FREEPORT — The year was 1975. David Costello, a young, expatriate oil painter, was exhibiting at a gallery in Venice, Italy, when an art buyer said cavalierly that if he wasn’t showing his work in New York City, then he wasn’t really in the game.
The words stuck with Costello. He soon moved back to the states, intent on breaking into the New York art scene and becoming famous.
After five fruitless years, he gave up.
But Costello, 65, who today lives and works in Freeport, never gave up on his art. And now, nearly 40 years — and one born-again experience — after he went to New York, the city has come to him. His first ever show there opens Friday at the Agora Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.
A native of Lowell, Mass., Costello studied art in Boston and San Francisco after graduating from high school. He then spent five years traveling in France, where he met his wife, Jeanne, and exhibiting paintings in Germany, Belgium and Italy. When he returned to the U.S. at age 28, he was confronted by the harsh reality of New York’s competitive, insular art community.
“For the life of me, you couldn’t get a show unless you were somebody,” Costello said. “And you couldn’t become somebody without a show. It was a Catch-22.”
Costello returned to Massachusetts and started a family. He went to work as an illustrator for the daily Lowell Sun, eventually becoming the newspaper’s graphics editor.
“The dream had died in me,” Costello said. “I was doing these black and white charts and maps and graphs, little artworks of tornadoes coming up the coast. And I got into it, but the dream and the desire I had as a child were out the window.”
Costello would eventually start his own graphic design company and later create T-shirts for retailers, including Macy’s. The money was good, but something was missing.
Then, in 1993, Costello had the most transformative experience of his life.
“I had a spiritual awakening,” he said. “I felt God’s presence for the first time in my life. I had a moment where I realized God actually exists and he kind of thinks I’m a cool guy after all.”
Costello quit drawing kitschy T-shirt designs and rededicated himself to the fine arts. After a 13-year hiatus, he’d found a new muse, and a new medium, switching to soft pastels, which he uses to this day.
“Now when I look outside, I just see God and beauty everywhere,” he said. “Something resonates in my spirit and I’m compelled to work with it in my own way, with color and paper.”
Costello has spent the past 20 years expressing his faith in his art. He paints on huge pieces of paper, some nearly 4 feet tall and 5 feet wide. He uses light and color to display emotion and, sometimes, to depict the heavens.
He was recently contacted by the Agora Gallery to be a part of a group show called Unbound Perspectives, which runs from Nov. 22 to Dec. 13. Costello had to pay a fee to participate, but he was more than happy to do so.
“David is super skilled in his technique,” said Angela Di Bello, who has been the gallery’s director since 2000. “His work is very peaceful, serene, otherworldly. It’s very meditative and visionary. I was really impressed by his ability to express his inner world.”
Costello’s work in Unbound Perspectives includes the pieces “Longing,” “Lifted Up,” “Holy Ecstasy,” and “Leap of Faith.” “Longing,” in particular, represents a high point for Costello as an artist. The painting depicts a ghostly figure bathed in white light against a backdrop of purples and black, bent over backwards and reaching for something we can’t see. When Costello describes it, he could easily be talking about himself before his religious rebirth.
“Imagine a vacuum the shape of God,” he said. “And until that’s filled, there’s a longing in the human spirit for something more. That’s why people are searching all over the place.”
Costello moved to Freeport in 2011 to be nearer to his daughters and granddaughter. Since then, he has experimented with smaller canvasses. He has also tried his hand at art that’s less religious in nature, and less emotionally draining for him to create.
“God doesn’t need me to help him out,” he said. “Basically, I got the green light to just relax and have some fun and do some landscapes.”
His work can currently be seen in a show that runs from Nov. 15 to Dec. 21 at the Chocolate Church Arts Center in Bath. Starting next month, he’ll take part in a holiday show at Yarmouth Frame & Gallery that runs from Dec. 7 to Feb. 7.
Costello’s looking forward to the show in New York. But his priorities have changed a lot over the past 40 years.
“In 1980, I’d have given my right arm to show at a gallery in New York,” he said. “It’s weird how things happen. Now I have absolutely no interest in being famous. It’s cool to show my artwork, and to show it in New York, but it’s not my all-and-all right now. It’s not the goal.”
Painter David Costello at his Freeport home, with a piece from his series on the seven days of creation.
“Longing,” a painting by David Costello that will appear in the upcoming show Unbound Perspectives at the Agora Gallery in New York City.