Spotlight on Art: Two Artists’ Love Took Flight at the National Aviary
COVID-19 hasn’t stopped artists Maria DeSimone Prascak and Johno Prascak’s work at the National Aviary — in fact, it’s expanded it.
When she first met fellow artist Johno Prascak at the National Aviary’s annual Wings and Wildlife Art Show in 1988, Maria DeSimone Prascak took notice of one of his unique pieces — a goose skeleton.
“I see this guy sitting there with golden goose bones,” Maria says, “and I said, ‘I gotta meet this guy.’”
At the time, Johno was working as a bartender at Mario’s on the South Side, where the owner allowed him to display his artwork behind the bar. One evening, one of his customers, who volunteered at the Aviary, told him he should check out Wings and Wildlife, a three-day show featuring wildlife artists that benefits the Aviary’s conservation and education efforts.
“I wasn’t sure,” Johno says. “But I love birds. I love everything about birds.”
He entered and spent the summer painting 20 different birds in preparation.
Maria, who began her career as a professional artist at age 19, entered at the encouragement of her sister, also an Aviary volunteer. The Aviary soon became “a special place” for the couple, Maria says.
“When I came home, I didn’t even know how to say his last name,” Maria says, “but I said [to my mom], ‘I just met the guy I’m going to marry.’ For me, that was insane.”
They became engaged six months later.
The show ended up sparking not only their relationship but their careers as well, careers that have continued to cross paths with the Aviary — visitors can see their work throughout the space.
Johno started painting at age 23 after suffering for 10 years with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease.
“Art helped me get through,” he says. “It was a bad place in my life. I remember, during my journey, going to the Aviary with my family when I was between my sick bouts. … That was a big part of my healing process.”
He works with enamel and incorporates sand from the Monongahela River in every piece; his work can be found everywhere from Sarris chocolate boxes to the set of NBC shows such as “Will & Grace” to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University. He and Maria sell pieces out of their studios, Johno’s Art Studio (johnosart.com) and Maria’s Ideas (mariasideas.com) on the South Side Slopes as well as on Etsy.
Maria works with acrylics, watercolors, and pen and ink and has painted more than 450 feet of murals in Sarris Candies’ Canonsburg store, murals at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium and a 30-foot mural at the Aviary.
She also teaches art classes with groups such as the American Red Cross, Pittsburgh Penguins and Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania. When the pandemic hit, Cheryl Tracy, the Aviary’s executive director, asked Maria if she would move her Aviary painting class “Brushes and Birds” online.
“I love, love, love inspiring others to be creative,” Maria says. “The virtual classes gave us the opportunity to connect with people that aren’t even in Pittsburgh.”
Johno too works to support the Aviary; he’s donating 50% of the sales from his current exhibition there back to the institution.
Tracy says that the pandemic presented many challenges for their organization, but it’s given them opportunities to help people stay connected with nature. “We are weathering the storm,” she says. “Our animals are thriving, and we continue to serve our mission.”
Johno says that he still gets goosebumps when he passes through the wetlands exhibit where he met Maria.
“We all have our path of life,” he says. “I’ve been blessed to have a wonderful family and friends and to go forward with the Aviary. The thread of the Aviary is huge for us.”