By the time Orlando, Florida-based artist Fabio Napoleoni's daughter was born in 2004, he'd been selling original pop art on eBay for over a decade. "I was just goofing around," he says of those years. An asthmatic youth who turned to drawing when the outdoors weren't an option, Napoleoni originally wanted to break into music, but in the months leading up to the arrival of his daughter, everything shifted.
"We were at an ultrasound, and my wife was watching the screen—but I was watching the technician's face," Napoleoni says. "Everybody knows the word 'cardio,' so when they said they'd called for a cardiologist, I knew something was wrong."
His daughter was born with a severe heart condition in May of 2004, and by the fall of that year, she had to have her mitral valve replaced. "Her heart was basically filling with blood and wasn't able to push it out to the rest of her body properly," Napoleoni explains. "We lived at the hospital for four and a half months, and then the repairs didn't take."
It's the sort of experience that would shake anyone, but Napoleoni harnessed his grief into both catharsis and productivity—and his character Marcenivo was born. A tattered rag doll that's been stitched, de-stitched and stitched again, Marcenivo is best described as a cypher for viewers. If everyone has baggage and wounds (and of course we do), Marcenivo is like the embodiment of how we continually mend and recreate ourselves while fielding outside trauma and happenstance.
"I used Marcenivo as an avenue to let out my frustration, and he looks the way he does because I wanted him to have humanistic features," Napoleoni says. "He's an avenue—if you relate to him, then he's you; straight, gay, old men … everybody relates to him."
Marcenivo is also pretty cute, and purposefully presented without gender. Napoleoni has zeroed in on the regular use of heart imagery in his work as well. He also grew more serious about his craft and career; whereas prior to these shaky years, he had created uber-poppy drawings of celebrities to make a quick buck online, Marcenivo and its outlying world drew him into the realm of paint, pen and ink, giclee and other traditional fine-art materials. That same fine art world also adopted Napoleoni.
"I'm sort of in limbo," he says of how his career exists someplace between pop and fine art. "And I'm really more of a storyteller, so I don't know how to categorize myself."
It's easier for Toshi Sanchez, director of the Chuck Jones Gallery, which shows Napoleoni's work.
"Not only is it a great story, but I love hanging his art in the gallery," Sanchez tells SFR. "There's something with the vibrancy and the color and how we can all relate to that rag doll character. To label it 'pop' art doesn't do it justice. He's one to strike emotions."
As for Napoleoni's daughter, she's now 14 years old and just kicked off her freshman year of high school. And though Napoleoni will never forget those first terrifying years of her life, the surgeries and the sleepless nights, the ultimate impact that resulted for his family finds him grateful.
"At first I wasn't a big fan of talking about my daughter because I struggled; but if I had had a healthy child, I'd probably still be living in a small town in Maine," he says. "I'm just going to keep plugging away. Just keep going."
That includes the upcoming opening at Chuck Jones Gallery, where he'll be drawing live and happy to meet with anyone with whom his work resonates.
Fabio Napoleoni: New Works on Canvas and Paper
7 pm Friday Aug. 31. Free. Chuck Jones Gallery, 126 W Water St., 983-5999