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The “Naive Wooden Sculptures” of Theodore Santoro

The “Naive Wooden Sculptures” of Theodore Santoro

Laura E. Ruberto (July 8, 2012)
Theodore Santoro's "naive wooden sculptures"

An Italian American self-taught artist from Oakland, California, adds yet another chapter in the story of Italian Americans and material culture.


I’d bet a string-tied box of fresh sfogliatelle  that not even the most illustrious scholars of the most obscure minutiae of Italian Americana have ever heard of him or what has been called his “naive wooden sculptures.”
Self-taught artists of all kinds abound on the West Coast, but it is Italian American men in California who seem to have created more site-specific installations, landscapes, and individual pieces than any other group along the Pacific. And yet the focus has usually been on what is idiosyncratic and “outsider” about such artists rather than what might link any one of them to a larger community, ethnic or otherwise.  
In thinking about Italian Californian self-taught artists, Sabato (Simon) Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles rank as the most visible and most widely studied, but even Rodia has only recently been thoroughly recognized in relation to the community that he was a part of and his Italian immigrant identity. Other, lesser-known California Italian so-called self-taught artists remain on the fringe (e.g., Baldassare Forestiere, Romano Gabriel) of a still-evolving conversation about Italian American aesthetics, material culture, and place-making.
Theodore Santoro belongs in that conversation.   
I share here some of what I’ve learned about him, information culled from Philip Linhares (retired curator at the Oakland Museum of California), Bonnie Grossman (founder and director of the Ames Gallery of Folk Art in Berkeley), and Ron Jehu (deceased art dealer and collector in San Francisco). The rest comes from Google and local public library archives.

Theodore Santoro (date unknown)
Santoro was born on July 1, 1912, in Cleveland, Ohio, of Neapolitan parents. His family moved by car in 1939 to Oakland, “where Santoro was employed as a machinist at the Nabisco company” (Jehu’s biography). There are plenty of Santoros listed on census reports and voter registration records both in Oakland and Chardon, Ohio (on the outskirts of Cleveland). According to these sources, Theodore Santoro lived at 1736 24th Avenue in Oakland for some time.
When Santoro was 44, “deteriorating mental health forced early retirement,” and he lived in relative isolation for the following eight years (Jehu’s biography). In 1964, Santoro, along with his mother, sister, and brother, moved to East 27th Street. There his mental health improved or at least stabilized to some extent. Was it something in the family dynamic that changed? Was it the change in neighborhood? Was it his developing interest in woodwork?
All we know is that in the next 17 years, until his death on August 1, 1981, he carved some 3,000 sculptures “in a simple shed behind the house” (Jehu’s biography).

Most of the carvings were of animals—dogs, birds, cats, swans, pigs, deer, squirrels, and rabbits. But he also shaped wood into human figures—a Santa, a man wearing a hat, an “Indian Chief,” a baseball player. Some figures were specifically religious in nature—lots of Madonnas (some in grottos, some made from “dark wood”), angels, hands praying. There are also descriptions of other structures he built, carved, and adorned: planters, large containers, furniture (including a “miniature Italian T.V. with Stand”),  and toys. He sketched as well, suggesting something, perhaps about his creative process (Jehu price list).
His sculptures were made using simple carpentry tools—some were carved from solid blocks of wood, others were nailed or doweled before being carved (Grossman’s description). He often adorned the carvings, either with paint or varnish. He also at times “embellished with upholstery tacks or bead eyes” (Grossman’s description). Some pieces had moving parts.
He was choosy about who saw his work. However, he had some sense or desire to create community out of his work, given that  “during the Easter and Christmas holidays…he would create elaborate lawn displays” with his sculptures (Jehu’s biography). I would like to know more about what these looked like or how his family or neighbors experienced these displays.
After his death, many (all?) of his sculptures were bought and his work was part of at least five group exhibitions. Other than one piece owned by the Oakland Museum of California, it’s not clear what has happened to Santoro’s creations; some were sold to private collectors (a 1998 price list of Santoro’s sculptures ranged from $35 to $500). I’ve traced the fate of some of the pieces up to 2004 but do not know what happened to them after that.
The other day, I drove up and down E. 27th Street in Oakland, wondering where Santoro had lived. It’s a street whose approximately two-mile course has not changed much over the last 100 years. A 1912 map shows it as it is today, although then it ran east to west in a city called Brooklyn, California; today it falls somewhere in East Oakland, between the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods .

Oakland and Brooklyn, California (1912)
East Oakland has always been racially mixed. Today’s residents are mostly working class Asian and Central American immigrants and African Americans. And while the dominant Italian neighborhood was historically across town in North Oakland, Italian Americans lived in East Oakland as well (the occasional remaining Italian storefronts are one of the remnants of that past). Today the houses are a riot of architectural styles: Victorians, 1930s Craftsmen bungalows, 1950s duplexes, and 1970s apartments. I snapped a photograph in front of 1736 24th Avenue, a particularly depressed block of an Oakland that is eons from the hipster city the New York Times loves to cover.

1736 24th Avenue, Oakland
I wonder what these blocks and houses were like when Theodore Santoro lived here. Where did he live? Which backyard shed did he work out of? Were photographs ever taken of his lawn displays? What did his neighbors think of him or his work? What drove him to carve? And why does no one remember him today?  
(Many thanks to Bonnie Grossman and Phil Linhares for sharing information about Santoro and to John Wranovics for his research.)
“Biography of Theodore Santoro,” Ron Jehu, 1988
“Description of Theodoro Santoro pieces,” Bonnie Grossman, date unknown  

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