It has been an art haven, a conversational oasis, a bastion of ideas, a balm for the mind and artistic spirit, a salve for an aching psyche, a comic cushion to rest your weary feet. For some 50 odd years, Don’s Art Shop at 543 Main Street in Warren has been so much more than pastels on a pallet. The eclectic store and studio has welcomed artists, students, the famous, the infamous, the familiar and the stranger. It is still the actual live-in home of its original owner and creator, Don Primiano, 89, and present longtime owner Kathy Kittell, 55, and her 13-year-old daughter Katie, a working collaborative ‘marriage’ of teacher-student trust, loyalty and longevity. Kathy started working there in high school and has never left.
Primiano, who has brewed a bottomless pot of coffee for guests since the 1960s, was educated in Warren public schools. He entered the military in 1943 (First Airborne Army), fought overseas for the better part of three years in England, France and Germany, served in The Glider Corps and earned the Three Battle Star for Ardens, Central Europe and the Rhineland. He then attended RISD for four years under the GI Bill of Rights. The iconic, laconic Warren figure, with his unmistakably angular profile, walrus mustache and sardonic wit, adapted quickly from battles on the front lines to establishing vanishing points and other lines on canvas.
“My artistic style has evolved over 60 years from what I thought was realistic to primitive, abstraction and semi-abstraction,” says Don. “The shop where I live at 543 Main Street is a comfortable, private place. It is also a wide open place, where I receive visitors who may be former students, other artists or friends I grew up with. Besides a central room and my room, kitchen and bathroom, I also share the upstairs studio with Kathy and Katie,” he explains.
“Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, artists would come in and smell the coffee, which led to an invite to the back room for a cup or two,” Don says. “Many then became very good friends. They would bring in paintings to show me, which led to discussion of art. Dave Manzella, an art professor from RISD, was one of the most frequent visitors. He introduced me to many of the RISD teachers, such as Richard Merkin (the answer to one of the great trivia questions of all time, ‘What Rhode Island artist was on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album?’), who we later asked to judge our Summer Festival Art Shows.”
The last five decades at Don’s included Wednesday night critiques of artwork and once weekly meetings to opine on a colleague’s work-in-progress. “Things would get pretty heated back then,” laughs the always jocular Don. The shop also hosted Christmas parties every year for many years, with as many as 25 people, held at different restaurants. Additionally, there were many times Don would be in heated late night discussions and friends would get hungry. “Even if it was past midnight, I would whip up a spaghetti sauce and we would have our late supper, or early breakfast,” he says.
Kathy began working at Don’s while a Warren High School student in 1973. After graduation, she attended RIC and still worked there after school. “I knew early on that she was talented because she came to children’s drawing classes on Saturday morning, which we still run. Kathy has worked very hard at her painting and does wonderful, beautiful work. I have great respect for her as an artist and person,” says Don, her lifetime mentor. “After I was diagnosed with chronic leukemia in 1991, I decided I should retire and Kathy bought the business from me in 1993.”
Kathy attended RIC, CCRI and BCC, but says her real-life letters of education was through Don, painter to painter. “I would describe my style as realistic, surrealistic. I love color!” says Kathy. “As a child, my father would take us on many road trips. I was always looking at structures and infrastructure, American gathering places. They were always vibrant to me. So now, my subject matter is documenting and painting vanishing America. I like to capture the light. I am also fascinated with birds and nature. My medium is mostly oils and watercolor.”
In 2006, Kathy put an addition on the upstairs back of the building, which is now their studio. They hold classes, paint and restore paintings there, have open studio tours and Bristol-Warren Art Night. But computers and the cell phone, ironically labeled the “Social” network, have caused isolation instead: changes felt directly at the shop.
“We long to keep it the same as it’s been for 40 years. But in the last 10 years or so, everything changed. The computer took away people’s time. They were no longer painting as much, or visiting for that matter,” says Kathy. “The business changed, too. Mostly because of the economy, but a lot of people order, do drafting and even paint online. We hardly ever sell a T-square these days. The friends that visit are all strapped for time, it seems. We used to play ping pong for hours on end, sit on the front steps, and discuss art, politics, love and war.”
Still an oasis for many people, the pair tries to keep artistic natures and creativity alive. “Whoever walks through the front door on any given day is bound to be interesting,” adds Kathy. Like late actor-artist Anthony Quinn, a Bristol resident who in the last decade of his life became one of Don’s good friends, invited Don to his home on secluded Poppasquash Road and asked Don to help him with his art in his home studio. Or the rather large fellow, all dressed in fur, who came in and asked Kathy how far it was to Newport. “I told him about 30 minutes. He said, ‘No I’m walking.’ Turns out he was from Australia and had just walked from Providence and wanted to continue on to Newport,” she says with a smile. “I love my job because every day holds something new. I think that art keeps you young. And we still have the endless pot of coffee going all day long.”