Provincetown has provided Sal Del Deo with everything he’s wanted: a vibrant fishing village and art colony by the sea, a long marriage, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of subjects to paint. He’s been painting in the dunes for 70 years. Sal is represented by Berta Walker Gallery. He lives in the house on Atkins-Mayo Road that he and his wife built in the 1940s. His son Romolo, a sculptor, lives and works next door. At about noon most days, Sal calls Romolo and tells him he is ready. They walk arm in arm down the path to Sal’s studio, where he paints until about 6:30. Then he calls Romolo to pick him up, and they head home for a glass of wine and supper. Here’s Sal in his own words, recorded in the fall of 2019 and again this week.
I came first to Provincetown in 1946 when I was 17, going on 18. And that really was what I call the beginning of my life. I was over the hill in Truro, looking at Provincetown. For some reason, this was my home to be. I knew it from the day I first came here.
I came here to study painting with Mr. [Henry] Hensche. Someone said to me, “What kind of a painter are you?” I’m a general painter. I’m interested in the landscape. I’m interested in the flora and fauna. I’m interested in people’s faces. I’m interested in what they do. I want to be a painter that records the vibrant life of the community.
In those days, Provincetown was really a fishing town. We had seven cold storage plants. We had 30 wharfs. We had 200 boats. It was a real working town.
When we had the tragedy of the Patricia Marie, I knew all the kids that went down and died, seven of them. It was the worst fishing disaster in Provincetown history. I was so moved I started a series of paintings. I did three of my major works commemorating the tragedy of the Patricia Marie.
When you’re out in the dunes, there is no time. It could be a thousand years ago, or be a thousand years from now, because that landscape doesn’t change. The wind pushes it around, but it’s the sand, the sky, and the sea. It’s timeless.
In the ’60s, when my children were still young and going to elementary school, I thought nothing of taking them in at eight o’clock in the morning and then picking them up at three, and then they’d come back with me. They would do their homework by candlelight or kerosene light. And then we played games, which is wonderful, because in the dunes there’s not much you can do. Except during the World Series! Then we listened to the ballgame on the radio, a little portable. That was always very exciting, ’cause my wife [the late Josephine Del Deo] loved baseball as much as I did, especially during the World Series.
After the kids went to bed, she would write poetry, because she was always so inspired out there. We’ve been all over Italy. We’ve seen some of the most beautiful places. And, certainly, there were places where we could have lived, but her most precious place was the back shore.
You know, I’m not a young, spry chicken anymore. It’s always a chore for me to go out now to the dunes. But I make the effort because every time I go out there, I always say the same thing I used to say to my wife. Now, I say it to my son. “Why don’t we stay here all the time? It’s so beautiful!”
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In the fall of 2019, Sal wasn’t feeling or looking well. A concerned friend, who is a retired doctor and painter, persuaded him to travel with Romolo to New York City for heart surgery.
The doctor sat next to me and talked to me for one hour about my painting, about my life. It was wonderful. He said, “Now we’re going to go in and do the procedure. It takes about two and a half hours, and then you’ll be fine. You’ll live to be a hundred!” I said, “Oh, come on, doctor.” “No, you will! Are you ready?” I said, “I’m ready to go.”
Afterwards, one of the young doctors came into my room and said, “Mr. Del Deo, we put five stents in you today. You are set to go.” That was the day of the resurrection for me! I was in a euphoric state. We stopped on the way home and had a cup of coffee, and it was like a victory lap.
I thought I’d go back to this painting here. It’s the temptation of Saint Anthony. I started it 50 years ago and had put it aside. And I said, you know, God’s given me another year or so. I’m gonna finish that painting! It’s about eight by nine feet, close to it. It’s the biggest single canvas I’ve done. And I’ve got another big painting after this. I am catching up on 30 years, when I cooked and could only paint half the time.
There’s a lot of us who are still working. Paul Resika is my age. He’s still painting. Carmen Cicero lives in Truro. He’s two years older than me. He’s still painting and doing some great stuff. The need to live, so you can flesh out your dreams is very, very strong.
I keep a pad by my bed. I write notes of what I’m thinking about for my paintings, for things I have to do for my family and friends, little crazy things. It’s kind of morbid, but I’m thinking about the kids that will carry my casket when I die. And I’m also thinking of my son going to Italy and carving marble again. These are my dreams.
I told Romolo I want to go out to the dunes again. If I knew these were my last moments, I would opt for a party in the dunes with my family and my close friends. These friends are so precious to me. That’s one of the beauties of living in a small town. I’ve got so many dear friends here, families I’ve known over two and three generations.
I’m planning my 94th birthday [on Aug. 12] out on the dunes. That’s gonna be my gift to myself. We’ll have a barbecue of fish on the fire and wine and have a great time!