ScoutingJanuary - February 2003

'I Work From Real Life'

By John Marchese

For his official 2003 BSA illustration, artist Joseph Csatari captures the heroic work of firefighters and police at Ground Zero in New York City as well as the efforts of Scouts across the nation to support them.

Research for Csatari's inspirational painting included a visit to Ground Zero in New York City.
Photograph By Tom Sobolik

It was a bright spring day when Joe Csatari got into a New York City taxicab and asked the driver to take him to Ground Zero, the 16 acres in downtown Manhattan where the World Trade Center had stood.

Approaching the site, Csatari could see the enormous hole in the ground where construction workers, firefighters, and police were still working after eight grueling months to clear the debris of the fallen towers and perform the grim duty of finding and identifying victims. Then he noticed a policeman blocking his taxi's progress.

"I knew people weren't supposed to be allowed in there," Csatari recalled. "But I told the policeman that I had an appointment with a worker, that I was the official Boy Scout artist and I needed to take pictures for a painting I was doing."

The policeman reached down toward his gun belt, but the artist quickly realized he had no reason for concern. "He pulled out his wallet and showed me his National Eagle Scout Association membership card," Csatari said. "'I'm an Eagle Scout,' he told me. And after that we could have anything we wanted."

What Joe Csatari wanted was a firsthand look at the location that serves as the subject of his latest work of art, the official Boy Scouts of America illustration for 2003. Titled "Prepared To Do a Good Turn," the 31-by-40-inch oil painting shows two firemen, two policemen, and five Scouts volunteering to help in the aftermath of the horrible events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Joe Csatari has been painting artwork of Boy Scouts almost from the moment he joined the staff at BSA headquarters in 1957. Although he has painted the official Scout illustration for 25 years, he had never experienced anything like Ground Zero.

"In a way, it was exciting to be there and invigorating to see everyone working so hard and heroically," he says. "At the same time, it was very solemn. They found some bodies the day I was there, and they were bringing them out of the pit draped in the American flag, and everyone was saluting.

"We met several policemen who were Scouts or who had sons in Scouting. It's amazing how influential Scouting is and how many people are involved in it."

Csatari photographs men who worked at Ground Zero and who had agreed to pose for his painting—symbolic of the heroic rescue efforts by New York firefighters and police.
Photograph Courtesy of Joseph Csatari

The inspiration for many of the details portrayed in "Prepared To Do a Good Turn" comes from the real efforts of Scout groups across the country who helped out in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

For instance, a Scout is shown carrying a box of work gloves. In real life, Cub Scouts from Pack 677 in Gurnee, Ill., donated 16 cases of work gloves to the rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site. When the gloves arrived in New York, many contained a handwritten note of encouragement from the Cub Scouts to the workers.

"I work from real life," Csatari explained, seated on a sofa in the sunny studio of a converted garage at his New Jersey home, his most recent painting displayed on an easel a few feet away. "I'm sort of like a journalist."

He lives less than an hour from New York City and had often seen the twin towers, visiting them on one occasion. Like most Americans, he spent all day Sept. 11 glued to his television, watching as the videotaped images of the collapsing buildings were shown repeatedly.

"It never occurred to me that I'd be painting Ground Zero," Csatari said. "But during the next week or so, watching those images over and over—I could see a painting there. I could see the haze and the dust and the firemen and police working."

When officials at the BSA national office agreed that the Ground Zero recovery efforts should be the subject of this year's official illustration, Csatari began his usual process of finding real people to model for his work.

He often uses boys from nearby troops as models for Scouts, so he contacted the local Scoutmaster, only to discover that the leader had a friend who was a captain with a volunteer fire company that had helped at the World Trade Center. With the help of that fireman, Capt. Mark Nolan, Csatari was able to get four men to agree to model for his painting: Mark Rolon, a volunteer fireman from Inwood, N.Y.; Paul Hashagen, a New York city firefighter; David Norman, a detective with an NYPD emergency service unit; and Joe Carrigan, a police officer who worked for the Port Authority, which patrolled the World Trade Center buildings.

"Normally, I bring my models to my studio and take photographs of them," Csatari says. "But in this case I couldn't improvise. To use the actual men who performed the recovery work, I simply had to go to Ground Zero."

Other than going to the actual scene to photograph the men who would be the subjects of his painting, Csatari followed his usual working procedure.

First he produces rough sketches of his idea. Then he rounds up models and photographs them in the real clothes and holding real items—like the Scout shown in "Prepared To Do a Good Turn" who is carrying a cot and pillows.

It is not unusual for Csatari to end up with stacks of photographs several inches thick. He will cut and paste parts of these until he thinks the composition of the complete image is exactly right. Then he makes more exact composite drawings of the scene.

Next, he draws an elaborate, shaded picture with charcoal pencils. Such is Csatari's drawing skill that this picture looks almost like a black-and-white photograph.

"Once I do that," he says, "painting the picture is actually easy. Everything has been thought out. I know exactly what I'm going to do." He learned this technique during the eight years he worked assisting the legendary artist Norman Rockwell, who painted the official Boy Scout illustration for more than 50 years.

Joe Csatari can't remember wanting to be anything but an artist. And though art has been his job now for decades, when he talks about this latest painting, his voice carries the enthusiasm of a Scout who's earned his first merit badge.

"I don't think I've ever had an experience quite like this in all my years of painting," Csatari says. "This is a picture of something that had a worldwide impact, and to be there and to witness some of this and to talk to the people involved was amazing." He turns to look at his picture.

"Not only are the Scouts in the painting doing a Good Turn by bringing the firemen and policemen what they need in their work, but it's a Good Turn in the sense of the courage and hard work of the firemen and policemen and everyone else who was involved at Ground Zero—all the people that I don't show here, like the Red Cross workers and EMS people—and all the Scouts who helped. You can't show them all in a painting, but I wish I could because they certainly deserve the credit."

Freelance writer John Marchese lives in New York City.

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