Making The World Pop With Charles Fazzino
One of the country's most popular artists is based in New Rochelle, but his reach is global—and growing.
To see a Charles Fazzino print or painting in a book or online is not to fully see it. Two dimensions don’t do justice to what is essentially a three-dimensional microburst of visual joy. The theme may change—New York City, Yankee Stadium, Hitchcock movies, Broadway shows, Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe, the country of Singapore—but when people come face to face with a piece of colorful, super-concentrated Fazzino 3D pop art for the first time, even the artist admits that “it dazzles them!”
Fazzino himself is a tall, soft-spoken man in his late 50s, dressed in running clothes. He is sitting behind his desk at his studio and offices in downtown New Rochelle. Housed in a 1908 brick warehouse in an industrial nook alongside a commercial laundry and storage units, this is the world headquarters for his company, Museum Editions Ltd. It’s here that his signature 3D art prints and sculptures are conceptualized, drawn, assembled, and shipped to galleries and clients in 20 countries and counting. When Fazzino isn’t here creating his art, he’s selling it—logging countless miles to cities around the world for gallery appearances and signings.
Fazzino is just back from the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati. He has a reputation as a “sports artist” because of his many licensing deals with major sports leagues and the Olympics. “Sports is maybe 15 percent of what he does,” explains his business manager of 17 years, Julie Maner, who’s seated beside him. “But it’s been a tremendous marketing vehicle. There was an immediate synergy between sports fans and Fazzino collectors.” His first piece for the MLB, in 1995, was called Yankee Fever; then he moved on to NFL teams. He’s been the designated artist for 15 Super Bowls, 12 All-Star Games, the Indianapolis 500, Belmont Stakes, and every Olympics since Sydney in 2000.
For the MLB All-Star game, he designed a special home plate for the first pitch, a commemorative pin, and the program cover. As often happens, he also exhibited his sports art at the fan festival nearby—not just prints and original art, but pins, baseballs, and even stadium seats, all sporting his signature kinetic paint jobs, glued and bedazzled into singular works of paper art. They’re like pop-up books that stay permanently open. Fazzino calls his work “happiness in color...It’s the type of art you don’t have to have an art education to understand. It makes you feel good when you look at it. It’s fun, it’s sentimental, and everybody responds to it.”
That fun doesn’t come cheap: Prices range from $500 for a small Fazzino piece to $100,000 for a large original. His limited edition prints average $4,000. A decorated football helmet is $5,000. But in Cincinnati, the response of the Fazzino newbies was priceless. “They were baseball lovers, and this was eye candy. Their jaws just dropped,” Fazzino says.
It’s surprising there are still people in this country who haven’t seen a Fazzino in person, considering the ubiquity of his work. In 30 years, he has gone from struggling street artist to owner of a multimillion-dollar, multinational operation. His name is spoken in the same sentence as other hyper-successful commercial artists like Peter Max, Red Grooms, Keith Haring, and Takashi Murakami. Framed program covers from the Grammys, Daytime Emmys, and Country Music Awards adorn his walls. In a 2013 CBS Sunday Morning profile on Fazzino, reporter Serena Altschul dubbed him “The go-to artist for many of the highest-profile events in our popular culture.” And his countless celebrity collectors comprise a cross section of sports, politics, and culture, from Michael Jackson to Bill Clinton to, yes, Donald Trump. Justin Tuck, the former New York Giants player, is a big collector and advocate.
A Son of Westchester
Fazzino sells himself as a New York artist—his Manhattan cityscapes, bursting with architectural detail and landmarks and Broadway shows, are top sellers—but he is a son of Westchester, raised in Pelham. He lives with his wife, Susan, in the same house he grew up in. He first rented an office in the New Rochelle warehouse 20 years ago. (Ironically, it was part of the old Terrytoons complex, which housed the studio that churned out Mighty Mouse and Heckel and Jeckel cartoons.) As other renters moved out, he expanded until he bought the building in 2012, and has been renovating it ever since.
Granted, New Rochelle isn’t New York City, “But it’s close enough,” he says, noting that his New York City art is coveted around the globe. “The number-one thing people want to buy is New York City. Most people out of the country think that is the center of the world. What they’re buying and collecting is my experience of New York.”
That Fazzino experience begins with a pencil drawing. He may research a subject for several months before sketching it out and coloring it in with colored pencils here in the office. It’s turned into a silkscreen off-site. The bottom layer is printed on heavier stock, while identical copies, or “flats,” are run off to provide the elements that are then cut out and glued onto the bottom print to give the illusion of a pop-up book. Usually there are three layers of cutouts, no more. (It’s hard to frame anything deeper.) Fazzino likes to compare this layering technique to making lasagna. (He is half Sicilian, after all.) Each piece is finished off with glitter glue and Swarovski crystals for extra bling. “We buy them by the gross,” says Maner.
“I’m not particularly blingy. I just like them,” Fazzino says. “Nothing shines like real Swarovski crystals.” He started using the crystals to cover up mistakes, but they quickly became a staple. “Galleries said, ‘Send me the ones with the bling and the glitter! That’s what customers like!’” Fazzino explains.
If it sounds labor-intensive, it is: Especially large pieces can take years to go from sketch to completion. He employs 40 freelance art assistants, and a small art staff in New Rochelle who work in an airy loft-like studio that takes up the entire second floor. It’s lined with files and shelves full of prints that are used for the cut-outs. In the back, a small graphics team works at computers, and large printers roll out giclée prints—in this case, of a desert landscape depicting landmarks of Dubai, one of his new markets. In a workroom off the studio, an artist named Christina applies Mod Podge, a crafting sealant, to a hand-painted Red Sox helmet. Behind her is a shelf of limited-edition Jorge Posada baseballs that fellow New Rochelle business Steiner Sports will sell as part of Posada’s retirement. A couple of guitars lean in a corner, waiting for their vibrant makeover.
It seems there are few surfaces that can’t accommodate Fazzino’s imagination. His designs adorn televisions, wine glasses, luggage, Coke bottles, Scrabble boards, and even cellphone cases. Two years ago, he started applying his 3D technique to aluminum. “They [the aluminum pieces] have been incredibly successful,” says Maner. And the Fazzino RIDE, a bedazzled super bus that was both a high-energy tour of midtown Manhattan and theatrical performance, was nominated for a 2013 Drama Desk award in the category of Unique Theatrical Experience. (It lost to Cirque de Soleil.) His largest work is a seven-foot replica airplane in the American Airlines terminal at JFK International Airport, one of a dozen Fazzino pieces that decorate the terminal.
Fazzino rarely wields an X-Acto knife himself anymore—he has help with that—but cutting and gluing all those pieces by hand remains a core part of the process. “People think [the pieces] are machine cut, then they come here and they’re just floored because every single piece is cut out by hand,” notes Maner. Jessica, another staffer, demonstrates, expertly excising a cutout from a print—in this case, a tiny wastebasket in a dentist’s office scene—part of a piece which features a giant grinning molar. (“We have a large following of dentists,” explains Maner.)
But before the whole painstaking process begins, Fazzino meticulously researches his subjects. For a limited edition piece celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of Singapore, the details of his art were so spot-on that people were amazed he had never actually been to the country until it was time to unveil the piece in person. His whirlwind Singapore trip was vintage Fazzino, filled with gallery openings, media interviews and signings. He says he truly appreciates his fans: “People make the time in their day to come and see your show, so it’s important to give that person your time and to listen to their story about what the artwork does for them.” He also likes people to see his artistic process, something local fans get to do every September during New Rochelle ArtsFest, when Fazzino offers studio tours.
Fazzino takes on a surprising number of commissions—further proof of his accessibility to fans (albeit wealthy ones). Some are for celebrity clients: Tom Brady’s father asked him to decorate a Patriots helmet for the quarterback’s birthday, and supermodel Kate Upton received a piece for her birthday. Others are regular folks with money. For one client’s marriage proposal, Fazzino decorated the outside of a shoebox with memories of his fiancée. The ring went inside.
Fazzino's celebrity fan base spans the world of politics, sports, and entertainment.
Creative From the Start
Fazzino comes from creative stock. His mother, Irene, is a sculptor who speaks fluent Finnish; his late father, Salvatore, who spoke fluent Italian, owned Salvatore Style Studios, which designed ornaments for high-end women’s shoes. His New Rochelle factory was on Mechanic Street, now Library Plaza. When Fazzino was young, Irene started turning scraps of material from her husband’s designs—leather, snakeskin—into purses, bracelets, and hair ornaments and selling them at local craft fairs. “Armonk, Bedford Hills, they all had their little art shows back in the ’70s,” recalls Fazzino, whose favorite subject in high school was, of course, art. He began accompany his mother, and participated in his first art show in Bedford Hills at age 15. “Obsessed” with buildings and architecture, he specialized in pen and ink drawings.
Fazzino stumbled upon his now-famous 3D technique by accident. After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 1977, he began doing the juried art show circuit: summers in the Northeast, winters in Fort Lauderdale. One day in 1981, he went to an arts and crafts store in Florida for supplies. The store was holding a class in paper toling, or decoupage. A group of senior citizens were sitting around the table, cutting up wrapping paper and greeting cards with little barber scissors. Fascinated, Fazzino joined the class. “They were using aquarium sealant to make things 3D. Once it was collaged together, they’d dip it into a shiny resin glue, let it dry, and it had this beautiful high finish. I said, ‘This is really unique,’” Fazzino remembers.
After arriving back in Pelham from Florida, he took a few of his old prints from college, mostly cityscapes, and began to cut and glue. “They were really crude,” he laughs. He took them to a show in Greenwich Village, exhibiting them among his more conventional flat works. “Nobody bought any of my paintings, they just bought my 3D pieces. They stole the show,” he says.
In 1985, he started making handmade silkscreen prints “the old-fashioned way.” His wife and sister-in-law would spend hours at night cutting out pieces from the silkscreen flats and sorting them into plastic bags. The next day, Fazzino would glue the pieces onto the bottom print, using his kitchen floor as his work surface. Fazzino began exhibiting his 3D art in major shows like Art Expo New York, where galleries from around the world look for work. Eager to get his work into as many hands as possible, he focused on limited editions. “Most people start with original artwork and move to limited editions,” says Maner, “He did it the other way around.”
When the US art market slowed down in 1990, after Operation Desert Storm, Fazzino signed up for a show in Frankfurt, Germany. He signed a half-dozen new galleries, and Germany is now one of his biggest markets, along with France, Switzerland, and Japan. “We’re starting to do very well in Dubai, Singapore, Korea, India, and Hong Kong,” he adds.
Today, the next generation of his family is carrying on the creative tradition. His only child, Heather, is also an artist; they recently collaborated on a painting together. It stands on an easel at the back of his office, an edgy, black-and-white painting that combines Heather’s street-art style with one of her father’s pop-art fantasy Big Apple skylines. Heather remembers growing up in a house filled with her father’s work. “When I was younger, he was constantly buying me paints, canvases, colored pencils, crayons,” she recalls. “I was never pressured into being an artist, it was more like, ‘Does this make you happy?’”
Fazzino’s mere presence makes New Rochelle mayor Noam Bramson happy. He sees Fazzino as an extension of a long tradition of artists, including Norman Rockwell, Frederic Remington, and legendary magazine illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, who have called the city home. “It’s an honor for New Rochelle to count among our businesses an artist who is beloved internationally and whose work has achieved iconic status,” says Bramson. He got to know Fazzino during ArtsFest, when the artist hosted a fundraiser for Choice NY, a mental health nonprofit, one of many charities the artist works with. Fazzino’s generosity and humility impressed the mayor. “He is a remarkably modest and unassuming man who doesn’t simply work here, he also contributes actively to the cultural and civic life of the community,” Bramson says.
There is a Fazzino sculpture in New Rochelle City Hall, a four-foot-tall exclamation point that commemorates the city’s 325th anniversary. But Fazzino’s presence around town is about ready to pop. As the city moves forward with its massive downtown revitalization, including a transit hub and cultural center, Fazzino is brainstorming concepts for large-scale public installations. He shows a few concepts (hint: one involves butterflies), clearly excited at the challenge, saying: “The city is going through a whole metamorphosis!” Fazzino’s role is hush-hush for now, but suffice it to say that in coming years, New Rochelle could get a whole lot more dazzling.