By Jane Keller Gordon, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Thanks to a lot of talent, and some fortunate encounters, Ralph Masiello became a successful author and illustrator of children’s and how-to-draw books. He has given back to local students by creating a mural at the Boylston Elementary School, where he was a student. Masiello also recently completed a mural – involving students – at the Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in Shrewsbury.
With a strong desire to inspire the next generation, Masiello said that he has visited over 2,600 schools since 1987.
“I am there for the reluctant reader, the reluctant writer, and the reluctant artist,” he explained. “I try to be a catalyst for a discussion. If I can break through to one or two kids, that’s great.”
Masiello, who now lives in Amherst and is a father of two daughters, said that as a child he dreamt of becoming a brain surgeon. His artistic talent was evident but there were limited art classes when he attended elementary school in Boylston, then Saint Mary School and St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury.
Masiello said that he earned his S.C.U.B.A. certification when he was 17, which changed his
interest from brain surgery to marine biology. He spent his freshmen and sophomore years of college studying marine biology at the University of Tampa. One of his biology professors showed his detailed drawings of dissections to an art professor at the school.
“It seemed like everywhere I went, I ran into that art professor,” he recalled. “He asked me which art school he transferred from, and he said that I should consider taking an art class.”
Masiello did, and that changed everything. He decided to take a leave from school, and figure out his path.
After working for his family’s construction business for a couple of years, he reluctantly told his father that he wanted to be an artist. To his surprise, his father was completely supportive. Masiello said that it was his father who told him to apply to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
During a summer transfer program before he started his program at RISD, Masiello said, “Michelangelo was to my left, and Leonardo da Vinci to my right. Compared to them my drawing looked like a stick figure.
“I really had to put my nose to the grindstone. Art school was more difficult than marine biology… You can’t cram for a drawing.”
In 1985, he graduated with a B.F.A. in illustration, with a minor in printmaking.
Masiello was already selling his art while at RISD. Before graduating, he sent packages to 250 publishers that included a cover letter, self-addressed stamped envelope, postcard, and slide holder with two slides.
“Every week I’d send another slide. I kept on bombarding them,” he said, adding that he received 100 responses.
In 1986, a year after graduating, Masiello was contacted by Jerry Pallota, who saw his business card tacked onto a board at Quinlan Press in Boston. Pallota, an insurance salesman from Needham, was unhappy with the alphabet children’s books that he was reading to his three children. He thought that he could write a better book, and was looking for an illustrator.
Their first joint effort was “Icky Bug Alphabet Book,” which Masiello saw as a perfect way to incorporate his science and art education. Masiello and Pallota went onto partner on more alphabet books – frog, dinosaur, yucky reptile, extinct and skulls (Masiello’s favorite).
Masiello also illustrated “The Mystic Phyles: Beast” by Stephanie Brockway and “The Flag We Love” by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
Since 2002, Masiello’s focus has been on writing and illustrating how-to-draw books. Amazon lists pages and pages of titles, such as “Ralph Masiello’s Dragon Drawing Book,” “Ralph Masiello’s Bug Drawing Book,” and “Ralph Masiello’s Ocean Drawing Book.” He said that he has autographed about a half million books since 1986.
Masiello’s 10-by-12-foot mural project at Coolidge Elementary in Shrewsbury began when Pam LeBlanc, visual arts director, contacted him. She was looking to brighten a beige wall, and suggested a mural of a garden.
Before he began, he met with Coolidge’s entire student body to explain the project. Then he visited each classroom, and taught the students how to draw simple flowers, leaves and insects. Each student’s submitted four drawings, of which Masiello selected one for the mural. He transferred each drawing to Masonite board, and cut them out using a scroll saw. He outlined each drawing with a black marker.
On the final day, he climbed a scaffold and painted a sky with some clouds, and a green meadow. Using adhesive glue, he carefully attached each student’s artwork. Finally, he painted a banner selected by LeBlanc, “Happiness held is a seed; happiness shared is a flower.”