Artistry and childlike wonder go hand-in-hand.
Rudy Pavini says he’s never grown up and never wanted to.
Sure, he served in the military for six years, but if he had ever grown up, then the same man who painted the intricate mural of running rivers, coyotes and indigenous people at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center would not be the same man you see around Santa Clarita and at the Bella Vida senior center cutting a rug, whether to a foxtrot, salsa or cha cha, he says.
He’s not one for small talk, but the moment you mention theater, dancing, art, politics, conversations “with substance,” his face lights up and he’s all ears. Once that happens, you can see the child inside never went away.
He’ll tell you about the cold air in the Sistine Chapel, how you can walk around a Michelangelo sculpture and marvel at the single piece of marble for hours, or that he never wanted to shovel snow again after leaving Massachusetts.
He’ll tell you about his former students, and how he loves seeing them in the artistic fields, and then within minutes be joking about that one time he confused a box of steel wool for a box of toilet paper, which was then sent to his commanding officer’s chambers.
The conversation is everywhere and nowhere all at the same time, and you want to know more.
He’s both fascinated and fascinating.
“I’m a kid myself,” he jokes.
Pavini was born Sept. 21, 1934, to Amadeo and Maria Pavini, Brazilian immigrants originally hailing from Italy.
The youngest of four boys, Pavini spent his entire childhood in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he attended elementary school, junior high and high school.
From an early age, Pavini said he had a passion for artistry.
“I used to do Easter eggs,” Pavini said. “I used to paint faces on them with different character expressions.”
Realizing he had a talent, Pavini figured out how he could make some money to buy things he wanted, including art supplies. After making some cash during Easter, he would paint the windows of stores at Christmas time.
“Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and all that kind of stuff,” said Pavini.
He had a talent and he pursued it all through his time in school, developing and honing it. He thought if he wasn’t going to be a doctor, that he might be able to make a career out of being an artist.
However, after graduating from high school in 1952, with hopes in his mind of possibly pursuing his passion, Uncle Sam came knocking.
Not wanting to be drafted into the Army, Pavini decided to enlist in the Naval Reserves. Within three years of graduating high school, he would find himself onboard the U.S.S. Coral Sea, heading to the Mediterranean.
After serving three years in the Naval Reserves, from 1952 to 1955, Pavini was eventually called up to active duty. By that time he had completed a number of Navy tests, and thanks to him keeping his nose in the ”blue jacket manual,” he had attained the rank of 3rd Class Petty Officer.
“My charge was the store rooms,” he said, adding that during monthly trainings he would find himself sitting behind a turret gun on top of his vessel.
The Coral Sea was in essence a city on the water. During Pavini’s time on board, the 45,000-ton ship, with more than 100 aircraft aboard over its 968-foot body from bow to stern, could hold upwards of 4,000 men.
“When I was in the reserves, I took one cruise on a destroyer and I got so sick. I mean with tables like this,” he said, indicating with his hands that they would be slanted based on how the ship was taking the choppy seas at any given moment. “When you’re trying to eat, your plate kept sliding to the next guy.”
“So, I said, ‘When I pick a ship, I’m picking a big one,’” he said.
Departing from Florida and heading to the Mediterranean was a dream come true for someone who had temporarily put down their stencils in lieu of a Navy turret. For a young man who grew up in Massachusetts painting holiday images on frosted shop windows, dreaming of one day creating a masterpiece, the Mediterranean, and its rich history as the birthplace of some of the greatest masterpieces in history, was a dream to visit.
And Pavini visited them all. From the South of France, to Greece, to Italy, the young artist walked the walk of colleagues 500 years his senior, seeing what they saw, breathing what they breathed.
“I brought paint with me, and I would go to the countryside and I would draw,” he said, tracing the motion with his hand 60 years later in the same way he had done in the Italian hills.
Of all his favorite painters, musicians and sculptors, Pavini said no one had an effect on him like Michelangelo. He describes visiting the Sistine Chapel as a religious experience in more ways than one, with its high vaulted ceilings, illustrious colors and anatomically descriptive bodies that insulted the pope himself.
“‘How did he do that?’” he remembers asking himself after seeing the tattooed temple for the first time. “‘I want to paint like that.’”
Hungarians and Egyptians
The military, as many will tell you, is not always a pleasure cruise.
Pavini said one of his first big tastes of what his mission would be as a member of the U.S. Navy traveling abroad in the 1950s was to protect innocent lives.
Across the Adriatic Sea from the Sistine Chapel was Eastern Europe, a region, depending on where you were, being reluctantly pulled under the cloak of the Soviet Union.
One such place, Hungary, began and ended its attempted revolution against Soviet forces in the fall of 1956. Those who opposed their Red Army captors were forced to either fight for their lives or flee, and sometimes both.
“They were using Molotov cocktails against Soviet tanks,” recounted Pavini. “They were no match for them.”
In a humanitarian mission, the U.S.S. Coral Sea picked up a few thousand of the Hungarian freedom fighters and refugees, put them below deck, and began the voyage to safety in France.
As one of the ship’s shopkeepers, this put Pavini in an interesting position to help them, even if it was only a little bit. He helped with the collection effort, and men from around the U.S.S. Coral Sea gave them what little they had in terms of jackets, socks, shoes, anything they didn’t have or might need.
“They had nothing — they left with what they were wearing,” Pavini said. Handing the limited supplies off with a letter, the Coral Sea carried out its mission and deposited their cargo safely west.
Their next mission, Pavini said, would be to the Suez Canal. Another event that began in late 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar, riding a wave of nationalism during his ascent to power, nationalized the Suez Canal, cutting the western world off to a major shipping lane for oil.
In a multilateral move, western countries entered into combat against Egyptian forces, throwing the region into turmoil.
For his part in history, Pavini and the U.S.S. Coral Sea patrolled off the coast of Egypt, even helping Americans evacuate from the region, according to U.S.S. Coral Sea Association.
“We had more planes, I think, on our ship then they had in their entire Navy,” said Pavini in reference to why the Egyptians never shot at the Coral Sea. “Plus we had a battleship with us.”
During his time in Egypt, Pavini was also able to visit the Giza Necropolis, also known as the Giza Pyramid Complex, as well as a number of other ancient sites. And again, he said he was inspired and learning.
After a stint on the U.S.S. Midway, another aircraft carrier that is also now “collecting mothballs,” as Pavini puts it, in San Diego alongside the U.S.S. Coral Sea, Pavini was honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1958, completing six years of service.
Although donning a sailor’s uniform, he remained both a child and artist at heart. After taking up some studies at the Boston School of Fine Art, he eventually made the decision to move out to Southern California and began taking classes at Chouinard Art Institute, which was later merged into California Institute of the Arts.
In the 1960s he was married his wife, Kathy, a musician with a passion for teaching. Discovering he too wanted to share his love of all things beautiful and expressive, Pavini began to teach students as well.
By the 1970s, he was living in the Santa Clarita Valley and was also teaching art once a week at nearly every elementary school in the rural town north of Los Angeles.
For the next few decades, he and his wife held down the art instruction for Santa Clarita, would be teaching music, art and drama, but also taking students on field trips. Pavini says the field trips were something he learned was a necessary portion of any arts curriculum.
“We would do field trips to the beach, to the theater, to the Placerita Nature Center, to Vasquez Rocks,” said Pavini.
His voice now grows softer, instructive but still reassuring.
“But you have to teach them right and not rush them through … that will make them better artists,” he says of his students.
“They want to climb the rock (at Vasquez) right away. ‘No, no don’t do anything. Just listen and hear the chirping of the birds, the sounds of the squirrels and the animals. Smell the flowers. Now draw.’”
In 2005, Kathy died, leaving behind Rudy and their four kids. In his retirement Rudy said he wanted to continue doing the things he loved, one of which was dancing. That’s when he met Tommie.
“She was depressed at the time and she was on a cane … but she said, ‘I want to learn how to dance,’” he said. “She said, ‘Give me a try,’ and I did. And we got better and better and better and better and better.”
And for the past 12 years, he and Tommie have been dancing at every opportunity they’ve gotten, rolling back the clock each time. He says they learned by practice and getting up each time the music played only so they could get better.
“Art has been my whole life,” he said, in a reflective manner.
Then, at the age of 85 but not by the look of it, he shoots up and says, “I’m going to get another meal.”