Phil Bongiorno: The Man Behind Studio Bongiorno

While at lunch my friend and author, Clarence Robert Tower, he asked me if I had ever heard of Studio Bongiorno in Santa Clara. I had not, so he asked if I’d like to go. Before I could answer, he warned me that it’s not your average art studio. “Some of the displays can be a little dark or racy and the owner looks like a biker.” Not being someone that shies away from the unusual, I agreed to go. Just by stepping one foot inside Studio Bongiorno I knew we were “not in Kansas any more.” We had crossed over to a modern day version of Oz where Phil Bongiorno is clearly the wizard. Let’s pull back the curtain and get to know Phil Bongiorno a little better.
Abby: Phil, in order to get a better sense of you, let’s we start at the very beginning. I don’t actually think you came from Kansas. Where were you born?
Phil: No, I was born outside of Boston in a small town called Lawrence, Massachusetts. It’s mainly an immigrant-type town. I was born there and then we came out here to San Jose when I was just a few months old.
Abby: Where did you grow up and go to school?
Phil: I went to Baker Elementary School, which was right across the street from my parents’ house. My dad still lives there. I grew up in West San Jose near Kirkwood Plaza. And then across Campbell Ave was, at the time, Castro Junior High. Then later I ended up going to Prospect High School.
Abby: Prior to being an art studio owner what did you do for a living?
Phil: That’s funny you ask. I’ve done all types of different things. I have a checkered past, I guess. Part of my deal is I’ve been sober for a little over 29 years, 30, this October.
Abby: May I ask how old you are?
Phil: 50. I don’t ever think my brain will be 50 but my bones are.
Abby: You said you have a checkered past?
Phil: I partied a lot as a youth which means I made money doing different things to support my habits and such. I got sober when I was 20. I come from an East Coast Italian family, and I had an uncle that was a local gangster. I was employed with him for many years. Eventually my skills led me to be a car salesman. I ran a car dealership for 20 years. So here I am, and I never really called myself an artist. I actually flunked art.
Abby: Wasn’t that just the conventional form of art?
Phil: Exactly. Now here we are in social media. I’m running out of stuff to post, so I posted some photos of drawings and paintings I had done. People were like, “Wow, you do that?” And I’m like, “Yah.” I had never thought much about my capabilities because in my mind I thought a true artist lives in Big Sur. A real artist will paint in this fashion, or do this or do that. They were all styles which I was incapable of doing. So I really never felt that I could call myself an artist.
I was working with a couple different people, and one of them suggested I take this business of art class. It was a great, amazing class. Another gentleman that I deeply respected said, “You don’t get a vote in this. You have a gift and you have to wear that artist robe with pride and embrace who you are.” That kind of let me come out and embrace my artistry.
I was in an art show and showing next to me was an artist that had walked all of these different provinces in China. Then by memory he painted all these different towns. They were amazing! I’m talking to my agent and I go, ” Oh my god, I’m so intimidated. I can’t do what he does.” And she whispered in my ear, “Yah. But he can’t do what you do!” And that was really liberating for me. Once I really reached a point of letting go it was pretty special.
Abby: What is your style of art?
Phil: I don’t even know. I consider life art. I think all of life is art. And it is really hard for me to define because I am capable of expressing myself in different medias. And that’s what’s really cool, I don’t know today how I’m going to want to express that. Am I going to want to pick up a camera, pencil, a spray can, a paint brush or deal with some found objects, mixed media type stuff? I don’t have to sit here and determine what is and isn’t art. I mainly determine what I like. To me, art is supposed to provoke something.
Abby: So what made you open an art studio?
Phil: A lot of things in my life caved in. I lost the job I’d had for 20 years. Then two weeks later my mother passed away. Within 6 months of that my daughter’s mother passed away.
Abby: Is your daughter an artist?
Phil: Actually she is. She hasn’t fully embraced it. She does some really decent photo work and her drawings are pretty amazing. It’s pretty impressive. I’ve been raising my daughter alone since she was 7. She’s going to be 18 in June. She gets mad when I say it, but in some respects she’s been raising me. She kind of keeps me on the straight and narrow, and it’s kind of cool.
Abby: I was introduced to your studio by our mutual friend, Clarence Robert Tower. He asked me if I’d like to stop by an interesting art studio. He felt that I should know that it was run by a biker-looking guy. How do you feel about that image?
Phil: I’m not a biker. I haven’t ridden in years. That lifestyle doesn’t appeal to me any longer. It just doesn’t. I’m really not a biker although the tattoos and stuff will kind of give that impression.
Abby: Did you design your own tattoos?
Phil: Some I designed. Some of them are my cemetery photos. It’s funny because I always made it a point, especially being in sales, to limit the visibility of my tattoos. And what ended up happening is here I am. I’m doing this. I never want to go back to that. So I’m trying to find ways to ensure that I never can. Part of it is to get tattoos on my lower arms, piercing my nose and things like that. I’ve got to ensure that I never return to that. I want to make sure I do everything in my power that this succeeds.
Abby: To the traditional life? Is that what you mean?
Phil: Well, yah. It’s funny because being in the car business I was told that I needed to toughen up. You need thicker skin. And the funny thing is that my sensitivity is my greatest asset as an artist. You know? And I think that although selling cars presented a good living, it played out. I don’t ever want to go back because part of me sold out. Although having an art gallery is a struggle and art is a luxury to many people, I have something that is completely priceless. I did sustain a very good living in the car business but I didn’t have this freedom. I didn’t have this serenity. I didn’t meet all the cool people that I’m meeting now. It’s really funny because I know I have this appearance thing but people get right passed it as soon as they walk in. They can see that this isn’t designed by or set up by some hard ass biker or something like that.
Abby: Do you feature new artists?
Phil: Completely. That’s part of the greatest joy of what I’m doing is to be able to see what exists out there. There are so many different artists. And here at the studio we paint the term artist with a very broad stroke of the brush. That could be music, poetry or even theater. I have someone that’s actually going to be filming scenes for an independent film. So I utilize the space for all the different things. I want this to be basically a space for creative and spiritual-type people. I really enjoy that.
Abby: One of the first things we started talking about on my first visit here was if the studio is haunted. Is your place haunted?
Phil: People have heard and seen things on occasion. I’ve felt the spirits here. It helps being right across the street from the cemetery. This is a turn of the century building and was the California Monument Company for many, many years. I believe there are spirits here. They are all very good.
Abby: You had mentioned to me that someone came in and did a clearing?
Phil: I’ve had 3 to 4 different people out of the blue show up and just want to sage the place and pray on it. I only knew one of them personally at the time so that was kind of cool. I really enjoyed that. It just felt a little cleaner. They taught me a few things to do to kind of clear it. For some reason I kind of have this cosmic no pest strip out front and it kind of weeds people out before they come in. And what I’ve done is I’ve created this space but this isn’t just my vision. Having other people’s art and all of these other things allows for other energy. It’s a warm welcome place for that. But it encourages good energy, you know. And occasionally, like our sign says, “Embracing the light and dark that exists within us all.” That’s the positive and the negative. Both of them are amazing creative sources to draw from. A lot of my artwork takes place in cemeteries because cemeteries represent everything. It’s life. It’s death. It’s heaven. It’s hell. It’s happy. It’s sad. Everything all in one. And I think if I’ve done my art correctly the final product kind of embraces all of that. When someone looks at some of my art, I don’t get to determine how they are going to be moved.
Abby: What events do you have coming up here at Studio Bongiorno?
Phil: April is our 60s art show. On April 12, I have Sam Cutler who is going to do another book signing here. Sam was The Rolling Stones manager and he later went on to manage The Grateful Dead. So he’s just this rock ‘n roll guy and this spiritual kind of cat.
And then on April 26, we have Richie Unterberger. He’s a really amazing writer and rock historian. We’ve had him here in the past. He did a presentation and a book signing on one of his books on the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. And this time he’s going to be doing a presentation and a book signing on 60s Bay Area rock and roll.
Abby: April sounds like a great month to come by and visit Studio Bongiorno. Thank you Phil for pulling that curtain back and sharing your life and your studio with us all.
Phil: Your welcome Abby. In fact, all are welcome here!
Studio Bongiorno is located at 500 Lincoln St. Santa Clara, CA 95050
Hours: M-T: 10 AM-6 PM
W-TH Closed
F-S: 11:00 AM-8:00 PM
S:10:00 AM-2:00 PM
* Event nights open until 11:00 PM

For more on Phil Bongiorno and Studio Bongiorno:
For more on Richie Unterberger:
For more on Sam Cutler:


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