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Painter John Donato Loves Making Other People Smile

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With his signature paint-splattered overalls and cap, John Donato is certainly one of the more recognizable figures on Delaware’s coastal arts scene. His whimsical, colorful work—which often features cartoonish animals with personalities—is on display in area schools and upscale homes. But the self-taught artist wasn’t always painting full time.

For 15 years Donato worked for Carl M. Freeman Companies, where he handled advertising design, community outreach efforts and corporate training. Downsizing in the wake of the 2008 real-estate crash led to his new career path.

And it wasn’t such a stretch. Donato had a degree in graphic design from the University of Maryland, and he’d long received rave reviews of his fun “doodles.”

He’s since put his community outreach experience to good use—leading interactive art projects in schools and senior centers, as well as painting and exhibiting at art shows.

Weather permitting, he’ll be at the Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival on Saturday, Sept. 8. (Check thequietresorts.com for cancellation updates.) 

Donato will also be appearing at a meet-the-artist brunch on Sunday, Sept. 23., at the Good Earth Market & Organic Farm in Ocean View. (The event was moved from Sept. 9 to Sept 23 due to weather.) All ticket sales and auction proceeds will benefit art programs in the local community. 

We asked Donato to shed more light on his unique style. (The answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)


When did you first start working with students?

Carl M. Freeman had community shopping centers all around the Capital Beltway. Josh Freeman—the brilliant man and philanthropist that he was—really wanted to engage the community to understand how we could bring more value. Was there a way we could help schools? He tasked me with that. We helped with fundraisers, and on parent-teacher night, I did drawing sessions on marker boards with the kids while parents met with teachers. I drew the characters as I told the stories.

 

That sounds like the old Gene London show. You grew up in South Jersey—did you watch it?

Gene was a big influence. I loved how he told stories. I fell back on that. I could doodle really well—any animal from memory at a moment’s notice.

 

How did you get into creating murals?

When I became a professional artist, right away I started selling at shows. One of my first boardwalk shows was in Ocean City, New Jersey. A relative I don’t see often—a school principal—asked me if I’d do a mural involving 650 students. I noticed it was Literacy Week. I wanted to motivate children to read more and develop more self-awareness as authors or readers by painting book spines.

The 650 students painted whatever they wanted as long as it involved reading and literacy. The mural looks like a library of books on shelves—like trompe l’oeil. It became the model for murals in schools all around the Mid-Atlantic.

 

Does your non-mural work always have some sort of fun factor?

Everything has a whimsical look, although I have done “serious” landscape paintings. When I started going pro, I focused on having a distinct style.

 

What can people expect at your upcoming events?

While I’m at the Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival, I’ll be painting a public piece of artwork that people can come by and help paint—it’s a collaborative piece. At the brunch on Sunday, Sept. 23, the collaborative painting will be auctioned off, along with four other pieces of artwork. I’m also auctioning off my oldest set of overalls—they are 10 years old—and one of my hats and shirts. [Donato uses his own clothes as painting palettes.]

 

Why is raising money for arts education important to you?

Due to budget constraints, teachers have to go to backbreaking lengths to give children an experience in art. They have to be so resourceful. If I can do something to give a teacher $1 more per student per school, it will make a big difference in those teachers’ and students’ worlds.


For more information on John Donato, visit his website.

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