I received an introduction to Lou Cacioppo’s art before I ever met the artist. I first saw one of his masks, and as the saying goes, I was “blown away.” Delighted that he lived in Gustavus, I looked forward to seeing more of his work. Then I met Lou, and, once he opened the Outpost, enjoyed several music nights in his place, surrounded by his marvelous inspirations. Now I have the pleasure of telling a little of his story and showing you a bit of his art. I’m sure you will agree that he has a great deal of talent. As his story shows, he has worked at perfecting his skills his entire life, and the results are reflected in all he has created.
Lou Cacioppo was born on November 28, 1946, in Brooklyn, New York. Both his mother and father were Sicilians. Lou reassures us there were no mafia connections. Lou’s mother came from this country, while his dad was born in Palermo, Italy. Lou’s grandparents on both sides immigrated from Italy. They spoke Italian and English. The family lived in Brooklyn in a section of town called “little Italy.”
After Lou’s kindergarten in a parochial school, the family moved from Brooklyn. They first moved to Valley Stream, Long Island, New York, where 50 to 60% of the people were Italian or Jewish. His parents enrolled him in a Catholic school.
Lou was the “wise guy” in class, so he got in trouble with the teachers a lot. When he was a 4th grader, he became involved in a fight with a 6th grader, and ended up in Mother Superior’s office. She smacked him with a large paddle with holes in it. Lou swears she hit him so hard that her feet came off the ground. After the incident, at Lou’s insistence, his parents took him out of Catholic school and enrolled him in the regular school.
Lou’s parents had totally different views on his fighting. Lou’s mother would smack him for losing a fight. Lou’s father would hit him for fighting. Lou decided winning a fight was better — he didn’t have to suffer so many smacks from the other guy, or from his mother.
Around 1954, the family moved from Valley Stream to South Farmingdale, a suburban area with ranch houses and a nearby creek. The area still had trees. Lou played in the woods, either Tarzan or army, with sticks and fingers, nothing that looked real.
Lou drew constantly. He had paper bags filled with sketches. Comic books were his first texts for art. Teachers always volunteered Lou for school art projects, such as murals. Lou loved doing these projects.
South Farmingdale had a junior high — seventh and eighth grades — in a separate school. His years there were uneventful. Though not in sports, he was an avid weight lifter. Of course, he always did a lot of art. He says that he had art teachers all through junior high and high school. Lou says the art teachers were fantastic. His three greatest teachers were Mr. Denali, who was a big influence and took Lou under his wing; Mr. Cole, a great watercolor artist; and Mr. Schaffer. Lou made his first sale of a piece of his artwork to Mr. Schaffer. It was a wood sculpture, and he sold it for $15.00. He bought a pair of pants with that $15.00 — his first purchase of his own clothes.
Lou went to high school in South Farmingdale. He says it was a great school. From junior high through high school, his favorite academic subjects were biology and geology. In biological science lab, dissecting mice and frogs sparked a never-ending quest of how things are put together. He liked geology for the same reason: He liked learning how the earth was made. He also really liked literature, but not grammer. His teachers forced him to read, and he was glad of it. The stories he read also stirred his imagination.
Lou took extra art classes, doing two classes a day. His art background paid off — in his sophomore year, he designed the school flag. It is still the school flag to this day. Instead of taking study hall, he took two gym classes. He weighed 130 pounds and was in good shape. He took freshman track and field, and also played football, playing halfback, defense and offence, for the whole game. He says he was as fast as a little rocket, and tough — he didn’t get tackled too much.
Lou’s mother, who was in charge (the matriarch) decided the family needed to move to California. So, after Lou finished 10th grade, they moved. Though it was his mother’s idea, when they got there she hated it So, the family came back to Valley Stream.
For the school year at Valley Stream, Lou stayed with his godfather (considered family but not family.) He went through 11th grade there. He remembers sitting in class when JFK was shot. It was really painful. Though he was young, it affected him strongly. How could someone shoot the President?
Lou’s home life was a bit rocky. His parents were always arguing about money. His mother dominated the arguments and his father took the role of sheep. His father was very docile toward his mother, but Lou became the victim of physical abuse. His dad would hit Lou with anything available. Lou was afraid of him. Lou says it made him tough because his dad was the scariest guy he knew.
In 1964, the summer after 11th grade, Lou went back to South Farmingdale. He took part in Track and Field that year, and at the first county meet, he got a varsity letter, setting the school record for the running broad jump: 20′ 10 1/2″. (That record was broken long after he left that school, by a 21-foot jump.) At the meet he received a gold medal for the running broad jump. He won a gold medal for the triple jump and ran on the relay team for the 880. He won a silver medal for the relay.
Lou was very excited about the day, and couldn’t wait to tell his parents. It was getting dark when he got off the bus, and he ran all the way down the street to his house. The door was locked, so he knocked. His father opened the door, grabbed him by the shirt, and punched him. His dad was going to hit him again. By then, Lou was standing on the stairs, and told his dad, “Go ahead; hit me.” His dad put his arm down and Lou went to his bedroom. He took down all his trophies, ribbons, letters, and paintings he was working on, and put them in the trash. He took everything outside to the big trashcan. When the garbage man came in the morning and took it all away, Lou knew he had to go in a different direction at that moment. He told his parents he was going to go into the navy and would need them to give their approval, as he was only 17. He convinced them to sign or he would run away.
When Lou dropped out of school to join the navy, his counselors were shocked. He was an honor student, and in line for an art scholarship. However, he needed to get away from his parents. He loved them, but couldn’t concentrate on himself.
The navy appeared to have been a good choice. Lou was voted by Company 117 as Honor Man of the whole company, and received a letter of commendation from the admiral.
His 1964 tour of duty took him to Meridian, Mississippi. At that time, the navy base and the military looked for three civil rights protesters. The search was for two black students and one Caucasian student. Later reports of the incident say that the three were killed by a KKK lynch mob. The FBI came in to investigate and found the bodies, buried in a concrete dam. When Mississippi refused to prosecute the assailants in a state court, the federal government stepped in and charged 18 men with conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the three men.
On a sailor’s first tour, Lou sidestepped the normal duties, such as peeling potatoes, cleaning, or doing maintenance painting jobs. He interviewed for the position of yeoman (clerk). To be chosen, he had to be able to type 50 words per minute. He took a typewriter home and practiced all weekend. By Monday morning he could type 45 words a minute.
Then he started drinking, as a kind of self-medication. He would get so drunk at times he didn’t know how he got back to the base. Along with the drinking went chasing women. Lou says he was wild and immature at that time.
He was transferred to Jacksonville, Florida on the USS Yellowstone, where he served as a yeoman, spending about a year there. Then he went to San Diego, California, again as a yeoman. His duties included handling discharge papers, passes, and transfer papers — any administrative tasks for the base. Lou got his G.E.D. while in the navy. In 1966, he received an honorable discharge.
Lou migrated to his parents’ in North Massapequa, Long Island. He bounced around from job to job, still drinking. He took a job at the Minneola Community Hospital and started training as an Inhalation Therapist (involves positive pressure breathing with medications, such as dilators, antibiotics, etc.) He worked for Dr. Frank, who headed a practicing team working on perfecting the process of transferring hearts.
In the children’s ward, there was a little Italian boy around 4 years old who was dying of cancer. He wasn’t one of Lou’s patients. The nurses were outside the door; they couldn’t figure out what the boy wanted. He was asking for his shoes in Italian. Lou told the nurses what the child asked for. He made the mistake of going into the room. The child asked him if he was going to die. He can’t remember what he said; he just remembered that he hugged the little boy. Then Lou said, “We all die, even me.” He left, depressed, and quit the job shortly after.
He still drank pretty heavily and went from job to job. He met his first wife, Beverly, during that period, and they had a son named Paul. When holding the baby in his arms, he realized he was holding a little person, and wanted to do a good job with him. His drinking slowed down a lot.
Lou got a job as a technical illustrator for Weber and Stevens Tech Publications. He started working on the day shift and went to community college at night. He took advertising and three-dimensional drawing classes. These taught him to develop patience. Then, he was offered the opportunity to be the art director for the night crew. He made good money and enjoyed the job. As the art director, he gave the jobs that came in to the artists that worked there, according to their expertise. He had to prioritize the work according to its importance. It was his responsibility to see that all work got completed by pre-set deadlines. It was also necessary that Lou and several other artists be vetted for a security clearance because they did a specs manual for the first space shuttle.
Lou’s uncle passed away, leaving an empty house in Lakewood, California, where he had lived. So, Lou and his wife moved there. Bev’s brother, Brian, and his wife, Louise, decided they would come to California too. There were two bedrooms and they split the rent Lou was on Public Assistance until he could find a job. The first job he found was at a carwash for $3.50 per hour. There was a garden supply place in town where Lou wanted to work. He asked the owner if he could work for them for a week for free. “If you like my work, you can hire me,” Lou promised. The owner said he would love to, but he couldn’t afford to hire anyone else.
Lou’s wife got a good job with TRW, which was one of the first companies in California to do computer chips. His brother-in-law convinced him to go to school on the G.I. bill. He attended Northrup University at Inglewood, California. He graduated and got an Airframe and Power Plant licence and an associate degree in aircraft maintenance technology (a two-year program.) He was hired to work right out of school by Temsco Helicoptors, based in Ketchikan. Thanks to his reading of Jack London, Lou had no problem accepting.
In 1974, he moved with his family to Ketchikan. He had $350.00 to his name. The company had a small trailer near the office, and that became their first Alaskan home. They spent one year there, then bought a trailer in a park. Lou did free-lance mechanic work with his brother-in-law, Brian, for a variety of airlines. Brian got Lou interested in a veteran’s sale of land, so the two bought two acres above Totem Bight in Ketchikan. They leased a sawmill and logged the trees on the two acres, and sold the trailer, which paid for Lou’s property. Using classic hand-logging and milling techniques, they cut enough lumber to build two houses.
Lou decided to open a commercial art studio called “Muskeg Magic.” The company did logo designs, signs, advertising, and brochures. Lou, Terry Pyles, and Don Dawson worked together. They did the logo for the city of Ketchikan, and countless logos for businesses in town. They created many artistic signs and helped businesses with basic advertising. During this time, he was also doing art shows — one-man shows; groups; art festivals. He was selling art. However, Lou says he was a terrible businessman. He just didn’t have any business sense at all; he just knew to work hard and fast. Unfortunately, Muskeg Magic closed in about a year.
In Ketchikan, Lou started boxing as a junior welterweight, earning the nickname of “The Hammer.” (1979-1981) He boxed in the Frontier Saloon, the room filled with smoke, but Lou loved it. He felt that, in the ring, “I’m representing me, no one else.” His goal was not to hurt anyone; he just wanted to win. He got booed one time…he had a guy on the ropes; hit him twice in the head and backed off. The crowd booed. When the guy slid down the ropes, they cheered at his decision to stop hitting.
A position came up in the Ketchikan City Fire Department for a firefighter. Lou did the physical fitness test (he was 35; the oldest candidate, and the only one who wasn’t a volunteer fire fighter.) He did well on the fitness test and the written test. On the oral quiz with the council and fire chief, one question stood out. He was asked, “If you see your fellow fire fighter take money found during a fire, what would you do?” Lou answered, “He’s my friend, and I think the first thing I would do would be to ask him, ‘What’s the deal? Do you have a money problem? If you need money at any time I will lend it to you. I saw you take the money, and you have to do something about making it right.'”
Lou said, “They liked the answer. It helped me get the job. I was the first non-volunteer fire fighter they ever hired. I loved the training and did well. I found firefighters to be definitely a brotherhood. Everybody has their life on the line and they pull together.”
Lou went into EMT training as well. During this whole time, he was also doing art and building a home. Lou and others from the class were the first Firefighter Is and EMT IIs in the state. He says it was rewarding. He loved firefighting. He had to stop in 1987 because of two on-the-job knee injuries on top of prior sports injuries.
While in the fire department, Lou and a couple of buddies went to the Northwest Policemen’s and Firemen’s Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. Lou won three medals: A gold medal in running broad jump; silver in hop, skip, and jump, and third place in handball. As Lou only worked 11 days a month, he had lots of time left over to finish his house and work on art. He started self-employment carpentry and placed his art in galleries.
After 23 good years with Bev, things started to change. The couple divorced in 1990, though Lou says he still cared for her. As part of their settlement, Lou gave Bev the house.
During the period following the divorce, Lou met Cam and fell in love, and she became his second wife. They married in 1994. They moved to Toledo, Washington for a short time. Lou insisted they come back to Alaska. They came right to Juneau because Cam had a sister there. Though Lou was still doing art, he got a job at Don Abel’s as a salesperson. He soon decided he’d better get back into carpentry. He started Louigi’s Carpenter Service, while designing his next house. Lou and Cam pooled their money, Cam being the biggest contributor, and bought 1/2 acre. He designed and built a three-story beautiful home viewing Thunder Mountain. He took a jewelry class in lost wax casting when the house was finished. Cam worked as a dental assistant. She loved that job and was good at it. Her working gave Lou leeway for more time for artwork.
Juneau was on a five-year plan; then Lou wanted to move someplace where he could do artwork full-time. They sold the house in Juneau to pay for land and building money. They visited Haines and Skagway. Real estate in Skagway was ridiculously expensive, and they wanted a smaller community. Haines was the same way, though they looked at some property there. They came back to Juneau, and saw an ad in the paper for Gustavus. Gary Scott, a friend and fellow artist and builder, had land for sale. They came to look and bought the land. It had trees that would supply lumber for building. Lou built their house, which was totally done in about three months. He had help several times from one other guy, though he did 95% of the work himself. When it was done, he started building the Camalou Art Gallery on Sockeye Road, with living quarters above. The upstairs started as Cam’s sewing room. It had a bathroom and Lou put in a kitchen. Downstairs contained the art gallery and shop.
Lou gave up this shop building for family needs and started construction on the present gallery on Humpy Road in 2011. This project took the longest because he put in a lot of time on acoustics and maximizing usable space. All the interior lumber was hand-milled and hand-sanded. Dimensions of the new building were 24′ wide by 50′ long. He finished it in 2013. It turned out to be more than he envisioned, because of the people who came in. Lou says, “A lot of people leave part of their souls in here; therefore, when they are not here, I still feel the energy.”
Lou has a great mission statement for the “Outpost,” his name for his studio/music stage: “A non-profit music venue dedicated to building community and providing pioneering musicians with quality stage time in a nurturing atmosphere.” The Outpost is a long room, with an elevated stage at one end. It has lights and a good sound system. The rest of the room is filled with chairs for the audience on music nights. Lou’s artwork adorns the
walls and available table space in the room.
The stage at the back offers an incredible potential tool for performers to hone and be conscious of their skills. They perform in an art gallery and have a good time. There is no admission charge. People leave donations to cover overhead. Lou’s policy regarding alcoholic beverages is that you bring your own drinks, but drink only in moderation. Lou explains, “The Outpost is a quiet venue, not a party house, and is meant to be filled with great music, great people, and thought-provoking art.”
Lou says since the Outpost opened, he has collected enough extra money from peoples’ donations to buy a keyboard. This instrument will be a permanent fixture onstage, so anyone, such as Kim Heacox, who always hauls in his keyboard, won’t have to go to the extra trouble to bring such a large piece of equipment.
Lou has done carpentry work here in Gustavus, too. Here, he has had the pleasure of picking and choosing jobs. Lou enjoys making rustic furniture, playing music, meeting new people and making friends.
Lou works in many mediums. They include: paintings in oil and acrylics, pen and ink drawings, pencil drawings, lost wax jewelry, stone sculptures, wood sculptures (including masks, some of which are articulated,) papier Mâché, bone, and Celluclay (a product name.) Lou believes that artists should open up to new things. He says many artists stick to just one venue. He feels such a practice limits one’s creativity. Perhaps a commercial artist might out of necessity allow repetition in his work for marketing purposes, but Lou feels that art is important as a means of expression, so selling is not his main goal. It is his belief that the artist expands his scope and his talent by working with different mediums.
Lou likes carving and sculpting. He enjoys working with stone, though he doesn’t do a lot of it. Carving and sculpting take a lot of time, and Lou considers it a form of meditation. The piece might use a mask format, but sculpturing is a part of it. His masks are wood or mixed media. He likes using discarded items in his pieces.
Lou started carving masks in 1974. He met Jack Hudson, a Native Tsimshian carver, one of the best ever. At an exhibit, as Lou looked at his pieces, the artist introduced himself. He talked about his methods and tools and said, “Come to Metlakatla and let me teach you how to make tools.” Lou took him up on the offer, and made an incredible advancement in his carving. He learned how to make any specialized tool he needed.
Lou met a man in Ketchikan who became another of his mentors. Guido Chigi taught art in college and was a great artist in his own right. His work travelled the world, and he even had some of his art displayed at the Louvre in Paris, France. He used all kinds of mediums, but his expertise was in oil painting. He was also an industrial designer: a true working artist. One day he passed the window of “Muskeg Magic,” came in and told Lou, “These pieces are fantastic — keep up the good work.”
Ninety percent of the wood Lou uses to make masks is red alder. He prefers it because it is easy to use. He also uses yellow cedar, red cedar, ash, and cottonwood, all woods found here in Southeast Alaska. He bucks up the wood, cuts it into mask-sized shapes, and keeps them soaking in water so they remain usable. Lou does not kill trees when not necessary. In Juneau, the city cleared the red alder from along the road. Lou picked them up and used them for carving. Alder dries to a hardwood and finishes beautifully.
Lou has won countless awards for his art. A few of these include “Best of Show” in Haines and “People’s Choice” at the Ketchikan Armory show. He has won this award and “Best of Show” there several times. “Raven’s Nightmare” toured the state for one year. Throughout his career, from school years on, he has won awards.
In Ketchikan, for a number of years spanning nearly the whole time he was there, he took part in the Artist in Residence program in the schools. He taught children of all ages, including special needs kids. He also taught mask carving at the University of Alaska Southeast.
He can’t say that he has a favorite piece, but he hates to sell his art. He considers it serous art because it means something to him or he wouldn’t create it. As he gets older, his least favorites are the pieces that represent realism. He likes sparking an emotion in someone and feels that there is a better avenue for doing so through contemporary surrealism. The impressionist style of painting, such as the works of Van Gogh and Sargent, are among his favorite artists. He admires their technique.
His work has travelled throughout the U.S. In Alaska, people from all over the world see it because of the cruise ships. Some of the countries where he knows his art has travelled, include Fiji, Australia, Germany, Israel, Sweden, Switzerland, and England.
Lou gains ideas through social events, historical events, and personal experience. He can feel the clash of humanity between the modern technical age and the heritages of the past. He says that the development of contemporary electronics and computers has reduced our ability to interact and to realize the importance of fine art. He also feels that music is a tool useful in reaching out to more people.
When he was young, Lou got a guitar and learned three songs. He didn’t really play much until he came here in 2004. At the “Bear’s Nest,” once a Gustavus B & B, he listened and watched as the owners, Phil Riddle and Lynn Marrow, played music there. The music inspired him to start practicing and playing. He says, “I am self-taught, unfortunately.” He first sang at the Bear’s Nest in 2008. From that time forward, he started writing and singing what he wrote. He performed for three years at the the Alaska Folk Festival. By this time, he has written around 70 songs. At music nights at the Outpost, it’s the custom for Lou to start the evening with two or three of his songs, and to end the evening when all other entertainers are finished.
If you would like to see more of Lou’s creations, visit his very nice website at www.camaloustudio.com. Some of the photos in this article are taken from the website. However, there are many more pictures of Lou’s amazing artwork on the site, so be sure to take a look.
Lou’s impressive talent gives him a prominent place in the ranks of the many creative people found in this small town. However, his contribution to the community goes well beyond art. He has found a way to give back something unique to the rest of us who live here, by providing a venue where residents can gather to encourage, share, and enjoy the musical talent that is so plentiful here. Keep up the good work, Lou — we are glad you ended up in our town.