Italian-American painter, engraver, and printmaker Letterio Calapai was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1903. His parents emigrated from Sicily and encouraged his participation in the arts at an early age. Calapai studied at the Massachusetts School of Art, the Beaux Arts Institute of Design, under artist Robert Laurent at the Art Students League, and at the American Artists School under Ben Shahn.
While in New York, Calalpai worked as a lithographer in a commercial printing shop but eventually abandoned this to pursue his own printmaking and painting full time, an endeavor made possible with the financial help of his former professor, Charles Hopkins. In 1933, Calalpai received his first exhibition, a one man show of his oil paintings, at the Art Center in New York City.
In the 1940s, Calapai became William Hayter's personal assistant at the Atelier 17 printmaking workshop and began to focus much of his work on this medium. He created a hugely successful portfolio of wood engravings inspired by the Thomas Wolfe play Look Homeward Angel. New York's George Binet Gallery hosted an exhibition of these prints the same year, a show that resulted in purchases of the portfolio by the libraries of Harvard University, Princeton, and the Boston and New York Public Libraries. Calapai also created book illustrations for a number of manuscript projects including 45 wood engravings for How God Fixed Jonah (1946), a West African adaptation of Old and New Testaments accounts in the Bible.
Calapai founded and chaired the Graphic Arts Department of the Albright Art School in Buffalo from 1949-1955 and taught at various universities and colleges, including the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, the New School for Social Research, and New York University. He also established the Intaglio Workshop for Advanced Printmaking in Greenwich Village. He later left New York to teach at the University of Illinois, where he established a training studio and gallery.
Letterio Calalapi died in Glencoe, Illinois in 1993.