Immigration and Traditions from the Old Country
All images and essays (c) the individual artists unless otherwise noted
Between 1880 and 1980, some 15 million Italians made new homes in North America, primarily the United States; in South America, primarily Argentina; and as far away as Australia. Wherever they settled, Italians maintained strong connections to the Old Country. In the United States, the American-born children and grandchildren wove their two cultures together as Italian Americans. Here in Part 1 we look at the work of artists whose aesthetic expression is inspired by the life and traditions of their Italian American experience.
We start with immigration, family, language, and religion, moving on to the heritage of gardening, farming, cooking, and making. We come from woodworkers and blacksmiths, stonemasons and bricklayers, shoemakers and weavers, tailors and dressmakers, and legions of women whose skill in needlework beautified lives marked by hard work and the privations of The Great Depression. Am I romanticizing our heritage? Yes, surely, because there are also secrets—extramarital affairs, organized crime, betrayal, and the dark underside of the Catholic church—that threaded their way through so many lives. Our art is informed by all of it. Each artist is represented by images of her or his artwork and a personal text. There are many interwoven threads in these stories.
“Many immigrants had brought on board balls of yarn, leaving one end of the line with someone on land. As the ship slowly cleared the dock, the balls unwound amid the farewell shouts of the women, the fluttering of handkerchiefs, and the infants held high. After the yarn ran out, the long strips remained airborne, sustained by the wind long after those on land and those at sea had lost sight of each other.”
Amore: Standing in Two Worlds at the Same Time
My Italian identity is interwoven with who I am as a person, an artist, a writer. I grew up living with my grandmother and her sister who always spoke Italian with my mother. I knew that all of the important issues were discussed in Italian, and made sure, even as a small child, that I listened carefully and quietly. The women also spoke in English with us. Italian culture, art, and literature were part of my formative years, strengthened by a year of study at the University of Rome.
Much of my mature work has involved looking into the theme of immigration as the quintessential odyssey. Most of us are either immigrants or progeny of immigrants. When we remember this, it puts us in touch with the realities of the labor, suffering, and dreams of those who journeyed here with the hope of a new and different kind of life.
In my work, the immigrant journey becomes the metaphor for the entire human journey. The presence of two languages and two cultures in my home of origin awakened early an appreciation of duality–in the unique aspect of standing in two worlds at the same time. I am interested in the relationship between human perception and the influences of one’s heritage, both in the near and distant past. We carry the history of our families and our cultures in our psyches as well as in our genes. The effects of this are sometimes overtly acknowledged but they are often subtly present even if they are not recognized.
This life research led me to create a major multi-media exhibit for the Ellis Island Immigration Museum entitled Lifeline, Filo della Vita: An Italian American Odyssey, which explored a century of Italian immigration. It eventually became a bilingual book published by Fordham Press.
My work has evolved from its origins in carved forms and public sculpture to complex installations involving text, ancestral artifacts, alternative photo processes, stone, fabric, and the found object transformed. The installations and assemblages often appear to be meditations on the layered nature of existence. They are sculptural ruminations, which bridge the past and the present.My newest series, Street Calligraphies, incorporates found gloves that have been cold cast in bronze which still evoke the mysterious presence of the lost owner. Although the gloves always retain their original gesture, they are combined with other enigmatic elements from city streets and transformed through the artistic process into works of art. Glove Globe speaks to our incontrovertible interdependence. Each glove has its own unique history and nature but becomes part of the whole which creates our intertwined life on this planet. This fact has become abundantly clear as we navigate the Covid 19 pandemic.
Azara: Balancing Acts
Although I was born in the United States I was brought up
according to many of the folk and religious traditions of Southern Italy. I
feel a creative bond to Italy, its countryside, its people, and its art. After
all, my ancestors lived there for thousands of years, and I feel this history
still within myself.
Kindergarten and first grade in the school around the corner, PS 201, were very difficult for me. Everything was so strange. I did not feel safe. I did not feel comfortable. I did not feel as if I belonged. It was the first time that I was around many girls and boys who were not Italian. And the teachers were not Italian. We never said Italian American in those days.
I do remember something that I had amnesia about for many years. In the first grade I spoke a combination of Italian and English. It was that my English was interspersed with Italian (Sicilian) words. The kids in the class laughed at me and said that I didn't speak right.
I felt in school that I was confined. I couldn't spend so much time in the garden at my house anymore. It was a difficult adjustment. For instance the songs that we were supposed to sing frightened me. Imagine being frightened by Row, Row, Row Your Boat. But I was. A whole assembly of kids singing these songs that I had never heard before—was so strange to my little girl's ears—I who had heard the Italian music station that my grandmother always had on at her house.
In school nobody could use their hands to speak. We were told to sit on our hands. We couldn't speak with raised voices either. This was considered very bad in school. It was impolite, not proper. So every day I went home to gesticulating and loud laughter, and painfully loud expressions of frustration or joy or whatever, or the crooning of Frank Sinatra, and every morning I left this to go to an alien ground and to learn a different way to be.
When challenged in even a very small way, my parents would puff themselves up and declare that they were American. But we all knew that deep down we were really Italian. How this group of people managed to function in the world with these balancing acts of identity is a mystery to me. I know that when I got old enough to understand what this quasi-slippery identity represented, I didn't know how to place myself.
Avelluto: The Profound and the Whimsical
My recent work engages my background as both an Italian American and native
Brooklynite. This engagement via the lens of painting examines the tropes, both
linguistic and visual, of these identities. Reflecting the qualities of the
acrylic medium I explore the plasticity of these phenomena. As shifts in
language occur during displacement or rubbing up against new cultural entities,
so do the possibilities within abstraction.
Drawing from disparate art historical traditions in tandem with pop culture
references, I set out to play with, undermine, and confound Italian-American
culture, toying with the existing linguistic and visual repertoire of
vernacular references that all too often have gone underappreciated and
unexamined in painting.
“His artwork can be seen as the ludic antics of the mythic circum-Mediterranean trickster Giufà, the hero/fool of oral narratives who, despite his simplicity, often overcomes quotidian adversities and in doing so imparts a critical life lesson,” notes Dr. Joseph Sciorra, director for Academic and Cultural Programs at the John D. Calandra institute at Queens College of the City University of New York. “Avelluto positions his art at a crossroads of what in Italian is referred to as contaminazione, those hybrid moments and places where ideas and idioms collide across ever-shifting borders to create innovative articulations. He revels in mash-ups of transliterated sounds, images, products, and ideas where Italy and the United States converge. Avelluto’s artistic renderings referencing Italian American iterations of cultural touchstones such as galama (calamari) and maloik (mal’occhio, evil eye)—deliberately spelled phonetically in nonstandard Italian—capture flashes of transcultural encounters to highlight the profound and the whimsical.”
Collection of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine
Pepe: The Italian Problem
In September of 2019, I visited Naples for the very first time. The first work I made after my return home from an autumn in Italy was named precisely as the object came to mind: American Bardo. It’s a personal kneeler (or prie dieu) and a provocation to/from me as a Roman Catholic atheist. I know it to be the first in a series made to bring forward interlaced ideas that construct epistemologies concerning race and gender, culture, taste.
These ideas have been driving the work for years, even though the many fiber installations used feminism, class, and ethnicity as outward-facing issues. For years crocheting abstractions in space was my way to blend the Italian with the American. Some were ephemeral, cannibalized for new work, with a few made to be lasting, and shapeshifting. All worked only when attached to larger, existing structures. A feminist drive to honor the mother also meant a reveal of the assimilationist knots she tied in my head, least was claiming fictitious Northern-Italian roots or giving her three children names with Irish roots, thinking they were more Anglo. Her launch cast a trajectory she couldn’t imagine. I fell far from the apple, ambivalent about my roots, and trained to be highly adaptive to sites of pure Americanness.
In recent years I’ve immersed myself in Mediterranean histories, religions, and religious states. I see my own frightening Neapolitan roots more closely and their impact on my own learning and living. But the fact is, I am/not Italian.
I was invited to Italy as an artist for the first time in 2013 because of the photographer and documentarian, Paola Ferrario. Paola is Italian; her artist friends run the cultural center called Asilo Bianco in Piemonte. She made the invitation possible. She also took the photographs of work I made there, giving it a real Italian history, as if my mother’s northern dream came true. Paola lives here in the States and is married to an American woman. She made her own latter 20th century break from Italy, as an independent woman. But she is no assimilationist. She is complex, yet straightforward. She sees the world extremely well, and is one of the best photographers I know. The work and the woman are not nearly as well known as should be.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Isabel Wilkerson. says in Caste:
The Origins of Our Discontents, it only took one generation for Italian
Americans to become white. She’s right when it comes to the history lived by my
family–I’m proof. But what about recent arrivals? Americans still don’t know
what to do with immigrants in general, unless they accept the race roles, the
capitalist norms, terms of U.S. politics and religious hierarchies and, say,
rules of the market-driven art world. No matter what country you come from and
what continent it’s on, the first step on this ground means we bow to the
newest, and perhaps most dangerous kids on this earth: USA.
Cecere: The Flavor of Domestic Handwork
I was born in Richmond, Indiana, to Italian American parents. After studying at Cornell University in the school of Art, Architecture, and Planning, I moved to an industrial loft in lower Manhattan where I live and work today.
My public art aims to integrate the flavor of domestic handwork into the built environment. My grandparents (both sides) emigrated from Southern Italy insisting on something better for their children. They brought with them cherished traditions, love of family, lacemaking, needlework, recipes, and stories. Their influence continues to inform my life and work today.
When I was growing up in a small Midwestern town, Italian Americans were the “other.” Dark hair and eyes, different food, and grandparents who spoke another language. I loved visiting my aunts, uncles, and cousins in Pittsburgh. The big dinners, full of people, constant chatter, and laughter. As a special after-dinner treat, the cousins were given change to spend at the Meadow Street Bakery. How to choose? I had never seen anything like this before. Grandma also always gave me something she crocheted or embroidered to bring home with me. Seems like this combination of lush icing and needlework stuck.
For over 40 years, I have expanded and experimented with the mapping qualities of needlework as a readymade overlay for organic design in both urban and rural settings.
at Rockland Center for the Arts, West Nyack, New York, curated by Amy Lipton
Installed at the Little Italy-University Circle station of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority
Miranda: Growing a Memory
My Italian American connection is first through family and food, the kind with long Sunday dinners that start at 1:00 p.m. and last until bedtime, listening to the grownups tell stories around the table, cracking walnuts into piles of shells to be swept away later.
My great grandparents on both sides came to New York City at the end of the 1800s. My father’s family, from Trentino Alto Adige in the North, lived in Greenwich Village on Carmine Street and went to Our Lady of Pompeii Church. His grandmother ran a boarding house in the Village and made wine during Prohibition. His father and uncle had a restaurant, Antica Roma, on Baxter Street in Little Italy, now Chinatown. My mother, Patricia DeSpagna, grew up in Flushing Queens, her father of Southern Italian descent, her mother from County Cork in Ireland. The Irish-Italian connection in New York City is common; as marginalized Catholics of the time, they found common ground.
I am the middle of seven children, with five sisters. We grew up—first in New York City, then Rockland County—surrounded by music. My father, Victor, was a musician and singer, with an enormous eclectic record collection, from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong to Janis Joplin, opera to Mexican folk music. Shelves of records in our family room, floor to ceiling, stacks facing out, meant a room full of pictures I examined closely, magical doorways to sound and stories. We sat at the foot of Dad’s base fiddle while he played. He was a Frank Sinatra singer and performer. His greatest joy was when the Chairman himself complimented his recording.
My father wallpapered the family bathroom entirely from pictures cut from art history books; I grew up bathing surrounded by paintings. I would dissolve into the landscapes, escape the family chaos into secret worlds and stories. Perhaps it made me an artist, although it didn’t affect anyone else in the family in this way.
Growing up, I always answered the question, “Where are you from?” with “Italy.” My first trip to Italy after college made me acutely aware that I was not, in fact, Italian but Italian American, a wholly different breed. So much was familiar, the way of communicating, the meals, the voices, all felt like family, but not speaking the language, and not knowing Italian customs, meant not having a place there. My language skills have improved somewhat, and I have been back multiple times, including living there for a semester of teaching, but Italy is not Italian America. I suppose this aspect of the immigrant experience is universal, the home left is a complex mix of familiarity and strangeness, of longing and connection, and of loss.
Still, the place, the art, the buildings, the bells, spoke deeply to my artistic heart. One of my solo trips to Italy was to be in Assisi on St. Francis Day, to visit the Porziuncula and the frescos (and tombs) of Francis and Clare; another was to investigate reliquaries and paintings made between 1200 and 1500. I saw these as art and soul pilgrimages.
Resonance of this history continually informs my work, as I make connections encircling ancient works with contemporary thought. These are wells of thinking that open up in surprising ways. In my studio I draw from materials and methods with long cultural histories. This includes using textiles, lace, and deaccessioned religious books, all dyed with ancient color sources such as oak gall, cochineal insects, indigo, and clay—the same materials used in historic painting and book production.
My recent installations began with vintage linens from my Italian and Irish grandmothers, Ermenegilda Eugenia Glorinda Fungaroli Miranda and Rebecca Cogan, and grew from donations from friends and strangers. The textiles are sewn into large shroud-like works. I add objects of lamentation akin to votives, reliquaries, and other ritualized body forms from hair, pearls, bone beads, milagros, and cast plaster.
My mending and sewing grows a memory that fans out from my Italian heritage. It is an act of alchemy and community, through the familial and historical, and the transformation of rocks, bugs, and flowers into color. There’s no way to know what person I would be with a different background, as I would not be me. The tentacles of a complex history are wound through everything I do. I am unable to detangle them, as the entanglement itself is a neural network, an intertwined chain of lines that thread through me to my family, my community, my country, my ancestors.
Galazzi: Sewing and Tortellini
I am from a long line of Italians who came to the United States in the late 1800s during the first large wave of Italian immigration. My father’s family moved to the Boston area and mother’s to rural Pennsylvania. Both my paternal and maternal grandmothers were first-generation Italian Americans born in the early 1900s in the United States. Each of my grandmothers profoundly influenced me, yet both in quite different ways.
When I was five my father’s mother taught me to embroider and needlepoint, providing me with seemingly endless amounts of materials with which to work. She helped me organize my threads in a beautiful mahogany cigar box given to me by my grandfather, and she frequently reminded me that “good girls learn to sew.” My father is an only child, so relating to a young girl was not my grandmother’s strong suit. I found these interactions annoying at best, yet, I appreciated learning the sewing skills.
My mother’s mother, my Nona, came from a large family and she had four children, the youngest of whom is my mother. Nona was a fabulous cook, and she made all of our large holiday meals not from recipes but from memory. I had nine first cousins so Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners frequently sat 25 people at her dining room table. Nona often began folding handmade tortellini in the late summer in preparation for these winter holiday meals. Before I was allowed to learn to fold the tortellini, my job was to crank the pasta machine evenly and slowly, rolling out the three-foot-long lengths of flour, egg, and olive oil dough.
For my 13th birthday in early August, I requested that Nona come visit me for a few days so that I could learn to fold the tortellini. At the time, I lived in a very small house on Cape Cod with my mother and brother. With little room in our galley kitchen, we set up shop in my upstairs bedroom where Nona also slept when she visited. Together, we rolled and folded the delicate noodles for three days straight, talking and laughing. She loved me in a pure and simple way and I truly adored her. She understood me. Each year, I handmake the tortellini. My two sons and three nieces help me now, so the tradition continues.My ongoing series of shadow drawings, called String Theory, is directly influenced by both of my Italian grandmothers. When I hand sew the delicate stitches, I remember learning to embroider and needlepoint. Once the sewing is complete, I cut the paper away from the stitching. Handling the long pieces of hand sewn paper and dipping them into molten beeswax wax feels just like maneuvering the delicate pieces of long pasta as they make their way from the rolling machine to the cutting and filling table. In a deeply familiar way, my hands remember these early skills. When I am making artwork in my studio, my body knows what to do and my head and heart follow my hands.
Ambrose: Like Thread Through the Eye of a Needle
My fascination with paper began when I was seven as I convalesced from major surgery on my right leg. At the time, paper became the playground for my imagination, and to this day it has remained my safe haven, the primary surface for my creative endeavors.
My family immigrated from Sicily and Italy in the early 20th century. Their path to America was guided like thread through the eye of a needle, since both sets of my grandparents included tailors and dressmakers. Those talents allowed them to establish their lives here and make a living.
Applying pattern to build a structure, sewing, and the needle all play major roles in my recent series of works on pierced paper. To create each work, the paper skin is first damaged by the act of piercing or puncturing it hundreds or thousands of times by hand with a pin tool—a long metal needle commonly used by ceramicists. The paper is then repaired by the act of drawing or painting on its surface, much in the same way my damaged child’s body was repaired by the surgery and stitches applied to heal it. I use a wide array of materials to repair or heal the surfaces of my paper works, including pastel, colored pencil, ink, gouache and watercolor. The equally divergent processes of control (repetitive pattern) and chance (intuitive application of color) play a major role in the work, with the whole having the feeling of a topographical map with each layer of the process captured in the final stratification.
The result, I hope, is both beautiful and engaging to viewers, allowing them to take their own personal journey across the surface of my work. I profess my unabashed alliance to beauty. There is enough ugly on the planet without my help.
Mattera: A Textile Sensibility
I am the oldest child of five, born when my mother was in her early 20s. Mom was overwhelmed with babies and housework, so she often left me in the care of her unmarried older sisters, my aunts Lena and Antonette Misci, who embraced me as the daughter they never had. They lived in the Misci family home with their mother, my grandmother, Annina.
Lena, born here, was a dressmaker who had been taught to sew by her father, Amedeo. Grandpa arrived here in the early 1900s. His skill as a tailor allowed his growing family to live frugally, but in their own small home, in a town just north of Boston. Lena worked out of a bedroom that was filled with fabric, notions, and clothing in all states of construction. She taught me to sew. Antonette, who grew up in Italy, taught me to embroider, knit, and crochet. She came to this country at 25 with a steamer trunk full of linens made by her grandmother, my bisnonna, Rafaella Ciammaichella, who wove on a homemade loom in her kitchen. My aunts used some of those cloths—muppine, we called them—in their own kitchen. I found their various twill and bird’s eye patterns endlessly fascinating. Grandma Annina was a knitter. You knew where in the house she was by the click of her metal knitting needles; usually it was in the living room, where she sat on a plastic-covered wing chair.
When Lena and Antonette were not working or keeping house or cooking, they were crocheting afghans, knitting sweaters, embroidering tablecloths, and tatting the lace trim on linen handkerchiefs. I joined them with my own little needlework projects, feeling cocooned by their affection and abilities.
Fast forward to art school in the late Sixties. Stain painting was the big thing. Without a gesso ground, the liquid acrylic sank into the weave of the canvas. I didn’t realize it initially, but the textile connection between what I did as a child and what I was doing as an art student was as straight as a dart. After graduation when I had no money for art supplies, I shredded all my stain paintings and wove them into new paintings. Now I make small color field paintings that reference silk fabric. Initially I denied the textile connection, but as I developed my own strength as an artist, I came to acknowledge and embrace the textile sensibility of my paintings. Textiles are in my DNA, and what I make springs from it.
Perhaps I should add that in 50 years of artmaking I have gone down a lot of avenues. Another major one is the modernist grid, which serves at the underpinning for a lot of my work, even the way I display it. But when you think about it, the grid, with its vertical and horizontal construction is not unlike the warp and weft of fabric. It seems that all roads lead to Rome.
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DeGennaro: The Visible and the Invisible
The strongest connection between my Italian American heritage and studio practice is a result of being raised in the Catholic faith. The cavernous space of the cathedral that my family attended, the glowing stained-glass windows that were both narrative and geometric, the hushed community, the soaring organ and choral singing, and the incense gave me a sense of both the visible and the invisible.
Twenty-five years ago, searching for an abstract vocabulary to communicate ideas of ritual, growth, and the passage of time, I began using geometric forms and specifically the image of a dot or bead. The beads are a direct reference to the counting of beads, each bead marking time and the saying of a prayer on the rosary.When the pandemic erupted this year alongside our increasing awareness of racial inequality and global climate change, I was inspired by a dream image of a lattice. I began a new series of paintings and drawings of a lattice formed with cube shapes, the cubes rendered with colored beads. The lattice image symbolizes the passage of one mode of being to another. The rungs of the lattice representing an ascension of human knowledge and a realization of a new stage of existence.
Moriarty: Mima’s Favorite
I am an Irish Italian American, but my cultural upbringing came wholly from my mother's Italilan family. My grandmother, Anna Policella, married my grandfather, Pacifico Roccio, a cook on a navy ship, and they had two daughters. My grandfather was a storied rogue. All the kids called him tadone [Abbruzzese dialect for grandfather] and thought the sun rose over his head. During the war years, my grandmother worked in a hat factory in Beacon, New York, and raised their daughters alone, while my grandfather was off having three more daughters with another woman—the youngest one is the same age as me. So in all he had five daughters, but among the family's grandkids, I was the only girl, and the oldest, and that was enough to make me my grandmothers' favorite.
I spent most Saturday nights sleeping over at her house, watching Lawrence Welk on TV, going to church with her in the morning and 'helping' her make homemade macaroni, braciole, and gravy for our big family Sunday dinners. She always made extra gravy and let me stand at the stovetop dipping endless chunks of crusty Italian bread into it. I also accompanied her on many trips to the Bronx to visit her brothers and sisters and stock up on special ingredients. Many of them lived together in a big, loud, multifamily brownstone near Morris Park.Every Christmas Eve she made a massive feast and the whole extended family came together at her table, including my grandfather and his other family. Everyone was always very excited about my grandfather because we saw him rarely. They retell his colorful stories to this day as if they are the stuff of legend. But they never amused me much because I always saw the reverence he was held in as a slight to my grandmother, who stoically put up with it and never said a bad word about him. She taught me things about grace that are so deeply instinctive I cannot even put them to words, but I know her influence is indelible.
I think my studio practice is inspired by what I would call kitchen culture, with all its communalism, ritual, improvisation, nurturing, and traditions. And the processes—like laying out fresh noodles on trays carefully sprinkled with cornmeal and set out on her sunporch to dry. For me, studio activity is always like cooking and brings me back to Mima’s.
Porcaro: The Rightness of Stone
Both my paternal and maternal grandparents came to the States at the turn of the century from Southern Italy to find a better life. One of my earliest memories is of visiting my mother’s uncle and his brother who, after they came here, opened a stone yard in Connecticut. Seeing all the stones, mostly monuments and gravestones, stacked up made a deep impression on me.
This impression didn’t find its outlet, however, until many years later when I took a sculpture class in college. I can say that from the first time I cut a piece of stone, I knew that it felt right. It fed a driving need to work with a material that speaks to tradition, and I knew that that tradition belonged to my culture. I have visited Italy many times and have gone to the quarries and stone yards all over the country. I work with marble and stone from around the world. but the marble I like to work with the most comes from Carrara because of its fine granular structure and its ability to hold a defined edge. It’s easy to understand why great carvers like Michelangelo chose to work with Carrara marble.But I am not a stone carver in the traditional sense. I am more aligned with Bernini as a builder and architect, one who constructs with stone. Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona in Rome has always been a source of inspiration, not only because of the way he stacked the stone to create mass and form, but the way he combined history with mythology, placing a 3000-year-old Egyptian obelisk on top of the figures of the four rivers. In my own way, I use the inherent characteristics of stone to express my interest in humanity’s imprint on nature, the passage of time, both geologic and historic, and the mythologies we ascribe to our monuments.
D'Arrigo: Deep Roots from Sicily to the Bronx
It is impossible for me to tease out which of my early influences were related to being Italian American (or more specifically, Sicilian American) from other factors, but I do think that having Sicilian/Italian American heritage and being Bronx bred in the 1950s were all of a piece.
In my family a repeated refrain was that Sicily was only recently considered a part of Italy (mid-1800s), and had been conquered by “everyone,” creating a unique and insular collective sensibility. The rich cultural history was often discussed, from the Greeks to the Arabs and Normans, as well as the genius of relatively recent locals, Vincenzo Bellini, Luigi Pirandello, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa, among others. Yet the deprivation that caused so many to emigrate, as well as the irony of leaving a place of great physical beauty for dismal tenements, was a frequent topic as well.
Growing up first-generation Sicilian/Italian American, there was a pervasive do-it-yourself ethos, but also an express-yourself atmosphere. Everyone made things, repaired things, jerry-rigged things. That had a powerful effect on my sensibility and is with me still.
Before emigrating, my grandfather was a shoemaker who tanned his own leather. My grandmother was an expert embroiderer and the only butcher in her town. My mother, a self-trained painter, also revived forgotten recipes. And my father, a serious cook, self-taught poet, and superb dancer, said he learned English on the Roseland Ballroom dance floor.
Our backyard had fig trees (of course), wrapped with multicolored oilcloths and rough blankets, all tied together with rope each winter, resembling twisted, grotesque, disjunctively textured looming abstract figures. Those fig trees, and the prevailing 1950s visual culture of curvaceous cars, brash comics, and extreme hairstyles, were endlessly fascinating.
In retrospect I think the Italian Americans in my Bronx neighborhood brought 1950’s hairstyles into especially outrageous realms; they were gravity-defying sculpture, held together with industrial-strength hair spray. I was entranced by these visuals, considering them on a par with art I saw at the Met, Cloisters, or Museum of Primitive Art. My parents loved art, and we went to those museums (they thought the best stuff was Italian), but contemporary art was not on the radar.
My grandmother’s needlework inspired me to learn traditional embroidery stitches, and I found drawing with thread, as I thought of it, especially appealing. I was attracted to art that also functioned: reliquaries, fountains, vessels, devotional objects. Creating a beehive hairdo seemed like a legitimate expressive endeavor. Maybe that's why I've never understood the craft versus art divide.
The work I’ve done over the years, from hand-stitched sculptures to my current hand-built ceramic works, which additionally function as vases, can trace at least some deep roots to my Sicilian/Italian American Bronx background.
Zukowski: Keeping Secrets, Making Do
Gay Talese, in Italian Americans on PBS, said Italian immigrants had a great respect for authority yet a distrust of authority. My grandfather hid the past and was terrified of some mysterious authority figure that was going to do us harm. We were taught never to talk about family matters with others. The heritage of being blue-collar working class created a condition of secrecy that offered a protection from the world outside the family.
This has manifested itself very strongly in my work. Working abstractly helps to hide, to mask, to not be overt. I almost always hide things in my work, secret meanings, hidden objects, covered up text. In the Bundles series what is unseen is almost as important to the work as what is seen. The bundles are filled with shredded ephemera. The outside materials are also significant; the fabrics are old clothes, some belonging to my parents. They are wrapped up in string as a kind of safekeeping, a way of keeping their secrets.
I grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Being of Italian descent made me an oddity, somehow less equal to the Irish kids. My insular neighborhood fostered the racist attitudes of several generations earlier, when Italian immigrants, especially Southern Italians, were somehow not quite white, not quite equal. Such was my world outside the home. But inside, we were beautiful, talented, and interesting. The men in my family could build anything—boats, houses, furniture, you name it. The women were all expert seamstresses who could sew, knit, and crochet without patterns. I benefitted from all of it. I helped my father build boats and houses and learned all things needlework from my mother and grandmother.
I was the first of my family to graduate from college. One of my father’s favorite sayings was, “If you can’t make it or steal it, you do without it.” Not that he would steal anything, but he really did make everything. And if possible, made it from what was around.
Prosopopoeia, and much of my other work, is very much in that tradition. Sometimes the materials speak to me, other times I enjoy the challenge of making discarded material work for what I want to say. My husband and I are remodeling our cottage in Florida, and the materials for this piece came from the construction debris.
When I was growing up, extended family was always around. I lived next door to my maternal grandparents; an uncle’s family lived above my grandparents. My parents’ social circle consisted primarily of relatives. My brothers and I were told that “friends come and go, but your family is forever.” My family is still my foundation, and the subject of much of my work.
I was thinking of my mother when making Heaven, and about feeling loss. I was in the midst of dealing with her estate so she was very much on my mind.
DeSando: Close to the Earth
Foraging: I remember my parents walking the woods near our house to forage for food. They would collect berries, mushrooms and greens to carry home to eat, or to jar or jelly. My father was Sicilian. He walked, drove, met with people to find amazing stuff to pick. We would also plant a fig tree wherever we moved. We planted fruit trees, peas, corn, and tomatoes around our property. My parents were always out in the woods and I would follow. They were close to the earth like no other family in our community. They learned where to go to pick what they needed. No more, no less. They gave me respect for the bounty of the land. They were fine caretakers.
Tree knowledge: I took my own walks. With young friends we explored the woods and rivers, following the cycles of life in my surroundings. I watched the fish, small animals, and bugs. My artwork is about becoming one with the tree. I look to the trees as my guide. They are very generous. Several years ago they invited me to join them, I willingly agreed. I was taught about the beginning of life. How things came into being, from object to living entities. My work shows those entities joining together, willingly or not. I watched and wondered if I could influence that process and perhaps change how the world works.
Lanzetta: A Passion for Nature
In 1918 my grandfather, Salvatore Lanzetta, left Castelvetere sul Calore, Provincia di Avellino, and arrived at Ellis Island, alone, an 18-year-old with no English, little money, and less education. I can’t imagine what courage that took. A stonemason by trade, he found employment in the industrial mill city of Waterbury, Connecticut. There, he met my American-born grandmother, Anna, the daughter of another Italian immigrant. Salvatore toiled his whole life in factories. He never really learned to speak much English and never bought a car, but he died with money in the bank, owning outright a three-family home.
Embedded in this classic American immigrant story was the heart and soul of Italianità. No one ever told me art was important; they just demonstrated it. My grandmother crocheted finely bordered handkerchiefs, antimacassars, and bedspreads. My grandfather, an accomplished amateur photographer, developed in his basement the formal family portraits he sent back to Italy. His endless, multicourse Sunday dinners were a celebration of everything homemade, including the wine, while Enrico Caruso‘s operatic tenor filled the air.A passion for nature is the most direct artistic inheritance from my grandfather. As we worked together in his garden, I learned every vegetable name in dialetto. I drew plants and flowers as a kid and have continued since then. Nature as symbol and inspiration has been a persistent, significant theme in my work. The south-facing perennial garden I cultivate at my studio in Long Island City links my art to a larger world. While providing organic references for my work, the garden also embodies my family history. Hostas, hyacinths and forsythia bushes, transplanted from my grandfather’s garden, rebloom every year, celebrating the unending continuity of family and nature.
Russotti: La Famiglia
The family I Photograph: I have been scanning collected mushrooms for the last couple years. Since I began doing this, they have consistently presented themselves to me even when there is no reason for them to be there. Looking for them is exhilarating, never disappointing. The shapes, sizes, colors, and textures are astonishing. Had they always been in my yard? Was I simply not in tune enough to notice? While exploring a variety of resources, I came across the phrase, World Wood Web. The interconnectedness of trees, fungi, lichen made perfect sense to me.
The Family in Which I Grew Up: Being Italian in the 1950’s
required invisibility. We were still not fully accepted or respected. My
siblings and I were not allowed to speak Italian, only English. Many of my
friend’s parents had already changed their names to something “acceptable.” The
women seemed to run so much yet were always forced to do it hidden away. Ethnic
and cultural prejudice was widespread. I experienced it many times. Once I filed
a car accident report and it disappeared. And I found that Italian judges did
not like educated Italian women who had not yet had children.
These are some of the things I learned:
. Always have more than is needed. You never know when someone will stop by
. Never have idle hands. If you are sitting, you should be sewing, embroidering, tatting
. Make everything from scratch: food, clothes, gifts, and make it all exquisite
. Always have an antipasto, a primo piatto, and a secondo piatto plus dessert
. Keep a garden and love nature
. Always put your family first
. Protect your own and a select few
I also observed suspicion, anger, jealousy, sadness. And great love.
Red Russotti, my father’s first cousin, and Frank Valente ran the Mafia in Rochester. I remember regular mob trials growing up and the fallout from being a Russotti. During family gatherings, the men always talked in hushed little circles. They knew who was doing what. To this day, I am not sure who was involved in the mob, but I know that some were. I was completely fascinated watching them. How could they have so much to say to each other? Did they talk to the women about the same things? Why were the women always in the other room? Usually the kitchen, cooking and cleaning.
All of my aunts and girl cousins and my mother did handwork: knitting, tatting, needlepoint, smocking, sewing of some kind. My mother’s work was always exquisitely done. She would often take apart whatever I did so I would have to start over and do it better. I did not have store-bought clothes until my 20’s. She made everything, perfectly. And she cooked like she sewed.
To this day, I never feel like a piece is finished until I add some kind of handwork, stitching, waxing, something extra to the work.
Alterio: Respect and Tradition
I am the proud product of an ardent Italian family from Boston. I was raised a respectful, appreciative Italian young man whose family emigrated from Ariano di Puglia [now Ariano Irpino], in Southern Italy near Naples. My early memory was one of respect for others and an innate understanding for tradition and interfamilial respect.
Sarrantonio: A Reflection of Italian Heritage
When I was preparing for my first visit to Italy, my wife, Ann, and I visited my Italian grandmother, excited to tell her about our trip. She started yelling at me, “Don’t go! Don’t go! There’s nothing there for you! Don’t go!” I realized that my grandparents had left behind a life of hardship in the hills of Abruzzi and worked hard so their children would not experience the deprivation that Italy meant to them. Living in Astoria, Queens, they had no interest in the life they had left behind. My planned trip seemed like a betrayal to her.
Of course, we fell in love with Rome immediately. Visiting friends who were living in there, we were able to avoid many of the superficial experiences of tourist life, instead living in an apartment in a residential area, cooking meals at home, and enjoying the sounds, smells, and sights of the endlessly entertaining life of Rome. We also visited Florence, Venice, and Assisi on this first trip.
I was always attracted to Italian art. In our suburban home in the cultural wasteland of Long Island there were three art books: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and (incongruously) Velasquez. I spent hours with these books and embarked on an oil copy on cardboard of The Last Supper when I was 11 or 12 years old (it could be generously described as a disaster). Trips to Italy were always art focused for me, including “pilgrimages” to visit The Last Supper in Milan and Giotto’s Arena chapel in Padua. I was never disappointed in these experiences. My interest in Italian art reached back in time to Classical Rome, Etruscan and Medieval Art and forward to Baroque and Modern. One of the many experiences that I will not forget was sitting in the Museo Nazionale Palazzo Massimo surrounded by the four walls of the Garden Fresco from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta (First Century B.C.). The modern lighting, compressed into a matter of minutes, is engineered to mimic the changing natural light that would have bathed the room in the course of a day. Watching the warm light of a Roman day transform into the cooler, darker values of late afternoon into evening was a magical and transportive experience.
On a visit to the village of my ancestors in Abruzzi I met my grandfather’s sister (he had not seen her since he left at 19, when she was 16) and I was pleased to find that my lineage going back at least seven generations were all shepherds. The landscape was not unlike the rocky hills of the Shawangunks [the southeastern edge of the Catskills] near where I now live, and the hard life that was evident there helped me understand my grandmother’s dismay at our plans to visit.
Returning to my own practice, what I think I strive for and find inspiration for in Italian Art is a sense of the timeless. When I look at Masaccio and other masters I see echoes of both Classical and Modern Art. There is no isolation in a time period. A dear friend recently compared my seascapes to Morandi which I consider high praise indeed, and perhaps a reflection of Italian heritage.
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Cultrera: Tales of the Old Days
My youth was spent in the Italian America neighborhood of Salem, Massachusetts. It was a small but vibrant playground. Our houses and our lives were connected by culture, clotheslines, and cookie recipes. I was frequently in a tug of war between the embrace that neighborhood gave me, and the promise the railroad tracks at the bottom of my street offered.
I learned to make movies by fiddling with a Super-8mm camera in the basement of our house—the one my Sicilian grandfather helped build in 1915. Almost every film I’ve made has had some piece of connective tissue tying back to that edifice and the large, loud family that once occupied it. In 1977 I used the train tracks to head to New York City. Thirty years later I returned to live in that same house. In between that time, I studied at the School of Visual Arts; created Fellini-influenced narrative films about the old neighborhood (Of the Neighborhood and In His Frame), as well as documentaries about blue collar life (Leather Soul), the commerce of Salem (Witch City), and the sins of the faith (Hand of God). I worked as an editor and occasional director for clients as diverse as Human Rights Watch, the Rolling Stones, and Food Network. After a decade of traveling back and forth to New York City, the pandemic has me editing TV shows back in the bedroom I once shared with my big brother. The clothesline out back still squeaks tales of the old days on every sunny day we hang our wash.
Hand of God is a film first and foremost about family. It has an investigative spine, but at its human core it is a story of how bad things happen to good people, and how those people react and survive by forming a tight circle. The film has no agenda except to speak in true detail about my family's experience. I wanted to inform through experience, not through expert analysis. I wanted people who did not grow up Catholic to see what that was like and how our blind faith allowed these sorts of crimes to happen and go unspoken about. For Catholics there would be an obvious recognition and maybe a sense of healing because of the portrayal of strength in family.
Images by Hugh Walsh from the Cultrera documentary, Hand of God