Wilhelmina de Haas was excited to receive an invitation to show one of her Dali-esque paintings at Venice Art Center. After all, she is an artist who loves the works of the late Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali.

Joining Venice Art Center was one of the first things de Haas did after moving from Connecticut to Venice last April with her boyfriend, Anthony Riskalla. The two had found each other after becoming single again.

“She is an artist and is very passionate about art,” he said. “She loves Salvador Dali and paints some similar art works, so I got the idea for a fake exhibit.”

In late June 2018, he met Mary Moscatelli, executive director of the art center, and shared his idea with her.

“I asked if she would be willing to set up a fake Dali exhibit as a way to get her to the art center,” he said. “I would have this fake painting of a ring and proposal hanging on the wall. I said I would just throw some paint on a canvas …. I’m not an artist.”

The buy-in

Moscatelli loved the idea but advised him that if he was going to create a painting to propose, de Haas would want to keep it. She invited him to come into the art center so she could ask an art teacher there to help him create a painting de Haas could keep.

For his time away from de Haas to complete his engagement painting, he told her he was going to a “networking” meeting for job leads. It took him an hour and a half to complete a painting with the elements he wanted in it.

“I wanted to represent the red ring, the one she saw in Heitel Jewelry store and fell in love with,” he said. “I wanted a rabbit (de Haas, her last name, is Dutch for ‘hair of the rabbit,’ and I call her ‘buns,’ short for bunny); a bicycle to represent me (I am a bicycle enthusiast); and the eye is Dali-esque with a ray of light rising from the gemstones (ruby and diamonds).

“The artist helped me get the effects of the cuts on the stone. She was great.”

He encountered a road block when he got home from his “networking” meeting. De Haas asked him all kinds of questions about the meeting — “Who did you meet?” and “Did you get any job leads?”

“He was evasive and never lies,” she said, but he finally got through the inquisition.

Email limbo

For a few days, there was a series of emails and missed communications among the three. For example, Moscatelli’s initial announcement to de Haas and Riskalla asking for contributors to the so-called Dali exhibit ended up in de Haas’ spam email mailbox.

Eventually realizing de Haas had not seen it, Riskalla forwarded his email to her asking if she knew about it; she said she did not.

She emailed Moscatelli asking if she needed Dali-type artwork, eventually sending photos of some, and Moscatelli responded that she liked her “Afterlife” piece. De Haas dropped it off for the exhibit.

While there, she looked at the art that was hanging in the gallery.

“I was so excited to be asked to exhibit, I told my friends on Facebook and they were congratulating me,” she said. “That could have caused problems if local artists had seen it because they would want to join, and it wasn’t a real exhibit.”

Riskalla breathed a sigh of relief.

“I know she is hooked now; her artwork is there. She’ll want to go. My plan is working ...”

The plot thickens

Riskalla took a bottle of champagne to the art center ahead of time, having told her he was going to Lowe’s (another little lie).

Unbeknownst to de Haas, Riskalla was in touch with their friends Barbara and Maurice Richardson (Barb and Mo), Realtors with Coldwell Banker Real Estate, who were in on the secret. The day of the proposal, they went to the art center and hid in the wings.

The course of action

At 2:30 p.m. on the appointed July day, de Haas and Riskalla arrived at Venice Art Center.

According to him, Moscatelli went over and above putting on the ruse.

“She even had pottery students come out from their class and walk through the exhibit talking about Dali,” he said.

De Haas said she couldn’t grasp what all was going on because she thought that the artwork she was looking at was what she had seen earlier in the week.

“I started wondering why it was still there, not grasping what was going on,” she said.

Riskalla said he told her: “Let’s look at your painting.” “Afterlife” was hanging next to his painting of the ring. He asked her to look at the tag that named his painting, but she was not wearing her glasses and had a hard time reading it.

The tag read: “Will You Marry Me?”

“I was down on one knee and she turns around, and there I am,” he said, “and she still doesn’t understand what is happening. The first thing she says is: ‘Did you paint that?’

“I was holding the box with the ring she liked and without a word, she takes the ring out of the box … her response to it was not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but the question, ‘Did you paint that?’”

Then the Richardsons came out with a bouquet of flowers and Moscatelli came out with the champagne, and de Haas was still wondering about the Dali exhibit. It had not registered that he was proposing marriage to her.

“The pottery students were clapping and celebrating and then went back to their class,” he said. “I had to explain it to her, because she kept asking if I really painted it because she knows I’m not an artist.”

“I was absolutely shocked,” she said. “I was trembling, and he was shaking, too.”

They asked Moscatelli and her staff to join them celebrating with the champagne. That lasted about an hour.

“The rest of the night, she kept asking me how I pulled that off,” he said. “I showed her the emails; I kept them all.”

De Haas works part time with Premier Sotheby in Sarasota. When she told her co-workers about the engagement, her boss said: “‘He is a real romantic,’”

This romance deserves a romantic ending.

“What is really nice is the wedding is planned for this coming April 27 — a year to the date we moved to Venice,” Riskalla said.

Maybe more significantly, that had been his late parents’ wedding date.

The couple just may hold the wedding at Venice Art Center.


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