Pilato one-part artist, one-part historian
You can find him in the heart of Centre County, behind the familiar Coke bottle glasses of a legendary football coach. Look close enough in the lens on the right, and you’ll see a reflection of the stream where childhood Saturdays were spent listening to the broadcasts of that coach’s latest turn on the field.
Drive about 60 miles northeast, and you’ll find him again in Williamsport, Pa., behind the kind eyes of fallen soldiers and a local store clerks alike. If you take a moment here, you’ll notice hand prints from grade school classes and others whose lives he’s touched through his commitment to art education.
If you’re up for a real trip, you could head to New York City, Virginia, Norway, Spain, or any one of the dozens of sites where he also left his mark. And as part of what he’s calling the “World Mural Project,” he hopes to see an international chain of artwork come to life – a series of interconnected murals that, though spread out across continents, would actually make up one sprawling piece if placed side-by-side.
One-part artist, one-part historian, muralist Michael Pilato transforms the facades of bookstores, parking garages and brick walls with his murals – each an attempt to capture the soul of a town through Technicolor, intricately patterned storybooks. “You teach the community more than what they know,” the 43-year-old State College native said. “It’s about making people feel proud about who they are and where they’re from.”
In recent months, Pilato’s artwork has found its way into a part of history itself. He attracted attention on Nov. 9, when, days after child sex abuse charges were filed against Jerry Sandusky, Pilato painted over the former assistant football coach in one of his State College murals. Hoping to quietly replace Sandusky’s likeness with a blue ribbon to symbolize the cause against child abuse, Pilato returned to his piece just steps from Penn State’s campus to erase the man whose once spotless reputation had been tarnished by scandal.
It didn’t take long for the media to take note. The move ended up headlining broadcasts across the country, also attracting coverage from The Atlantic, Reuters and other major outlets. A few months later, Pilato again became the subject of headlines when he christened Joe Paterno’s portrait on the same mural with a halo, provoking ire from those who interpreted it as an attempt to deify the late football coach.
At the end of the day, though, he says the spotlight is the last thing on his mind.
Pilato confesses to being deeply spiritual, though in lieu of an organized religion, his philosophy, in life and in work, is simple: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
In a soft but weathered voice – worn from a mix of cigarette smoke and long nights spent poring over a canvas – he speaks about his art like he’s giving a sermon. It comes easy, though, when each mural holds stories tied together like parables, he’s quick to tell you. Each piece is more than a matter of immortalizing a host of notable individuals in a community; instead, each carries a message of love, of redemption, of rebuilding. Two of his works in Pennsylvania – one started in 2001, now stretched across a block of Heister Street in State College; the other started several years later, now towering across the sides of several adjacent facades in Lycoming County – take on “Inspiration” as their names.
Both “Inspiration” and “Inspiration: Lycoming County,” respectively, play host to a cast of characters ranging from prolific public figures to lesser-known but nonetheless friendly faces. When people – particularly youth – talk about moving onto bigger and better things, Pilato hopes his art helps to embolden them by showing them that greatness can be found even in these seemingly small central Pennsylvanian towns.
“It’s these kinds of stories that wake you up and say, ‘Look, not only do I want to go and be adventurous, but look where I’m coming from, look on the shoulders that I’m walking on’ – so you’re not going out there alone,” he said.
And through the years, he’s come to appreciate another spiritual aspect of his murals, as he’s witnessed time and again the therapeutic power that art can wield.
In some cases, that means providing solace to those who are grieving. At Hunter’s Woods Elementary School in Reston, Va., he was working with students on a mural at the school, which included an image of a young girl facing cancer whose peers were praying daily for her recovery. Just as the piece was nearly complete and he was about to head home, a tornado hit – prompting Pilato to stay an extra week to restore parts of the mural that had been damaged in the storm. In the same span of time, the girl passed away. As he reworked the tattered image, he surrounded the girl’s likeness with flowers and allowed loved ones to add their handprints – a Pilato signature – as a tribute.
The same day the planes hit the Twin Towers, Pilato also found healing through art.
Struggling to cope with the news, he first painted an eagle, goldfinch, bluebird and chickadee into his prominent State College “Inspiration” mural. The first bird symbolizes America, he said, while the remaining three are the state birds of the locations where each of the planes on Sept. 11 took off.
At the time, his partner, Yuriy Karabash, also noticed that the mural lacked any representation from Middle Eastern nations among the flags it displayed, so Pilato worked round-the-clock to add in more flags, this time etching in rips on all but the flag of the United Nations. To cap it off, Pilato depicted the eagle weaving the ripped remnants of the flags into a nest, symbolizing both that America takes in those from all parts of the world and recognizing the widespread impact of Sept. 11.
He said it was 11:59 p.m. on Sept. 12 before he returned home. Since then, he pauses for reflection for 48 hours every Sept. 11 to create art in honor of fallen Penn State alumni, local soldiers, firefighters and others.
No matter where he travels, and even in his darkest moments, one lesson has become clear: “Everybody loves the same around the whole world.”
In a spirit of promoting public art and bridging connections between seemingly different cultures, Pilato is working together with artists and others in Norway to get the World Mural Project off the ground. This movement, he said, is designed to create a series of interconnected works of public art across the world.
“Our stories are the same,” he notes, reflecting on visits to everywhere from Moldova to Manhattan. “Sure, in Africa, the color of the paint will be bright and beautiful like the colors that they wear there – but, literally, the stories are very similar, and they’re stories of everyday people and also our heroes.”
He might have made a life for himself as a muralist now, but if one coin flip between a pair of Pilato siblings had gone any differently, Pilato said he could have ended up a sculptor instead.
See, Michael isn’t the only one in his family with an artistic streak. His twin brother, Mark, also had his sights set on life as an artist. The twins went through a competitive phase, both interested largely in sculpting, and the 8-year-olds eventually decided there was only one way to decide who should continue in this medium and who should find a new passion.
“We flipped a coin when we were younger,” Pilato recalled, with a laugh, “and I lost.”
Michael couldn’t remember whether he called heads or tails. And in fact, Mark hardly remembers the story at all. But this much was sure: Michael made a promise to abandon sculpting and instead turn to paint as his artistic outlet. The rest was history.
The Pilato siblings grew up in a family that placed a high value on art. His mother, Grace, has background as a potter and for years was active with the popular Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. Michael remembers taking drawing classes with his father, Guy. His parents would take the family – which also included older siblings Lisa and Tommy, and younger sister Natalia –to museums, galleries, theatrical productions and other artistic events. The Pilatos encouraged their children to think critically about what they saw, and they also nudged Michael and his siblings to try whatever interested them.
For Michael, artistic training came in many forms. He started with a local sculptor, Roger Pollok, then moved on to other teachers like art educator James Ritchey, who helped him through school by showing him how to connect art to subjects like science that were otherwise challenging. His training also includes time at Penn State, the Governor’s School of the Arts, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and even studied animation – a longtime passion of his – in Canada. Somewhere along the way, he started painting murals and fell in love with that form of art.
Mark, who has made a life as a sculptor, said though the two have pursued different mediums, their lives have still run parallel to some extent. Together, they’ve grown up from the days spent peddling handmade crafts at local arts festivals to, now, learning to balance their work and life outside of the hours spent diving into their artwork.
“The [artistic] process is taking me away from the day, and then you’ve got to jump out of that flow and be a father and be a dad and make sure kids are doing their homework,” Mark said, referencing the juggling act he and his brother work to perfect between parenting and perfecting their craft.
Pilato and his wife, Keiko, are separated but remain on good terms – she was instrumental in helping him with his Public Art Academy, he notes. And it’s hard to ignore what being a father means to Michael, and he’s quick to tell you that 16-year-old Skye is the source of much of her father’s inspiration for pursuing his artwork. When she would walk down the street as a child, her father recalled, he was taken aback by her ability to bring out a smile in anyone who looked her way. In turn, Pilato challenged himself to consider what he was doing to create a positive reflection of his own.
“To me, it was like, what is that kind of energy and what do I have?” he recalled. “What are my strengths, and how can I give back?”
Sure, it’s been seven years. But how could Beth Hubbard forget the first time she saw it?
It was an interest in local buildings, not murals, that first brought this Durham, N.C.-raised film producer to Williamsport, Pa. One day in 2005, Hubbard was leaving a local watering hole tucked along West Fourth Street when, there it was: a kaleidoscope of colorful faces practically jumping out from the bricks on, of all things, the perimeter of a parking lot.
“You’re near it, and the energy is coming off of the wall,” Hubbard remembered.
She barely had time to ask who was behind the mural when she caught sight of someone else sat the mural: “a guy with a cigarette on a ladder, painting.”
So she struck up a conversation, and before long, Pilato took her on one of his famous “tours” of the work-in-progress on his “Inspiration” mural. Pointing to figures on the wall, the artist outlined the history of the modest town that’s situated along a stretch of the Susquehanna River where the stream starts to meander, smack dab in between Scranton and State College.
Hubbard said she learned more about Williamsport and its citizens in those first moments with Pilato than she ever would in the years to come.
Through the years, Michael even bonded with Hubbard’s mother, the late Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, a widely respected philanthropist and patron of the arts whose family founded Duke University. Beyond their appreciation for the arts, their passion and ability to make those around them feel like they’re “the only one in the room” set them apart, Hubbard said.
“These days you don’t really find someone with vision and heart and drive, usually two out of three of those,” she notes. “But [Michael]’s got all of them.”
Today, Hubbard and Pilato have remained close ever since that first meeting outside Williamsport’s Bullfrog Brewery, and Hubbard sits on the board of Pilato’s Public Art Academy.
A lifelong vision, one that he’s called his very own “ ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ dream,” Pilato’s academy was born from a desire to fuel community development, bringing together skilled artists with younger ones who want to learn the tricks of the trade. Not a school with traditional classrooms or tests, this instead serves as a kind of grassroots hub for promoting creativity and community from its post in Williamsport.
This wouldn’t be possible, Pilato’s quick to tell you, without the support of one of his biggest mentors: William Schreyer, a former Merrill Lynch CEO and the namesake behind Penn State’s Schreyer Honors College.
Their relationship stretches back even before the Public Art Academy came into existence. A few years ago – by Pilato’s memory, about 2007 – he mustered up the courage to approach Schreyer, asking for $100,000 to finish a mural.
He can still remember sitting in front of Schreyer, who during that meeting gave him one piece of advice he carries to this day: “He said, ‘You know, Michael, I want to teach you one thing: you have to ask for what you want.’”
So Michael asked for the $100,000. And Schreyer agreed to supply the funds needed to finish the painting.
Pilato said he could hardly contain his excitement. By the time the time the elated artist walked out of Schreyer’s office, Pilato was “crying and screaming at the top of [his] lungs” with joy.
About a year later, heeding the same advice he received from Schreyer about not shying away from asking for what you want, Pilato decided to go back for one more request. This time, Pilato asked for $1 million to help create his Public Art Academy. Schreyer, again, took him up on the offer and agreed to supply the funding – but this time, the money came with a catch.
“He goes, ‘OK, when you go outside my office this time, can you please not scream?’ ” Pilato recalled, with a smile.
Pilato said he stayed in frequent contact with Schreyer before he passed away in 2011 – one year, to the day, before Paterno – and while the loss has been difficult, Pilato said he’s trying to use what Schreyer taught him to help others.
Today, his Public Art Academy offers a space for artists in residence to flex their creative muscles and give back to the local community. Housed in a lofty, converted warehouse space, the academy supports professional development for artists and offers art education programs for local youth. His long-term goals are lofty – as he puts it, “the dream is huge” – and eventually, he wants to see similar academies come to life in other cities around the world.
One day, Pilato hopes, he’ll be able to set aside enough savings to “pay it forward” to someone else with a dream they care about as passionately as he cares about his academy. How cool would it be, he asks, if he could somehow earn enough to be able to help someone as Schreyer so generously helped him?
“He had the faith in me,” Pilato said. “He saw my vision, and he believed in me and made everything happen.”
Before Pilato removed Sandusky from his State College mural, he said he received a message from the parents of one of the boys Sandusky had been charged with abusing, but even before that, he said he felt compelled to take a stand because of his personal connection to the issue.
A few weeks after the Sandusky case started unfolding, Skye Pilato addressed a crowd about her own experiences with sexual abuse. “The kids, this is what we should be focusing on right now,” Pilato said, referencing both his daughter and others who have experienced abuse. “We should be lifting them up on the highest pedestal so that other people, other kids all over the world could be lifted up and get away from those people who are oppressing them.”
When Pilato painted the halo on Paterno, what many critics didn’t realize, Pilato said, is that this was a gesture he completes with any individual on his murals when they die, barring special requests from family members.
The attention while he was painting initially was overwhelming, and Pilato received his fair share of “hate mail” in response to his artistic decisions. Still, the images provoked discussion, he said, the greatest thing is when people start talking to one another.
“Sometimes it’s very controversial, but that’s what art is,” he said.
She wasn’t expecting a guest at this hour one Saturday in February, but Grace Pilato’s not the type to turn someone back to the street as the sun starts to set. She doesn’t tell you her name, but one look at her face makes clear just who she is. This evening, though, her son’s running late.
She calls upstairs. Make yourself comfortable, she said, excusing herself to the kitchen.
A few minutes later, footsteps shuffle down from the second floor of the Allen Street home that’s shaped five children into artists of all kinds – even a dancer and a fisherman – setting the stage for a lifetime of creativity.
Michael takes a seat on the couch, in the same room where his imagination first ran wild decades ago. Here, statues keep visitors company and paintings line the walls, while thick volumes on drawing and frescoes and everything in between pile up on any ledge in sight.
He rubs his eyes and combs a hand through the matted, salt-and-peppered waves on top of his head. He apologizes: You’ll have to excuse his disheveled hair, but his latest strokes of inspiration kept his paintbrush in hand and his body from sleep last night. This time, it’s a painting of Barack Obama that will eventually sit in a local Democratic office that’s keeping him up at night.
Without hesitation, he dives into talking about his work, his family and his ever-expanding to-do list of future projects. Save the interruptions of a few phone calls from his only daughter – like most 16-year-olds, she wants to see if she can borrow a few dollars from Dad for the night – his stories don’t stop for nearly two hours.
In the meantime, he doesn’t mention the splatters of paint on his faded jeans or the black smudges around the tips of his fingernails. But those badges of labor speak for themselves.
It won’t be long before he’s back in front of the canvas, earning more of those stains, staring down another long stretch perfecting that portrait that stole his sleep the night before.
After all, as he noted earlier during his stretch of storytelling, “Inspiration is a monster.”
And this artist’s work, it seems, is never done.
(This story was written for Comm 462 Feature Writing.)