from my own designs. Who would have thought such seeds would be planted behind barred windows in a county hospital?” he wrote.
In 1956, determined to become an artist “with $200 for rent, food, and art supplies,” Richard moved to a room on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village. Martin Kerns agreed to give him drawing lessons and found him a job as a barista. “For the first time in my life,” Richard wrote, “I felt like myself.”
He moved on from drawing and painting to sculpture, becoming apprenticed to Alfred Van Loen. He placed his first two sculptures, “the head of a matador wearing a beret” and “a life-size frog resting on a stone,” in a gallery on the corner of West Fourth and Broome streets. “They sold as soon as the owner put them on display.”
After what Richard referred to as five good years in New York, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy.
In a 2003 article in the Provincetown Banner, Richard told Sue Harrison the story of how he developed his technique as a sculptor. After he smashed a negative plaster mold of the human form, he discovered that from a certain angle the negative image appeared as positive in individual fragments. “He started to work with sections of the body,” Harrison wrote, “bits of face, chunks of torso,” merging “positive and negative spaces, adding an abstract element to his life cast body fragments.”
Moving from plaster to transparent polyester resin enabled him to produce sculptures that rewarded views from multiple angles rather than just one. His new technique came to fruition in his “Negative Dimensional Form” series of fragments of life-size female figures.
The Reese Paley Gallery hosted Richard’s first exhibitions, one in San Francisco in 1968 and another in New York in 1969. His first Outer Cape exhibition was at the Wellfleet Art Gallery in 1972. After that, he had one-person shows in Wellfleet, Provincetown, Dennis, New York City, Washington, D.C., Worcester, Rhode Island, and Colorado.
His cast bronze figure Sorrow is on permanent display at the YMCA main headquarters in Washington; his bronze Reclining Nude Variation on a Theme #1 is in the permanent collection at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum; and his bronze Homage to Fishermen is part of the permanent collection of the town of Provincetown and stands in the park at the foot of MacMillan Wharf.
Richard was artist-in-residence at the Upsala Street School in Worcester and at the Rhode Island School of Design; he taught at the Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill, the Provincetown Art Association and Museum Summer School, and the Sedona Clay Works in Sedona, Ariz., where he taught raku ceramics.
Carol Highsmith’s photograph of his 1980 sculpture of a fragment of a woman’s torso reclining on its side that rests on the lawn in front of PAAM is in the prints and photographs division of the Library of Congress.
A longtime member of the Beachcombers, Richard lived and practiced his art in Provincetown for more than 50 years. “When I think of Richard Pepitone,” said Sal Del Deo, “I think of something rather unique in the art world, because Pepitone was an artist to the very end of his fingers, to his heart. He didn’t have to go study at schools or anything. He had it already.”
“I have never known anyone who loved life more than my father,” Richard’s daughter, Michelle, said. “Had he lived, he would have been that dapper gentleman sitting at a café admiring all of the pretty ladies over a cappuccino and living each precious moment to the fullest.”
He is survived by his daughter, Michelle Pepitone, and partner Andreas Schermaier of Pittsburgh and by his niece, Linda Matteo, and nephews Ronnie Pepitone and Frank Pepitone, all of Long Island.
Richard was predeceased by his three brothers, Bobby, Frank, and Anthony, and by his wife, Kay G. Pepitone.
A memorial celebration at the Beachcombers Club in Provincetown is scheduled for June 11, 2023.