Whimsical artist debuts at Good Earth

Although he’s known primarily for his work in marketing, John Donato is now making a powerful step into the local art scene. The graphic design graduate from the University of Maryland in 1992 is establishing himself today as not only an influential talent at one of the most philosophical of developing companies in the area, but a creative asset to an ever-growing artistic community. His style and technique are proving that art can bring out the kid in everyone.artist 12-07: John Donato in front of a mural in the Bayside community near Fenwick Island.Coastal Point • SUBMITTED
John Donato in front of a mural in the Bayside community near Fenwick Island.

From his graphic design days at Maryland, Donato jumped right into the corporate world, retaining the artistic skills he developed as early as high school.

“I’ve always stepped in to help someone if they needed a T-shirt or something,” he said.

Doodles and paintings had consumed most of the free time he could muster as a student. “It was really an eclectic mix of design, but all the while, I’ve been illustrating, and a lot of the inspiration has come from animals.”

Growing up on an apple and peach farm in southern New Jersey, Donato has always been surrounded by creatures and wildlife, often taking walks and camping, experiencing animals in the wild.

“I always had this fascination with animals interacting with each other,” he said. “I love going out and watching what animals do. When it comes to painting them, I give them humanistic qualities in my paintings, but you come to realize, the more you watch animals, the more they show you their personalities.”

He began experimenting with acrylics around 1999, allowing his imagination to soar free, incorporating bold, contrasting colors that help bring his illustrations to life.

“I started having all of these paintings pile up at home, and I wasn’t doing anything with them. They were mostly for myself. Eventually, people would come by and ask, ‘Did you ever want to do this as a living or want to do a show?’ Until then, it had just been a hobby.”

Once he relocated to the Delaware beaches three years ago, Donato quickly found his niche in the local artistic community. With help from wife Ann-Margaret and local artists such as Aubré Duncan and Chip Dietrick, Donato has been persuaded to step out with his work and further his talent.

He debuted his work publically at an autumn craft show this year at Good Earth Organic Market in Millville, where his wife works, and has even donated artistic pieces to silent auctions that raised money for an animal farm shelter, Farm Sanctuary.

The shelter, which has locations in California and upstate New York, gained more than $1,000 from two Donato paintings of J.D. Piglet, a young pig who escaped from a slaughterhouse, nearly drowned in a river and was rescued from near starvation and dehydration.

The harrowing story of this little piggy was the inspiration for two of Donato’s popular paintings, depicting the now-content, colorful swine.

Donato and his wife — who are both vegans and thus don’t eat any animal products — share the same appreciation for animals, and John even makes an effort to return to Farm Sanctuary in New York, where J.D. Piglet lives today, to check up on his artistic inspiration.

Ann-Margaret has also been instrumental in assisting in his artistic career, taking on a managerial role for his work. “It’s wild, because I’m a marketing person,” he said, “but I can’t market my own artwork. I think it sort of gets in the way of my painting.”

While the J.D. Piglet works were inspirations from an actual animal, ideas for the other creatures he paints seem to come naturally to him.

“There are stories behind the animals I create,” he said, “and I write poems to go along with them. I haven’t done anything with that yet, but I’m probably going to. I may be interested in going into children’s books that way.”

Children’s books wouldn’t be an entirely new step for him, as Donato has supplied illustrations for one before, titled “Space Junk,” which gives 8- to 12-year-olds a look into the accumulation of satellites and other things lost in Earth’s orbit.

In addition to whimsical animals, Donato has incorporated his love for surfing into his work, as well.

Following Good Earth’s craft show, Good Earth owner Sue Ryan approached Donato, offering to host a wine-and-cheese reception featuring his work. Set for Thursday, Dec. 13, from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m., the reception at Good Earth Market on Route 26, will feature Donato’s original artwork, both large and small prints and giclées, as well as world music from Marco Hernandez, who owns the fair trade shop Made By Hand International Cooperative in South Bethany.

“This is going to be a really good chance for me to break out,” said Donato. “Everybody’s been talking about the artwork, but I’ve never really made that push before.”

Canvas isn’t the only medium Donato specializes in. He’s created countless T-shirt graphics and has painted murals for restaurants and friends

“I’ve always done it at a professional level,” he said, “but mainly for friends and family.” Until now, that is.

Donato was commissioned to bring his colorful flavor to the benches and rock-climbing wall in West Fenwick Island’s Bayside community, depicting playful sea life. From sea turtles and whales to octopi and fish, he has basically covered it all.

“I’ve found that kids really seem to love my work,” he said. “There are bright colors and, of course, children have that fascination with animals, a lot like me.”

During the Bayside park project, Donato worked closely with Duncan and artist Laura Hickman in their Ocean View studio, sharing ideas and techniques.

“It was really great,” he said, “because all three of us would share our styles, recommending things here and there. It was incredible working with two accomplished artists, and really reaffirmed to me that this stuff could be sellable and could open it up to people to enjoy, which is what I really like. I start a lot of stuff, knowing that I like it, and my friends and family like it, but I get a kick out of people approaching me and tell me they want one of my paintings.”

Although art has been an immense part of Donato’s life over the past decade, it isn’t his only passion. He’s worked as a project manager in the department of information technology for Carl M. Freeman Associates since 1995, assisting with Web design, computer graphics and ads.

“I would pretty much help out with anything they needed,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience here.”

One of his most memorable relationships at Carl M. Freeman was with the late president and chief executive of the company, Joshua M. Freeman, who was among Donato’s most regular customers.

“He had always been really great to me,” Donato said, “and he supported anything I wanted to do. Every time we talked, it would always be about art. He’s probably purchased more of my paintings than anyone else has. I think he would have gotten the biggest kick if he were here today to see what his park in Bayside looks like now. Everyone at the company has been great to me, and I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Moving to the area, Donato noted, was one of the best decisions he’s made. “I didn’t recognize Bethany and the surrounding area as an art place before,” he said, “but it has everything going for it. There are some great artists in the area, there’s tourism, which means people who can afford the art are going to keep coming back, and it’s quaint, which gives it that comfort about it.

“This whole area is a jewel for art. It’s nice to know that I’m sitting on top of a lot of potential and hopefully, I can go pretty far with my work,” he said.

Though a busy man, Donato makes time to get back to the brush and canvas.

“The art comes easy to me when I decide to do it,” he said. “I just have a lot of energy, and I sleep maybe five hours at night, and that’s all I really need. A lot of times, I’ll get an idea in the middle of the night and get up and just go with it.”

He attributes his technique to the style of architect and artist Frank Lloyd Wright, who had an uncanny ability to create his works with minimal drafting and sketching. He designed the well-known Fallingwater home in southwestern Pennsylvania, partly hanging over a waterfall.

“He was great at just getting an idea, and thinking it out, thinking it out, and thinking it out before he blasted it out on paper, sometimes an hour before the client would show up,” said Donato. “In most art college classes, they want you to sketch it over and over again, but I prefer to work at it and blasting it out, too,” he said.

Donato attributes his work finding its way to the finished product to his color theory and understanding of juxtaposition and ratios of color.

The wine-and-cheese reception at Good Earth marks Donato’s first exclusive showing in the area. “This is the first time a lot of my prints are going to be released to the public,” he said. “They’re mostly low-number prints, and there will be a lot of originals that many people have asked me about and couldn’t get before. The fact that Marco [Hernandez] is going to be there makes me really happy. I really believe in the work he does. His music is atoned to my views on life and my love of nature. Sue [Ryan], running the organic market, also goes along with all of that and follows suit. Everything seems to be coming together for me.”

The reception at Good Earth also comes a day before the one-year anniversary of Joshua Freeman’s death. “It’s a sad time,” noted Donato, “but I think that helps assure me that this is right, too. It’s a special time, and everything seems to be falling into place.”

For more information about the wine-and-cheese reception featuring Donato and his work, contact Good Earth Market at (302) 537-7100. For more information about Donato’s work, go to www.artsmack.com online.