- Associated Press - Saturday, July 2, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - We see a chemical plant. He sees a work of art.

Tony Papa paints autumn scenes, landscapes and other conventional subjects. But nothing stirs his creative juices like the mind-boggling complexities of a busy, belching chemical plant. He sees hidden beauty in the conglomeration of flues, pipes, reactors and storage tanks that intrigued him throughout his career as chemist for Union Carbide. “Those scenes are precious to me,” he says.

He grew up poor in New York and New Jersey, the son of an immigrant shoemaker.

He had his heart set on coaching football. Despite a high IQ and a remarkable knack for chemistry, nothing mattered to him but sports.

An early injury as a scholarship student at Potomac State forced him to fall back on chemistry, the only other subject that even vaguely interested him. It stuck.

This chemist-by-default retired at age 68 after a highly-lauded career in research and product refinement for Carbide.

An affinity for painting, squelched for years by the demands of his profession, kept nagging at him. Eventually succumbing to lessons, he found his niche and his joy in palette-knife oil painting, a passion he indulges daily even as he nears 86.

In a studio in his home, he produces detailed renderings of Kanawha Valley chemical plants so realistic they look more like photographs.

Paintings of the production facilities so dear to him during his working years are featured in his exhibit, “Remembering Union Carbide,” entering its final week at Gallery Eleven on Quarrier Street.

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“I was born in New York City, on 118th Street on the west side. My father was a shoemaker. He was an Italian immigrant and my mother was a daughter of immigrant Sicilians. We were very poor. We were on relief. In those days, they called it relief rather than welfare.’

“They used to come by with a large truck and throw sacks of potatoes and oranges into the yard for people on relief to eat. It was pretty sad.

“My father just couldn’t find work. Being an Italian immigrant didn’t help any. Even during the war, he didn’t get the good jobs because he spoke with a tremendous accent. So he ended up working in shoe repair shops.

“He had $300 right at the end that he inherited from his sister. Someone told him about this bungalow in East Keansburg, New Jersey, right on the ocean across from New York. It had one bedroom for my mother and father and a kitchen and a small little room like a porch, three rooms.

“I didn’t have an interest in art until I got to high school. I took art for four years and I liked it. My teacher bought all my paintings. Five bucks apiece. I got two out of the whole deal.

“She encouraged me to keep on with it, but I had other aspirations, which were athletics. I was a jock in high school. Football and track. I was interested in that and nothing else, especially not studies.

“But my coaches told me I was going to college. They had determined from the IQ tests that I was college material. They said they would get me a football scholarship. I had offers from a number of universities and accepted at William and Mary.

“I have a brother and a sister. My brother didn’t finish high school and my sister finished high school and that’s all. My mother and father didn’t finish school. But my coaches always emphasized getting an education.

“I went to Potomac State. I never got to William and Mary. In those days a major school like that would allow you to go to a junior college for two years and play ball and come back to William and Mary for three years, so you had five years.

“I went to Potomac State for two years and got hurt the first year and that ended my football career. That’s when I buckled down. I had all A’s in chemistry without even studying. They were all flabbergasted.

“After I got hurt, I had to make a decision, and I liked chemistry so that’s what I took.

“I scored in the 80s in chemistry in high school. Those were my better grades. So chemistry was always with me and I didn’t know it.

“I didn’t have any money, so I went to Matcheun, New Jersey, a big auto producing area. I worked in a factory body shop welding bodies of cars. I was working 11 hours a day. That’s one reason I wanted that job, because it gave me extra hours of pay.

“I wanted to go back to school, so I went to Detroit and worked for a summer. I had two eight-hour-a-day jobs. I went to one factory for the midnight shift and had a half-hour to get to the other factory to work another eight hours. I made all kinds of money and used that to go back to school.

“I went to West Virginia University because Potomac State was part of WVU, so all the credits transferred. After I got my bachelor’s degree, doors started opening.

“I got a job at the Bureau of Mines in Morgantown working part time as a chemist until I got my master’s degree.

“I worked at DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware, for five years before I came here in ‘66 to work for Carbide. The valley was booming. One plant I painted shows the valley at night with all the smoke spewing out all over the place. We were really busy producing chemicals. Things were great then.

“In later years, many of the projects I proposed and worked on had to do with eliminating the pollution. You didn’t dare think of proposing a project without considering the pollution aspect of it. If you had a nonpolluting project, you had a chance of getting it OK’d and worked on.

“I was a research chemist at first, whatever I wanted to do. I would make proposals, new chemicals primarily. Management would listen and either approve it or not.

“As I became more mature and knew more about the chemical industry, I worked on our products, improving a product you sell to the customer. I worked closer and closer with the plant, closer to the bread and butter of the company. In research, it doesn’t matter whether it goes or not. You aren’t making or selling anything.

“I was working on problems they had with the plants. There aren’t many chemists who wanted to do that. They wanted the research aspect of it, far out stuff that had little chance of being successful.

“I was quite successful. I got the chairman’s award in 1994 for technical excellence. There is only one a year for the whole company, so I was lucky. “There was never any art involved until I got here. In chemistry, there is just no time. I went to West Virginia State at night in the ‘80s. Paul Nuchims, the art teacher there, was really good.

“I was doing a little art at home, pastels on paper, what I was doing in high school. But I always wanted to do oils. So I took those courses at West Virginia State. I like the brightness of the colors with oils. Nuchims gave us freedom to do what we wanted. I took about half a dozen courses from him and learned a lot.

“The chemical plants are beautiful. Other people don’t know any better. I’ve had people say, ‘Why would you pick such an ugly depressing subject?’ I enjoy the plants. I worked there. I loved it.

“Seeing smoke come up in all different colors and the tall stacks and chimneys and flares, to me that is beautiful. There is a lot of detail in them, but I took drafting in school so I didn’t mind that. It was easy for me.

“Some of the plants in the exhibit are gone now, but I took photographs over the years because I always knew I wanted to do this. I have three on the boards right now at home. I hope to enter an exhibition at Oglebay Park in August. They wanted a theme. This is a theme, ‘Remembering Union Carbide.’

“Those paintings over there are mine. I have paintings of Italy and a painting of Blenko. And I do a lot of autumn scenes. I love the colors. I sell some, not many. People just don’t have the money.

“I retired in ‘98. I stayed until I was 68. When you are working with the actual plant, the engineers, you are an important guy. I got on great with the engineers.

“It’s amazing how your life takes all these twists and turns. I thought sure I was going to end up being a football coach.

“The chemical industry won’t die. It’s too valuable, too important. We’re all chemistry, everything you wear is chemistry, the polyesters, all this stuff.

“I’m still in touch with a lot of high school friends. In our 70s, we all went on cruises together, eight or ten cruises, one to the Panama Canal, one to Alaska.

Building walls was a big hobby of mine. I did that first. My grandfather was a stonemason. I built all kinds of stone walls around my property. I had my own cement mixer. I saw all those gorgeous walls in Italy and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ It kept me in shape. When I got so I couldn’t handle it anymore, I started painting.

“I paint at least an hour or two every day. I have a studio downstairs at my house. I can’t do without going down there and painting and being alone and just digging in. I love that.”


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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