Retired professor Salvatore “Sal” Casa, who taught art for more than 20 years, passed away December 4, 2019. He was 91.

Born December 20, 1927, he was raised in an Italian immigrant family in New York, where he spent hours of his youth marveling at works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It became a prism through which he viewed the world, and he went on to create hundreds of his own paintings and sketches throughout his lifetime, inspiring students along the way as he transfused his deep connection with and understanding for the arts into coursework.

A high school dropout, Casa’s first job was delivering cartoons and comic strips to newspapers. He also played for a while on the triple-A Yankees farm team, lifeguarded on Nantucket, and served two stints in the US military, including time stationed as a Marine in Japan, where he worked as an illustrator and cartoonist for the base newspaper, according to a family obituary.

His formal instruction began in 1950 when he studied at the Art Students League and the School of Visual Arts in New York, and then at the Instituto Allende in Mexico. In 1957, he and his wife drove from their then-home in Brooklyn to Capay, California, where he farmed and started a house painting business.

In 1968, Casa was hired at Chico State and continued cultivating another passion—teaching. Working alongside Ann Pierce, Ken Morrow, and Janet Turner, he also earned a master’s degree in art in 1974. He valued his role as a faculty member not just for the stability it gave him as an artist but the many opportunities it presented for inspiration. He was honored with a Meritorious Performance Award in 1989.

Portrait of Sal Casa
As a Chico News & Review article said of Casa in 1986, “His art and his life, it’s clear, are one in the same. He lives, quite simply, to paint.” (Photo by Ron Schwager)

Lynn Abbiatti, a Chico artist and a research technician for the Office of Institutional Research, said there are elements Casa taught in her first art class that she still holds on to today. Remembering his exceptional talent, kindness, and zest for life, she said he had a valuable perspective on how society’s approach to art had changed through the years.

“He was one of the best teachers I ever had,” she said. “When you took a class with him, he was there with you individually, no matter how many students he had in the class. He was at your level. You didn’t just get art instruction—you got art history, the state of the world from a political science perspective, and a comedy.”

Retired curator Catherine Sullivan knew him through her work at the Janet Turner Print Museum, where two of his prints were part of Turner’s original donation. One was shown last year in the faculty exhibition Deep Etch.

“His printmaking showed his willingness to continue to explore image-making in the 2D picture plane,” she said. “His love of continuing to make art and sharing that through ongoing teaching are hallmarks of his Chico life.”

After retiring in 1990, Casa maintained a downtown studio where he continued painting and learning. He also continued teaching at the Chico Art Center until September 2019. In 2014, he shared with the Chico Enterprise-Record his wisdom that he shared with students: “To draw, you need to destroy, meaning you must challenge yourself to let go of what you know and risk moving forward.”

Drawing inspiration from great artists of a multitude of styles, his representational and abstract paintings were exhibited at museums, churches, and universities from New York to Mexico to Chico, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, and many more. Casa’s work also hangs in many private collections. He was a gold medal winner, signature member, and Dolphin Fellow of the American Watercolor Society and featured in a center spread in American Watercolor magazine.

Casa is survived by his daughter Kate, son Stephen, grandchildren Robert, Samia, and Amal, and his former wife, Jane.

The Chico Art Center is holding a commemorative exhibition of his work throughout the month of February. A remembrance reception to share stories and memories will take place Saturday, February 8, at the Chico Art Center from 5–8 p.m., with a sale of his works taking place throughout the weekend.

The University flag will be lowered Monday, February 10, in his memory.