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Joyce Gatto: Lathrop’s artistic living treasure

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Joyce Gatto: Lathrop’s artistic living treasure

Joyce Gatto inside the Joyce Gatto Gallery at Lathrop City Hall, with several of her paintings on the walls.

ROSE ALBANO RISSO/The Bulletin


POSTED May 17, 2013 1:53 a.m.

LATHROP – Joyce Gatto has many fond memories of Vera Walquist for a number of reasons.

Walquist was a cattle farmer. Gatto still remembers the Walquists’ old farm on the southwest corner of Airport Way and Lathrop Road. It’s largely a vacant lot today but the old house is still there right on the corner of the now very busy intersection.

“They were cow dealers. They had a great big neon sign that they had made and put up there and lit up at night. They sold cows to a dairy in Hawaii and to another dairy in Australia,” Gatto recalled.

The buyers would come to the auction once about every six months with their big “cattle boat” where they loaded up the Holsteins and Jerseys which were mainly the two types of animals that the Walquists raised, she said.

That was in the late 1940s. Gatto knew that very well because this was around the time she went to work for the Walquists. The job was to take care of Vera who had breast cancer. Gatto was just a young teen-ager then. She took care of Vera for about two years until she lost her battle with the disease.

“She was only in her 40s when she died in 1952,” Gatto sadly remembered.

Walquist may be long gone but her memory never faded away as far as Gatto is concerned. In fact, the woman farmer was one of the people who helped launch her foray into oil painting.

“I had her picture, so when I started painting – I went to the (Manteca) Adult  School (class) – and I didn’t know what I was going to paint, I remembered the picture that I had of her that she gave to me,” said Gatto, remembering how she got started as an artist.

She thinks the photograph of Walquist as a young woman looking sophisticated in her pink dress and matching hat, her twinkling eyes matching her Mona Lisa smile, was taken “probably in the 1920s.”

It was one of the more than two-dozen oil paintings that were included in her recent one-woman show held in the Joyce Gatto Gallery at City Hall in Lathrop. The north wing of the civic center along Towne Centre Drive was so named to recognize her two decade-plus contributions to the city particularly in the arts. She was largely instrumental in starting the annual Mayor’s Art Purchase Show and Sale which marked its 20th year earlier this month. The gallery has now become the home of the art pieces selected by the incumbent mayor during each art show. The art collection is available for public viewing during business hours at City Hall.

Manteca Adult School was not the only place where Gatto honed her natural artistic talent. Later on, she studied under Lee van Buskirk of Manteca and at the now-defunct John Frey studio owned by the late Manteca Artist Guild charter member. Frey’s studio was located at his farm on Perrin Road. It was a popular gathering and painting place for many local art enthusiasts like Gatto and many members of the local Artist Guild.

While she credits Buskirk and Frey for perfecting her painting hobby, Gatto said it was an artist friend who lived near  the cabin  she and husband Bennie – former two-time Lathrop mayor, incumbent planning commissioner and Lathrop-Manteca Fire District board member - have owned for many years in Pioneer, Calif., who inspired her to pick up canvas and paintbrush.

“I kept admiring her paintings and I kept telling her that I was going to paint,” said Gatto whose late sister, Carmen, was the mother of Brock Elliott of the Manteca school of the same name in honor of the first Mantecan to die in the Vietnam War.

Finally, one day, the friend “made up a little kit for me with a canvas, paintbrushes and paint, and told me, ‘I want you to get a class, and if you don’t like it don’t do it.’ I guess she just got tired listening to me say, ‘oh, I wanna paint,’ and when she did that I could not say no. Then I had to prove that I could. She was so encouraging, and she was such an inspiration. She could sew, she could paint, she planted her own garden, she canned her own vegetables, made her own jelly,” Gatto remembered with a chuckle.

During the two decades she took up oil painting, she produced about two-dozen oils with subjects ranging from portraits – one of them was of her son Jim as a young boy ( he is now a retired California employee) – and nautical themes to rustic mountain scenes and whimsical fairy tale-like subjects. Most of them have been given away as gifts to family members and friends. Two floral still life paintings now belong to her daughter, Karen, and daughter-in-law. She had to borrow most of the paintings from them for her recent show at City Hall.

In the last two decades though, her artistic productivity went on a stand-still. Gatto’s artistic pursuits took a back seat when her time was consumed by many civic involvements and volunteer work. They included serving on San Joaquin County agencies and committees including the Department of Aging, the Lathrop Seniors – she was one of those who advocated for and worked on the construction of the Senior Center on Fifth Street -  and, of course, the Mayor’s Art Purchase Award Show and Sale. She also started Lathrop’s Living Treasures Award – a program that honored the community’s outstanding senior citizens at an annual recognition breakfast – as well as a Senior Expo and breakfast in honor of local firefighters.

Those years coincided with the time her husband entered into local politics. Bennie Gatto was part of the first City Council that electors put in place when Lathrop became an incorporated city in June of 1989. Both husband and wife remain active, if not even more so today, in many local involvements.

These days, Joyce Gatto is itching to get back to her painting again, but this time she would like to try her hand at acrylics. She is not the only one with the artistic gene in her family though. Her sister, Mary Jo Mathews of Manteca is an award-winning artist in her own right.

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