GLEN RIDGE, NJ — A Glen Ridge artist is using the puppet character of Pinocchio to warn pre-teens not to experiment with heroin.
Visual artist Theresa DeSalvio produced a series of oil paintings with the long-nosed puppet who becomes a boy, but is living the life of a desperate drug user who forfeits his fate to the puppet master of addiction.
“What prompted me is the heroin epidemic,” DeSalvio said earlier this week in her Appleton Road studio. “There are heroin addicts in Glen Ridge. My work is narrative and personal. I feel that I am capable of going deeply into things and being more visceral.”
DeSalvio began her series last year. But this summer, she learned of a traveling art exhibit centered around heroin addiction, sponsored by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program, of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. After contacting show sponsors and telling them about her Pinocchio paintings, the HIDTA Program made her the featured artist in its exhibit. DeSalvio has five panels containing 24 paintings in the show. Her book will have 32 paintings.
“It’s an abbreviated form of the book I’m doing now,” she said of her exhibited work.
After the offer by the HIDTA, DeSalvio said she became even more determined to produce her book, which is titled, “Tales.” It will be self-published and bilingual, with accompanying text in Spanish. Until midnight tonight, DeSalvio’s project can be located on Kickstarter, the funding website.
“Pinocchio is the perfect character to tell the story,” she said. “He’s the little boy with good intentions. He doesn’t see the consequences of his actions. He’s repeatedly tricked. In this case, he gets involved with heroin and it makes a mess of his life. The paintings are allegorical. I’ve created a concise narrative.”
DeSalvio said she prefers being self-published and did not look for a publisher thinking it would take up time and that publishers prefer not to have one artist provide story and illustration.
The source for her Pinocchio was not Walt Disney.
“I go back to the Carlo Collodi ‘Pinocchio,’” she said. “It’s different from Disney which makes Pinocchio out to be a little Swiss boy.”
Like Jiminy Cricket in the Disney version, there will also be a cricket in “Tales” which, in its only scene, acts as Pinocchio’s conscience. There will also be a female character called the Blue Fairy. In the Collodi book, this character looks after Pinocchio. But in “Tales,” the Blue Fairy character will be the Hindu goddess Kali. DeSalvio said she also watches over Pinocchio but also destroys.
“Kali just appealed to me,” DeSalvio said. “In my book, she eventually turns her back on him.”
Images in “Tales” come with titles and brief explanations of actions depicted. One painting shows Pinocchio at a roulette wheel displaying not numbers, but the consequences of addiction. The title of this painting is “Pinocchio Plays Roulette.” The text is “Pinocchio enters into a dangerous game with high stakes.”
“I had just been in Vegas,” DeSalvio said. “I just had to do this painting. It was such an analogy. Addiction is not a glorious life. Life became so unbearable for Pinocchio that he almost ends his.”
DeSalvio said the strings attached to the puppet connect it to something outside of the painting, questioning the addicted Pinocchio’s free will. The strings also creates a visual spotlight for the character.
“I’m a narrative artist but I’m always thinking about creating an image,” De Salvio said.
There is also another painting titled, “Pinocchio and the Cat in the Pink Pussy Cat Lounge.” The text for this is “Pinocchio and the Cat need to make money. They took jobs in the sex club to support their drug habit.”
DeSalvio said her book is not for minors. Because of the dark path Pinocchio takes, it is intended for middle-school children.
“People see ‘Pinocchio’ and they think it is for children,” she said. “That’s why ‘Tales’ is middle school or older. But children as young as 12 are addicted to heroin. People have to be straight with them. It’s no joke.”
The original 40 paintings of DeSalvio’s Pinocchio series measure 22 inches by 30 inches. The paper on which the images are painted is Arches Oil Painting.
DeSalvio’s Kickstarter goal was $2,500. She has so far raised $3,000 and hopes to publish 500 copies of her book and distribute them to schools, libraries and community groups. She said her book will be published in a month. And because it was funded by donations, she feels a lot of pressure to make it really good.
“I hope I make a dent,” she said of her effort to warn people about heroin addiction.