The almost winter breeze blew through the grounds of the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site in Huntington one November morning, gently disturbing the fallen leaves that lined a stone path. Each rock appeared swollen in the ground, almost sinking, as Mark Nuccio walked toward the famed poet’s front porch, his hands full of a stack of his own published books.
Before Nuccio, 73, of Bellmore, became the treasurer of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, he exhibited his artwork there in 1982. The paintings, he explained, evoked Long Island’s bird life, the heritage of its indigenous people and Whitman himself.
When he was a young man, Nuccio’s mother introduced him to “Leaves of Grass,” which at the time was taboo, because Whitman’s work was listed “on the index” of prohibited books. “You weren’t supposed to read it,” Nuccio said. “When we were young, [Whitman] was like [a] pariah.”
But Whitman’s themes of curiosity, the power of nature and personal renewal flow through Nuccio as he writes poetry, creates paintings or draws scenes in his sketchbook. He keeps one on his person at all times.
A woodblock portrait of Whitman, which Nuccio made in 1982, was featured in a Library of Congress exhibit this year as part of the “Whitman 200 Festival” in Washington, D.C. The festival encompassed a series of events across various institutions to commemorate Whitman’s 200th birthday. Nuccio’s woodblock was on display in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress from May to September.
Barbara Bair, a specialist in the library’s Manuscript Division — which houses Whitman-related collections — said the woodblock “came to the library by serendipity” as part of the personal collections of the late poet Louis Simpson. Simpson was the author of “Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain,” and had met Nuccio at a poetry reading at the birthplace in 1979.
Bair also helped curate an exhibit now on display at the birthplace called “Whitman and Nature,” which pairs Nuccio’s artwork with copies of draft manuscripts in Whitman’s handwriting on loan from the Library of Congress.
“In these manuscripts, Whitman . . . stresses the keen importance of exposure to natural environments for the reinvigoration of the soul and the expansion of our awareness,” Bair said. “Mr. Nuccio beautifully captures these metaphysical elements [in his paintings], and the magnificent power, energy and awesomeness of nature and natural forces.”
A life by design
Nuccio grew up in Queens, the son of Italian immigrants. His father, Francis, a letter carrier, was a musical man who played instruments and sang “very well,” he said. His mother, Elvira, was a dress designer and a music lover, too — she favored opera, Irish folk and Johnny Cash.
Although the family didn’t have much money, the arts were always encouraged. In the 1950s, the Fort Apache playset was the most coveted toy on the market. Francis gathered stacks of cardboard from the nearby cleaners, paste, crayons and scissors for his sons so they could build one of their own.
“We were always making things,” Nuccio said. “We had to keep ourselves occupied.”
Nuccio’s knack for design stuck. After graduating from St. John’s University in 1968, he worked at various design studios and toy companies, learning research, product development and marketing strategies. By the mid-1980s, his ideas helped catapult his former employer, HG Toys, to become a $150 million company, he said.
In 1987, Nuccio founded Design Edge out of his garage in Merrick. (He moved to Bellmore in 1991.) Within a year, the company grew from a small freelance outfit into a full-fledged design agency with offices on Madison Avenue.
But through all his professional endeavors, Nuccio never failed to find time for his painting and poetry. “I believe that concentrating on one thing stifles creativity,” he said. “It doesn’t make you a superstar in one thing — it narrows you down.”
Nuccio said his poems support empathy, the poor and the environment. Whereas his earlier artworks conveyed more political themes, messages of anti-war and compassion for migrants prevail in his poetry.
As he rattled off some poems from his most recent book “Salvaging Hope,” he accentuated each word in the sequence and his leg bounced rapidly underneath him. As he read, he periodically adjusted his wire-framed glasses and stroked his salt-and-pepper goatee.
To date, Nuccio has written 3,500 poems. The process, he said, brings him peace. “It gets me out of myself — I can easily get too far into myself,” he said. “I’m not by any means a perfect person, and like every human being I’m a work in progress. That’s the journey we are all on.”
What’s next for the birthplace
As a member of the board of directors, Nuccio hopes to propel the association forward, too. Since becoming treasurer, he has contributed sketches for the potential development of the property, proposed marketing strategies to boost membership and recommended ways to expand programming.
“He’s suggested working with colleges, enlarging our school programs . . . and [a] focus on engaging programs that share history and literature in popular ways,” said Cynthia Shor, executive director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association. “The programming he’s discussing will be enacted for 2020.”
Shor added that Nuccio also proposed the development of a multi-year plan to increase the center’s operational capacity, including the installation of a new walking trail to give visitors an enhanced outdoor touring experience.
“We’re very fortunate to have him as a board member,” Shor said, noting Nuccio’s special appreciation for Whitman as a plus. “His own artwork reflects the strength of Whitman’s words. He uses strong strokes and images, and his scenes are reflective of Whitman’s Long Island.”
Nuccio said Whitman’s poetry holds values not often seen in modern schools of thought, and that preserving the poet’s legacy and studying his words would “bring forth the renewal of the world.”
“Whitman, in a magnificent way, laid out paths for other people to make their journey a little better, and to ask and answer questions,” he said. “And that’s what you always have to do throughout your life — ask and answer questions. Not only of other people, but of yourself.”