Following decades of being a renowned jazz musician, saxophonist Tony Dagradi extended his artistic reach to visual art. In 2015, Dagradi, best known for his musical explorations with Astral Project and teaching at Loyola University, developed a passion for making sculptural collages.
Dagradi’s medium is books—usually of the vintage kind. For each sculptural collage, he selects and cuts images from a single book or a set of encyclopedia volumes. Dagradi reassembles the images as collages seen through the rectangular opening he carves into the books’ covers. He seals and preserves the pieces in acrylic varnish, the same solvent-based finish that painters apply to canvases.
The carved-open covers function as a window into the books’ original contents. “Because I never mix books together, each piece represents the inside of one book,” Dagradi explained. He especially likes working with encyclopedias. “Because sometimes the images are so weird,” he said. “What was important in 1936—in history, industry and science—is so outdated now. It’s fun to look back and see where we’ve come from.”
The Jonathan Ferrara Gallery presented solo exhibits of Dagradi’s artwork in March 2018 and August 2019. He also has a piece in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s juried exhibit, Louisiana Contemporary, running through January 5.
Dagradi comes from a family of visual artists. After music piqued his interest during his early teens, he became the family’s only auditory artist. “But I always felt artistic and I always made drawings,” he said. “When my wife and I first came to New Orleans, she painted portraits in Jackson Square. After she gave me a few lessons, I did portraits there for a while.”
Dagradi’s reentry into visual art was almost accidental. Coming across a website about altered books, he found the mixed-media artwork fascinating. “Some people take a book and throw it in a bucket of turpentine,” he said. “A week later they’ll take the book out and hang it up in the air. That’s how they do an altered book. A small group of people does something along the lines of what I do.”
Seeing examples of the latter style of cut, recomposed and transformed altered books, Dagradi immediately saw himself working in a similar vein. “It requires a lot of patience and attention to detail,” he said. “I knew I could do all of that.”
What Dagradi does in jazz has much in common with what he does in art. “The spirituality of music intersects with all art forms,” he said. “When I’m carving in a book and deciding on a visual composition, that is similar to the way I work when I create music. It’s checks and balances, envisioning how something flows together.”