Albert “Abby” Sangiamo, an accomplished portrait artist who taught drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art for 50 years, died of heart failure Sunday at the Brightwood Retirement Community in Pikesville. The former Bolton Hill resident was 90.
"Abby Sangiamo was an icon at MICA. He served as a mentor for so many alumni who stayed in touch with him long after they graduated and deep into their professional lives,” said Samuel Hoi, the school’s president. “He also played a nurturing role for younger faculty, many of whom still consider him an essential figure in their personal and professional success.
“He was both revered and beloved at MICA, and will long be remembered as one of our finest,” he said.
“I can’t imagine what MICA would have been without this guy,” said former president Fred Lazarus. “He was the consummate teacher who ingrained in his students the importance of drawing as the foundation of a fine arts education.”
Artist Jeff Koons, who met Mr. Sangiamo as a MICA student in 1972, called Mr. Sangiamo, “a bedrock influence in my life as an artist. He was able to give guidance and advice to be the best I could be. We, as students, worked 40 to 50 hours a week on our drawings and in doing so I learned how to connect physically and intellectually.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in the Brownsville neighborhood, he was the son of Italian immigrant parents Tony Sangiamo, a construction worker, and his wife, Santa, a homemaker.
As a grade school student he showed a talent for drawing and spent a year in a Manhattan arts school. He told family members he felt out of place and returned to Brooklyn’s Thomas Jefferson High School, graduating there in 1946.
“He was unique in his family,” said his son, Dino Sangiamo. “No one had gone to college and there were no artists in his family. He told me there were times when he would skip school and go to an art museum.”
He obtained a bachelor of arts degree at Brooklyn College and a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale University.
He spent a year at a New York advertising agency but did not like the work. In 1956 he accepted a teaching post at what’s now Morgan State University, and moved to Baltimore. He lived on Callow Avenue in Reservoir Hill. During this period he became active in the Civil Rights Movement and attended marches and rallies.
In 1959, the year before he came to MICA, he took first place in the Maryland Regional Artists Exhibition for an oil painting, “Untitled, No. 2.”
“My father really enjoyed his years at Morgan,” said his son. “But a professor at Yale recommended him to another Yale alumnus, Eugene “Bud” Leake, who was then a young president at MICA and was building a new faculty. My father accepted his invitation [to join MICA] and remained at the school until he retired in 2012.”
“He started at MICA when the entire school was in one building and headed the general fine arts department for many years,” his son said. “As a parent, he was always there to help and guide and to be a role model, but he never pressured and he never gratuitously expressed disappointment.
“I can see how he would have been an effective teacher,” he added. “One of his greatest joys was to see people improve themselves.”
In a 1994 story in The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Sangiamo recalled Mr. Leake’s tenure at the school, saying he “saw the institute primarily as a place where people learned to be artists, totally unrelated to earning a living.”
In 1969 Mr. Sangiamo was given a one-man show at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A Sun critic called his style “powerful and direct.”
Debra Rubino, a MICA spokesperson, said that over his long tenure at the school, Mr. Sangiamo had served as chair of the drawing, painting, foundation and general fine arts departments.
“I was fortunate to be one of Abby's lucky students, and he has left a great impact on my life — an inspiration to students, teachers and faculty alike to follow his footsteps,” said Yumi Hogan, a MICA adjunct faculty member and the wife of the Maryland governor.
“Abby is part of the rich and unique history of MICA, and was the backbone of this institution,” she added. “He has launched my teaching career.”
Robert Helsley, a 1969 MICA graduate, recalled his time in Mr. Sangiamo’s classes. “He was a beautiful drawer. He was excellent at capturing a likeness. I recall his medium of choice — charcoal — and his ability to handle light and dark.”
Students said Mr. Sangiamo required they do a self portrait. Half the face was to represent them as they were — generally in their 20s — and the other half would project what they would look like at age 60.
“He wanted his students to understand the structure of the face and the anatomy of the bones,” said Mr. Lazarus.
Ray Allen, a retired MICA teacher and its provost emeritus, recalled the early 1970s at the school. “It was a libertine period, and Abby was the master drawing teacher,” he said.
He recalled Mr. Sangiamo as “old-school and focused, someone we all looked up to. He was incredibly demanding of his students and demanding in terms of quality. And yet he was a Brooklyn guy, down to earth and accessible.”
In later years he embraced computer drawing techniques and sought ways to create digital courses for his students.
“He supported those around him throughout his life with quiet strength and humor and was ever gracious,” said another son, Tony Sangiamo, an attorney who lives in York, Pa.
Mr. Sangiamo lived many years in Bolton Hill and raised a family in a home in the 1700 block of Bolton St.
In 1954 he had married Irma Stermer, who became a MICA librarian after serving in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system. She was an Austrian Jew whose mother and sister perished in a Nazi death camp. They met while students at Brooklyn College.
His wife of 54 years died in 2012.
Mr. Sangiamo was a sports fan and enjoyed boxing, football and baseball. He was an avid racquetball player — he often competed with fellow faculty members — and also enjoyed chess and checkers.
The family will receive callers from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday at the Ruck Towson Funeral Home, 1050 York Road.
In addition to his sons, survivors include five grandchildren.