When Tony Scornavacca died in 1986 of lung cancer at the age of 59, the Coconut Grove of yesteryear went with him.
That's the premise of Scornavacca, a 45-minute documentary directed and produced by J. Brian King, which aims to make sure that the quirky artist is not forgotten.
The film screened for the first time at the Paragon Theatre in Coconut Grove last night to a select audience. Representatives from PBS and the Coconut Grove Arts Festival (which Scornavacca helped launch in 1963) are now talking to King about showing Scornavacca to a wider audience.
A Scornavacca self-portrait.
The film showcases Scornavacca's wide array of paintings and drawings as his friends and children tell stories about the native New Yorker. Inspired by Van Gogh, Scornavacca walked away from a potentially lucrative career as a graphic artist to pursue the bohemian lifestyle of the Grove in 1950. The interviews paint the picture of a jolly family man who loved to joke and party but also had an explosive temper and a drinking problem.
Some of the tales in the movie include:
- The time Scornavacca was invited to attend a Luciano Pavarotti concert after the artist painted a portrait of the famed opera singer. Scornavacca snuck out to smoke a cigarette when the performance started then tussled with ushers who tried to prevent him from re-entering.
- His tendency to work all night while drinking Early Times whiskey in his studio.
- How he constantly had to move his art gallery because landlords kept raising the rent on him. Apparently Scornavacca's art was such a draw that it would increase property values.
So intense was Scornavacca's disdain for art galleries that today his work is found only in private collections, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.
A longtime Grove resident, King met Scornavacca only a few times when he was alive. "He was just hanging out, trying to sell his work," King says. "I only got to know him personally when he was dead."
Among those who pestered King to make the movie was Scornavacca's daughter Laura. "He was thinking about doing it a few years ago and then he dropped the ball," she says of King. "When I moved back from L.A., I lit a fire under his ass."
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King is glad she did. He considers Scornavacca an important part of Grove history, back when the area was a small artist community that attracted the likes of musicians such as Jimmy Buffett, The Eagles, and Fred Neil. "He was the old Grove," King says.