Taking the creative “Bull” by the horns

This article was posted on HiConceptMag.com on March 2, 2016

 Written by Victoria Drake

Sammy the Bull Gravano artwork

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Karen Gravano, daughter of the infamous  Salvatore (Sammy) “The Bull” Gravano, the former underboss of the Gambino crime family in New York. In his day, he was known as a formidable man to be feared and who was instrumental in helping to bring down John Gotti, the family’s boss at the time, by agreeing to become an FBI informant.

Even though he helped bring down others in the mob, he’s still spent much of the last twenty years behind bars for related and unrelated charges.

The topic of my conversation with Karen Gravano was not what one would expect. We spoke minimally of Mob Wives – the VH1 reality show that Karen is a part of, and we touched only briefly on her childhood, her father and his history. We stayed on the fringes.

Karen Gravano

We focused our discussion instead, on her current project – to display and to share her father’s artwork – yes, his artwork.  She teamed up with Conception Gallery to showcase his work. Rachel Wilkins-Blum, the Art Director for Conception, hosted the show that was appropriately titled ‘Incarceration.’

The show took place in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, in October and was a big success. Sammy’s art showed incredible depth – displaying a drawing of Al Capone, a drawing of his daughter, of a tiger, of an Indian Chief and several other drawings that all exuded strength.

While behind bars, Sammy Gravano knew that he had choices – to become bitter and hateful – or to make the best of his time by doing something constructive. At some point, he met an Indian man who shared with him about the Indian culture – getting the mind away from materialistic things and focusing more on the earth – the land, the air and water – taking the mind to a more peaceful place.

This man gave Sammy paper and charcoal, and some magazines for inspiration and told him to learn to draw. Sammy took the man’s advice and taught himself how to draw – quite well – and soon he was creating pieces that he would share with his family.  As Karen pointed out, “Men in prison feel like they can’t take care of their families anymore, that they can’t help or even give gifts.” So her father started sending these drawings to her, to her daughter and to her nephew, at Christmas and for birthdays – as a way to give back.

As she received the drawings, she kept them safe. They were hers. She never thought of  doing anything with them – she hadn’t even framed them. Also, she was busy filming Mob Wives, moving frequently, while at the same time doing her best to care for her daughter and her nephew.

Sammy the Bull artwork

In 2015, as she was going through her boxes, she came across the drawings again. She decided that she wanted to do something with them – create some sort of message – a positive message – to share with the public and to utilize some of the proceeds toward programs that could help young people in trouble and possibly even help the inmates coming out of prison – by helping to create a better transition program for these people.

Karen has had more than her fair share of scrutiny and criticism over the years. As the daughter of a mob underboss who became an FBI informant, as well as being a very outspoken individual in her own right and being part of a reality show that highlights sensationalism as the norm – she has, through it all, stood by her family. She has never condoned her father’s choice to be a part of the mob world, but she stands by him – she is a very strong, family-oriented woman, who has admitted that she has made her own bad choices over the years – but she owns up to all of them – as does her father.

The one constant for Karen and her family throughout the years has been that they have upheld their family unit – no matter what. Karen told me, “When you have a strong family unit, you can make it through anything.  We fight for one another, and it makes us stronger, even to this day – my father would still give his life for me.”

Karen realizes that she sold herself short many times over the years because of the choices she made when she was young. After her father’s arrest, those that they had known all their lives shunned her family. She was 19 years old at the time, and wanted desperately to find a way back in – to be accepted again. She made choices that she thought would bring her acceptance again, but ultimately they just caused her grief and landed her on the wrong side of the law.

Sammy the Bull Gravano artwork

She decided that she wanted to use Mob Wives as a platform to help get her message across. She never intended to go on the show to talk about the ‘truth’ of what happened when she was growing up, rather she wanted to share her story from her own perspective – what it was like growing up in the crazy and dangerous environment that she was born into and using her platform to send positive messages going forward.

Her message is simple – she wants to reach children, and young adults, who may be going down the wrong path – for whatever reason. She wants to help them understand that they should never sell themselves short by putting themselves into situations that will get them into trouble. People, especially young people it seems these days, want to belong – which is what ultimately gets them into trouble. She believes that’s why her father initially got involved in the mob – because he wanted to belong. It’s not the right thing to do, but that’s how it seems to happen.

Karen believes in turning her negatives into positives and if people don’t see it that way then, “Too bad for them.”

She’s not naïve and she acknowledged this easily when she said, “There are always consequences for our actions and we have to take ownership of them in order to move past them.”

She looks at mistakes as just notches in our belts of life. Twenty years ago when her father cooperated, everyone talked behind her back, and she felt almost ashamed of her dad – at least at the time – but at the art show in Hell’s Kitchen recently, she felt pride again.

She discovered that many of her old friends came to the show to support them or maybe just to see for themselves how far they’d come – and her observation was, “Here was my father’s artwork all over the walls with his signature on them and I realized that my family and I have always fought for what we believe in – we always will and we will continue to hold our heads high. In life, and in general, you can have something bad happen and as long as you own it and it’s something you can learn from, then you can stand tall.” Those that came to the show that day confirmed in her mind that standing tall does matter. That’s one of the reasons that she feels so connected to her father’s artwork.

In her book, a New York best seller – Mob Daughter: The Mafia, Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano and Me – she goes into detail about choices, the good, the bad and the ugly, and how to come out the other side and see the sunshine again. Her story is truthful, raw and honest. It’s a powerful read.

Karen also talked about how many of those coming out of prison seem to have very little opportunity to redeem themselves in the eyes of society. They are placed, many times, in halfway houses or low income housing, are offered very low paying jobs, and many times feel that they have no alternative but to go back into the criminal world. It’s a sad situation that she’s hoping to help change.

She wants to figure out a way to fix these problems. But how? She said, “How do we prevent these people from going back into the life of crime, once they are released from incarceration? There seems to be no successful program to help inmates rehabilitate, and no solid transition program. There are some programs in the ‘system’ that are intended to help these people, such as training dogs for handicapped people, encouraging art, and a few other programs, but how much do they really help in the long run?”

There are many judgmental people in the world that will continue to shun the likes of Karen Gravano and her father, Sammy Gravano. However, how many people will continue to stand tall like they have – in the midst of all the criticism and hatred they may encounter – and still choose to get a positive message out to others?

It’s something to ponder. Before we judge, shouldn’t we try and put ourselves in the shoes of others?

It’s just a thought.

For more information about buying and obtaining your own limited edition copies of Sammy “The Bull’s” artwork, contact info@conceptiongallery.com / http://www.conceptiongallery.com

To see more of Sammy’s artwork, click here

Sammy Gravano is set for release in 2017.

The age of time

Aging Parents






Those of us who are of a certain age – over 40 – face some interesting challenges. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that all of us face challenges throughout our lives, but at this age, we are dealing with several unique and hardcore challenges at the same time.

Many of us have children (I don’t, but I’ve been a step mom in the past and have some experience with parenting), and many of us have aging parents … At The Same Time … that need our attention as well.

Not to mention, many of us are still working and must utilize our time most effectively to take care of our livelihoods – our careers – our families, and our children at the same time.

Plus don’t forget, we need to nurture our relationships with our spouses and significant others to ensure they stay healthy and happy too. Oh, I forgot to include our own health and happiness – ensuring that we are taking care of ourselves while we take care of all of the other people that we love in our life as well. Oh, and let’s not forget that our friends, loved ones and our co-workers are dying at a frightening rate of speed.


So how do we cope with all of this. How do we manage all of these things, and still keep our chins up? How do we balance all of these things and still see the beauty of life?

I don’t have the answers, I just ask the questions. In my experience with my parents, I don’t feel that I was as available to them as I should have been when they were in their last dying days. Yes, I’ve lost both of my parents over the last several years, and yes I did contribute, but did I do enough? I don’t think so.

I was in another state, I was too busy with my job, I didn’t have the time or money to stay as long as I should have during my visits, I was just…too involved with my own survival that I didn’t offer up my time as much as I should have. That’s how I felt anyway. I made attempts to show I was a good daughter, but it didn’t feel like it was ever enough. I should have done more. The guilt is heartbreaking, for me anyway.

Fast forward to now – as my significant other and I have taken care of his parents (and now just his mother) every day – in every way, for many months now. I feel that I am at least contributing to the positive welfare of those that I care about, even if they are not my own parents. I respect them as if they are my own.

It is so challenging though. Every day, we cook for them, we clean for them, we shop for them, we take care of their needs so that they will feel like they have the support, the love and the care they need and deserve, as they move into the last phases of their lives.

What I’ve never appreciated before as much as I do now, at this moment, is how much we lose of ourselves, as we get older. We lose the use of our bodies as we’ve known them, (because they break down on us), we lose our freedom in many ways – we can’t drive anymore, we aren’t able to shop for ourselves anymore, we aren’t even able to take a walk anymore, and I feel the pain of those that are aging more than I’ve ever felt before.

It breaks my heart that these sturdy individuals, who have been through wars, and hard times, and all kinds of challenges, and have endured, are now faced with the ultimate “test of character”, when they face their final years of life.

In my heart, I just do my best to be there for them, do all that I can to help out every day, and to do my best to make them laugh every day and to let them know how much they’re loved. I hope my own parents somehow know, even now, that I loved them beyond belief and that this is for them too. We all deserve to be taken care of and loved until the day we die. All of us deserve (or hopefully deserve) to be loved until the end of time.


Gold Nuggets






As we age, our connections with people seem to become very limited and short lived. However, the true connections we do make, are more intense and seem to be more vital than ever. They may be brief, and they may be out of the blue, but they are so critical to our survival and our ability to continue to thrive in this “who gives a damn world,” that we have to take note of each one. I cherish the connections I make – whether they are new or renewed. They mean so much to me. They always have, but now more than ever, I realize their importance and I am grateful every day for these golden nuggets of life.


Good choices, bad choices





Choices – to be happy or to be miserable. Maybe sometimes we aren’t able to control the side we choose. Or are we? As I age, I realize that my happiness depends on me, and on no one else. What I choose to remember and what I choose to let go of will create my lasting moments in life. Right? So do I choose to hold on to the moments when people did me wrong? Or do I choose to remember the amazing moments when people did me right or when I did right by others? Again, it’s up to me. I think I’ve learned from both the good and the bad moments, so why not just take the best of the mix and carry on from there? It’s usually easier said than done, but it’s possible and seems to allow us to be happier in the long run.

The reason we live life is to gain insights, to learn from our experiences, whatever they may be, and to carry forward the best mixture of these insights, don’t you agree? So the next time you’re hanging on to a negative memory of something that didn’t go right, or of someone who treated you poorly, learn from it, do your best to get over it, forgive if you can, and go create your own positive experience, no how matter how large or how small. It’s worth it.

Energy – positives and negatives






Energy. It can be positive or negative. What side do you normally sit on? Are you constantly thinking about those that have wronged you and focus on that hurt and anger and blame all of your problems on those people? Or are you always striving to fight through the chaos and see the positive side instead? Energy is never-ending and ever changing – based on US. We’re ‘led’ by our past. I think we all know that.

Our families, our history and our propensity to flow either way guides our path, but does not have to dictate the path we continue to take as we get older. So here’s the question that I have. If you’ve grown up in a less than positive environment, how do you rise above the emotions, the negativity and the heartache that you may have encountered throughout your lifetime and that have been in control until now?

Do you just keep reiterating that behavior forever and suffer the consequences both emotionally and physically? Or do you take the time (and suffer through the transition) to find another way? I say this a lot, but it’s always up to us on how we move forward. Finding a new way, a more positive way, is damn hard, but so worth it. I’m willing to keep fighting through the muck to find the better way. What about you?


Ya gotta love her.

How often do you come across someone in your life that makes you stop and take notice? I’m sure over the years we’ve all met people who have surprised us, who have made us realize for the first time or once again that there are those in life who are truly special and are worthy of a second look and who truly generate joy and love and who help us feel those feelings for the first time or again, after a long gap in time.

The older I’ve become, the less this happens, so when it does happen, it’s magical. I’ve recently met a woman (who really seems like a girl because of her innocent joy) who has truly made me stop and take notice. She’s my Zumba teacher. She’s about 10 years younger than me, but her essence and her energy is like that of a teenager. She by no means has an easy life, she has a good life, but it is full. A husband, two kids, a big ole dog and several classes of Zumba that she teaches each week. She’s been a nurse for many years, she is a caretaker at heart and she is a solid and wonderful person that I am happy to call my friend.

The reason I mention her is because the normal, everyday, supposedly “average” person, rarely gets the attention they deserve. But this woman, in my opinion, belongs in the hall of fame of fabulous people. No matter her mood, when she starts our classes or a conversation, she exudes love, fun, joy, laughter and love, and shares that with each and every person that she interacts with, regardless of what her state of mind is at the time.

I’ve gone to her class in a deep funk, and after the first song, I’m invigorated, enlightened and happier than when I walked in just a few minutes prior, because of her passion and enthusiasm. She has a gift. She cares more about the well-being of others than she does of herself, it seems. And yet, she truly needs others to recognize this and reciprocrate these traits back to her as well.

Thank you Susan Wilbur, for just being you. For being a fabulous Zumba teacher, a fabulous person, a great friend, and a truly lovely individual with a heart of gold. I just felt you needed to have this written about you so that you may know how much you are loved and appreciated by so many. Especially me.





The beginning of the end

Endings. The beginning of the end of an era. All at once. Who knew it would be so devastating to my psyche? Or to my peers that also experienced what I did growing up? The music, the talent, those moments that took our breath away by what a musician, an artist, a person that changed history, a singer, an actor, a veteran, a healer, or a humanitarian made us feel?

I know we all grow old, we all die, and we all experience these emotions throughout our lifetime. But now it’s my generation’s turn, my group of peers that are witnessing this phenomenon first hand, and feeling the effects first hand, nearly every day lately, it seems. It’s tremendously sad, tremendously poignant and incredibly humbling.

There have been so many truly incredible people in my lifetime so far, that I have known personally and also those that I have never met, but who have helped mold who I am and have created a lifelong impression in my heart, that are now gone. Those of us who are still here, well, we’re lucky. But each and every time we lose another of our loved ones, our heros/heroines, our mentors, our saviors, well, a little piece of me (at least) dies along with them. But also in the process of losing these beloved people from our lives, it makes me take stock and remember all that they did to help make my life better. And I will be forever grateful to them.

Who’s your hero or heroine?

You know, I’ve often wondered who I would name as my biggest heroine in my lifetime, and who has influenced me the most, and it always comes back to one person, Carol Burnett. She influenced me so much as a young person and she still does to this day. Her ability to be a pioneer, and to become so successful in what had always been (at least to that point) a man’s world – comedy that is, and be so funny yet be taken so seriously at the same time, made a serious impact on me that has stayed with me always.

It taught me how to take chances, believe in myself, to always lead with humor, and to surround myself with like minded people like she did. Her team of comics, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway are the best comedic team I’ve ever experienced. They not only did “funny” really well, but they truly liked each other too – and I can’t even remember how many times Tim Conway made all of us who watched them each week bend over with laughter, including Harvey and Carol during their skits. Classic.

I really believe that many female comedians (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are just two of the great comedians that I’m mentioning now) that were influenced as well by her and have become powerhouses in the comedic world. There are many female comedians that I’m not naming now, but they are no less significant. They take chances, and they’re fearless – a big deal in my mind. I love them all.

I have always loved making people laugh and I still do, to make fun of myself (without being mean to myself if that makes sense) and show others that if we can be goofy and take life less seriously sometimes, then it might make any pain that we may be feeling, go away, at least temporarily, and move that negative crap to the background. Also that we are not alone. In my mind, laughter brings people together. When I can have a good belly laugh and have tears rolling down my face because I’m laughing so hard, then that is a helluva great day. AND if I can share that with others too? Wow, what a bonanza!

When we help to create laughter and help others to have a better day because we made them laugh or smile, then it’s a win-win for all of us.

My biggest compliments when I was in high school were when I was voted class clown and the one with the best sense of humor by my peers. I was also compared to Carol Burnett more than once and I can’t tell you how much that meant to me.

Anyway, major kudos to Carol Burnett for receiving her SAG Award Lifetime Achievement Award just recently. She deserves it!

“I’m so glad we had this time together, just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started, and before you know it…comes the time we have to say, so long.”

Carol Burnett