Inspired by his daughter’s heart condition, Fabio Napoleoni channeled his creativity into a new career as an artist.
By Ashley Ryan
Twists and turns in life can lead us down unexpected paths. No one knows this as well as Fabio Napoleoni, who took a roundabout way to find one of his greatest passions.
Although working as an artist was not the first path Napoleoni chose, he had creative tendencies since he was a child, designing T-shirts and painting small murals here and there. “I come from a family of artists,” he explains, citing his mother, uncle and grandfather as some of his teachers. “… My mother never discouraged nor really encouraged art. She just let me be me. And I really had fun with it.”
At the age of 15, he started his first job as a dishwasher, moving on to become a chef and kitchen manager before switching industries entirely. After time spent in restaurants, Napoleoni worked with abused children for seven years.
In 2001, shortly after 9/11, he started selling his art on eBay as well as peddling it out of his car. But it wasn’t until 2004 when things really changed: Napoleoni’s daughter, Lauren—his second child—was born with a heart condition.
“What I had been creating prior to that was just basically for fun—pop art stuff. With her … congenital heart defect, it changed the perspective of how I was viewing things in life. I was a very, very pessimistic individual growing up. … Having a child with a heart condition makes you have to be on the positive end of everything.”
As his inspiration for creating art changed, so did the content. The pop art-style pieces he was making before were replaced with playful characters that offer a childlike essence. “Some people call it whimsical, some people call it surreal,” Napoleoni notes. “To me, it’s more of a character-driven thought that evokes an emotion. That’s the goal behind every piece: to bring back a little bit of nostalgia of something you did when you were younger or possibly if you’re missing your mom who’s passed away or a child. … Most of it today is really just trying to evoke some sort of happy place.”
The majority of his artwork is acrylic Liquitex paint on canvas, though he also creates pen and ink pieces on paper. “I do plan ahead somewhat,” he says, noting that he typically sketches an idea out on paper or jots it down on his iPad. “Obviously, it changes as it goes, so you change things towards the end.”
His characters are pivotal to his pieces, and he has dreamed up many, including a tattered rag doll named Marcenivo; Stretch the giraffe; Leoh the lion; Dragonboy, a child who dresses up in a detailed dragon costume; the Love Bomb and more. But it’s the hearts that are absolutely essential to Napoleoni’s artwork.
“If it’s not a physical little red heart, there is a symbol somewhere in the piece that is heart-shaped and that’s because I firmly believe I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my daughter,” he explains. “She changed how I viewed everything—artistic and in life. So that’s my little tribute to her every time I create something.”
He uses just four to five shades to create these hearts, with other set collections of hues dedicated to his characters and his backgrounds. “I don’t wing the color thing. That seems like gambling to me,” Napoleoni adds.
Although Napoleoni lived in Maine for roughly 30 years, he now resides in Florida, but appears in galleries across the United States. One of his most beloved spaces is the Art Center Gallery at the Westminster Mall. So when the owner, Todd Rubin, approached him last year about opening a gallery in Laguna Beach, Napoleoni couldn’t resist.
“The rent was very reasonable and we just said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a try,’ ” he recalls. “ … I wanted to make sure I flew there and drew on the walls. My wife was not keen on it—I did the whole nine yards, wearing the mask, I quarantined myself for two weeks when I got home. But the gallery looks amazing.”
His drawings were incredibly important to him, as he wanted his characters front and center. “I wanted to create something that I thought a
Dr. Seuss gallery would look like,” Napoleoni explains. “He would have drawn on the walls and put his world into it, so it’s not just entertaining for the people with money. Kids can also walk into it and feel amazed that they’re in a good place.”
The gallery officially opened its doors in October 2020, though Napoleoni didn’t make it back to see the finished product until the grand opening celebration this summer, on July 31.
On the heels of celebrating the launch of this new gallery, Napoleoni will be releasing his first in a series of children’s books this September. Based on one of his most popular characters, “Dragonboy” is about a child that sets out on an adventure with his stuffed animal friends while finding joy and empathy along the way. Napoleoni is currently working on the second storybook. He hopes to transition his characters into the world of animation in the coming years as well.
It has been nearly two decades since Napoleoni started on this journey. Although his daughter (now 17) has had numerous surgeries, including the placement of a pacemaker, she is thriving. “When you look at her, you wouldn’t think she has a heart condition,” he says. Medical advancements and his artwork seemed to grow simultaneously, both bringing great happiness to his family.
And while he has done well for himself, he says he takes the same approach with his children as his mother did with him.
“If I’m painting and my daughter wants to come in and do something, she’s welcome to do that,” he explains, adding that she and his son, Marcus (now 22), are both very crafty. “My son likes to sculpt and my daughter—basically, whatever comes to her mind, she just creates. So, you know, I’m letting them find their own way. If they do, they do, and if they decide to do something else in life, that’s great, too.”
Fabio Napoleoni Gallery
540 S. Coast Highway, Ste. 110
A Whale of a Tale
Local legend Wyland has big things planned, as he continues his quest for 100 Monumental Sculptures in 100 Great Cities. The second, titled Orca Dream, is located at Icy Strait Point in Hoonah, Alaska, where Wyland traveled for the dedication of the installation on World Oceans Day in June. The first—three dolphins riding a wave titled Faster, Higher, Stronger—was created at Beijing International Sculpture Park in 2008 in an effort to raise money for the Olympic Games. In addition to this new project, which is a follow-up to the 100 whaling wall murals he completed between 1981 and 2008, the artist is hosting a Weekend with Wyland event from Sept. 17-19. Good for two people, the $7,500 pass includes a two-night, ocean view stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel as well as a number of activities with Wyland himself, such as a VIP welcome reception at the resort, a boat tour to Laguna Beach and back, a private gallery show and more. A $5,000 credit will also be issued to participants to put toward art purchases over the weekend. (wyland.com) —Ashley Ryan
Art Around Town
A number of new public art pieces and installations have made appearances as of late, furthering Laguna’s position as an art-centric community. In May, the popular downtown phone booth got a makeover, with an octopus sculpture placed on top. Crafted by Jeffrey Skarvan, the piece, titled Call to Action, represents the importance of taking care of our local ocean. In addition, a hand-painted ceramic tile mural by Lynn Basa called “Outburst” was installed in a Main Beach restroom the same month. Through the end of August, visitors can also view Shark Migration by Casey Parlette. Set in front of Laguna Beach City Hall, these stainless steel pieces represent some of the species found in local waters. Then, in July, composer Ellen Reid brought an immersive new piece to town. Soundwalk uses GPS and a mobile app to illuminate Heisler Park’s natural environment, with musical pieces that change as you wander the area. (lagunabeachcity.net) —A.R.
Avran Fine Art
In the spring, the gallery added a new resident artist. Dorit Schwartz creates wood sculptures with organic shapes and textures reminiscent of the environment, with her latest collections incorporating rare reclaimed woods, iron, polished steel, crystals and more. Her goal is to showcase the balance and harmony found within nature. (949-494-0900; avranart.com)
Laguna Beach Community & Susi Q Senior Center’s Gallery Q partners with LOCA Arts Education to present a virtual exhibit titled “A Celebration of Community Creativity.” Running through Aug. 13, the show features more than 60 works by LOCA artists, teachers, students and members of the local community. (949-715-8106; galleryq.org)
JoAnne Artman Gallery
There are two unique shows at this gallery continuing into August. View “Color Stories: Featuring PunkMeTender and Lisa Bartleson” through Aug. 14 to see how the use of color can impact emotion. Also currently showing is “That 70s Show: Saturday Night Fever II,” which runs through Aug. 28 and reveals how music from the era has impacted art and fashion as well as the overall culture and lifestyle. (949-510-5481; joanneartmangallery.com)
Las Laguna Gallery
Representational or abstract textures, patterns, shapes and forms stand front and center for the “Textures & Patterns” show at Las Laguna Gallery. On display through Aug. 28, the show will feature a variety of different mediums and will be available in the gallery and on its website. (949-505-0950; laslagunaartgallery.com)
Pacific Edge Gallery
Each summer, the resident artists at Pacific Edge celebrate the season with the “Best of Laguna” exhibit. This year, new works will be available from Maria Bertrán, Tom Swimm, Sandra Jones Campbell, Jacobus Baas, Bryan Mark Taylor, Pil Ho Lee and Linda Whittemore through Sept. 30. (949-494-0491; pacificedgegallery.com)
The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
Through Sept. 3—the same date that Festival of Arts ends—the resort is hosting an exhibit dedicated to artists that were juried into the Fine Art Show this summer. “Summer Season Collective” comprises 19 pieces of artwork completed in mediums ranging from oil, acrylic and watercolor paint to photography, ceramics, charcoal and more. (949-497-6582; foapom.com)
Two shows are running now through Aug 30, including “Da Capo: from the beginning,” a solo exhibition from Aimee Bonham that presents botanical, musical and genetic shapes that hold meaning to the artist, as well as “Intuitive Voice and Reflections” with landscape collages by RoseMarie Davio featuring some of her previous works. (949-497-6775; sandstonegallery.com)
The Signature Gallery
The final event dates for the Summer Show Series are coming up, with artists stopping by the gallery to meet collectors and discuss their work. Following visits by Cara Pabst Moran and Chuck Joseph earlier this summer, Jenny Simon will be in attendance Aug. 14 while Joëlle Blouin will visit in-person Sept. 4. (949-376-4244; www.thesignaturegallery.com)
Sue Greenwood Fine Art
Through Sept. 19, a special exhibit will highlight the works of Suhas Bhujbal and Linda Christensen. Both are oil painters who capture people from everyday life in their artwork; the expressive pieces incorporate quality composition, form and vivid color. (949-494-0669; suegreenwoodfineart.com)