Being an artist is a perfect fit for William Accorsi
One morning not long ago, two artists bent over a scroll saw, one of them carefully guiding a piece of thin plywood around the moving blade, intent on bringing a drawing to life — or at least, into another dimension.The two were William Accorsi, now of New Salem but a well-known name in the New York arts scene since the 1960s, and Nina Rossi, who runs Nina’s Nook on Avenue A and brings a wide array of contemporary art — both her own and the work of other artists — to Turners Falls on a monthly basis.
Rossi, intrigued by some wooden puzzles Accorsi had exhibited at the Nook, had asked the older artist if he would give her a lesson with the saw. Rossi has always liked making things with her hands and wanted to try working with some drawings she’d made during a life-drawing session.“They’re geometric interpretations of the figure,” Rossi said of her drawings. “They’re not figure drawings with the shading and whatnot — although I can produce those. I am interested in the relationship between the lines and in carving space into a more geometric form.”
“I’m the only the person who brings a straight edge to life-drawing class,” she added, smiling.
Rossi’s strong geometric focus made her work perfectly suited for Accorsi’s methods. For her first step, Rossi had made tracings of one of her drawings of a woman, separating different body parts into sections that could eventually be reassembled and then wired back together, similar to a marionette puppet. After explaining her idea to Accorsi, the two of them got to work cutting the shapes.
The rectangle of 1/8-inch plywood looked ungainly but Accorsi’s hands guided it fluidly around the scroll saw blade. Given the equipment he uses, some of Accorsi’s works are surprisingly detailed, including a father whose child nestles perfectly into his lap as he drives a wooden “penny bank” truck, or trees that have multiple thin branches with birds roosting on them, as well as many small leaves.
“After a while, you know how close you can go,” Accorsi said, of the intricate cuts that his sculptures require. “Providence keeps them together, mostly.”
Accorsi first encountered a scroll saw in a junk shop on Canal Street in Manhattan, where he was living in the early 1960s.“Canal Street at that time was a street that had all kinds of surplus goods,” Accorsi recalled. “And it was mesmerizing to walk down there and look in the windows. I used to go over there about once a month to look around.”
One day Accorsi spotted a scroll saw and knew he had to have it. “I started making things right away,” he said. “The scroll saw was a natural.” Some of the first items Accorsi made were innovative puzzles for a small, upscale toy company. Proceeds from the puzzles earned him enough money that, in 1968, he was able to open a studio on Irving Place, where he taught classes, organized exhibits and began to make a name for himself.
An exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (now called the Museum of Arts and Design) was “enormously successful,” Accorsi said, and helped to put both Accorsi and the museum on the map. Accorsi is the only artist ever to have been awarded two solo exhibitions there. During the mid- to late 1960s and early 1970s, Accorsi’s work was often acknowledged in the New York Times and his children’s books have won “best picks” or other awards, including a Parent’s Choice Award.
“I’ve been a professional artist for zillions of years,” Accorsi said. Pressed to be a little more exact, he smiled and said, “A long time.”
Starting from Nothing
Accorsi came from what he described as, “a very, very poor family.”“I started from nothing in college,” he said. “I had no idea I was interested in art.”An athlete, he attended Muskingum College (now University) in Ohio, where he played football and planned for a career as a coach. But disillusionment with the coaches he encountered made him change his mind and switch to a major in elementary education. Classes in children’s literature got him interested in making art.
When he became interested in art, “I went about it with the same intensity I’d gone about football,” Accorsi said. “I figured out early on, if I really wanted to excel, I had to work — really work and grow. It’s just a very primitive way of looking at it,” he added.
After college, Accorsi taught for seven years in elementary schools, starting as a sixth grade teacher but then taking on a class that, at the time, was referred to as being for “slow learners.” He taught twenty children who ranged in age from 7 to 12, working on a range of subjects and projects, including a variety show that included poetry and dance that the group worked on for two years before performing in front of other classes.
Accorsi’s close and genuine connection with children may have inspired his choice of materials and the simple shapes and bold palate of colors that he uses in his collages and sculptures. No doubt it was also the impetus for his desire to create children’s books, which he began to do in the 1990s.
The most famous of Accorsi's books is probably the “10 Button Book,” first published by Workman Publishing in 1991.
“10 Button Book” is intriguing right from the start because of the large colorful buttons that dangle from ribbons along its spine. Designed to help children learn to count, the text and illustrations — created from bright, cut-out felt shapes — encourage children to fit buttons into indented circles, from one belly button on the first page to 10 balls balanced on the end of a juggler’s nose on the last.
Accorsi said that, at first, his editor wanted to print the buttons as embossed shapes right on the page, so that children could run their hands over them and feel them. While that seemed a good enough idea, that editor left to pursue other projects and a new editor suggested that perhaps actual buttons could be fit into the book.
The first time Accorsi saw a mock-up of this new idea, “I just started crying,” he remembered. “I thought, ‘My God, it’s perfect!’”
“10 Button Book” is now in its 19th printing and has been published in other languages, including French and Italian. Other titles by Accorsi include “Apple, Apple, Alligator;” the “10 Color Book,” and a first book of measuring, “How Big is the Lion?”
Though he has ideas for producing a craft activity book, Accorsi is, for now, giving himself a rest from publishing. He’s been concentrating on making small sculptures, including a series of wooden penny banks that will soon be displayed at a toy store in Manhattan. Accorsi shapes the banks on the scroll saw then paints with his signature bright colors and decoupages with reproductions of vintage illustrations, postage stamps and other ephemera.
Accorsi says he is drawn to Victorian imagery and to simple sewing notions such as buttons and lace. He’s also been making needlepoints with bright thread that he stitches in the middle of the night when he can’t sleep.
As for Rossi, she has made several wooden figures since her first session with Accorsi. Several were wired together as she’d first envisioned. For a third piece, she stacked and glued layers of wood four deep to create a geometric wall piece.
“I love it,” she said of this last piece. “It’s perfect for those kind of geometric shapes ... Somehow I was able to paint the overlapping forms in a way that didn’t occur to me when I was just doing them flat.”
“She’s a very gifted woman,” Accorsi said of Rossi. “She’s sort of a natural industrial designer. All she needed was just one person there to say, ‘Yeah, you’re doing all right.’ She’ll do great with it.”
Rossi expressed her gratitude that Accorsi had opened up this new avenue for her. “He’s very generous,” she said.
Accorsi’s work will be on display at Nina’s Nook through April 26. The inclusion of some pieces that include mirrors has prompted the exhibition title, “Look at Me.” The show will feature sculptures fashioned from wood, wire or beads, as well as collages made from felt, lace, buttons, vintage photographs and other materials.
Nina’s Nook is located at 125A Avenue A, Turners Falls, 413-834-8800. Hours: Thursdays, 4 to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 1 to 6 p.m., and by appointment.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her regular column, Poets of Franklin County. She can be reached at email@example.com.