Catonsville artist and language teacher uses paint to express herself

"Do what you love and do not worry too much about the rest."

That personal motto is evident from the moment a visitor steps into Carla Cerrato's house in Catonsville.

Bold reds, silky blues, light greens and pinks dance in big splotches and swirls of color in paintings that line the rooms.

Quotations on creativity and children's drawings fill the dining room — often sketched directly onto the walls themselves.

"I love acrylics because they are perfect for me," said Cerrato, 51, about her choice of paint. "They are bright and they are very quick to dry. "They don't make a mess like oil.

"And I love painting on paper, on cardboard, on wood," said the native of Pinerolo, Italy, who often uses layered paper to create a sense of texture for her colorful creations. "I don't particularly like canvasses."

Cerrato spends as many as 16 hours a day painting in her small home studio and has recently had exhibitions at Catonsville Presbyterian Church and Atwater's Naturally Leavened Bread in downtown Catonsville.

But things were not always so simple for the Italian-born artist.

Growing up in a "delightful" medieval town close to Torino and the French border, she showed early talent in kindergarten with her drawings.

But the younger of Attilio Cerrato and the late Serafina Garino's two daughters stopped art as a young child after her parents encouraged her to pursue other things.

"They were afraid that if I was pursuing a career in art, I wouldn't be able to find a job, or I wouldn't be able to support myself," she said. "So, to become a teacher, that was a safe thing."

So she studied German and English literature and foreign languages at the University of Torino, a 40-minute commute from her hometown.

To this day, she speaks English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Piemontese, the language spoken by her parents and the people of the Torino region.

For about 25 years, she taught English to Italians and Italian to foreigners both as a private tutor and in association with a Swiss institute.

"I just thought this was not going to happen in this life," she said about her art. "And I always had a passion for words and languages, so this is another passion for sure."

But at age 39, Cerrato said, "desperation" spurred her decision to begin painting.

"I was not very happy," she said. "I was taking care of sick parents and earning a living at night, so there was not much fun.

"And I really thought, well, if I have to die tomorrow, what I would like to be doing," she said. "And I thought, I want to paint. And that's what I did."

Cerrato said returning to art was "total bliss."

"That's how I feel when I can paint," she said. "But I still feel like it's an incredible privilege."

Mostly self-taught, Cerrato spent one year studying illustration at Istituto Europeo di Design' in Torino with the hope of one day creating children's books.

But that dream was put on hold as she struggled to balance her artistic life with caring for her sick parents and teaching.

Then she met Catonsville resident Richard Neuman in July of 2004.

A widower of 23 years and father of two, Neuman had planned to bicycle across Europe with an American friend who lived in Italy.

He ended up staying in Italy after his friend was diagnosed with aheart condition.

His decision to improve his Italian changed Cerrato's life when the "handsome American bicyclist" signed up for private lessons with her.

"The first thing I noticed was, wow, great legs," said Cerrato, who said she had never considered marriage before meeting Neuman.

"But I surely was not looking for anything," she said. "And then I just got this incredible crush on him and so, I was teaching him and I was thinking, wow, I wish I could hug him and kiss him.

"But I was very professional, so I was not going to do that," she said. "And I surely was not thinking that anything was going to happen. I mean, I was the teacher, he was the student. He's American, much older than I. But we were lucky. We got helped by angels, or I don't know, somebody did something."

When their course work concluded, Neuman asked if he could take her out to dinner as a gesture of appreciation.

The couple ended up talking for hours.

Those conversations continued long distance over the phone after he went back to the U. S.

They married in December of that year in Lutherville.

It took a year for Cerrato to immigrate to the United States, a time period that was difficult, but "romantic" because they were on the phone every day for hours.

"That was the best part, I think," she said. "In fact, sometimes I miss that — so I ask him to go upstairs and call."

On Feb. 14, 2006, Valentine's Day, Cerrato moved to Catonsville.

"She gave up her family, her friends, her language, her culture, the climate in Italy, the food, all of that to come here," Neuman said.

"Everything," she added.

Cerrato has made a life and developed friendships with local artists in Catonsville and the couple still return to Italy for several months each year to see family and friends.

While she was on one of those trips earlier this month, her work was shown during a show at Catonsville Presbyterian.

Catonsville resident Nina Lagervall, an artist and close friend who organized the show, described Cerrato as having an "eye for color" and said her work is "experimental."

"It's not traditional. It's very free form. It's very energetic," she said. ""I liked that she was taking chances. And using some cast off materials and experimenting with different papers and paint.

"It's refreshing to see somebody doing something different," Lagervall said.

Cerrato still describes herself as a "free spirit," who does what feels good to her in the moment .

"There are many things I'm working on," said Cerrato, who has written five stories for children's books.

"So if you think that just because I am 51 that I know where I am going, I do not," she said. "I want to keep on being very grateful and aware of how lucky I am.

"I am looking for ways to enjoy my life as best I can with what I have, but I don't know where my life is going to be," she said.

Cerrato said she does not know if she will stay in the States or eventually move back to Italy.

"I am not certain of anything," she said. "I mean, I do like vanilla ice cream and mango -- but I do not have certainties in my life.

"I do know that I love colors and I love my husband," she said.

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