Inside and Outside the Sphere of Ethnicity
All images and essays (c) the individual artists unless otherwise noted
Continuing the theme of this project, the artists here share their memories of the Italian American childhoods that shaped them. The difference is that while many have the blood of makers in their veins, for this group it is less the culture of tradition that informs the work and more the culture of Italy itself—its art and architecture, history, and landscape. In other instances Italy has nothing to do with it. Italian American artists are free to explore ideas outside the sphere of ethnicity. We see still lifes with mystery and magic, formal abstractions with a focus on compositional elements, as well as gestural abstractions that reference emotions or reflect the artists’ personal concerns. The act of conjuring an idea and making it manifest is a miracle, whatever the spark. What I have done here is provide a visual flow to the images.
McDowell: A Sense of Familiarity
The question of Italian cultural inﬂuences on one’s work is complicated. We have all become who we are through experience and nature, often with many of these inﬂuences being attained without conscious awareness. My own obvious connections to what is Italian (you might be wondering what a McDowell is doing here) are through my immigrant grandfather, Francesco Macellari, my mother, Provida Macellari, and our extended family residing near the junction formed by the territories of Lombardia, Piemonte, Liguria and Emilia Romagna.
This is a family whose members have become sculptors, painters, designers, architects, and musicians. A cousin, for example, performs with La Scala in Milano. My mother, who earned an MFA in painting at her mature age, worked as an artist, an educator, and a fashion model when she was younger. Others have established publishing and printing companies (le stamperie).I have to confess that this half of my heritage has been the more attractive to me, with its eccentric conversations and opinions on life and art, with never-ending dinners which, when I was a youth, seemed to be interrupted only for museum visits. (This is not to dismiss my father, Samuel McDowell, his relatives, and their own fascinating story of Scottish cowboys homesteading in Texas—another story).
What also links me to my Italian roots is a sense of familiarity with certain places. My grandfather, Francesco, is buried on the mountains northeast of Genoa near the house where he and prior generations of the family were born, going back hundreds of years. I have had the good fortune of staying there often since I was a young boy and still return to Italy every year, with 2020 being an exception. All in all, my Italian heritage has grounded me, nourishing my passion for art and dedication to practice. I have been fortunate to have a family and place that has allowed me to grow through unlimited support for my career.
Pesce: Plumbing and Painting
Victor Pesce (1938-2010) was the child of Southern Italian immigrants, Sandro Pesce and Ada Malpezzi, who settled in Flushing, Queens. In his New York Times obituary, written by Roberta Smith, we learn that members of his mother’s family were painters in the town of Campotosto, in the Abruzzi, where they created public murals in such spaces as a local post office and train station.
Despite his own inclination to paint, Pesce was expected to follow
his father into the family plumbing business. He did. But like so many artists
with a day job, he also followed his true calling. He studied art and then set
up his studio. “He enrolled in New York
University, where he earned a degree in art education; a course taken with the
painter Milton Resnick was especially influential,” writes Smith.
Pesce’s father was less than pleased. The gallerist Elizabeth Harris, to whom he was married for almost 30 years until his passing, says, “His relationship with his father was the main drama of his life. I remember visiting his parents with him, I think it was a Christmas dinner, when his father said, ‘If you had taken over the business you wouldn’t be a bum the way you are now.’”
The “bum” created a large body of work that focused on spare but unsparing portraits and modestly sized still lifes, reductive in their geometric composition, with a somber if pleasingly idiosyncratic palette. Of the still lifes Smith made the inevitable comparison to the formal quietude of Giorgio Morandi. Harris notes that early in Pesce’s career “his main influence was Cezanne” and only as a mature painter did the influence of Morandi creep into his work. You might also see a kinship to Italian metaphysical painting, which offers the dreamlike, sometimes unsettling juxtapositions of objects, but Pesce’s painting is immediately recognizable for his own unique vision
Pesce worked in a light-filled studio attached to the home in Sharon, Connecticut, that he and Harris had built. “He painted there the last 28 years of his life. He loved it up there,” says Harris. The studio was attached to the house, “the way in some Italian country houses the barn is attached.” She notes that the studio opened on to grass, trees, and sky—“almost two acres. He had a really beautiful view of the hills.”
Whatever disappointment Pesce’s career choice held for his father, Harris says, “He was adored by his mother.”
Below: Self Portrait, 2004, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches
Copy After Masaccio, Florence (from Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the Cappella Brancacci, Santa Maria del Carmine), 2003, pencil on paper, 10 x 7 inches
Micchelli: Circling Back
The simplest way to put it is that Italian art and culture form the double helix around my life and work. Although both of my parents were born in this country, I grew up in a social fabric that was far more Italian than American, which I didn’t fully appreciate until my first trip to Italy, where I felt immediately at home. My first memorable encounter with art was in the form of a coffee-table book of Michelangelo’s paintings that one of my uncles, an amateur sculptor, showed me one Christmas morning when I was seven or eight. The visceral transcendence of the forms overwhelmed me in a way I couldn’t comprehend, imprinting an indelible sense of wonder.
The compact volumes, structural solidity, and primacy of line that undergird the art of Michelangelo, Masaccio, Pontormo, Caravaggio, de Chirico, Morandi — to pluck a handful of names out of dozens — are the elusive touchstones of my practice. They are not elements exclusive to Italian art, of course, but no matter how widely I cast my net, I always find myself circling back to the Italians and the Italianate when I need to find my bearings.
Wethli: Straight Lines and a Hint of Magic Realism
1. In Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Fanny and Alexander, we’re introduced to two households—the joyful, colorful, and boisterous one of the title characters’ first home and, after their father dies and their mother remarries, the harsh, spare, Calvinistic one of their stepfather, Edvard Vergérus. The moment I saw it I recognized my own upbringing—on one end of town the farm of my Swiss/English grandparents, Bill and Mattie, and on the other the home of my maternal grandmother, Theresa Lopreste (neé Condello), born in Reggio Calabria in 1909.
While the Wethli family was much nicer than the Vergérus’ household in the film, I remember sparse furnishings and quiet mealtimes. Except for the ticking of a clock, sounds rarely interrupted the sunlight streaming through the windows onto the linoleum floors. My grandfather and grandmother, both of whom I adored, could have easily stepped out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.
At the Lopreste's, on the other hand, there was constant banter in both English and Italian, punctuated by hand gestures and filled with equal parts laughter and fretting. It seemed like something was always on the stove or on the table, and the smell of tomato sauce permeated every room. There was also superstition, like the time I was seven or eight and I was hooting like an owl, the way kids do. My great aunt, Sarah, went ashen and admonished me that when you hear the call of an owl someone in the neighborhood will die that night.
When I read Joanne Mattera’s wonderful memoir, Vita: Growing Up Italian, Coming Out, and Making a Life in Art, the early pages could have just as easily been written about my own upbringing, but only by half. The Wethlis were Lutherans and the Lopreste’s Catholic (by heritage). The Wethlis, in addition to my father and grandfather, were predominantly uncles and farming people; the Loprestes were a matriarchy comprised of my mom, grandmother, aunts, and great aunts. I learned valuable and lasting lessons from each.
When I look at my work now, I can see my reserved, Swiss heritage in my predilection for straight lines, rectangles, clarity, and simplicity. From my Italian side I see colors that remind me of my mother’s sewing room, the vernacular Forties- and Fifties-era furnishings of my grandmother’s home, and the lively, constant, and unpredictable flow of conversation, along with a hint of magic realism.
2. When I turned 50 (one legal drinking age ago), I celebrated in two ways: I rented a local movie theater for a private screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Year of the Horse, for a gathering of friends, and I flew to Bologna to see as much as I could of Giorgio Morandi’s work and hometown (as well as sampling the renowned food and wine). The muted yet quiet energy of his paintings, and something innately Italian about them, are qualities I always aspire to.
Martin: Tomatoes Growing in the Backyard
Much of what I am today I credit to my grandmother, Filomena Maccarone.
My art life started early. The influences that contributed to it have much to do with my upbringing. With a name like Lloyd Martin you wouldn’t immediately think “Italian American,” but that part of my identity has had a strong pull on my life. My mom, Doris Maccarone, was born here on Federal Hill, a well-known Italian neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. My father was Irish and Swedish with nine (!) brothers. Grandpa, Antonio Maccarone, was the son of a blacksmith from Rocomonfina in the Caserta region of Campania about an hour’s drive from Naples. Filomena’s family was originally from Rome, a family of professionals and business owners. Her father owned an Italian import market on Federal Hill.
I was born in Providence in the late Fifties and lived on the third floor of a tenement house that my grandparents owned. The neighborhood was a mix of Italians and Irish. You could pick out the Italians because they usually had tomatoes growing in the backyard. All of those traditions that many Italian Americans share—the family gatherings on Sundays and holidays, the foods and common ideals—indeed shape you.
I showed an early interest in drawing and painting that was encouraged by my parents and grandparents. My mom’s uncle, Freddy San Antonio, was a painter and a RISD alum, certainly an inspiration to me. He would often send art supplies and showed sincere interest in my young efforts. So I started painting at a very young age. Filomena was persistent in pushing me to go to college and pursue my dreams. When I resisted and rejected and got into some pretty serious teenage trouble, it was she who took charge and righted my ship. I wouldn’t have applied to art school or college if it were not for her. I learned to find my strengths and accept only excellence from her.
The example of hard work and the support that my family demonstrated is the only reason I am still at it. Working toward an imagined ideal that still seems within reach.
I am a second-generation Italian American on the Sicilian side, and third generation from the Basilicata area, east of Naples. My four sisters and I were raised in the suburbs of New York City to become good American girls with bland American names, and my parents spoke only English. However, in the Italian American style, we ate a big home-cooked meal after church every Sunday, had a fig tree in the back yard, and spent the holidays at my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Little Italy or with cousins, sharing meals that stretched on for five hours. My Sicilian grandmother lived with us my entire life and cooked in tandem with my mother. Food was a sensual pleasure and a place to come together. Family was everything, we were noisy, and there were a lot of us.
My parents, Natalie and Vincent, both respected and created art, providing us with a life of enthusiasm and excitement. Arts and crafts were family events, with holiday decorations made at the living room table together. On Halloween, we were the stars of our neighborhood, in our lively handmade costumes. Appreciating every detail for its own particular beauty (“Look at that!” What do you think of this picture?”) was a part of everyday life for us. Visual literacy was the result.
My mother, whose own mother dreamed of being an opera singer, and whose cousin was a music critic for the New York World Telegram & Sun, taught art classes in Hastings High School. After my sisters and I were mostly grown, Mom received a EdD in Art Education from Columbia University at the age of 63. She went on to teach art teachers how to teach and is a member of many professional arts organizations. Her students keep in touch. A few of them went on to be well-known artists and gallerists. She continues to make collages, prints and small paintings in her home studio.
Although my father’s family was impoverished by his father’s early death, Dad attended Pratt Institute on the GI bill and majored in commercial art. He felt that his father’s little shoemaking business on Long Island was what inspired his love of shape and form, sculpture and architecture, and he kept the wooden shoe models in his basement studio. Mounted on the wall in this studio were tools that he found intriguing, from eggbeaters and antique pliers to old fan blades and currying combs. He invented useful objects in his spare time and set them down in notebooks or made maquettes. After he retired as an art director on Madison Avenue, he became a full-time sculptor and painter, which he said were the happiest years of his life.
His favorite artist was Ellsworth Kelly and my mother’s was Barnett Newman, and we were brought as children to look at abstract painting at MoMA, rather than the Metropolitan Museum. We were never “afraid of red, yellow and blue”.
From this brief history, one can see how my work as an artist reflects these formative influences. I went on to major in Art History, got an MFA in Painting, and then went to Paris and Rome to look at everything I had missed seeing while looking only at abstract art. My paintings employ the flat expanses of graphic color that I grew up seeing in my father’s advertising, shape that reads as figure and ground, and sometimes metaphors of theater spaces (Italian opera!) among other subject matter. I aim for a witty exploration of abstract tropes from our modernist history that I saw growing up at MoMA. In hindsight, I see that my parents’ Italian American heritage is the foundation for my own strengths and focus as an abstract painter. They inherited the love and appreciation of what comes to us from our senses and the romantic artist’s spirit of La Boheme. The life of stylish beauty they created in our home comes from from their Italian roots. If I hadn’t become an artist, something would have been amiss!
I think that if one is a painter, one doesn’t have to have Italian ancestry in order to feel a strong connection to Italian painting—but it certainly doesn’t hurt. I grew up in a working-class community in Rhode Island that was solidly Italian American and just as solidly Roman Catholic. What little Italian I understand comes from hearing my grandmother and her many sisters speaking their Southern dialect when they didn’t want me to know what they were talking about.
My trips to Italy have always been organized around the paintings I wanted to see. One particularly memorable trip was 10 days in Rome in which the daily itinerary was exclusively dedicated to seeing all the Caravaggios there—a Baroque Easter Egg hunt that took me through the Vatican, the Capitoline, the Borghese Collection, and more churches than I can count. Judith and Holofernes made me cry. On that same trip, while roaming from site to site, I quite accidentally had a crash course in Bernini appreciation. Where else on earth could something like that happen?
And what of the terrible will that resulted in the Sistine Chapel? How could an individual do this impossible thing? And how does that will fit in with the appealing level of insouciance that struck me as an equally strong part of the culture? On the same aforementioned trip, I asked the concierge at the hotel to call the Capitoline to see if the museum would be open the day after Christmas (which was just a couple of days away). He made a call, then told me: “They don’t know yet.”
I could go on about the Renaissance and Baroque masters that I cherish: Caravaggio, Titian, Michelangelo, Veronese, Giorgione, others. I won’t, because there’s already been plenty of ink spilled about them, and it doesn’t speak to the core question of how, specifically, growing up Italian American effects the way I look at this work. It does, profoundly, and here’s how: I embraced atheism at a very early age, but I’m still a baptized, confirmed Roman Catholic. When I walked into those many Italian churches, from cavernous cathedrals to modest size spaces not so very different to the ones where I attended Mass as a child, I was instinctively aware that I belonged there, that I was part of the club. The solemn silence, the incense, the Madonnas and crucifixions and Stations of the Cross—I knew exactly where I was and there was no doubt in my mind that I was a card-carrying member.
Filomeno: Saints and Masterpieces
Around 1908-1909 my paternal and maternal grandparents left Italy to begin their new lives in New York City, each couple gravitating to a Little Italy, one in Manhattan, one in the Bronx. There they recreated life as they had known it in Italy, holding tight to their cultures and traditions. Eventually my paternal grandparents moved to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where my grandfather opened a jewelry store. Before he emigrated, he was a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Bologna, and my grandmother was one of his graduate students.
My maternal grandmother, from poverty-stricken Matera, just
above the arch of the boot, was a widow with a young son. She met my
grandfather in Italy before he came over. Their families had arranged a meeting
(if not the actual marriage). She followed him here, where they married. This
grandmother was a homemaker and went on to extend her family to five children.
My grandfather was a shoemaker with a small shop in the Bronx. Even though he
spoke no English, we got along great. He was the chef of the family, and no one
came close to surpassing his meatballs. The highlight of a visit for me was
going to the Arthur Avenue market with him.
My Italian American heritage began with the cultural influences that came over with my grandparents, including education, filtered down to my American-born parents and then directly to my brother and me. I was born in New York City in the mid-Fifties, during the height of the Abstract Expressionistic movement, as my father was setting up a new homestead for us in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He built our home himself. After the War he began a refrigeration business that enabled him to purchase five building lots, and one by one his parents, all of his brothers and sisters, and a few in-laws joined us. He created a new neighborhood that resembled a much smaller-scale version of Little Italy.
My mother worked in the Garment District as a design assistant and seamstress before she got married. She met my father at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. After they married, she became a homemaker. Her design aesthetic carried through into our clothing and home décor. She designed and sewed my many dresses. She herself was very tall, almost six feet, and dressed as if she had stepped out of Vogue. Being the New Yorker she was, she found it difficult to adapt to rural New Jersey so she returned to Manhattan once a week. She brought me in often for shows, operas, and museums.
In New Jersey our life centered around family, church, music (opera and Frank Sinatra), glorious family recipes, and seatings of 20 or more for Sunday dinners. The gravy simmering on the stove was always the center of attention, along with the fresh cannoli brought from the city. Because not everyone from the family moved to New Jersey, we alternated Sunday dinners between our home and my grandparents’ home in the city.
In my work I see the influences of Catholicism: the saints, the Mass, churches filled with religious relics and icons, shrines, altars, the physicality of the body, the mystery of life. The numerous trips I have taken to Italy allowed me to view the masterpieces: the Caravaggios, Michaelangelos, Berninis, Titians, Giottos, and the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi—and with them a heightened sense of drama, emotive use of color, the physicality of the gesture, the use of metaphors and narratives on a heroic scale, the Baroque, the grandness of it all.
I have hiked the Cinque Terre to experience that dramatic coastline and visited the splendor of Capri, Pompeii, and the Alps. However, Venice has remained my favorite city in the world. (The Filomeno family traces its origins to Venice. There is a lineage to nobility, with a family crest and coat of arms.)
This essay commemorates the passing of my mother 21 years ago. Lillian (Carmelina) Filomeno enriched my life in so many ways and taught me to appreciate where I come from. Her greatest wish was that I would carry on the traditions she exposed me to: my Italian American heritage.
Bocchino: Italian Culture in the Bones
I felt like I had come home when I first arrived in Rome in 1990 for a solo exhibition. The sights, sounds, and tastes of the romantic city seemed so familiar. The rich Italian heritage I experienced growing up formed this instant connection.
My grandmother, Maria Confalone, was from Rome. She was trained in Italy by her grandmother to be a seamstress. When Maria immigrated to New York, she continued her practice with a specialty, creating sewn lace and adornments for private clients, including embellishments for couture and elegant window dressings. My grandfather, although a barber by trade, spent his evenings and weekends building architectural models of Italian churches and monuments. He carefully constructed each detail of these elaborate replicas using only matchsticks and cardboard. He created these models into his later years until he passed, and then my grandmother came to live with us.
Over time, it has become clear that both of my grandparents have heavily influenced my work, not only through their dedication to intricate details, but also through their ability to elaborate and make art out of everyday things. I see this in my most recent work with printed, sheer fabric veils that are suspended from the ceiling in dialogue with my paintings.
When I was growing up, my family continued the practices of my grandparents by keeping a traditional Italian household. The sounds of our home were always full of Italian opera, which played in tandem to my parents and grandparents speaking Italian. Dinners were full of homemade Italian foods. My grandmother ran the kitchen in our home. She was a terrific cook of traditional Italian delicacies. I would help with the making of the family recipes. The functioning energy in the kitchen was like an art form. It was creative, colorful, and intuitive.
My mother was an artist and maintained a home studio. An admirer of Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures, she would incorporate reproductions of them into her work. Early exposure to this artwork made an impression on me; even at a young age I studied the images my mother incorporated into her collages and tried recreating them myself. She would also paint murals on the walls, ceilings, and floors of our home, making it feel as though we lived in the many palaces and museums she had visited in Italy.
The Italian culture passed on through many generations has richly influenced my studio practice today. I am proud to say that the Italian culture has seeped into my bones and runs through my blood without anywhere to go except through my mind, heart, and hands, manifesting itself in my work.
Urso: Between the Familiar and Unfamiliar
The first things that come to mind when I think about my Italian heritage are the rigor, the energy, and the excitement my Italian relatives brought to their every endeavor. I also think about the deep compassion they had for each other and the passionate stories they shared. Perhaps my work ethic and the animated (and hopefully welcoming quality) of my artwork are directly related to my Italian roots. I am certain that the reason I walk so fast, talk so fast, and wave my hands around while speaking is a direct link to my upbringing. These things in turn energize everything I do, including working in my studio. Also my first experiences in New York City as a child, while visiting my Italian cousins in Astoria, planted the seed of love for a place that has been so important for me as an artist.
As a child, I often attended big Italian gatherings and festivities. I didn’t speak the language (as my mother didn’t) so I couldn’t always understand exactly what was going on. Although I was made to feel very comfortable there, I often felt somewhat intimidated and overwhelmed. This might be one of the reasons my work often references places, spaces, and situations that are in between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
I was raised in the American South, but without the usual Southern heritage. In 1904, my paternal grandfather immigrated from Sicily to Ybor City, a “city” within the city of Tampa that was populated mostly by immigrants from Cuba, Spain, and Italy. There he married the daughter of a couple who had also immigrated from Sicily. It was in this unique ethnic environment of hand-rolled cigars, café con leche, and Italian opera that my father was nurtured.
My mother was born in North Carolina. At at a young age she also settled in Ybor City with her mother and stepfather, who had been raised in a community by parents who, like my father’s parents, had arrived here from Sicily.Although I lived in Tampa during much of my childhood, I never lived in Ybor City as my parents had. But I absorbed the spirit of Ybor City, partly through my parents and partly because this spirit spilled over into the larger area of Tampa. I was intrigued by my Italian heritage—its vigor, color and freedom, but at the same time, as a child I found it almost too mysterious and I sometimes felt separate and a little uneasy. Now of course, as an adult, I appreciate and understand that within that mystery, the true magic lived.
Sfraga: Cycles of Life
I was born and raised in Bensonhurst, the Little Italy of Brooklyn, one of the most densely populated Italian communities in New York City. Although my parents had become Americanized, they were first-generation Italian Americans who continued to honor the traditions and rituals that my grandparents had brought with them from the Old Country. Most of our neighbors were “right off the boat,” and although they didn’t speak a word of English, they quickly blended into the neighborhood and helped shape this thriving community.
Growing up, it never really occurred to me that we were Italian. I simply thought everyone was. We lived just around the corner from 18th Avenue, one of the most popular areas in Bensonhurst, a place where the entirety of Italian culture thrived. Everywhere you looked, everything was Italian—Italian bakeries, Italian pork stores, Italian pizzerias, Italian soccer clubs, Italian cafés, and even Italian record stores, each storefront proudly displaying some version of the green, white, and red Italian flag.
The most anticipated event of the year was the local Italian feast which I learned later on was the feast of Saint Rosalina, but we simply knew it as “the festa.” On a typical Sunday in Bensonhurst, particularly on a warm day when the windows were open and the aroma of simmering meatballs, sausage, and gravy wafted out from nearby kitchens, you could hear a range of music, from Enrico Caruso or Louis Prima to the local neighborhood Italian band, The Caleps. A different kind of music echoed from parish churches as close-knit families filled the pews of Saint Bernadette’s, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Saint Francis Cabrini. After Mass we gathered on the church steps to catch up with the weekly neighborhood news or huddled around the parish grotto to chat with schoolmates and take Polaroids of families in their Sunday best.
My grandfather lived a few blocks from Green-Wood Cemetery. As a child I was always eager to visit him, because his second-floor kitchen window gave me a bird’s-eye view of the cemetery’s serene rolling landscape dotted with gravestones, mausoleums, flowers, and trees. When we visited the graves of family members on special occasions like Christmas or Easter, I was consumed with the concept of honoring the dead with ornaments of lifelike photographs, personal mementos, palm crosses, and flowers. This balance between quiet monuments for the dead and vibrant flowers adorning those graves always struck me as the perfect life-death-growth-decay metaphor.
Over the years, from college through graduate school and throughout my professional life as a photographer, photo editor, and artist, I would return to Green-Wood Cemetery with my camera to document the gravestones I was so fascinated with, attempting to capture that elusive emotion I had felt as a child. The Italian Catholic beliefs about death and rebirth have always resonated with me, and in some subliminal way my work has always attempted to explore this duality.
The biology of plants, nature and natural order has always been and continues to be an important and integral part of my creative life. As both an observation-oriented artist and avid gardener, I’ve always found inspiration exploring the various stages in the life cycle of plants, from early germination and growth, to seed dispersion and decay.
Parlato: Italian to Italian American
Italian American culture was its own thing. All Italy meant to me as a child was my maternal grandfather, Carlo. While the rest of my family somewhat denied our Italian heritage, mostly for protection from prejudice and out of disdain for the Italian stereotype, Carlo taught me the art of Italian cooking. As the story goes, Carlo stowed away on a boat from Ischia, an island off Naples, with dreams of a better life in America. While his dream of owning his own restaurant never came through, he made his mark as an amazing seafood chef.
I did get some of my art genes from my father, Pasquale, who drew fashion sketches. I kept secret from him that I had started to draw myself. One day, he came over when he saw me drawing and started to suggest ways to make it better. At the time I was resistant, but looking back I see this was one of the main ways I was able to connect with my father. Every week, right before my orthodontist appointment, he would take me to the Brooklyn Museum, and we would spend most of the time on the Egyptian floor. I could tell he secretly enjoyed being there and wanted to look at the art himself. At that time, I was also interested in advertising and illustration. However, my parents wanted me to become a teacher, so majoring in art education was my compromise.
Catholicism was a big part of my childhood; I attended Catholic schools through college. During my college years, I focused on photography and printmaking. My first photo series was of my parent’s bedroom. Portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus as a young man and a small wooden crucifix hung over their bed. One photo I took was symmetrical and also included the gentle curve of the top their bed. The portraits hung in oval wood frames and the one of Jesus also featured the sacred heart. I became obsessed with the way sunlight entered the room and illuminated the wall on which the portraits hung. I played around with painting on photo developer in the darkroom to get various tones and drip effects into the final print. Several of the final works were very painterly. We also had a large marble bust of the Blessed Mother in our living room. Many of my relatives and other Italian American homes had their own similar shrines.
In my 20s, I visited Italy and saw the Vatican, the Michelangelos and da Vinci’s; in short; the original artworks that inspired the kitsch portraits I grew up with. The version of Italy I knew as a kid developed out of a process of transformation from Italian to Italian American that my parents had gone through, not unlike the assimilation process other ethnic groups have experienced. That particular cultural experience. along with my heyday in the Sixties and Seventies. has influenced the artist I am today.
Schiliro: Circular Form and Translucent Color
When I think about how Italian culture has influenced my work, I look back on my studies in Art History at Hunter College and my travels to Italy as a young artist. I was greatly inspired by Early Byzantine and Medieval Art in particular. I can remember how I felt upon seeing the mosaics in the Basilica di San Vitale and the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The glistening gold and the sheer monumentality of the mosaics put me in awe as I moved through the space.
Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, as well as his frescoes in the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, were also a great source of inspiration for me. I was intrigued by the abstract qualities of the pictorial space. The shallow, compressed space leads one to focus on the emotional intensity of the stories being told.
Color and the ephemeral nature of light have been the focus of my paintings for some time now. Stained glass windows and in particular the Rose Windows in the churches in Italy have also inspired my work. I have a passion for the circular form and translucent color. Seeing light through colored glass has informed my painting and influenced my painting process over the years.
Giaquinto: Already Fifth
My experience in Italian culture began the day I was born. Giaquinto translates to "already fifth"— and I was the fifth male child in the family, born on the fifth of May. Needless to say, five is my lucky number. I was always interested in art and very close with my Italian family, mainly my grandparents, from listening to them speak and learning the family dynamics around the dining table.
I traveled to Italy for the first time in 2015, an Italian art history tour on my own for two weeks in Florence and Rome. I also met for the first time my second cousin and his family in Rome. In 2017 there was a family wedding in Caserta, about 25 miles north of Naples. This trip was three weeks of traveling, seeing art, and meeting more of the Giaquinto family. The Italian culture and my family made me more aware of what has inspired me over the years: art, studying, and making, and then family and food. It is a perfect life.
Rizzoli: Past Time and Present Sensibility
A childhood family trip to the old town of Calabritto in the hills above Naples awakened my senses to my heritage. The circumstances were often difficult, but relatives and townspeople there seemed well contented with their lives. So much was accomplished by hand, from making shoes and wine to growing chestnut and olive trees.
I did not think of being an artist in those years, though the experience certainly led me to appreciate life so different from my American suburbia. The memory is indelible, fortuitous it turns out, because the village was nearly destroyed by an earthquake in 1980. But I carry with me the sights and smells of that early visit, along with the cooking lessons of an aunt and smiling grandmother, and an understanding of “artisan” that I try to live by in my own work.
I was deeply struck with recognition when I first discovered the rustic, ancient-seeming work of Italian contemporary, Mirco Marchelli, who crafts his pieces almost exclusively with found bits of cloth, wood, and paper, plus tempera, as I had been doing without knowing exactly why. His approach, melding remnants of past time with present sensibility, sets me, with admiration, more firmly in my direction. This is my Italianità.
Pidone: American Names and American Bread
My father, also named Vincent, was always called Jimmy. I was an adult before I discovered that my uncle Sam was really named Salvatore. My Italian grandparents, and their many siblings, would not teach my father’s generation Italian. They would be christened with Italian names, but be given American nicknames. All this in order to be assimilated as quickly as possible.
It worked. I’m an American. So was my father and his generation, but
some cultural carryover was unavoidable. “Bread” meant Italian bread. There was pasta of some sort for dinner
every week. That other kids thought bread meant Wonder Bread, or that their
mothers didn’t spend a whole day cooking spaghetti sauce, wouldn’t register
with me for years, and it would be decades before I would realize that it was a
cultural divide rather than a quirk of their particular families.
“Bread” meant Italian bread. There was pasta of some sort for dinner
every week. That other kids thought bread meant Wonder Bread, or that their
mothers didn’t spend a whole day cooking spaghetti sauce, wouldn’t register
with me for years, and it would be decades before I would realize that it was a
cultural divide rather than a quirk of their particular families.
Two years ago, friends had an apartment in Florence for a semester and said I could come stay for a few weeks. After decades of telling people that I had no interest in visiting Italy, I’ve come back to pester my friends about the possibility of getting a time-share apartment in Florence.
You can’t get a bad meal. You can’t get a bad cup of coffee. You can’t get ice. OK, so it falls just short of heaven. And they’ve set a standard for tomatoes that probably can’t be approximated here.
I’m going to make a grilled cheese for dinner, with pesto.
Untitled Moire Drawings, 2019, ink on paper, app. 16 x 12 image on paper 26 x 18 inches
Rinaldi: Art and Landscape, Sounds and Tastes
My father’s parents were first-generation Italian Americans who grew up across the street from each other in New York’s Lower East Side. My grandmother’s family was from Northern Italy, and my grandfather’s family from the south, near Naples, so early on they had to keep their relationship a secret. I have early memories of my grandmother making lasagna and espresso (the latter, which she offered to me in small quantities with lots of sugar) and of my grandfather playing the violin.
My grandmother was a seamstress, doing piecework in the home. She died when I
was eight-years-old. My grandfather traveled to Italy each year to purchase new
and used instruments to import back to America, and he maintained a small
workshop in the basement to varnish, repair, and set up violins and violas.
They were both makers, balancing craft and aesthetic in their own ways. To this
day, I use a stovetop espresso maker, similar to the one used by my
grandparents, for my morning coffee, and I often think back fondly to the
stories of their experiences and heritage.
As an artist, I look to several Italian artists for inspiration, masters from the early Renaissance, such as Giotto, Masaccio, and Fra Angelico, as well as another more contemporary favorite, Giorgio Morandi. In their paintings I find a confidence and stillness, an honest expression of human truth in its pure form. After college, I had the amazing opportunity to study in Italy for one summer, taking in masterworks from Etruscan and Roman art through the Baroque. Yet equally formative were the landscape vistas, the streets, and the sounds, smells, and tastes of this magical land. Through travel, we learn so much about life and ourselves. In its own way, art offers a similar portal. I hope to walk those streets again and revisit these old friends sometime soon.
Maloney: Creation and Destruction
At first I was puzzled how I might connect the dots between my artwork inspired by the urban landscape and my half-Italian heritage. However, after revisiting the photos I took on a family trip to Rome, Florence, and Tuscany in 2007, I realized that the passage of time and layers of history are themes that I go back to time and again.
In my work I often incorporate fragmented areas and voids that give way into receded areas of the pieces, as if the work is somewhere in the process of an archaeological excavation. Another recurring element in my work is the integration of scaffolding in and around the work. Scaffolding most often symbolizes a structure that is in the stages of creation but can also symbolize a structure that is in the process of being dismantled.
These themes of constant creation and destruction, as well as the layers of history embedded in the surface, are ones that I explore in my artwork but also associate with the memories of my visit to Italy.The images are portraits drawn and painted in a traditional/digital hybrid that I then project digitally onto structures—some built, some found—that I then photograph and print out onto an image transfer film and transfer the image onto wood panels and assemble. (You might be wondering about the macaroni listed as part of the work. It was another way for me to tie the work to my Italian blood. The elbows of the pipes are pieces of elbow pasta that I cut down and glued to the wooden dowels to look like pipes. The rib connectors of the pipes are thin slivers of masking tape that I wrapped around several times to get a raised ring around the edge of the noodle—sounds like I'm talking in code here. Then I painted it to look like rusty metal.)
For over a decade, I have been creating computer-generated floral animations which are projected as immersive installations or displayed on architectural flatscreens. This work began with the realization that video was going to increasingly be an architectural concern—that digital moving imagery was now spatially immersive and embedded in the built environment—and thus required a different kind of non-narrative visual/temporal language. This led me to research the history of pattern, wallpaper, ornamental art, and architectural art, which led me inevitably to the art of the Italian Baroque and Rococo periods. I was interested in the florid excess of this latter work, and how it was used to express mythic and spiritual narratives. As an animator, I find this work also had a sensual exuberance, dynamism, and trompe-l’oeil illusionism which I sought to translate to the moving-image medium. As a gay artist, I am interested in the metamorphic/transformative potential of using video projection to ‘glam up' a space with a kind of efflorescing Baroque decadence.
What you see here are images from a recent series called Molecular Clock. It was originally created as a site-specific public projection mural for Night Lights Denver, in conjunction with the Supernova Digital Arts Festival there. (I also made an expanded single-channel version, Molecular Clock II, with a soundtrack, which premiered at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin as part of a public-facing exhibition, and will be shown at the Tokyo Photographic Museum as part of an upcoming festival curated by the Center For Visual Music.)
Molecular Clock is a vanitas for the age of quarrel between the Anthropocene and the Microbiocene. It is a generative digital animation depicting fanciful microbiological flora and virus-like organisms churning in a cyclical swirl of phantasmagoric fission. The work was partly inspired by the scientific media imagery that emerged in the early days of the Covid crisis and is intended to reference the symbolic imagery of the vanitas—a reminder of the cyclical transience of life, which blossoms briefly and is inevitably dissolved back into nature.
Miot: Finding the Italian Roots
My family did not have relatives near to where we lived in Washington, D.C., not my father’s many Italian relatives nor my mother’s equally numerous Scotch-Irish ones. All were scattered up and down the East Coast, and we visited infrequently. Occasionally my sister, brother, parents and I would pile into the family car to drive to Brooklyn to visit my Italian grandmother, who spoke no English at all, and who still lived in the walk-up tenement in which my father grew up. Most of my father’s 10 brothers and sisters, with their multiple children, lived nearby. I did not know them well, but I envied them and the communal life they all seemed to share.
My grandmother always sent a Christmas box of the hardest cookies I had ever eaten. I remember my grandmother now for the food she made us when we did visit: homemade ravioli, fried pan pizzas, and those hard cookies, which I came to identify as stale Italian Wedding Cookies. With no common verbal language, food became the language she spoke.
My father never talked much about his family and I neglected to ask him the pertinent questions I should have asked, something I fervently regret now that he is gone. I believe he was ashamed of his family. I did ask him once why he never taught me the Italian he spoke so ﬂuently with his mother. His answer was that it wasn’t a dialect to be proud of. His family came from the tip of Calabria and they spoke a bastard blend of Italian and Albanian common to the area.
It wasn’t until traveling in Italy, in search of that connection to my Italian roots, that I realized the discrimination that existed against those Southern Italians that had trickled down to the new generations living in America, which he felt.
However I fell immediately in love with everything Italian, in particular, the art. Those trips fostered my explorations of the ancient mediums of gold leaf, egg tempera, and encaustic. Most of my work is sculptural, reliefs built on two-dimensional surfaces, much like the doors on the Baptistery in Florence, of which I had fallen in love at ﬁrst sight.
The Coral Project, originally designed as wall pieces, grew outwards
to encompass a unique system, or biome. It is now an installation of small,
brightly colored sculptures made from dried materials, ﬁber, paper,
and any other object that could resemble small creatures. The project was
inspired by the gradual disappearance of the world’s coral reef system due to
global warming. By displaying the inﬁnite variety and awesome beauty of the
corals for all to see, I hope to inspire my viewers to act in some small way to
help reverse the damage being done to this vital part of our world.
Bucci McCoy: A Grounding in Montessori
I am Italian American, or more specifically Molisana-American. All of my grandparents emigrated to the United States in the years 1910–1921, as children or teenagers, from the beautiful, rugged, mountainous region of Alto Molise in south-central Italy. My grandfathers were blacksmiths in Italy; one eventually became a plumber and the other a machinist in the United States. My grandmothers both sewed and did other handwork.
While so many aspects of Italian culture enrich my life and my studio practice, it is the educational system developed by the Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori, that has been most critical to my formation as an artist. When I was three the company my father worked for moved from Manhattan to suburban Philadelphia, and so we moved from Northern New Jersey to a suburban Philadelphia neighborhood where we were not initially welcomed due to our ethnicity. Without playmates I was quite lonely, so my parents decided to enroll me in a pre-school. Fortunately for me they were interested in Montessori's educational philosophy, and Montessori education had recently been re-established in the United States. They found a school that followed Montessori's teachings closely and could offer me a place.
In the mixed-age Montessori classroom, specially prepared with carefully designed and crafted learning materials—sandpaper letters, binomial cubes, wooden boxes of sound cylinders, color tablets, and an array of blue-painted wooden geometric solids—and with teachers acting in specific roles, a self-reliant child could teach herself, using her eyes, hands, and mind together, developing herself through concentration, movement and the work of her own hands. Montessori believed that this way of learning from ages three to six formed the foundation for the later intellectual development of the child. It was a perfect match for me.I attended public school after kindergarten, but the years in Montessori prepared me for six years of Saturday art classes at the local art league in which students from first through twelfth grades worked together in one open classroom, each child choosing their own materials and projects and consulting with the teachers as needed. And it prepared me for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where work was not graded but evaluated at the end of each semester by a panel of faculty and students, with credit awarded or not. It was your responsibility to complete the work in the course of the semester in preparation for your review panel. At the Museum School each student determined their own educational path; there were no required courses, majors, or concentrations, and I largely focused on ceramic sculpture. After graduation and spending a year in Geneva, Switzerland, studying ceramic sculpture and glaze technology, my work gradually shifted away from sculpture and toward painting. I did not take classes in painting but rather worked it out, slowly, in my studio. I know I would not be the painter I am today without the grounding that Montessori gave me.
Paula Roland: Growing Up Italian in Mississippi
My Sicilian grandparents on both sides settled in the deep south, in Birmingham, Alabama, as did many other Italians seeking work in the coal mines and steel industry. Dominico Lusco, my mother's father from Cefalu, arrived as a young man in 1889. Dominico soon left the dark mines, rented a farm, and began to implement his ideas of below-ground pipe irrigation. These ideas paid handsome dividends in early harvests and better-quality crops. Later, he adapted above-ground irrigation to a 45-acre farm he purchased. His lush gardens and beautiful crops attracted neighbors to take frequent excursions around the farm in their cars and led visiting Italians to exclaim, "Bella Figura!"
Considered an early founder of Birmingham, Dominico was a skilled organizer who shared his production techniques with other farmers, organized the Italian Farmers Truck Growers Association which, gave them a competitive edge, and evolved into a huge Farmers Market. That in turn led to wholesaling, importing, exporting and food manufacturing businesses, as Italian Americans stuck together and took advantage of family ties.
In 1948, my parents, Peter and Pauline Lusco Maenza, left the security of their large Italian community in Alabama to move to Mississippi to begin a new business venture. They bought land and built a "tourist court" which later became a motel. I was born a year later–surely a surprise, as my siblings were much older. Yes, I grew up in a motel in Biloxi, Mississippi. But it was a park-like setting with the Gulf out my front door.
My Italian heritage influenced nothing in particular about my art, and everything. My mother sewed beautifully and made our elaborate Mardi Gras costumes and ball gowns for us that riveled Givenchy. Most importantly, she taught me to see the beauty in small things and in nature–wabi sabi Italian-style. Among the direct art connections that I can see are the Sicilian Baroque tendencies that sometimes show up in my work. This may be Influenced by my mother's taste, her penchant for quality and stuff–lots of stuff–including crystal chandeliers and gold leaf cherubs. More is more and proves one's status. After all, her great grandfather was in the service of the King of Two Sicilies at his Chinese-style summer palace in Palermo. (True, I think).
My parents brought their Old World ways with them to the Coast, but without the support and context provided by an Italian community. They were proud but ethnocentric. I didn't want anything to do with my family's Italian religiosity, suspiciousness, superstition, and their rules which must have originated in the 12th century. Rules like "you can't date until you are 17" and "You can't shave your legs until you are 16."
As a teenager I defied them, then fearing for my life, learned to become sneaky and do what I wanted without their knowing. I think that determination to do what I want has served me well in my art. I'm persistent, a fighter and risk-taker, and a bit of an entrepreneur and organizer.
At age 50 I made my first trip to Italy, and met some of my extended family in Sicily, in Bisacquino. They were normal, not deranged or in the Mafia so far as I could tell. They were welcoming and kind, like my family here. I feel happy to know who my people are. And that's good for my art as well.
Montecalvo: New Jersey Memories
The Italian side of my family came to the United States before World War I and landed in New Jersey, where I grew up. I’m told my grandfather threw his schoolbooks over a cliff as soon as he learned that his family would be going to the New World.
My grandfather’s name was Frank. There is a town in Italy called Montecalvo, but my grandfather was from a place called Panni. He and my dad visited Montecalvo some time in the1960’s. By then my grandfather was already an old man, and very Americanized. Somewhere I have a 35mm slide of my dad standing in front of the “Montecalvo” village name that was posted on a simple sign as you entered the town.
Story tells it that my grandfather once decided, while still a child, that he could drive. So when he was way too young to be behind the wheel, he climbed into an idling bus and drove it for several miles before being stopped. I was never told if the bus was empty, but I hope it was. There is a claim that he was a bus driver for a short while (legally) once he became a man of employment age. These stories are going way back in my head.
My grandfather opened an Italian pizzeria/ restaurant/ bar called The Mayfair in Woodbridge long before I was born. It used to have a bandstand, a stage, and dances. My mom worked there as a waitress for a short time, and I do have a faint memory of her coming home from work. She didn’t like it. But we used to go there often. I also remember that The Mayfair, a “gin mill” as it was referred to, was across the highway from the Rahway State Prison, on Rahway Avenue. I always thought it was odd and interesting that you could go a few hundred feet down the road and see the prison.
My uncle owned a house next to the restaurant, and the walkway to the house was lined with concrete gnomes that always scared the crap out of me when I would have to walk past them. My grandfather kept really, really mean German Shepard dogs. They scared me the most! They would bark like crazy, and I was always afraid that they would break through the Cyclone fence, but my dad sort of looked like my grandfather and sounded like him so he would just yell, ”shuddap!” and we could safely pass by the dogs. I hated those dogs. But my grandfathers’ passion for dogs led him to own a world champ terrier named Little Whiz.
I’m of Italian descent from both parents, primarily Southern Italian. My father’s family is from Bari and my mother’s mostly from Naples.
Most of the family on both sides came here in the late 1800s, early 1900s, however my father’s father was born in Italy and emigrated to the United States as a young man. He delivered ice for refrigerator boxes, then opened a gas station and worked on cars. The paternal side of the family presented their culture in a norm core way—extended family get-togethers in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, pasta on Sundays with huge pots of sauce made from scratch, and my grandfather’s ever-present tomato plants. I always found it odd though, that despite an enormous amount of pride the family took in their Italian heritage, my father and his sisters were discouraged from speaking Italian growing up.
My mom grew up in Manhattan’s Little Italy, but her family was less conventional. My grandmother divorced my grandfather and worked in the factories then present on Canal Street. My grandfather was an alcoholic who was beaten to death on the Bowery. There wasn’t any acknowledgement or understanding of homosexuality in my parents’ families. My mom’s only brother was gay, went into the Jesuits at 18 in the late Fifties and left the order in the mid Seventies. My mom was unaware of this part of my uncle’s life until he was dying of HIV/AIDs in the early Eighties.
Both my parents were the first of their families to attend and graduate from college. I was born in 1960, the oldest of six. There’s only nine years between me and my youngest brother. We didn’t have much money growing up but lacked for nothing. My siblings and I continue to be very close.
Italian culture is very patriarchal, but so was America, and my family was no different. My mom loved art and had the voice of an angel but was discouraged from pursuing anything beyond the church choir. My ability to draw anything I saw manifested early and was encouraged by both parents. I went to Rhode Island School of Design. I started out in the Illustration Department and moved into painting. I didn’t know fully yet what being an artist really entailed, only knew I was one. My father certainly didn’t; he thought I’d graduate with all my great talent and get a great job, then a great husband. The only problem is that women had a hard time getting the great job, and I didn’t want a husband. That was the time though, both in art and in the greater society, and my dad was a man of his time.
My artwork and life became about struggling against the boundaries I was coming across—within my studio practice, my lovers, my physicality. Until beginning work on the Pandora’s BoxX Project, I hadn’t realized that identifying and empathizing with the origin of those boundaries was just as important as breaking them.
The Pandora’s BoxX Project is an extensive photography portrait archive I am creating of womxn and nonbinary people in the fine arts over the last six decades. This community of acclaimed and emerging professionals brought together in one place becomes a necessary resource focusing on connectivity and greater understanding both between the participants themselves and throughout the broader cultural conversation. The complete project will be a place of illumination and celebration for their impact, visibility and achievements. The portraits I’m showing here are of the five Italian women participating in the project to date: art dealer Mary Sabbatino, performance artist and writer Katie Cercone, and artists Nancy Azara, Claudia DeMonte, and Joanne Mattera.
Photo: Melissa Diaz