Tony Csavas, a local artist and adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, died April 25. He was 46.
The power of being an artist is that after death, artists alone are continually referred to in the present tense; their art still exists, therefore they still exist. There's no: "Tony Csavas was influential; Tony was beyond kind and encouraging, smart." Instead it's, "Tony is a marksman — his work is just good," or, "His work is heavily influenced by his surroundings — he documents the people, places, and things around him, often turning them into beautiful paintings, capturing generally unnoticed aspects of his changing environment."
Tony's art was often misunderstood in cities not exposed to a large variety of nontraditional art forms. Friend and fellow painter Seth Gadsden said, "You gain knowledge of paintings by looking at thousands of paintings. You just don't get calculus overnight. Tony's paintings are like that."
But, still, there's solace in the artistic form of eternal existence.
Especially for his longtime partner and best friend of seven years, Karen Ann Myers, a local artist and the associate director at the Halsey Institute of Art. The pair had an enviable understanding of the other and their art, an enviable amount of love and routine. They painted simultaneously, five feet apart, 40-plus hours a week. Karen hated her coffee hot, so each morning, Tony made their coffee and poured her a cup, so it was lukewarm when she awoke. Every night, they worked in the studio together, listened to audio books or NPR, and regularly walked the bridge to watch the sunset.
As the universe is covered in stars, Tony Csavas was covered in freckles. To Karen, this was even more proof that he was her universe.
The two met in graduate school at Boston University and fell in love immediately. Tony had left Santa Cruz, Calif. — and 40, 60 x 72-inch paintings that he had been working on for 15 years — to earn his master's degree. The 40 paintings were heavy, and they still live in California, but a suitcase of smaller, comparable abstract and layered pieces are here in Charleston, along with Tony's full body of work he once described as "two-thirds formalism and one-third contemporary issues."
Always generous, Tony touched people's lives in incredible ways. Local artist Lulie Wallace remembers, "A few years ago, Redux went through a very large expansion. Tony basically volunteered his whole summer to help lay sheetrock, knock down walls, and move giant, heavy pieces of ridiculously large art equipment. No pay. Also, if you've ever been in the Redux warehouse in the summertime, you know it actually encourages 'NO shirt and NO shoes' because it can get quite toasty. I think Tony volunteered his time for two reasons: one, because he loves Karen Ann Myers (who was the director at the time), and two, because he was very passionate about contemporary art in Charleston and seeing Redux grow."
For five years, Tony taught 180 students painting and drawing annually at the college. Some students were unique and some repeats, returning because they were inspired by his technical instruction and encouragement. He'd be the first to remind his students: "Color is all we've got." He cautioned them not to rely heavily on black and white.
And there are countless students who've said, "I'm the artist I am today, because of him." Tony's friend Trever Webster says he sees the world through "What Would Tony Do?" glasses. Nicky Jones, who was minoring in studio art, said, "He was so much more than just an art teacher. To me, he was a friend, a cheerleader, and a mentor. He wasn't even in Charleston 10 years, but he made such a huge impact on the lives of all his students and on the entire Charleston art community."
That impact included "Flowers for Karen," a recurring painting for Tony. While missing Karen in graduate school, he surprised her with a 15-foot painting of lilies — their flower — in his thesis show.
Tony used to paint lilies in various settings, and the paintings were always named the same and then numbered. "The flower paintings were different; they were a bridge to his previous paintings in California," says Gadsden.
The last of the series had the Arthur Ravenel Bridge in the background of a vase of lilies, and from that same bridge, Tony jumped ending his life.
Karen has since tagged a small lily on the bridge's walkway. A reminder of love. A reminder of beauty. A reminder of the misunderstood.
One student, Rosemary Dungan, thought Tony "opened new doors in everyone's brain." She remembered a figurative drawing class that was timed. "After repeatedly giving us warnings about the time restraint, he lost his patience with me. And with about 45 seconds left, came up behind me, uncharacteristically snatched the charcoal out of my hand and perfectly rendered the model's face. He stepped back and said, 'Look, I rescued you.' And in more ways than he ever could have known, he really did."
Another student and painter, Kevin Mclean, feels the same way. "I know without a doubt I would not be the person I am today without him. His death really rattled me, and it was hard to cope with at first, but when I began to focus on his passion rather than on him as a person, I was able to start recovering and amplifying my motivation to paint in his honor. His death was a wake-up call for me to address the psychological issues I've been dealing with and to seek out professional therapy."
Even in death, Tony continues to mentor.
Boston University plans to curate a solo show of Tony's work, and a retrospective will be shown in Charleston as well. In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation to the College of Charleston Studio Art Student Scholarship.