This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on April 6, (2016) as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project. The interview is being recorded at the Melton building. My name is Ron Robbins and I am interviewing Stephen Canneto.
Interviewer: We’ll get started. Just as a prelude to this I have to tell you that most of the interviews I have done have been people who were Jewish to begin with, by birth, and here we have someone who is Jewish by choice. I think it will be interesting as this thing progresses to find out what it was that brought Steve to make this decision which is sort of a big decision, I would think, in anybody’s life. To begin with, let just start, Steve. name, rank, serial number, all those kinds of things.
Canneto: I’m Stephen Canneto, middle name, Frank, age 72. What else would you like to know specifically?
Interviewer: When you decided to become Jewish, did you take on a Hebrew name?
Canneto: Yes, my Hebrew name is Abraham Ben Avrahom.
Interviewer: Abraham, the son of Abraham, the first Jewish ….. Now let’s find out a little bit about Steve Canneto, the guy. Where were you born?
Canneto: So just for clarification, my friends call me Stephen. I was born in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey during the war, obviously, 1943. My father was off in the Eastern Theatre with the U. S. Army Air Force. So my mom was basically a single mom, as were so many young women raising children on the East coast. So Fort Monmouth, New Jersey is on the ocean. My family grew up on the ocean. I still have family there, children. My grand-parents were in this little seaside village called Sea Bright, New Jersey, where I spent the first couple years of my life, for many generations.
Interviewer: Were they like native stock, or?
Canneto: My family on my mother’s side came from Scotland. My father, grandfather, mother’s side, came from England, second or third, went through a passage that would have been like 1634, came to this country in the 1630’s.
Interviewer: I imagine you have some interesting family stories about colonial times. Would you care to share them?
Canneto: I’m the kind of genealogist and journalist in the family, a couple generations ago. This history tracks back to England and Scotland. One of the more interesting things is how one can be on the wrong side of history. We had family that settled in Boston, the Irons was the family name. The Irons settled in Boston, owned quite a bit of real estate and, unfortunately, they were all on the wrong side. They were Torys and during the Revolution fought for the Brits and lost that territory. There’s an interesting parallel here too because, on the Scottish side of history, one could be fighting for the right king and still the king loses the battle, the family loses the land and that happened in Scotland to the Barrowmans as well.
Interviewer: What was the family name?
Canneto: Barrowman, on my grandmother’s side in Scotland, Fary on my mother’s father’s side. So we can trace in this little transplanted Scandinavian village of Sea Bright, New Jersey, five, six generations who lived there.
Interviewer: Did any of the ancestors fight in the American Revolution?
Canneto: Yes, but again on the Tory side. They lost the family island. You can go visit it but you can’t spend any time on it.
Interviewer: Did they stay in the New England area or did they go to Nova Scotia? So many of the Torys were relocated to Canada.
Canneto: No they stayed. They moved the Boston area to New Jersey. Then ultimately part of the family went out to Colorado and settled there as well.
Interviewer: You said you would pass your genealogy along to the Historical
Society, your mom’s name, your dad’s name, grandparent’s names.
Canneto: With my mother, that’s the family I’ve been describing, my grandfather was Raymond Fary, grandmother was Nettie Barrowman Fary. She had come from Brooklyn in a long
line of artists and I guess that’s where I inherited the artistic genes and inclination. My great grandfather on my grandfather’s mother’s father’s side was Walcut Fary and Ida Fary. They lived again in Sea Bright, New Jersey. In stark contrast, my father’s family were Italian immigrants. My grandfather, my grandmother immigrated from Italy when they were teenagers, met in Long Branch, New Jersey, married, had seven kids. My father was the oldest son, Frank. My father’s name is Frank Sebastian Canneto.
Interviewer: Obviously Canneto is English.
Canneto: No, it’s an Italian name.
Interviewer: So that’s where the heritage comes from. Do you know anything about your dad’s family?
Canneto: Not very much, I know that we have some family in Connecticut as well. My grandfather came, his brother came, and they as typical with so many immigrants brought family members from Italy. There’s a Canneto clan in Hartford, Connecticut.
There’s a Canneto clan on the Jersey shore, Long Branch, New Jersey.
Interviewer: Do you interact with any of them?
Canneto: Unfortunately most of my father’s generation has died. I just visited his brother in Bradenton, Florida. I have an aunt in Port Arthur, Texas and an uncle in Long Branch, New Jersey. They’re all in their late 80’s and early 90’s.
Interviewer: It’s interesting. I would imagine that immigrant story is not too, too different than Jewish immigrant stories where families came over, they left brothers and sisters in another
country and started a new life. I imagine there’s a similar thread in your family history and a lot of family histories that the Historical Society has.
Canneto: I would think so. I think one of the distinctions as we look at immigrants across the globe is the distinction between economic refugee immigrants and political. As with so many
generations of refugees outside the era of war like my grandparents were basically economic refugees. They were looking for a better opportunity unlike my mother’s family who were persecuted and left England because of that.
Interviewer: Were they persecuted for religious reasons? Were they Catholics in a Protestant country or were they Protestants in a Catholic country?
Canneto: They were Protestants living under Catholic rule and decided they needed to leave.
Interviewer: Do you have brothers and sisters?
Canneto: I have two sisters, both younger. One is living in our family home, St. Monans, Scotland, Stephanie Miller, went back to Scotland and with her husband, John who is Scottish relocated. There’s this wonderful connection, Ron, of how many generations later the family returning to Scotland. We visited, my partner Judith and I visited Stephanie and John in Scotland and fell in love with the country. It’s easy to understand, the culture, the climate not withstanding, just a gorgeous country. Stephanie is a painter, an artist as well, inherited that artist gene, is a painter, successful, in a picture postcard little seaside fishing village.
Interviewer: And your other sister?
Canneto: Sharon lives in Lithonia, Georgia which is outside of Atlanta. Four generations of women, my mother, G-d love her, 93, Lois, lives with Sharon, my sister. Sharon’s daughter, Erica, and then the granddaughter, Peyton. There are four generations of women living in this house. It’s wonderful to visit them.
Interviewer: That’s amazing in this day and age. Tell me, what was it like growing up in Sea Side.
Canneto: Growing up, our family home was, my immediate family’s home was in Long Branch, New Jersey. Sea Side Village with the Boardwalk and all the attractions, near, not far from Asbury Park and all of its history, it was really a wonderful time for me as a child. I loved the ocean, loved being on the water, loved being in the water. I still swim and sail and kayak as a result of that part of my love. We lived in a place that was bordering the pine forests that cover much of New Jersey so I had access to both the ocean and the woods. As a child I was pretty much of a loner, had good friends, but loved the peace and quiet of the woods. I really developed as a child a love for nature, thought I’d be a forest ranger for quite awhile. Still, today, nature influences my art. Nature was my source of spirituality as a child because I grew up in the Episcopal Church, sang soprano in the boy’s choir. But as our family moved, lost that connection and really didn’t reconnect with a religion until Judaism much later. So nature was my spiritual anchor in the world as I grew up.
Interviewer: Was that a high Episcopal Church that you grew up in, or low Episcopal?
Canneto: It was the Church of England, so it was Anglican.
Interviewer: A lot of the ritual of the Anglican church, and the Catholic church is a lot of Jewish ritual, the priests, the bowing, the incensing, the (?). Growing up did you have any Jewish friends?
Canneto: Of course, because going to a public elementary, middle and then high school, lots of kids in our community were Jewish. Lots of kids were Catholic. It was pretty much a mix of Catholic, Protestant and Jews at that time, to the point where occasionally school would be closed on Yom Kippur. There was that recognition both within my set of friends and within my parent’s set of friends. They were just friends. It was not by choice, they just happened to be all friends.
Interviewer: Was there any tension, maybe not so much with you but with your parent’s generation, was there any tension there or any negativity towards Jews or did that not exist in the East?
Canneto: Some of it certainly existed. There was, and within my own family. I think my father’s family, Italian immigrants working to become part of the community, had a real affinity with the Jews in the community striving to do the same thing, striving for integration, striving for recognition wanting to be part of the community. That was something that we shared in common. The flip side, and there was always this schizophrenic divide within my family. The white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, affectionately known as wasps, had a very different view of life. I don’t know that my grandparents on my mother’s side ever really fully accepted my father’s family even though they welcomed my father into it because they saw this loving relationship that my father and mother had and were sensitive enough not to try to thwart that, still, at a deeper level, always felt a divide between the Catholic immigrants and the well-established wasp Farys. My grandparents on my mother’s side, my grandfather was in banking and worked for the Treasury Department throughout his professional life. There’s a small family bank, The Sea Bright National Bank which was in the family. Family members were part of it. Until he was 94 or 95 my grandfather would still totter down the street to the bank and spend a few hours a day, every day during the week, there at the bank.
Interviewer: Protestant work ethic.
Canneto: Protestant work ethic deeply embedded, never left the house without a suit, tie and hat. Again in stark contrast to that was this warm, wonderful, loving Italian grandfather who was a landscaper, a gardener, worked every day outside, had fruit trees and seven kids. For each child he planted a different variety of fruit tree, grape, chestnut trees. I can remember climbing the trees and eating raw fruit, unripened fruit, as a kid sitting under his fig tree, eating figs as a kid. This noisy, boisterous, Italian family was welcoming and encompassing and loving, without question. Again, there was this contrasting, very proper, family on my mother’s side which were not so loving, not so warm, not so affectionate. Again there are these stark contrasts, one welcoming and accepting, the other with this notion of propriety. I grew up in that divide between the two and had the ability to spend a lot of time with both.
Interviewer: Yeah, I imagine you were aware of the contrasts, growing up, starkly aware. Which did you prefer?
Canneto: I loved them both and spent time with them both. Which did I prefer? Looking back I probably always had a much greater comfort level with my father’s family, the aunts who would pinch my cheeks and my grandmother who would put a platter-size plate of spaghetti capped with meatballs and red sauce and, without speaking much English, (Mangio, Mangio) I couldn’t leave the table unless I finished and until I finished that food. So it was again centered around family warmth and affection. Sure there were always squabbles, issues going on, but the family always came together.
Interviewer: I think that’s probably typical of Jewish families as well.
Canneto: Very, very similar in society’s cultures and religions that are family focused.
Interviewer: Yeah, you have a family, and a big family ….
Canneto: Right. There was always the family politics and the issues but still everyone came together.
Interviewer: Now we have Stephen in high school. What happened after high school? Did you go on to college?
Canneto: I was a child bride so my plans after high school were to study architecture.
Interviewer: You always had affinity to the arts.
Canneto: Always had affinity to the arts. As a child I built things. My father had a basement workshop filled with tools. I would do my own personal projects, painted, drew from nature again because nature was my reference. I thought I would be an architect. In high school I was on a college prep track and studied drafting as well and really loved building. I thought I would go into architecture to bring my artistic and design and build sense together. Well it didn’t happen that way. It didn’t turn out that way. As I said a moment ago, I was a child bride so instead of finishing high school, I left in my senior year to begin raising a family. Without any skills, so to speak, to offer and have an income, I joined the U. S. Air Force, I enlisted in the Air Force in 1961-62 and did a four-year tour of the Air Force which enabled me to not just finish my high school but also begin college. I began taking college courses while I was still in the Air Force, raised my first family while I was in the Air Force and spent, probably, much of my time just taking courses as I was studying things that interested me, philosophy, law, literature, had not decided at that point that I would continue on in architecture. I was really focused on making a living. After the Air Force, I left the Air Force in 1962 and went to work for U. S. Steel. I was in Trenton, New Jersey when I was discharged and wanting again to feed my family but also, more than make a living, learn work in, I was attracted to U. S. Steel because of the building aspect, the idea of putting up buildings and bridges was really intriguing to me. It appealed to that sense of the builder in me. As I went to work for U. S. Steel, I was asked to transfer from the construction side into the management side.
Interviewer: You were actually doing construction?
Canneto: I was actually in the American Bridge Division prepping the girders and the beams for the steel infrastructure of buildings, very dangerous hard physical labor. Walking into that fabrication plant was like walking into a morgue. I almost lost my legs one day in an accident, in a near accident. Needless to say, I did not see much of a future in that until I was invited to take some courses and transfer into management. Then I went to the project management side of the industry, bringing in crews, bringing in material onto job sites. My first job was a seven-story building for U. S. Steel. Our client was Eastman Kodac so I was up on the lake in Rochester, New York, putting up this building, working with native American iron workers and the construction superintendent, a cool guy. As a Kid, I was in my early 20’s. I was 22 and it was a pretty heady time, having all this responsibility and the opportunity to put up a building.
Interviewer: Let me start over. Are you comfortable talking about your first family?
Canneto: Yes, comfortable to the degree that that marriage did not work out. It ended in divorce and it ended at about the time I was leaving the military.
Interviewer: The military must have been very stressful to a newly wedded couple. Were you able to take your family with you on these overseas assignments and things like that?
Canneto: Actually, I was fortunate enough to be stationed stateside. I was always stationed stateside with the exceptions of TDY, temporary duty, but stateside for the most part, so there wasn’t that stress. No, the stresses were other issues and I felt that my role as a father was being compromised. I really loved being a father as a young kid, a child myself at that age, but loved being a father to my son. My oldest child is a son, Stephen. Next to the oldest, my daughters, Marian and Rhonda were the three children from my first marriage. To today, there was a break in time, I reconnected with them much later and today we have really wonderful relationships, I can definitely say. Each of these children, Stephen, Marian and Rhonda have two children. From my first family I have six grandchildren.
Interviewer: Sort of nice, isn’t it?
Canneto: It is.
Interviewer: What are their names?
Canneto: My oldest grandchild and granddaughter is Lee Ann who lives on the Jersey shore. Most of these children and grandchildren, actually all of them, live near our family home on the Jersey shore. My son, Stephen, is, as I said, the oldest, has two gorgeous daughters, Katie and Kristen, both high school kids at this point. Marian’s other child, Dillon, is following the family tradition in landscaping.
Interviewer: How old is he?
Canneto: Dillon is 22. Rhonda, the youngest of those first three children, also has two young college age kids, Samuel and Shannon.
Interviewer: So we have Stephen now in Rochester.
Canneto: Right, putting up a building for U. S. Steel.
Interviewer: And Eastman Kodac. What goes on next? Do you continue with U. S. Steel?
Canneto: From there I was transferred. We finished that project on time and on budget, I’m glad to say.
Interviewer: Was that unusual?
Canneto: Well the next story, yes, is very illustrative of that. My next project was a bridge. The New York Thruway was building an extension and we were contracted, American Bridge Division, to build the steel infrastructure for this bridge. It was the largest, at the time, single-span girder bridge in the country. It was so large that we actually had to fabricate, instead of having the big girders that support the road bed fabricated and trucked in from the fabrication plant, we actually had to build them on the river bank. Because we were building them on the river bank, the New York State Engineering Department was there x-raying every inch of the weld which put us a year behind. We were losing our shirts. There was a lot of pressure. Finally, a year late, we get the go ahead from the engineer. We bring in, I brought in cranes to lift this steel, brought in steel to build a barge so that we could float one end of the beam across the river so that it could be picked up by these two cranes on opposite river banks to lift up onto the piers. Lots of fun stories in working with these unions and their jurisdictions. At the heart of the story is the near disaster that happened when we were lifting the first girder. It was now January and this small river was beginning to ice over. We had six men on the barge. The barge was named ‘The Half Moon.’ The guys all were local laborers, local iron workers. They laughed when they called it ‘The Half Moon.’ I didn’t understand the reference until after the near disaster. Now we’ve got a crew of six guys on the barge, guide wires holding on to this hundred-ton girder, it was huge, and we get it across the river. Both cranes are now hooked up onto either end of this two hundred foot long, hundred ton girder and they’re raising the girder. Unfortunately, one of the crane operators got vertigo. What he didn’t realize was that the girder wasn’t going up, his crane was going over. Before anyone caught this, he’d already gone past that center of gravity and point of no return. Now we’ve got one hundred tons of steel crashing down on this barge. Fortunately no one was killed. We had six guys in the water and a crane operator in his crane laying in the water, as well, on the bank of this river. It was near disaster. We had to work to get these guys out of the water, up on to the bank, get them to a hospital because they were all in shock and hyperthermia had set in. We had a crane operator that we had to retrieve from his cab on the crane. Again, the good news is nobody lost their lives. We lost our shirts on that job as you can imagine. It was my last solo project with U. S. Steel, not because of that situation because those were circumstances that were not under our control at the moment, but we did lose our shirts. They asked me if I would transfer to our district office which was Manhattan. They told me at the time that, I had begun to grow a beard, this was 1966, I had begun growing a beard 1966-67. They said, “Of course, Canneto, you’re going to shave your beard. You’re going to start wearing a suit and socks, not sandals.” I said, “You know, I don’t think so. If you can tell me what to wear, you’ll probably end up telling me how to vote.” So I said no and it was at that moment when they said, “Okay, you’re fired.” It was a moment, Ron, of stark realization. Okay, I still have a family I’m supporting, what am I going to do, and relief because at that moment I decided that I would pursue my own talent. I didn’t know exactly what that meant but I decided that I would go to Art School.
Interviewer: It was that aha moment.
Canneto: It was that aha moment, it was an epiphany. I knew that I was not a military man. I knew I was not cut out for big business, even though I loved working with crews. What I learned, I think what I took away from both the military and the time with U. S. Steel was how to bring people together across all disciplines to create projects. That’s what I did with U. S. Steel putting up these buildings, from the engineers and the architects to the guys that lifted the steel and drove the rivets and made these projects the success that they were. So I took that away and many years before I was really in a position where I would need those skills, but came away with a love of construction, a love of working together with people.
Interviewer: Now this is when you started Art School? You were living in Manhattan?
Canneto: No, I was living back in New Jersey because that’s where my family was, separated, divorced, but still connected to my family, connected to my kids. Simultaneously, now this is early 1967, you probably remember the rhetoric coming out of the Middle East, radio Cairo, radio Baghdad, radio Damascus, talking about pushing the Jews into the sea. Again, I was not a Jew but I had a social, I had a sense of moral conscience. I knew that should this happen I couldn’t stand by and have it on my conscience.
Interviewer: Which is a very unusual conviction, I would think, for…
Canneto: I grew up in a family, again, that family that we were talking about earlier but with a father who had a sense of moral responsibility, not just to his family but to his larger community as well. I think I took away from him a sense of connection. They, as an immigrant family, worked to be connected to their community. I certainly had no intellectual sense of that at the time but just knew that I couldn’t stand idly by an entire people, especially that was not so long after the Holocaust and those stories were in our community, had been on my conscience. So U. S. Steel had let me go, Art School hadn’t started, and I went into Philadelphia, walked into the Israeli Counsel. It was May, 1967 and said “Listen, I’m not a Jew but I’ve got this American military experience and I’m ready to volunteer.” They said, “Oh,” took my name, phone number, and said, “Call you.” I got a call, it was early June, and they said, “Are you still interested?” and I said, “Yes.” They said, “Well, we’ll call you if we need you.” It was just after the war that I got the call and made a six-month commitment to the Israeli government at that point. They put me on a plane, actually had a plane loaded with just volunteers out of New York, volunteers from around the country, kids my age, college-age kids.
Interviewer: Were they Jewish?
Canneto: All of them.
Interviewer: All of them except you.
Canneto: All of them, I was the token goy. Yes, I was.
Interviewer: Did the people in the plane, the people with you, did they find that somewhat unusual. Did they say why are you doing this?
Canneto; I didn’t announce it. When we got into conversations, one on one conversations with people, no I didn’t wave a flag saying hey I’m the non-Jew.
Interviewer: What was their reaction? Did they say why are you sticking your neck out?
Canneto: Most people just embraced the notion that there was somebody in it with them who was not a Jew. They knew I certainly wasn’t doing it for the money, I was a volunteer. No, it was a social conscience and people relate to that. That was my experience. No, I was welcomed with open arms, literally with open arms. Having said I was in the U. S. Air Force, arriving in Israel, they put me in a tank battalion. There’s logic for you. Here’s the best part of that story, Ron. As I was going into the army, I was given a form to fill out, just a general information form to fill out. In the block that said occupation I put artist. I didn’t know what that meant. Really, I didn’t know what my skill sets and talents were but I knew that I wanted to be an artist and, if I survive this experience, that’s what I’m going to do with my life. I believe that when we put something out to the universe we’re
going to get a response. I put that positive energy out to the universe as I was filling out that block. It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t understand it from that perspective at the time, but that’s what I was doing. Well, it was an interesting time. I, having had this American military experience, was fortunate enough to be put in charge of all of the volunteers in our base. It was a tank battalion base, Kooldany was its name, between Akko (Acre) and Haifa on the coast, a large tank base. We were responsible at that base for virtually all the heavy armor and material. Our job, just after the war, was to go to the Sinai and go to the Golan and bring back the material. You know, the Egyptian army abandoned most of its heavy armor in the Sinai Desert. We were going and taking trucks, big tenders, into the Sinai, opening up these tanks and some of them were pretty gruesome with finding dead Egyptians. Finding dead Egyptian kids, soldiers in these tanks was a really hard and traumatic time for a lot of us and then bringing them back to base and began the refurbishing which was all done by the Israeli military trained to do that stuff. Our job was mostly logistics. My job was mostly herding cats because, you can imagine, we had kids from across the states, England, Italian, a few Brits thrown in. We had an interesting mix of young kids and interesting dynamics between the kids, between these young kids. Lots of them were young girls, young women at the time, 18, 19, 20 something year olds. We even had Australians in this mix. So we had an interesting cultural mix. The unifying thread was a commitment to the country and the Jewishness of it and the youthful exuberance of just being in this exotic place at this very heady time. There was a whole mix of emotions. It gave me an opportunity to begin to learn Hebrew. They set up classes for us, Hebrew language classes, an Ulpan of sorts on base. At that time my vision was still going back after my six-month commitment to the states so I wasn’t totally invested but made lots of friends, made friends among the Israeli soldiers too. One of the interesting things, and it’s a contrast that exists in stark juxtaposition to feelings today, was that sense amongst the soldiers, especially these young Israeli soldiers, having won the war, of tragedy still, of a fight within a family and the feeling that yes, we won the war, we overcame the horrific odds, came out as victors, and yet there was a sense of loss like that that happens within a family. Yes we defeated them but they are still our cousins. We’re fighting our cousins. There was that sense of we’re fighting each other for this space. That was really poignant. It was really telling.
Interviewer: You got that sense from the Israeli soldiers that they looked at the Arabs as kin?
Canneto: Yes, I did and that carried further through later when I was at the University. I spent a year at the Hebrew University, the academic year of 1968-69. We formed, through the student union, formed a partnership with Arab students. Some of them
were studying on the West Bank in Jerusalem. We really wanted to get to know on a deep level who these people were. They had lived on the other side of the wall, fought each other, and yet there was this deep desire to know who the other was because, again, there’s this parallel history in this same place for how many millennia.
Interviewer: Well the same ancestry, Abraham.
Canneto: Precisely, which takes us to that current feeling of connectedness. The good news is we got together, students from East Jerusalem with students from West Jerusalem, the Jews and the Arabs, the Muslims and the Jews, and began to get together on a regular basis, going to each other’s homes, having meetings just to find out who the other was. The unfortunate part was that once the administration, Hebrew University’s administration, found out about it they stopped it. They stopped hosting. They stopped supporting it. They pushed us underground and some of us continued on to develop friendships. It was a fascinating time in that respect. Going back to my time in the Israeli army, I put that artist occupation out there. I have to tell you, by August I was really done with being in the army, done with herding cats, done with the sand behind my ears and between my toes, sitting on a cot in a tent and wondering okay so what’s next for me. At that point two people, two guys from the Sochnut, the Jewish agency, came to my tent and said, “We understand you’re an artist. We’re looking for an artist.” I said, “Well, tell me more.” They said, “There’s a community, a kibbutz named Magal that wants to build a memorial.” Magal was on the narrowest part of Israel, near Hadera, surrounded by three Arab villages on the West Bank, villages that surrounded them on hills. They had taken a terrible beating during the war, this community and its members. They had lost quite a number of kids in the military, in the battles in the Sinai, in the Golan and in Jerusalem. They wanted to create a memorial for these members who had been killed both on the kibbutz and in the battlefields and asked me if I would do it. I don’t know, there’s just something in my nature, when I see an opportunity like that, having had no training, no artistic experience other than my own personal work, that just compelled me to say yes. Without thinking it through, I said absolutely. Two days later I’m on a bus to this kibbutz and show up, introduced to the manager of the kibbutz and his staff and they said, “Well, we’re really surprised that we got somebody already. We’re not really ready so would you help out?” I said again, “What do you have in mind?” They said, “Well we got these bananas. We got these chickens. We got the avocados. If you’re willing, we’ll put you to work.” Well I’ll tell you, Ron, after three days of carrying fifty-pound bags of chicken manure from the coops to the banana groves, I was kind of done with that too. I went back to the manager of the kibbutz and I said, “Listen, you know I really am not enjoying this. It’s not what I’m here for. When you’re ready, give me a call. I’m going to the Dead Sea.” They said, “Oh no, no, don’t leave, don’t leave please, we’re getting organized now.” The kibbutz and these little communities who are pretty insular, just jumped on this as an opportunity to not only memorialize their lost members and loved ones but also to create a project. What I learned in that, again, I’m this little non-Jewish guy in a totally new world, not just another country and another culture but if you chunk it down, it got right down to this community that was originally established by immigrants from South America. Most of the founding members of kibbutz Magal were all from Argentina. There was this other layer of culture going on as well, some of these customs and some of the food, while they were all, again, this was 1967 not that far from independence, building this community, building this country, and it resonated with me. It really resonated with the person in me looking for an attachment to something bigger than myself. I didn’t realize it at the time but that planted the seeds of my connection to Judaism. We were talking earlier, yeah, there’s a similarity in the cultures, the Italian family structure, the Jewish family structure, not that different in the dynamics. I didn’t have an affinity for a philosophy, for a religion. I didn’t have a connection to one. It
began to grow there in Israel as I became connected to this kibbutz. They began setting up committees. They were committee happy. They created a committee for every aspect of this project. It’s a Jewish thing. It served me incredibly well. I was given a friend, a member of the kibbutz, who introduced me to all the families, introduced me to the families who have lost kids in the military, introduced me to the survivors on the kibbutz so that I could get an understanding of who they were. Because it was a secular community, it really wasn’t about religiosity. It was about community. Yes, there was, of course, the Jewish philosophical underpinning but there was also the agrarian underpinning and the kibbutz ideology there as well. That whole infrastructure was there. What it gave me a chance to discover and to learn was that it wasn’t a tombstone that we were building. It was really a sense of connection to the spirit of these people, to their humanity. Who were these people that we were celebrating. It wasn’t a mourning of their death but it was to be a celebration of their lives. So who were they, who were these people that we were celebrating? What did that loss mean to the individuals and to the community as a whole? It was a much deeper level than I ever knew existed and it has served me throughout my life, served me in my work to today, to come to understand that it’s a celebration of the human spirit. It’s a celebration of who we are and what are our connections to each other that are the most meaningful.
Interviewer: It would be interesting when you start to talk about some of the projects, to bring this back up into the forefront to see how those … Were you communicating in English with These people?
Canneto: It was all English.
Interviewer: They were fluent enough.
Canneto: They were fluent enough. There were enough of them who were fluent enough in English, yes, for us to do business and to carry on. There were two wonderful things going on for me in this community. One was the connection to all of the people, getting an understanding of who we, who they and who we were and what we wanted to accomplish. There’s also a resident landscape architect who I was partnered with who had an understanding. Again, I’m just this green kid, a neophyte in the world of art as well as memorialization. Together we designed the park and I designed a memorial wall, again, knowing nothing about the philosophy, the religion, or the iconography. My first task was to gain knowledge. Yes, I was building an understanding of the people but I wanted it to resonate, whatever that memorial was going to look like, to resonate on a deeper level as well but have a connection to history and to place. One of the first things I did was to go to the Hebrew University to do research, to begin doing research, to begin educating myself and that led, I’ll share a little bit of that later, to an introduction to a woman who became my Israeli wife. I wanted to get an understanding of the iconography. I wanted whatever we created to resonate from a deeper philosophical and artistic cultural tradition. That’s what drove me to do the research at the University. I also knew that I wanted to build this memorial of stone. I had never worked in stone. I wanted those stones to be from the places where these young people fell, in the Golan, from Jerusalem, from the Sinai. I had the complete support. The kibbutz was still in shock, in part maybe why they were so open to this young kid and my ideas. My ideas were to bring these materials from these battlefields where their children had fallen to use as the building material for this memorial. The landscape architect was totally on board with that idea. We, he and I, asked for a budget. Again, and they were still in shock so no, there was sparing no expense. We had carte blanche to spend on this, an open checkbook to spend on this project. That was the first reality check for me. As we began, I began traveling the country, working with quarries around these areas, these three different sites the Golan, Jerusalem, Sinai, to identify the stones we would use. Again, we completed the design. They had a design committee. They had a budget, a finance committee. They had a construction committee. They had all these committees. We presented our proposal for this garden and the memorial. It was accepted. This was a several-month process. As I continued doing research in Jerusalem, the relationship with Rivka grew. Rivka was the first person I met when I arrived that first day at the Hebrew University to do the research for the project. I stopped the first (?) looking woman that I saw and said, “Can you direct me to the coffee shop?” An Israeli, speaking very fluent English said, “Yes, I’m going there, I’m between classes.” She was teaching at the university. “I’m between classes I’ll show you where it is.” Over a cup of coffee, we decided to get together for dinner and the relationship began to build from there.
Interviewer: Was Rivka….?
Canneto: My Israeli wife, the mother of my young daughter. That project enabled me, Ron, to get an understanding of what’s meaningful in my work. It’s this human element. It’s a celebration of the human spirit that has carried through much of my work. We’ll talk more about that later. It was also an opportunity for me to learn stone carving. Again, I went into this with no skills, lots of enthusiasm, a sense of design, a native sense of design, talent, but untrained. I knew I needed to understand how to work stone, even if it wasn’t me who was going to be doing the building. Rivka introduced me to a friend of hers who owned a monument-making company. They made grave stones in Jerusalem. All of the workers there were Hasidic. I spoke no Hebrew. They spoke no English. I didn’t know Yiddish. Yet they taught me how to work with the tools carving stone and it was all show and tell. I learned through them how to carve stone and how to carve the letters in the stone. It was a wonderful experience. Again, it wasn’t that I was non-Jewish. It wasn’t a question that they were Jews and Hasids, totally different parts of the world and world views, really it wasn’t an issue. We had something in common. What we had in common was this project, my love of learning what they had to give me, their desire to teach. This is something that humans share, this desire to help each other.
Interviewer: It wasn’t religious, just nuts and bolts teaching?
Canneto: Exactly, they taught me the fundamental skills of stone carving.
Interviewer: But no interaction on a religious plain?
Canneto: No, perhaps because we didn’t have a common language. We did not get into anything that was philosophical or religious, political, social. No, it wasn’t at all on that level. It was the opportunity to learn from these master stone carvers the skill that I needed.
Interviewer: Where did the impetus come for the idea that you might want to
become Jewish come into play?
Canneto: It came, I don’t know where it began. I think it began with those seeds that were planted, as I was sharing with you earlier, the sense of connection to something larger and connection to a people. But it was just, it was not my intention. It was extremely, no intention of becoming Jewish at that point. The project went through the design phase. We put in place all of the resources. Then the landscape architect and I were called into the manager’s office and given a reality check. They had crop failure and asked us if we would scale it back. We said, “Sure, we can scale it back.” and we modified the design. It was going to be a wall that was a combination of half the wall of these stones that we had gathered, were going to be gathering, and half the wall was going to be stone from Jerusalem, that wonderful warm stone from Jerusalem. In it would be carved images and an expression taken from history. We decided we would scale it back. We would not have an eternal flame. We would not have a reflecting pool in front of it so we could keep it within what was now defined as a budget. Again, this was a process that would serve me well decades later, going from money is no object to money is always an object or to be considered. The project was now on hold. They asked us to wait six months until new resources were available for it. In the meantime, in this developing relationship in Jerusalem with Rivka, I wanted to begin to discover my own talents. Again, Rivka introduced me to the owner of a shop called Edit. Edit was Jerusalem’s premier art and jewelry shop. It was owned by a guy named Chaim Paz who had a factory. In his factory he made religious artifacts. He made mezuzot, menerot, chanukeot and he also made jewelry. He was looking for a young designer to train in
the techniques. He was using the lost wax method of jewelry making and wanted to have someone work with him on his ideas and his designs and perhaps bring new ideas, fresh ideas, fresh designs into his business. We struck an agreement. The agreement was I would work for minimum wage and he would teach me the entire industry. I wanted to know not just how to design working in wax but also wanted to know how to cast, how to finish and how to get stuff ready for the market because I was now beginning to see the path for myself as an artist. At home I was sculpting. Rivka and I, I moved in with her. We set up a little area in the, in our little apartment near the Hebrew University. I was working in clay and I was drawing. I would take my rucksack and get on a bus and go down from Jerusalem to lower Motza where there was a brick factory. I would load this rucksack with clay, go back to Jerusalem, go back to our little apartment, to my studio area and I was sculpting for the first time in clay and drawing life anatomy, studying anatomy from life, from books, from my gorgeous Israeli girlfriend at the time. Chaim offered me the opportunity through this agreement to learn how to use wax. That is the basic material in jewelry making and in making mezuzot. I loved it. I fell in love with the media. I found a vehicle for my voice. I was beginning to take what I had loved in nature, all of these organic elements in nature, and make jewelry and design for Chaim. It got to the point where he was taking my designs and turning them into products that would then be sold at Edit, in his gallery boutique. I walked into his office and I said, “Haim, I’ve been with you for how many months now, several, and I’d like to learn other aspects of the business.” He said, “No, you know you’re doing wonderfully right where you are. I think you need to stay there.” I don’t know if he perceived a sense of threat or just saw a good thing and wanted me to keep cranking out designs. I said, “That’s not ideal and I’m going to leave. I designed a couple of these objects that are doing very well and I’d like replicas of them.” He gave me some of the designs that I had made in jewelry and we parted good company, but we parted because I wanted to learn more. I was still designing now. Now that I knew how to work in wax, I set up in, didn’t like clay so much, it was always under my finger nails. I didn’t like that feeling. I transformed this little apartment studio into a design studio for jewelry. I contacted, now I needed money for my jewelry. With Rivka’s help, we contacted a jewelry manufacturer in Jerusalem, but had my sights set on really a, really the top. I wanted to, if I was going to design I wanted to be at the top. There was a shop in Jaffa called Art In Jewels. As we toured Jaffa, looking at galleries, toured Tel Aviv because Jerusalem was still pretty much this little provincial town back in 1967, 1968, toured the galleries, the jewelry salons of Tel Aviv, saw several that were really at the top, the Doni in Tel Aviv, Art and Jewels. Art and Jewels was this unique jewelry gallery that commissioned artists, Israel’s best artists, to design jewelry for them. I knew that’s where I wanted to be. At the commercial end, the lower end of the jewelry spectrum, was Chaim Bear, in Jerusalem, who was buying everything I would take to him, not great prices, but he was buying everything that I would take to him and made his shop available to me. While I wasn’t doing the casting, I could take my designs to him, he would match me up with his workers and I would see how the process was done and I was learning the techniques through Chaim and he was buying my stuff. I still wanted to be at the top. Rivka and I took probably a dozen of my best designs, these were all wax models, to Jay Spilowr, one of the co-owners of Art and Jewels in Jaffa. We sat there, Jay looked at all the designs and we sat there, probably for two hours talking before I realized he wasn’t going to buy a thing. But, he was intrigued and I was intrigued. He said, “You know, I really like what you’re doing. I see huge potential here.” Then we talked about each design and how he thought I could improve on them and enable him to turn them into things that would be really sellable. He said, “Come back in a month and bring me ten designs and I’ll buy them all.” We had that arrangement. Every month I was bringing Jay ten designs and walking away with l,000 pounds, Israeli, which was for me at that time just phenomenal, that he was taking my designs and turning them into gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, putting them in his shop, connected me to his master goldsmith, Ezra, a Yemenite guy. He was a master goldsmith. We’d sit down and I’d bring my designs in and Ezra would say, “We’re going to do this in yellow gold. We need yellow diamonds and rose diamonds.” It was like a kid in a candy store for me watching these designs and these ideas come to fruition. Still there was a disconnect. I was not the guy who was making them. I didn’t know how to make them still at that time. There was this real desire to know how to make, how to turn my ideas into the finished products. Two things happened at that point. I wanted to study. I wanted to study formerly art and the only school in Jerusalem was Beitsalel. I couldn’t afford to go to Beitsalel. At least I didn’t think that I could go full time and I wanted to study under the GI Bill. The U. S. Veteran’s Administration would not recognize Beitsalel, the only art school in the country that I wanted to study in. I wanted to learn. At the same time Rivka, whose field was Adult Education, couldn’t get advance degree work because there wasn’t a faculty for advance degree work in Adult Education in Israel at that time. We both decided we would go abroad. We would find a university where she could learn Adult Education and do a Masters and I could learn through studio courses how to sculpt, how to be a goldsmith. At that same time we had made that decision, two guys from OSU, Marvin Fox and Zvi Ankori, came to our apartment in Jerusalem.
Interviewer: How did that happen? I mean I know those two guys.
Canneto: That happened through a mutual friend of Rivkas who knew we were looking, we wanted to study, we couldn’t do it in Israel and knew Zvi and Marvin and knew that the university wanted to build a Hebrew department. They had only a couple of courses at the time. They made us an offer which was very nice. They gave Rivka a teaching assistantship. The money, they paid for our travel. They paid her and she got her Masters and they got me as part of the package. We left Jerusalem with the idea that in a year we would go back home. By that time, I had spent a year, as I mentioned earlier, studying at the university and I studied, my focus was Judaism. I studied Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, Jewish literature and Jewish art. I really immersed myself at that point because several things had happened. I, in Israel, became the artist that I am today. I was able to discover that part of myself and become established and become recognized in very real ways. Jay said to me after we had been working together for about six months, “There’s a national jewelry design competition coming up and we’re going to put one of your pieces in it.” I said, “Really, that’s fantastic.” We took the top prize. When I say we, it was my design, Jay and me. I took the top prize for jewelry design. I had been in this business professionally for a year. It was a pretty heady time and I was discovering my self. At the same time, I was discovering again that same sense of family. When Rivka and I decided that we were in a serious relationship, pretty quickly on, I was introduced to her family. Like that rowdy Italian family of mine, just welcomed with open arms, no questions. He’s not Jewish, so what. They were secular. Israel was in that divide. There were the religious and the non-religious and they were very secular. Religion wasn’t a question. That I was devoted to Israel, that I, as they, had come as young immigrants, they saw me in that same trajectory as somebody coming to help build the country. It was at that point that I found myself, that I found a sense of family. I loved Jerusalem. The first day, I was on a three-day pass from the army, my first pass from the military, went with a friend that I had met on the trip over to Jerusalem. We got off the bus, probably the last bus into the city because buses stopped running in Jerusalem, as you know, on Shabbat then. Everything stopped. We just wandered the city for hours that Shabbat evening. It’s kind of an emotional thing for me. Apart from my love for nature, the ocean, the woods, I really felt at home for the first time. I felt a sense of connection to the place, to Jerusalem that I had never had. I knew from that first visit, a weekend pass, that I felt at home there. That probably set the stage as I was later doing this project for the kibbutz and the connections to the university, the connection to Rivka, the connection to these Hasidic stone carvers, that really cemented this feeling of connection and belonging to the city. At night I would climb the walls of the old city and just walk around that perimeter that surrounds so much of the old city. We had a phenomenal apartment after we moved out of that little one-room apartment which barely served one person into an old Arab house in the German Village which is now a very upscale, chichi neighborhood, but it wasn’t. It was a mixed neighborhood at that time, still some Arabs and immigrants and in this wonderful old stone house, I felt as though it was my home. I felt as though Israel, more specifically, Jerusalem had become my home, I had become part of it. Studying history, studying philosophy, studying the art at the university enabled me to immerse myself in a culture that I knew nothing about a little over a year earlier and find myself in it, find a philosophy and an ideology that resonated with me, the sense of Tikkun Olam. That we’re responsible, not just for nature and the world, but we are also responsible for each other became part of my identity at that point, something that I felt but couldn’t articulate and couldn’t find an ideological, a philosophical lineage for until then and I was inventing myself as an artist. I was discovering that artist in me and finding recognition which was phenomenal for a kid. There was an interesting corollary, an interesting parallel, going on for Israel at the same time, a country that had all of these disparate cultures coming together and had these wars, had the success, and was building an Israeli identity at the same time through the
arts and through the culture. Yes, there was still the Eastern, there was still the Hasidic culture but now Israel was building its own culture. Its artists were beginning to come together, beginning to get international recognition for a new Israeli style and I felt part of that. I felt that I was contributing to that as well. It gave me a sense of connection to place and people.
Interviewer: That’s very interesting.
Canneto: What I learned, as I was sharing with you a little earlier, there and then has become the foundation of the work that I went on to do. We came back here and when I began developing my career as a public artist.
Interviewer: We have now Stephen and you’re coming to The Ohio State University and ?
Canneto: Came with my Israeli wife. I didn’t convert. I converted, I’ll never forget the conversation that I was having with a very good friend at the university. Michael was the director of the Student Union there. He and his girlfriend became very good friends with Rivka and me. Rivka opened up the entire Israeli society. She was in academia. She opened up the entire country, the society, her friends, her family, people at the university. To me it was like being welcomed into this world. We traveled the country, fell in love with the country from the Golan in the North and the Lebanese border all the way down to the Sinai. We traveled everywhere. I can remember camping in the Negev, Be’erSheva,
camping on the outskirts of Masada, waking up one morning on the gulf of Elat, seeing the stars hanging as big as grapefruits over the water. We were sleeping on the beach. We were just kids sleeping on the beach.
Interviewer: It’s wonderful.
Canneto: It was wonderful. For me, I just fell in love with the country, the place, the people, the history, knowing that every stone had been walked on, if not bled on, at some point. This can be a real sense of place and purpose. Now we’re recruited by OSU. We come to Ohio State, set up housekeeping in Columbus here. Actually we stayed with Zvi Ankori for a week until we found our own place. He and his wife and Marvin and June Fox were friends so they were our introduction to the community. Bea Roth, I see Bea Roth is going to be honored. It was Bea who became friends with Rivka who was introduced to me and my work. Bea said, “How would you like to do an exhibition at the Jewish Community Center?” That gave me a wonderful opportunity to establish myself as an artist in this community. I was looked at as the Israeli, figure that out, artist coming from Jerusalem to this country. I was studying. I was studying sculpture, foundry, and goldsmithing and metalsmithing at the university and building our collection. I’d come with pieces that I had created in Jerusalem. I came with a kilo of silver. That was my inventory basically. My bankroll, if you would, was a kilo of silver which I was turning into jewelry and small-scale sculpture at the university while I was taking these courses because my intention was, as I had in Israel, Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv and in Jaffa, to establish myself, to find my place in America and then we would go back. That first exhibition opened up this entire art world here in Columbus for me. Granted it was a small art world in Columbus. What it lead to, thank Baruch Hashem, for Bea. She enabled me to have this exhibition here which exposed my work to the Jewish community. Bea introduced me to Millard and Diane Cummins. Millard was intrigued by my work, intrigued by the story. We started getting together. Millard said, “How would you like to go into business?” I said, “Well, what do you have in mind?” He said, “I can see taking your designs and we’ll make them and we will take them to New York and take them to other cities. We’ll look for the best market for them and we’ll set up a business.” So we set up a 501 C-3 Corporation. In reality, Ron, Millard was my patron. He was my angel. He enabled me, when I left the university after that first year, to build a studio and to buy the materials, to pay my rent and pay my support and enabled me to travel. He was my patron who enabled me to get my start as an artist here in Columbus and beyond. We built that first collection. We were doing exhibitions, different gallery shows, Chicago. The Israeli Cultural Institution in New York had a gallery. I was exhibiting there, through them, exhibiting in Chicago. I was really beginning to establish myself. We took this collection of work, it was an interesting educational experience. We thought that we could sell them through traditional jewelry shops so we went to Cartier, went to Tiffany. Tiffany said, “Well you know what you’re doing is fine but we have our own designers.” Cartier saw the sculptural aspects in them and invited me to design a collection of sculpture jewelry, sculpture wherein the focal point was a piece of jewelry and could be worn separately. That moved my sculpture career, helped my sculpture career as well. With Millard’s help I was able to begin to develop a clientele and a body of work that, after three years, we decided we weren’t going to have the commercial success because I wasn’t creating commercial jewelry. I was creating artistic, mostly one of a kind pieces and my market turned out to be the galleries and exhibitions that would be set up and individuals who were appreciating what I was doing and supporting my work.
Interviewer: Now let’s talk about some of the public sets that you’ve done. You have a pretty wide range of public art that’s available to see. Let’s talk about that a little bit. Do you feel that your public art is a little bit different than the jewelry art, the stuff that you sculpt? Do you bring something Jewish to your public art? I know your jewelry is somewhat motivated by them, what about the public area?
Canneto: The transition from being a jeweler, jewelry designer, creator of small-scale sculpture was very intentional. Late 80’s I knew that I wanted to be a sculptor, wanted to establish myself as a sculptor, not just a goldsmith designer of jewelry. At that same time, this was late 70’s actually, 1979, I made that decision. I decided that I wanted to create public art. I knew I needed to create a different vocabulary of images and began drawing on my sense of spirituality in the human form. I didn’t want them to be anatomically correct. Coincidentally I was restoring an old home on the near East side, what is now Old Towne East. As I tore off front-porch decking to replace rotted timbers, I found a cache of bones, chops, ribs, T-bones that I’m assuming an old dog had drug under there to gnaw on in peace. I had these bones on my design table and I was sticking them together, creating abstract figures. These abstract figures turned into small-scale sculpture which then turned into larger-scale sculpture. I was having an exhibition at the Park Synagogue’s gallery in Cleveland.
Interviewer: That’s a beautiful building for anybody who doesn’t know. In its day it was really quite a, not as much anymore, but it was quite a place.
Canneto: That’s the place in the Jewish community especially and beyond on the East side of Cleveland. A couple things happened there. A woman named Betty Ratner discovered my work. Max and Betty Ratner discovered my work and an art agent representing
Goodyear Tire also discovered my work. I had a six, seven-foot piece of sculpture, my largest and only large piece of sculpture on exhibition and he was the art agent who introduced me to Goodyear and they purchased my first large-scale piece of sculpture. Now I was in a corporate collection and being collected by the Ratners. Betty and I would get together on a regular basis. We would talk about ideas in her home and I would take those conversations and create art, mostly small-scale. Much of it was jewelry. She has a phenomenal, easy for me to say, collection. Among her collections are my works. It was an introduction now to the entire Cleveland community as well. That enabled me to begin to expand with this piece in Goodyear’s collection, enabled me to continue developing larger-scale work. It enabled me to develop my vision for public art.
Interviewer: One of these I saw was at Mount Carmel, there’s a piece of yours, three pieces.
Canneto: The first piece was commissioned for the West side campus. An art agent who was familiar with my work introduced me to Mount Carmel’s CEO, Sister Barbara, and Sister Barbara commissioned a piece for their new, then under construction, medical staff building. It was the second in this series of my first public art, again based on very stylized human gestures, human proportions. Human spirit was what I was looking for in this series of work. That led to other commissions for Mount Carmel. They have three.
Interviewer: They have one that’s really very beautiful.
Canneto: Which one?
Interviewer: I think its in the Siegel Center.
Canneto: Oh, in the Siegel Center, yes, ‘Homage.’ That was a wonderful opportunity to work with the architects. I was brought in to their project before they ever broke ground, introduced to the architects and able to help design that entry lobby entry area where ‘Homage’ is located. With ‘Homage’ I knew that I wanted to bring together Mount Carmel’s own bio-Catholic order. Bruce, the person for whom this piece is dedicated, was a founder basically of the East side campus. Dr. Bruce Siegel was, you may have known him, really an outstanding member of not just the medical community but of the community as a whole, well loved, died much too young. As I was brought into this project, I said, “You know I really don’t want to create a bust. I want to look at the things that unite us, the things that we share in common as Christians and Jews, as Catholics and Jews.” That’s what led to the design of ‘Homage.’ It’s a water piece. It’s a water wall, a waterfall. Those flanking walls on either side of the waterfall are drawn from the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The structure, if you look at that structure of stone upon stone, for me reflects the Wailing Wall, the Western Wall. That’s my reference for those walls, the natural stone face. The thing that we also share in common is the eternal flame, the Ner Tamid, the Paschal Candle. If you look at the central piece of sculpture, that boulder with the dead tree, that dead tree symbolizes a life taken too soon. That tree stands as a metaphor for Bruce’s life. At the top, at the very pinnacle that finial that reaches up into the well of the sky light, 120 pieces of glass that reflect the light, that gather the light, break it up, scatter it around in color like a prism is reflective of the Ner Tamid, of the Paschal Candle, of that spark of life we have in each of us. That’s what I’ve taken from my Jewish experience, from my experience working with the community in Israel, the kibbutz, into this piece, my love of nature. We have water, a source of spirituality, source of life, flowing down the wall into the reflecting pool in front of it. It bubbles up again in that font between the two seats. You can actually get your hands wet to become a tactful part of it as well. Those were the things that were coming together for me in that commission.
Interviewer: Would you say that sort of brings the whole thing together, sort of serves as a fitting, probably a fitting conclusion to this interview.
Canneto: There’s another piece.
Interviewer: We can do it but that does sort of pull all that stuff together.
Canneto: It absolutely does. There is interestingly a wonderful documentary that was made on the production of that piece. Ellen Siegel is interviewed with the piece as well as some of the hospital officials. Again, I didn’t know Bruce. Bruce died before I met him. I met Ellen as a member of Agudas Achim’s congregation. My wife, Deborah, and I were part of that congregation where we met Ellen. We were introduced to Ellen during this project. I really wanted to know who Bruce was and what do I take from Bruce’s life to be part of this project as well. That I learned in Israel, working with that community. The other thing that I took away, we’re going to segue now into a different aspect of my public art, is yes we see these different pieces of sculpture, there are about 16 of them just in Central Ohio.
Interviewer: We should really mention some of them because whoever was listening to this someday, at some point, is going to want to, this should peak their interest.
Canneto: Thank you for referencing ‘Homage’ and Mount Carmel East. That I think is my most successful interior piece. It brings together so many elements.
Interviewer: You’re not supposed to do this as the moderator but that spoke to me. I mean I was sitting there, and I don’t know very much about art, but it did resonate with me.
Canneto: Thank you, I appreciate that very much. The piece that’s probably best known is ‘Navstar’ in the center of Franklin Park, the three large stainless steel sail shapes that were commissioned as part of Ameriflora, that 1992 celebration, the quincentennery celebration. For me that is definitely one of the most challenging as well as one of the best known of my public art pieces here in Columbus. It is one of, as I mentioned, 15 or 16. If we start on just Broad Street, at the East end Mount Carmel has a piece in the Siegel Center, the one we were discussing. As we move west toward downtown, the center of Franklin Park has ‘Nafstar.’ Moving to the corner of Broad and High is a Huntington piece that’s called ‘Intersect.’ It was commissioned in 1991. In 1992 it was built for the Huntington Bank and it references, I love the stories that are embedded in these pieces. As I began to do the research when the Huntington commissioned me to do a piece for their corner, they were celebrating their 125th anniversary. I wanted to know what else happened on this intersection. I discovered, and it became the story for me for this piece of sculpture, that the Native Americans used a footpath from the Great Lake in the North of Ohio to the Ohio River in the South that traversed the upper bank of the Scioto River. It was their highway, if you would, from the Great Lake to the river. That native trail at what is now Broad and High was intersected by the white settlers moving west. As they blazed their trace through the woods, the forests of Ohio, at that intersection they met Native Americans and their two highways crossed. That was the origins for ‘Intersect.’ ‘Intersect’ is composed of bronze arching forms that rise 40 feet up from their pool intersected by those stainless steel arcs which for me reference the Native Americans, or the western settlers migrating through. Moving another block west on the corner of Broad and Front the commission from the Ohio Arts Council for the Department of Education’s building, large multi-colored sphere of colored glass
referencing the diversity of the students in Ohio and supported by those legs of stainless steel that represent the, reference the educators in three disciplines of the many. Then moving further west, Mount Carmel West has two pieces on its campus. Just along Broad Street or those off Broad Street, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce on Town near Grant, Fifth and Town, has a large plaza piece called ‘Crossroads of Commerce.’ Those are some of the major pieces. The most recent a commission last year, actually 2014 and installed in 2015, for the Columbus City Department of Police at their new crime lab. It’s a piece of public art in front of the crime lab that references both community that it sits in, a very depressed Southside community once the vibrant blue-collar communities supporting Buckeye Castings and Federal Glass, and the police lab. The piece is called ‘Fitting The Pieces.’ They’re a suite of figures, stainless steel figures, again people coming together which is a continuous theme in my work. We have these abstract stainless steel figures of people coming together, holding this big multi-colored disc of puzzle pieces. Kids are handing the puzzle parts up to the adults as they fit them in. The Forensics Lab is about puzzle solving and fitting the pieces together to solve the crime. The community is about people coming together and in this context rebuilding the community, so fitting the pieces in, the social pieces, the infrastructure that it takes to create a community are the two themes that we weave together in this piece of sculpture. It’s one that has played itself out in sculpture that I’ve done for cities in Florida and Maryland as well.
Interviewer: Do you think that you might come back at some point to the smaller stuff that you used to do?
Canneto: No, I decided, Ron, in the late 70’s when I wanted to do public art, I decided I really wanted to us the time that I have on this planet to make a bigger impact. I could adorn someone’s finger but that’s not nearly as important or meaningful to me as transforming a plaza, as bringing a source of energy and beauty into a public space. As I was going through my career at Ameriflora, after doing some of these monumental large-scale pieces of art, I became increasingly concerned when Luisa was born and just a very young child, a couple years old, became increasingly concerned raising a young child about the violence that was taking the lives of so many children. This was in 1992, 1993 that Lui was a few years old at the time, that I went back to Jerusalem, back to Israel for a visit. I have an Israeli daughter and two Israeli grandsons now. In that visit we went to Yad Vashem. At Yad Vashem I went into the memorial for the children killed in the Holocaust and was moved to tears in that experience and came back to Columbus knowing that I wanted to create a memorial for children killed by violence to do three things: to bring a focus the way art can focus attention on a societal issue through the construction of this memorial; to help the parents who’d lost children heal like taking their names, their children’s faces and images forward into the public; and to use it as a tool to bring about change. We created a foundation. It was going to be a one-year project of my studio. Instead it turned into a 16-year project with a foundation called Art For A Child Safe America, ArtSafe. I’ll just give you a very short synopsis of ArtSafe. In the Summer of 1995, 1996 six inmates from one of Ohio’s prisons and two guards came to my studio. Together we built a memorial that looks like a broken house, a Cape Cod cottage, whose interior shelves are lined with artifacts, with photos and with things that had been important in the lives of children who had been killed by violence right here in Central Ohio, gun violence, given to us by their families. We partnered with the OSU Center for Folklore Study, Amy Shuman there, and a videographer from Mount Carmel and created an inter-active touch-screen component to it that documented in the voices of the families looking out this monitor at the viewers of what happens to a family that loses a child to violence. That memorial was toured by prison inmates, from one very public place most often a school, it was at the JCC for a while, toured to very public places, again most often high schools where we would work with the staff and the teachers to present programming helping kids understand the costs and consequences of violence. We had a speaker’s bureau that would talk to kids in the context of school assemblies, family members who had lost children to violence talking to kids in these audiences. In this culture violence is entertainment, murder is entertainment, big box-office sellers. It’s hard to turn on a TV or look at a line-up of movies that doesn’t have murder as a theme that runs through all of them. We’ve turned murder into a cash industry in this country. It helped to give young people another understanding of the true costs and consequences of violence. It had a one-year tour that we thought it would have. It had a seven- or- eight-year tour that led to programming for kids incarcerated, the youth incarcerated in our adult prison system. My relationship with the Department of Corrections grew. We developed programming for the high school kids in the adult prisons so they could get art and language arts credits to graduate. At the same time our programming enabled these young people to heal from the violence that they had experienced before becoming perpetrators of violence. We helped turn kids from felons and thugs and failures into successful people in the communities today. There’s a wonderful documentary, in and of itself, there and somewhat so successful that the U. S. Department of Justice called the foundation’s office one day and asked if we would take a grant to create a national program based on the work that we were doing here in Ohio with Ohio’s incarcerated youth.
Interviewer: You did that?
Canneto: We did that. We created a CD platform, the ability for not just institutions but for youth serving organizations to implement these projects, these programs, that could empower kids, help them self-discover. So often our kids have no idea what they want to do with their lives because they’re not in touch with their own talents and they’re not in touch with their own passions, their own fascinations. We were able to teach kids, show kids how to discover their talents and their passions and their fascinations and turn them not into job descriptions but into identities, into vocational identities. We found that when young people have this understanding of themselves they weren’t looking outside themselves. Young girls weren’t looking to boys to have kids to have meaning in life. Young guys weren’t looking to gangs. They were looking at their own potential and their own future. That was so successful that Columbus State began contracting our programming for young people as an entry into college so that they could focus, so that once they discovered what their talents and passions were they could then focus on a curriculum track that would enable them to realize those talents and passions. Columbus
Public Schools was contracting our programming for kids who were not just in detention but also for kids to develop an understanding of costs and consequences of violence, but more meaningful, to understand what their own potentials were.
Interviewer: You’re still doing this, right?
Canneto: No, the foundation no longer exists. That’s another chapter in and of itself.
Interviewer: It was doing so much good.
Canneto: It was doing an enormous amount of good. It was politics, internal politics, that caused me to leave and it caused the demise of the foundation because there wasn’t the iconic figure, if you would.
Interviewer: Is this something you might want to revisit? I mean it seems a shame to let it go.
Canneto: It’s going to happen. Stay tuned. I’m in conversation with a lot of the kids, some of the kids who had gone through our program, still in touch with some of them, some very successful. Most of them have gone through college after leaving the institutions into successful lives. I’m working on a project, a personal project called ‘Intersected Lives.’ We had a number of publications that were compilations of the art and writing of these young people used in our other programs as violence prevention and workbooks that came from these books. My ‘Intersected Lives’ project at its essence are the stories, the art, the writing, the conversations with these young people. The piece in this ‘Intersected Lives’ series is of a young person and it uses as the points of origin their art and their writing and my conversations. They’re sculptures, they’re individual sculptures, surrounded by their art and their work as they seem in all the materials. I’m in conversation now with the Columbus Museum of Art to take this project on and have an interactive community-wide conversation.
Interviewer: It’s needed.
Canneto: It is needed. The Museum, G-d love the Director, Nannette Maciejunes, has determined that the museum needs to lead this difficult conversation in our community and bring it to public light. My intention for it, my objective for it is to shine a light on what’s happening with children incarcerated in our adult prison systems to bring about change in law, in legislation, because it’s terrible science. Incarcerating children in adult prisons is documented bad science. Good for politicians in this vindictive society but bad for our children.
Interviewer: We’re sort of concluding a bit. It seem to me that we could even have another conversation. There’s more here. There’s more meat on the bones here. This sort of plays into the concept of Tikkun Olam. Very much, this is what it’s all about. This is where it’s meant to go.
Canneto: I’ve expanded upon that just as a conclusion in my own personal philosophy. Tikkun Olam is a foundational stone. There is, and I was introduced to this in the writings of Desmond Tutu who reveals to me in his work the concept of Ubuntu. It’s a concept, it’s more than a word. What it says is the good that you do elevates me. When one of us is humiliated, we’re all diminished. It expounds upon the notion of Tikkun Olam to an interpersonal, societal level. Those have become the foundations of my own ideology, my own work. If I were to wrap up with that final question.
Interviewer: I hate to say wrap up. I would like to revisit maybe some time.
I think this is going on two hours. We need to examine some other things, I think, because there’s a lot here. I hate to conclude this. This has been a very, very interesting interview.
Canneto: Thank you. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me.
Interviewer: I think it’s been worthwhile for the Jewish Historical Society.I wish there were some things that we could do with the Jewish Historical Society. We’ll have to think about that. I think there’s some things there. I just want to thank you very much for taking the time to do this.
Canneto: I’m honored.
Interviewer: On behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History (project). I should say that this concludes this interview.
Transcribed by Rose Luttinger