Toni-Lee Sangastiano, BA’98 (Metro), Art
Toni-Lee Sangastiano is many things — a classically trained artist, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, a sideshow-banner painter and a first-generation alumna.
Years ago, when Sangastiano told the late Marc Zagoren [professor of theater] that her family could not afford college, he personally walked her through the financial-aid process. She started at FDU that spring, with a small scholarship and a loan.
As an art major, Sangastiano sought out support from her adviser, Marie Roberts, then-associate professor of fine arts, and Dick Zigun, an adjunct faculty member teaching alternative art and the artistic director of Sideshows by the Seashore in Coney Island.
“Professors Roberts and Zigun opened my eyes to a whole new world of subcultures and their artistic practices,” says Sangastiano. “This informed the creative visions for my first sideshow banners.”
The banners are painted with vibrant red and yellow curtains and headers with hand lettering framing the acts appearing “on stage.” She painted six banners, including: “Sword Swallower,” “Painproof,” “Serpentina” and “Real Human Shrunken Head” for Sideshows by the Seashore and the Coney Island Museum as part of an independent study.
Post-graduation, while working for a marketing firm, she learned web design and eventually purchased her own domain, sideshowbanners.com, which she still maintains.
“Marie encouraged me to get my MFA,” she recalls. She earned it at Montclair State University, and in 2003, Sangastiano became an adjunct faculty member at FDU.
After completing her MFA, she received two teaching offers: at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., and an online position with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Pa. “I spent 15 years at Champlain, working up to full professor.”
In May 2013, she took a sabbatical to attend the Angel Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. She also enrolled with the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts. “I did two full-time programs while living in Italy for a year.”
It took her five years with the institute to complete her PhD, and she defended her dissertation in fall 2018.
Sangastiano departed Champlain as program director for visual communication design to make the move to Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., where she is now associate teaching professor of the practice, studio art and digital media. She also serves as digital media specialist for the department of art and art history.
She still paints sideshow banners, and many of those are held in private collections.
“It all begins with an idea. Many of the banners, painted for performers and fans alike, are deeply personal and have unique stories behind them,” Sangastiano says. “Favorite props, mystical meanings and the preternatural are projected in the banners for performers. Historical family photos, beloved pets, celebratory occasions, the wacky and the weird characterize the remaining banners. The process relies upon collaboration and my creative gift for bringing a grand vision to life.”
From August 2021–May 2022, Georgetown’s Spagnuolo South Gallery featured her art.
Thinking back, Sangastiano says, “The support I got from my mentors, who are now my colleagues, was amazing. I can’t say enough about those personal connections I forged as an undergrad.”
She advises other first-generation students, “Find your support group: people who uplift you and support where you want to go.”