The day before Thanksgiving in 1995, Salvatore Panasci was in a Philadelphia taxi near the intersection of 13th and Arch streets. The pre-holiday rush was in full swing, but Panasci’s life was always hectic. As 45-year-old senior vice president and creative director of a large advertising firm, he oversaw artists, copywriters and production specialists, while enjoying the life he built with his family in Devon.
That all changed abruptly when the taxi he was in rear-ended another car, catapulting its passenger into the Plexiglas divider. Nose broken and head ringing,
Panasci was rushed to the trauma center at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion. “The doctors released me within hours and told me I could return to work in two to three weeks,” he says.
During his recovery, Panasci became convinced something was wrong. He was overly sensitive to auditory and visual stimulation, and his balance and memory were off. He also had constant headaches and couldn’t do more than one task at a time. Searching for answers, Panasci went to Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, then Moss Rehab.
Neuropsychologists at both places delivered the same difficult diagnosis: Panasci’s traumatic brain injury needed months of treatment. And even with therapy, he might never fully recover.
Determined and disciplined, Panasci underwent 14 months of outpatient treatment at Bryn Mawr Rehab—speech therapy, reading comprehension and more four days a week. “But portions of my brain were damaged,” Panasci says. “I couldn’t resume my career because I couldn’t do the work.”
Damage to Panasci’s optic nerve couldn’t be reversed. He’s blind in one eye. “The eye can see, but it can’t relay the image to my brain,” he says. “I see the world differently—literally.” Specialists at Bryn Mawr Rehab suggested art therapy, and Panasci picked up a brush and got to work. “Not being terribly interested in painting, I started with watercolor and traditional subjects like window boxes, flowers and fruit,” he says. “It turns out watercolor is the most difficult medium because it’s transparent and permanent.”
“My eye can see, but it can’t relay the image to my brain. I see the world differently—literally.”
But Panasci persisted, finishing six paintings in a few months. All of them sold. Encouraged, he spent the next two years taking classes at Wayne Art Center, Main Line Art Center and the Chester County Art Association. In 1998, he received a two-year grant from the Women’s Board of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, enrolling in PAFA and following its traditional structure to learn the foundations of figure drawing and oil painting.
Panasci stumbled into the paint-drip style that has become his signature. “I cleaned a canvas with paint thinner and started painting on it again,” he recalls. “The paint ran down the canvas, and I thought it was beautiful—so I kept it.”
For more than 20 years, Panasci’s drip paintings have been featured in galleries from New York to Los Angeles. Purchased by the Kennedy and Trump families, his
pieces have been included in collections shown by the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. “He works with four to eight paintings at a time,” says Lauren Anrig Addis, curator and owner of Wayne’s LAA Art Collective, which represents much of Panasci’s work. “Often, he’s inspired by something personal, a place or memory that resonates with him.”
With his continued retinal treatments and medications for insomnia and mood changes, including aggression, Panasci’s physical reality stands in stark contrast to what he creates on canvas. But people respond to his art without any knowledge of his struggles and persistent health issues. “Sal is a true colorist who works with both the eye and hand to create layered, warm and cheerful paintings that delight viewers,” says Addis. “Watching his work evolve is refreshing.”
Now 71, Panasci has no intention of slowing down. In many ways, he’s just getting started.