At 12 years old, Giovanni DeCunto sold his first painting — a copy of a Rembrandt work — for $35 to Clara John, the mother of one of his good friends.
She told him, “You’re not like the other kids.”
He promptly quit his paper route, deciding then and there that art was it for him.
He already knew he was an artist; he had known it since he was a little boy. Now, he knew he could sell it, too.
“I said, ‘Why should I do anything but this?’ I knew I could make more money at this than at my paper route,” DeCunto recalled. “And, I can have fun doing it.”
These days, the Lawrence native sells pieces for more than $35,000, working out of a small studio tucked away in the North End neighborhood of Boston, just around the corner from the famous hot spot Mike’s Pastry.
Throughout his career, he has painted celebrities and royalty around the world, including Donald Trump, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, Doc Rivers, Lionel Richie and even the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. His works have been featured in numerous museum exhibits globally, and he recently filmed commercials for New Balance as part of its “Made in America” advertising campaign.
He even manages not to get too star-struck by the big names.
“I mean it’s kind of fun, because they’re usually the easiest clients,” he said. “They’re really cool and they’re talented, so they sort of let you breathe, you know?”
Not that it would necessarily matter, that is, if they had specific requests: No one can tell DeCunto what to paint.
“I’m half-French, and that’s when my French side comes up,” he joked.
With a couple of successful decades under his belt, DeCunto has honed his skills as both an artist and a businessman.
Much of his inspiration rises from the world around him, and his pieces are mostly socially conscious. When clients commission him for artwork for their homes, he rearranges the whole room. For a while, he also worked in interior designing — a knack he never lost. His paintings generally have a three-step process: composition and structure first, a superstructure over that, and the painting last. Often, he won’t sleep until it’s finished.
“As soon as I start something, I want to be finished,” said DeCunto, who is in his mid-60s.
While he may take some time to get a sense of the client, he usually knows almost immediately what he needs to know about them by the little things.
“I’m so acute in this now that I can just, like, I can sort of see with your skin color what colors you like, you know?” he said.
Always an artist
DeCunto has come a long way from being kicked out of the schools in Lawrence.
“I went to every school in Lawrence,” he said, recalling how he was always being punished for doing nothing but drawing. “I mean, I went to every school. My poor mother — that’s why I have a personality, too. I met everyone.”
DeCunto spent part of his childhood living at the bottom of Tower Hill, near the Essex Street projects.
“The people that had money lived in the projects,” he said, emphasizing the struggle of his adolescence with his mother, father and younger twin sisters. “We lived across the street.”
His artistry certainly didn’t come out of left field. It was in his blood. His parents were former dancers, and his sisters made their careers as singers, performing with famous entertainers like Tom Jones.
Later, as a teenager, he spent much of his time running away, he said, not because he hated Lawrence, but in an attempt to “spread his wings.”
After several of his pieces were picked up by a number of museums, he was offered a full ride to Boston University, something he had never even considered. He said he never even took the SATs. He wasn’t ready for college, he thought.
“I found out that there were art galleries and that, actually, I could go to the university and be trained to do this,” he said, explaining that he never knew galleries existed. Growing up, he thought there were only museums.
Knowing that he could be a charming character, he said he struck a deal with Boston University. Because he needed money, he started student teaching right away. And he told them he couldn’t commit to a full, four-year program.
“You need to give me money, and I can’t start at the start,” he recalled telling them. “I have to start somewhere that’s comfortable for me to start.”
From there, he excelled, and Boston University wanted him for its graduate program. DeCunto, however, felt like he’d gotten what he could out of them and wanted to explore something new. When he was given the choice of continuing his studies at either the University of Oxford in England or the University of Padua in Italy, he picked the latter.
Later, he lived in Rio de Janeiro for a time while he was married. And nowadays, he spends a lot of time in Miami, where he once “designed a place for this guy and he gave me the key, so ...”
Still, Boston remains his home base.
Asked if he ever considered living in Lawrence again, he said, “Well, I love the factories there because, you know, what a studio you could make there, you know? Wow. But I don’t know.”
‘Made in America’
His connection to Lawrence and his rise from a difficult childhood has made him the perfect face for New Balance, a company that has a factory in Lawrence.
New Balance chose DeCunto to feature in its “Made in America” campaign, thanks to director and producer Dan Horgan at Bluefoot Entertainment.
Horgan had previously hoped to collaborate with DeCunto on a World Cup commercial, an idea that ultimately didn’t work out. Their relationship did, however. Through time, Horgan realized just exactly where DeCunto was from.
When New Balance was launching its “Made in America” campaign featuring American makers, it all clicked.
“He’s got an unbelievable personality,” Horgan said. “Giovanni, he’s just like the mayor. He knows everybody, he’s got a million stories, he’s handsome.”
Though the art flows naturally, the business side of things was a different story. As DeCunto said, “I’m always thinking outside the box, so I’m never in the box.”
Thankfully, that’s where Kay Rooney, 20, a junior at Emmanuel College in Boston and DeCunto’s assistant, comes in. The two have struck up a balanced working relationship: friendly, but Rooney keeps him in line, DeCunto said. She’s been vital in helping him not only manage the office but also in launching his online store, accessible via his website, www.giovannidecunto.com.
And Rooney is gaining invaluable experience.
“She’s in school, and I think she’s learning more ...” DeCunto said.
Rooney nodded, cutting him off to finish his sentence: “I’m learning more here than in classes.”