Courtesy Kent Twitchell
"Free Assembly," a mural by L.A. artist Kent Twitchell that was dedicated on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, shows Joseph Gatto sitting, center, in a leather jacket and peering over his left shoulder. Twitchell, a friend of Gatto's, wanted to use real military veterans. Gatto was found murdered in his home just days after the dedication.
Joseph Gatto made his students feel like there was nothing they couldn't do.
"He just had a way of being able to open these doors for us, to be able to kind of explore, and find our own voice," said artist Robert Vargas, who was a student of Gatto's at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts in the early 1990s.
Gatto, who was shot to death Nov. 13 at his home in Silver Lake, will be buried Monday. Police have not arrested any suspects in the crime.
The unexpected loss of Gatto, whose son is Mike Gatto, of the California assembly has hit the arts community hard.
"It's shocking. It's shocking," said former student Rachel Bitan, fighting off tears."It's just horrible. He spent his whole life helping people. And doing what he loved."
Bitan said she'd just seen Gatto a few weeks ago and recently commissioned a bracelet from him. Gatto was well known for his unique jewelry pieces.
"He was full of life," she said. "He could have gone on 20 more years."
Gatto taught for more than 45 years at a variety of schools including Cal State Northridge, the Art Center in Pasadena and Pierce College. When the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts opened in 1985, he was named chair of the visual arts department. He led arts instruction there until he retired in 2002. He was honored twice at the White House.
"He was intimidating, and he had a really strong personality. But at the same time, he really brought the best out of you," said Sonia Romero, who graduated from the arts high school in 1998. Like many of his former students, she remembered Gatto for his critiques.
Malaika Latty said Gatto was her mentor. In August, she landed his former job: chair of the visual arts department for the high school.
"He reminded me that you really come into a position like this as an educator purely because of the joy it brings you," she said. "He loved his students and he was so there for us."
She works in Gatto's former art office, surrounded by memories of him as she grieves his death.
Since his death, former students and friends from all over the world have offered his daughter their condolences.
"One of the only bits of consolation during this horrific time has been the outpouring of support," Mariann Gatto said. "My father was my best friend. We were incredibly close."
Police have released a sketch of a man who could be a suspect. The funeral for the 78 year old will take place Monday at 10 a.m. at Our Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Church in Los Feliz. A private reception and graveside burial will follow.
The Los Angeles High School for the Arts plans to hold an event celebrating Gatto's life in January. The school encourages alumni who want to attend to get in touch.
School officials said they're also planning a scholarship and award for student recognition in his honor.