When art imitates ‘life’

Classic movie is part muse, part mission for local teacher

Silver Creek High art teacher Paul Abate presents a signed print to actress Karolyn Grimes, who portrayed Zuzu in the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” at a 75th anniversary celebration held for the movie in Seneca Falls earlier this month.

SENECA FALLS — For over a decade, longtime educator Paul Abate has channeled a fondness for a classic holiday film into his art, discovering a catharsis in his creativity that has grown to inform his personal and professional lives.

And it all came full circle in December, when he was featured as a special guest at the 75th anniversary celebration for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an event held in upstate New York and attended by fans from across the globe.

A painter, Abate grew up in Ripley and has spent the past 25 of his 26-year-long teaching career at Silver Creek Central School District where, in addition to his instructional responsibilities, he serves as Art Department chair and Teachers Association vice president. He is held in high esteem by his colleagues and students alike for his gentle, thoughtful and inclusive approach to encouraging creativity.

Guidance counselor Mark Baldelli has worked closely with Abate as co-advisors of the senior class for a decade. He’s seen firsthand the meaningful influence Abate has on students.

“The thing I love about Paulie is that he seems to be able to take the students who struggle academically and show them they have other talents to offer through the world of art,” Baldelli said. “He cultivates those talents, which in turn can act as a catalyst for those students to improve in other academic areas. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him take an ‘at risk’ student and, before you know it, that student is walking across the stage for graduation because of his influence. Paul is the true definition of a teacher and is one of the kindest and most caring people you’ll ever meet.”

Submitted Photos A longtime Fredonia resident, Paul Abate, took his artworks inspired by “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the road for a presentation and exhibit in Seneca Falls. The veteran art teacher brought his process to the classroom, showing his students how setting goals and staying accountable can help them achieve their dreams and find meaning in their life and work.

In his leisure time, Abate continues to hone his talents as a painter and works mostly with oil paint on canvas and white charcoal on black paper. His work includes portraiture, people and illustrations of events — but his style isn’t something that can be pinpointed.

“I try to capture expressions, feelings of what is happening in my life at the time, realism and, most important, I try to capture the mood of scenes with dramatic lighting and shadows,” said Abate, describing an effect called chiaroscuro.

Back in 2008, Abate said in his free time he began painting scenes from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 film with a timeless message directed by Frank Capra, as a Christmas painting for friends and family.

“The paintings eventually became a form of therapy for me to get me through difficult times in my life and to address mental health,” said Abate, who has lived in Fredonia for the past 25 years with his wife Michelle and their son Ryan and daughter Maddie. “One of the main reason I did this show and spoke at the festival was to bring more awareness to mental health and suicide awareness. “

Set in the fictional New York town of Bedford Falls, based on the actual town of Seneca Falls located about a two-hour drive from Silver Creek, the plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” centers on businessman George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) visited by an angel who provides glimpse at what life would be like if he never existed. While the holiday season is supposed to be a time of joy, for many it can conjure complicated emotions, exacerbate loneliness, feelings of despair and underscore financial troubles. The life-affirming moral at the heart of the movie has earned it legions of fans young and old.

Abate kept his various paintings inspired by the film — emotional portraits, snowy landscapes, and pivotal scenes between characters — between him and his loved ones until 2018, until the fateful day he shared them on an “It’s a Wonderful Life” fan page on Facebook.

“And that is where it took off,” Abate said. “I had hundreds of responses from around the world and many people asked me to share the work.”

“He got an unbelievable amount of feedback and interest,” says fellow Silver Creek CSD teacher Jason Mirek, who considers Abate a mentor and friend. “His notoriety grew within that community and from it he was asked to be one of the main presenters at the festival.”

Abate contacted the “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum in Seneca falls and, after some delays due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and lots of preparation, he presented “I Want to Live Again! Reflections and Lessons from George Bailey” on Dec. 10-11. There, he showed off many of his works, discussing them and his inspirations.

“The response I received there was amazing and I feel my speech and art touched a lot of people,” Abate said. “I also have been able to share this experience with my art students, the process and motivation for the work.”

Adding to the grandeur of the experience, Abate gifted actress Karolyn Grimes, who played daughter Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with a personalized signed and framed print of his painting “A Father’s Love” featuring her and Stewart.

“She was so kind and appreciative,” says Abate.

Mirek, who attended the Seneca Falls events in support of Abate and his art, said the admiration is mutual with Abate encouraging Mirek’s pursuit of music and songwriting.

“We have been discussing the prospect of trying to reach a wider audience for his art,” Mirek said. “We built a kind of pact, a sort of accountability agreement, so over the past four or five years we tried to encourage each other to move outside our comfort zones.”

Abate’s participation in the “Wonderful” anniversary event was indeed a step out of his comfort zone and he wrote his remarks over the course of many weeks.

“He pushed through his anxiousness and did it,” Mirek said. “He dug deep to reveal the stories and inspiration behind each of his paintings.”

Along the way, he shared his journey with his students, discussing what he was doing and why. He explained how creating goals and finding people to be accountable to works to move a dream forward.

“He is a very humble person, but his artwork is brilliant,” Baldelli said. “It took a lot of courage and I’m so proud of him and the amazing presentation he gave.”

Abate told his students the speech would be a challenge and how many hours and revisions he had to do to make it right. When he shared it with them, and they understood what inspired him.

“He encouraged his students to strive to pursue their art with passion with his words, but even more important is that he did it by showing them what it looks like in real time,” Mirek said. “They know how he paints those pictures because he shows them every step of the way.”

Many in the Seneca Falls audience were moved by stories of Abate’s upbringing, anxiety, grief, loss, loved ones’ substance abuse issues and the tragic, sudden passing of a dear relative. Afterward, attendees gathered to talk to him after the presentation, and it was obvious to Mirek that Abate’s art and stories help people work through their own challenges and trauma.

“Fellow teachers, administrators and community members all joined in to support, because they have gotten to know Paul over the years, and I believe seeing him on his journey gives us all the hope that we can pursue what we love, too,” says Mirek.

Check out more of Abate’s art via his website: abatestudios.com.

For support, reach out to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Western NY Chapter at https://afsp.org/chapter/western-new-york; for those dealing with a crisis situation call 800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.


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