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Artist Ben Saggese Finds Wide Success from His ‘Chouse’ in Tiny Central PA Village

by on May 20, 2020 5:00 AM

Ben Saggese lives in the tiny village of Munson (population: 284), in a renovated “chouse” (church-house) that also doubles as an art studio. Despite his rural headquarters, Saggese has made an impression far and wide. 

The phrase, “Bloom where you’re planted” is one the artist embraced early on.

“Being from Munson was fantastic for me, because of Interstate 80,” Saggese explains. “I had access to everywhere I wanted to go. I was only a few hours from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, New York. I was grateful to be here, for that, and I exhibited all across I-80, up to Erie and into Ohio. I just knew I had to do it if I wanted to do it, so that’s what I did – up and down 80.”

Saggese recalls winning first place in the young people’s category at a sidewalk art show in Clearfield when he was 15 years old. A former babysitter attested to him that he had been sketching and playing with art at the tender age of 2.

“I always dabbled in it,” says Saggese. “And then I never stopped.”

Saggese has made art his way of life. He credits a “very inspirational art teacher at West Branch” with encouraging him to pursue his passion, which he did at various local exhibits, and then more officially at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

“I had a degree in commercial art, which is not what I wanted,” Saggese says. “I wanted painting, but I stuck it out because they say you can make money in commercial art. My first job right after I graduated was doing the Road Runner cartoon – it was ridiculous. I was painting acetate clouds. To me, that was like working in a factory, so I didn’t stay. Then I moved home and got a job in a store in Philipsburg, and I was there for five years, but I painted constantly – till 2 o clock in the morning after work, and I made arrangements for exhibits everywhere I could.”

Saggese met his future wife, Minerva, on a trip to Mexico.

“I couldn’t speak Spanish, and she couldn’t speak English, but we met and were friends 5,000 miles away for years,” Saggese says.

In Mexico, Saggese exhibited a set of Stations of the Cross with five internationally known artists.

“From there, [the Stations] went everywhere,” Saggese says. “To Congress, Georgetown University. They received the Best of Show from the Blair County Arts Festival. I’ve shown them in at least 50 exhibits. I took them in a wooden box to pass as my second suitcase.”

After getting married, Saggese set about creating a new exhibit he called Man, Spirit, and Temperament, representing the Stations of the Cross, Saggese’s own zodiac signs, and interpretations of various Bible verses, the latter of which he painted on request.

The ‘chouse’

The Saggeses’ unique residence is the result of another creative occupation Saggese had for a while: that of a journalist.

“I found the church was for sale when I worked for The Progress,” Saggese says. “They were doing a series of articles on small towns and asked me to do Munson. I saw a sign in the yard that the church was for sale, and it was newly painted, and it was magnificent.”

The church, built in 1901, had been on the market for years, and before turning it into a residence, Saggese had to have the people who donated the land sign off on the repurpose of the property.

“They were happy to do it,” says Saggese. “They wanted me to have it.”

The church had no bathroom, so Saggese had to install a sand mound. The Saggeses remodeled most of the structure, taking out some drop ceilings and adding a second floor, but left the gallery part original so people could see what the church had been like.

“It was a big undertaking,” says Saggese.

As a true artist, Saggese decorated his home with an eye for detail.

“I bought the wallpaper when I worked in a store in Philipsburg to save for my house someday,” Saggese says. “I bought that wallpaper in the ’70s, and we moved here in the ’90s. I kept the roll all those years, and I just had enough to do the entrance, with a little piece leftover.”

The Saggeses' "chouse" in Munson.

 

‘Just do it your way’

Saggese’s artistic touches are all over Centre and neighboring counties. The artist painted a mural in Frenchville, restored a set of Stations of the Cross at St. Francis Church in Clearfield, and has art on display in galleries, restaurants, and businesses (mostly in State College), not to mention a legion of collectors scattered throughout the country.

“My collectors are very loyal, and a lot of my survival has been within 40 miles of here,” Saggese says. “I have collectors all over the United States, but the local people re-buy, and I appreciate that a lot.”

Saggese is constantly developing new exhibits, design concepts, and series. His art is currently being exhibited at Mount Nittany Medical Center, for the fourth time.

“Sometimes when I’m hanging it or taking it down, or just go to look at it, people stop and say, ‘This keeps my mind off what I’m here for,’” Saggese says. “That’s why I keep doing it. I hope my work inspires the emotions of people to see things maybe in a different way.”

Saggese has passed not only his art, but his artistic know-how, onto others, too. He was the superintendent of the Clearfield County Art Association for many years, taught art to people in prison, and gave private lessons in Clearfield at the CAST Building for 19 years.

“I have a 93-year-old-lady who would vouch for me, who never painted, and the first thing she said to me was, ‘How do you start painting if you never painted before?’ and I told her, and what I told everybody, is, ‘You just do it, and you do it your way,’” Saggese says. “Just do it your way, and to hell with the rules.

“It’s been an amazing, amazing career.”

 

Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.

 

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