All images and essays (c) the individual artists unless otherwise noted
Sheila Pepe, Origin of the World (part one), 2012, installed in the town of Ameno in Novara, Piemonte. Photo: Paola Ferrario
I was born here, a citizen of the United States,
but by nurture and osmosis my cultural identity is Italian. At 35 I went to
Italy for the first time where I found to my dismay that while I felt
completely at home with the culture, language, and food—and, indeed, with
people who looked like me—in the eyes of the Italians I was un’americana.
Even my aunt Antonette, who was born in Ortona on the Abbruzzi coast and lived there for 25
years before joining her parents and six siblings here, was stunned to learn on
a return visit some years later that she had become
na’ merigan—she who
had always referred to her American-born family as “you people.”
It turns out that culture and identity are not fixed. We navigate between here and there, us and them, now and then, Italian and American. This is not a situation unique to us, of course. Most immigrants and their families experience some version of the disjunct.
The successive generations are more American than Italian. Sunday dinners, with
several generations gathered around the table conversing in a mishcoolanz—a mescolanza, a mix—of regional dialect, Italian, and
English, are increasingly infrequent, with Italian phasing out and everyone constantly checking their phones. As a group, we are thus at a remove once,
twice, or more from the Old Country. Moreover, the Italy we knew from our
grandparents—dialect, customs, even geography—may be a century old. A friend
who learned Italian as a child from his elderly grandfather laughs now about the
time when, as a young adult, he visited his family’s paese for the first time.
As he began to speak, the paesani raised their eyebrows and drew their fingers
together. “Ma chi è questo gualione che parla come un vecchione?” they asked each other. Who is
this kid who talks like an old man?
To add a bit of confusion to our culturally and lingually bifurcated identity, the term “first-generation Italian Americans” may refer to the children of immigrants—the first born as American citizens—or it might refer to the immigrants themselves, who may or may not have adopted American culture.
Raffaela Ciammiachiella, weaver, my maternal great grandmother; Raffaela's daughter, Annina, with me on her knee in Revere, Massachusetts, in 1949; Grace DeGennaro with her father, William (born Raphael), and grandfather, Dominic, in the Bronx in 1957; Lloyd Martin's grandson, Steven, with Martin's painting in New York City recently
In her book The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America, Joanna Clapps Herman writes: “I was born in 1944 but raised in the fifteenth century.” She is referring in part to the self sufficiency and communal effort that enabled so many Italians on both sides of the Atlantic to survive, but also to the treatment of girls and women. There is not an Italian American woman born before this new millennium who has not experienced some version of the Middle Ages at home. Indeed, Paula Roland (neé Maenza) places the timeline farther back: "Growing up I didn't want anything to do with my family's . . . rules, which must have originated in the 12th century."
Standard, my god! Girls were not allowed the same freedoms as the boys. And we were reminded in so many ways that we were not as important. “Why were women always in the other room?” asks
Patti Russotti. In my memoir, Vita: Growing Up
Italian, Coming Out, and Making a Life in Art, I write about receiving a
boy’s bike for Christmas. “This way your brothers can inherit it when you grow
out of it,” my parents explained—helpfully, they thought—to a crushed
six-year-old. It was not the crossbar I found upsetting but the realization in
that moment that I, the oldest child and only daughter, did not count.
The lucky ones among us were taken under the wing of a beloved nonna or nonno or zia or zio who loved us unconditionally. To be “the favorite” was to be treasured for the individuals we were, empowered in a way that the rest of Italian American culture, with its ingrained gender preference, could not do.
Folklore and Superstition
In his story, Mark Wethli mentions “a hint of magic realism” as an element in his Neapolitan family. Those of us from the tribal South, home of the mal’occhio, the Tarantella, and that uniquely Neapolitan method of divination, La Smorfia, know this to be true. And, then of course, there’s the Catholic religion.
John Avelluto, Eye-talians (Seeking Opportunities), 2017, acrylic paint films, 9 x 7 inches; Jennifer Cecere, Evil Eye for Evil Days: Watching, 2018; fabric, lace, and marker, 22 x 30 inches
The Evil Eye—maloik in dialect; mal'occhio in standard Italian—is a curse. Less harmful than a vendetta, it is the look you give to someone when you wish them harm. Those horn amulets you see in gold, silver, or coral, shaped like a chili pepper, are worn to ward off the evil spirits. What I didn't know until I did some research is that the horn likely evolved from the sacred prehistoric Moon goddess. A multicultural protector, she is seen most clearly as the Egyptian goddess, Isis, the protector, depicted with a moon disc between her horns.
La Tarantella, the dance everyone does at Italian weddings, has its origin in the Middle Ages when it was believed that dancing would purge the body of toxins from a spider bite. La Smorfia employs dream images to pick lottery numbers. (Smorfia, emphasis on the first syllable, is derived from the name of Morpheus, the shape-shifting Greek god of sleep, who enters your dreams.)
As artists we get to be part of a larger tribe that transcends our ethnicity, superstitions, even (sometimes) gender. Our relatives may have come from tiny villages with fixed ideas about how to live in their tight-knit society of family and friends, but as citizens of a larger, more diverse world, we have freedoms they could not have imagined (or if they had, might have condemned). Still, I like to think we carry within us the best of who they were. Certainly their will to survive against all odds has kept us persevering through the dips and crashes in our own art lives.
The 44 artists I have brought together are aligned, generally, in two groups: the ones whose art is manifestly connected to the work or traditions of their forebears, and those whose art does not have an apparent aesthetic association. The division is not absolute, but it does allow us to see the immigrant experience expressed visually in new generations and to understand the Italianità that informs the rest of the splendid work in this project.
Part 1: Transitions from the Old Country
In this group we see how traditions are incorporated or are translated from the original Italian.
A bridge between this side and the
The legacy of the Mezzogiorno and beyond is diverse. We start with the artists whose contemporary expression has a connection to the past—to the language, the journey over, the generations, maintaining traditions, making things, making do.
Through a long career, B. Amore has researched and documented seven generations of her Italian family, maternal and paternal, a journey that culminated in 2000 in the brilliant installation of photographs, objects, and papers contained on tables and in vitrines exhibited at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City. Lifeline, Filo della Vita: An Italian American Odyssey then traveled to museums in San Francisco and Boston, then Rome, and finally to Napoli, where her family’s journey began. Her ongoing interest in immigration continues in the experiences of Spanish-speaking migrants, whose journeys are not so different from our own.
In her monumental wood carvings, Nancy Azara pays homage to the generations before and after her: Nunzia, her mother; Nana, her daughter, also an artist; and Maxi, Nana’s daughter—a bloodline that is intertwined with a force—we call it feminism now—that empowered an Italian American girl growing up in the Forties, who studied fashion and costume design in college, to pick up a mallet and chisel to make art on a grand scale.
John Avelluto, a generation younger, draws from the language,
specifically our Southern Italian dialects, to make graphic paintings that
depict the expressions we know so well: fingers brought to the lips in a grand show
of satisfaction or brushing under the chin in a gesture of me ne frego, I
don’t give a damn. These are outsize and familiar gestures. Avelluto’s images
are a painter’s take on the drama of talking with our hands, something most of
us were discouraged from doing lest we look too ethnic.
There are many in this project, myself among them, who draw from the textile traditions of Italy. Let Jennifer Cecere describe it: “Until a generation ago, almost everyone practiced handwork. Women, especially, knitted, crocheted, and embroidered, and girls learned by example. All of us then had a connection to these traditions. Not so much anymore, but what does endure from my own experience, in addition to a love of needlework, is how intent my Italian grandparents were in weaving their traditions into the experience of their children and grandchildren in this new country.”
Cecere makes public art: large-scale renditions of lace, in materials a diverse as ripstop nylon and brushed aluminum, which she has laser cut, bringing together the modesty of handwork with the ambition of a sculptor. In their expansiveness they have much in common with Avelluto’s operatic hand talkers.
Patricia Miranda takes conventional lace, dyes it red, and pieces it into room-size installations—“shrouds,” she calls them—that pay homage to her grandmothers, Ermenegilda and Rebecca—the red suggestive of birth and blood, and the pricks of so many fingers by so many needles in the making of handwork. The nexus of religion and feminism is another area of interest. A woman of the 21st Century, Miranda nevertheless mines ancient materials for her contemporary work.
Milisa Galazzi makes a “lace” that originates as a drawing whose line she stitches by hand. After cutting away the negative space, Galazzi dips each handstitched sheet into a vat of warm wax and then installs it, with other similarly cut and waxed sheets, into a layered relief sculpture whose shadows are as integral to the work as the stitching itself. She likens the process to cranking out the pasta dough. I'm reminded of the weekly chore of laundry as it was done by our grandmothers: in a vat against a washboard and then hung on the line to dry, just before those electricity-powered white tubs arrived to make the chore (slightly) easier.
Sheila Pepe has used fiber to work through the issues of feminism, class, and ethnicity. “For years crocheting abstractions in space was my way to blend the Italian with the American,” she says. I love the way Pepe has resolved the cultural dichotomy. Even more I love that her room-size constructions do what so many Italian American girls were discouraged from doing: They take up space, asserting their place in both cultures—and in the art world as well.
David Ambrose, from a family of tailors, pierces paper as his grandparents once pierced cloth. He does not embellish with thread but rather with paint, applying layers of marks and colors to achieve a surface that appears up close as richly embroidered and from a distance as suggestive of stained glass. Tailoring was needle-and-thread work that was acceptable for men, so Ambrose had role models, even if his work is now squarely in the camp of contemporary abstraction.
Drawing from her early Roman Catholic experience, specifically the glowing light of stained glass windows and the kinesthetic experience of fingering rosary beads, Grace DeGennaro makes geometric paintings composed of orderly configurations of dots, which she refers to as “beads.” The rectangular proportions of the paintings are aligned with the golden mean and thus of sacred geometry.
My own work references fabric. The paintings are first and foremost color fields, but the textile influence is apparent in their edge-to-edge construction and visually tactile surfaces. I am the great granddaughter of a weaver, the granddaughter of a tailor, and the niece of two women—one a dressmaker, the other an embroidered and lacemaker—whose handwork left an undeniable imprint on my creative expression.
Handmade lace: Intimate and monumental
Patricia Miranda, assembled lace, from the exhibition, Seeing Red, at ODETTA Gallery, New York City, in 2020; Jennifer Cecere, installation at Pratt Sculpture Park at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, 2010-11, rip-stop nylon, 10 x 18 feet
So much of the Italian DNA comes from people who made things—the carpenters and stonemasons, for instance, or the basement winemakers, or the women who turned out perfect tortellini every Sunday. I’m thinking, too, of the packages tied with rope or string that accompanied so many immigrants on their journey here in steerage. The work by contemporary artists is more sophisticated, but it seems connected by the filo della vita, that thread of life.
Laura Moriarty’s prints suggest cross-sections of geologic formations. Her chunky sculptures, constructed from wax, might be miniature excavations from a richly chromatic land. While Moriarty’s interest in geology is clearly evident, she will tell you that “kitchen culture,” with its process and improvisation, is an inspiration as well. Like Milisa Galazzi and others of us, she has memories of working the pasta machine, cranking out flat ribbons of dough to be cut into noodles or stuffed with ricotta.
Don Porcaro stacks stone into anthropomorphic sculptures—some quirky and
playful, others like sentinels with a looming, but most often reassuring,
presence. Installations of multiple sculptures feel like family groupings. Cutting
stone “felt right,” says Porcaro. “It fed a driving need to work with a
material that speaks to tradition, and I knew that the tradition belonged to my
Continuing with sculpture, we consider the hand-built ceramic forms of Elisa D’Arrigo, whose influences include the wooden forms used by her Sicilian grandfather, a shoemaker, and the beehive hairdos of the Bronx in the Fifties. There’s more, of course: “Everyone made things, repaired things, jerry-rigged things. That atmosphere had a powerful effect on my sensibility and is with me still.”
Lisa Zukowski’s sculptures are borne of secrets, the legacy of a grandfather who hid the past and was suspicious of the present. Her bundles and packages contain texts and objects that will never see the light of day. The overt materials are old clothes, some belonging to members of her family. Not all of Zukowski’s work is as mysterious, but much of it is made from discarded materials, a legacy of making do. In that regard it is aligned with Arte Povera, that mid-Century Italian movement which employed quotidian materials to powerful effect.
Land and Sea any Italians settled along the water, whose bays and beaches reminded them of home.
The fecund land here offered food, solace, and pleasure. Who recalls seeing the old women gathering chiggodia—that's cicoria in standard Italian, dandelion greens—from fields near their home? This was cucina povera, poor people’s food, nutritious and free. Gardens and grape vines, or at least tomatoes, were cultivated in even the tiniest plots. And, of course, m
any Italians settled along the water, whose bays and beaches reminded them of home.
Sandra DeSando recalls foraging regularly with her parents near their home in rural New Jersey and returning with a bounty of edibles. They also planted a vegetable garden along with the requisite and carefully cared-for fig tree. On her own, DeSando has spent endless hours in the woods, inspired by the trees which have become muse and object.
Margaret Lanzetta spent girlhood hours in her grandfather's garden,
drawing his plants and flowers and learning from him the dialect names for each. Lanzetta maintains a perennial garden at her studio in Long Island City, finding in it inspiration for her paintings in which she combines plant forms and the
geometric patterns of ornament from around the world.
Patti Russotti scans and photographs flowers and botanical forms, the world of life and beauty in her yard. She is taken with the society of plant life—“the interconnectedness of trees, fungi, and lichen”—often combining her photographs with elements from that other interconnected society: the women in her family from whom she learned handwork as a girl.
After a long career on the technical side of digital photography, Brian Alterio
returned to the view through the lens, as he had in art school. Described in
one review as “a digital scientist with a poetic soul,” Alterio photographs
nature in all its aspects, from the human form to landscape to plant life, the
latter represented in this project by a selection of vividly illuminated black
and white images.
Thomas Sarrantonio makes paintings inspired by land and sea, "meditations on nature and self," he calls them. On a visit to the Abruzzi hills where his father's family is from, he found the landscape not unlike the one in which he now lives, near the Shawangunk mountains of Ulster County north of New York City. Ultimately it is not a specific place he is painting but a striving for a sense of the timeless.
Natura Morte e vivante
Brian Alterio, White Calla Lillies #3; Patti Russotti, Famiglia, 2020, inkjet on kozo, 40 x 30 inches; right: Thomas Sarrantonio, Sea Study V, 2020, oil on paper, 5 x 5 inches
And finally there is the Catholic church. While many of us have admired the architectural majesty of the structures and perhaps the rituals practiced within them, maybe even the religion itself (although many of us have left that part behind), there is the seamy underside of corruption and abuse.
Joe Cultrera is a filmmaker who has focused on many aspects of community life, but in his film, Hand of God, he tells the story of his brother’s abuse at the hands of one Father Birmingham. His work ends Part 1 on a somber note, but it is nevertheless one of triumph—of secrets revealed, of abuses acknowledged, of a family brought together, and psyches healed.
Joe Cultrera, Fish Tank Boys
Says Cultrera: "Corrupted symbols of innocence are submerged in liquid memory."
Image by Hugh Walsh from the documentary, Hand of God
Part 2: Beyond the Sphere of Ethnicity
For many Italian American artists, influences and ideas have come from outside the immigrant culture. As I wrote in the introduction, while we are Italian American and we are artists, we are not “Italian American artists.” Even those of us whose work is informed by elements of the culture see it filtered through our training and our experience as artists in the world. We are moved, of course, by the art, architecture, history and landscape of Italy, as are many who do not share our heritage. In this section of the essay I’m connecting some dots. My intent is not to lock artists into categories, but to provide a way to consider their work. I must admit, however, that as I write about each artist’s work, I am looking at it with Italian American (and feminist) eyes. Pace, in advance if I have come to the wrong conclusions.
In the Studio
Paula Roland (née Maenza), Carolanna Parlato, and Thomas Micchelli
Centuries of figuration and representation have provided the foundation for contemporary abstraction. Artists are free to work in or draw from both genres.
Despite his Scottish surname, Timothy McDowell has had a lifetime of extended periods in Italy among the members of his mother’s family, the Macellari. His history is not one of Southern Italian emigration but of educated Northerners remaining on their ancestral land. His is a lineage of accomplished musicians, designers, architects, publishers, and painters. McDowell’s images, while often drawing from art history, are of our time, evoking mystery and magic, and sometimes the outrage of a contemporary world collapsing into its own destruction.
Victor Pesce, the only artist in this group who is no longer living, was
from a Southern Italian family. Although
there were mural painters on his mother’s side, his father, a demanding
Southern Italian (many of us are familiar with the type) pushed him into the
family plumbing business. He acquiesced, but art prevailed. His intimate still
lifes animate and elevate the quotidian.
For so many of us, traveling to Italy is an opportunity to experience in person the paintings and sculptures we had seen only in books. Many of the artists in this project speak of their “art pilgrimages.” Indeed, who among us has not traipsed from church to church or spent long days in museums while ordinary tourists were having leisurely lunches in the sun? We are fortunate to have Thomas Micchelli share some direct sketches he made during a trip to view art in Rome and Florence.
Still Life and Figuration
Victor Pesce, Once Upon a Time, 2008, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches; Thomas Micchelli, Copy After Caravaggio, 2003, pencil on paper, 10 x 7 inches; Timothy McDowell, Rocky History, 2020, oil on panel, 31 x 31 inches
Given the patterning in Renaissance painting, the geometry-based compositions of painters like Piero Della Francesca, and of course the design of virtually all the churches, we know that geometry was an essential element in Italian art and architecture. Geometric abstraction is a 20th Century movement that has persisted into the 21st. What does one have to do with the other? Sometimes everything, sometimes nothing.
Formerly a realist painter of exquisitely serene interiors, Mark Wethli turned his attention to geometric abstraction 20 years ago. It was a big change, but he carried with him the underlying compositional elements of shape, balance, and harmony. “I try to paint geometry the way that Morandi painted bottles—using something as humble and familiar as the rectangle,” he has written. This aesthetic, the influence of the reserved Swiss/English side of his family, is quite different from the warm and raucous Neapolitan side.
Lloyd Martin typically makes large-scale works that consist of horizontal color bands punctuated by vertical demarcations. It’s an architectural sensibility rife with rhythm, even musicality. There’s nothing necessarily “Italian” about the work (well, maybe the intensity of the color) but it was the force of a strong-willed grandmother and generous artist uncle who guided Martin to his career choice. They might not have used the word mentor to describe what they were for him, but that’s what they were.
Paul Corio will tell you that his trips to Italy have always been
organized around the paintings he wanted to see. It’s a sentiment that art
aficionados of any ethnicity share. What makes the experience different for
Corio is the context of a Catholic boyhood. As he notes in his story, seeing
the art in churches “positions them within the framework of a culture that I am
intimately connected to.” Influences on his meticulous abstractions are as diverse as a Roman mosaic floor pattern or the music he performs as a jazz drummer.
Karen Schifano is a third-generation Italian American. The daughter of artists, she continues the tradition as a painter who has exhibited internationally. Of her work she says, “Shape is the major motivation behind my impulse to paint. . . The shapes that catch my eye are usually openings: mouths, theater stages, circus arenas. These openings are bounded by edges, like lips or curtains, that reveal and partially conceal, the void at the center."
Applying color to strips of translucent Mylar and hanging them in a formal arrangement away from the wall, Mary Schiliro makes paintings that exist dimensionally in space. In doing so, she also expands the way the light in her work is perceived, which is to say not just reflecting from a flat surface but permeating it. Perspective may intensify the color as the work recedes; works hung parallel to the wall, but at a slight distance, create shadows that are integral to the perception of the work. Among many elements in Italian culture, Schiliro says that the translucent color of stained-glass windows has inspired her work.
After years of working as a museum curator, Michael A.
Giaquinto has returned full time to the easel. Applying cubist principals
to his work, he creates paintings and mixed-media constructions that ask us to
consider his pictorial space. A new series of mixed media on panel is playful,
suggesting maps or space charts.
Lloyd Martin, Everywhen, 2020, oil on canvas, 12 x 9 inches; Mary Schiliro, detail of Disembody, 2018, acrylic on Mylar, shown full view in Part 2; Mark Wethli, Untitled #5, 2020, colored pencil on paper, 4.125 x 5.875 inches
Physical GestureThere is no idea that is not expressed through abstraction. The artists I have grouped here are physical in their approach to painting as they employ pouring and vigorous brushwork or markmaking
Janet Filomeno’s big expressionist abstractions are a response to many environmental influences, particularly water. Often working with a stretched canvas on the floor, she pours paint onto the surface, directing its movement by shifting or tilting the canvas, thereby suggesting river currents or ocean tides. Materials such as ink or shellac ink add the element of fluid interaction. Other elements of interaction: her own “repository of collected personal histories” and her “inner drama in response to the world around me.”
Carolanna Parlato’s poured paintings are buoyant in color and biomorphic in composition. A marvel of fluidity and control, they are built up layer upon layer of acrylic paint applied and then directed into contours and rivulets. There’s nothing particularly Italian or Italian American about them. But allow me to read something into the work without ascribing it specifically to Parlato or her family: When light hits the surface of her paintings just so, you see each one’s history in relief—the ridges, drips, and outlined edges of hidden color. Isn’t that just like our culture? Put on your best face and keep the rest hidden.
Serena Bocchino expresses sound through color and gesture in a physical process that involves pouring enamel paint in vigorous splashes and lyrical drips, layer upon layer. As with musical movements, each passage—in this case, layer—informs the next. The work shown in this Italianità project includes a new element: transparent panels—Bocchino calls them “veils”—hung in the center of a gallery to create a dimensional dialog with the wall-hung paintings. The fabric is reference to her grandmother’s textile work.
Josette Urso makes what she calls “intuitive
expressions of places and experiences observed and reimagined." She creates compositional collisions of color, texture, and shape. Once you know that
her first-generation Sicilian parents lived in the multicultural Ybor City
section of Tampa, with, as Urso describes it, “an environment of hand-rolled
cigars, café con leche, and Italian opera,” it’s impossible to not connect the
dots to her work.
Janet Filomeno, Blue Crystals Revisited, no. 8, 2018, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 70 x 70 inches; Serena Bocchino, Squeeze, 2020, enamel and mixed media on raw canvas, 54 x 70 inches; Josette Urso, detail of High Beam, 2019, oil on canvas, shown full view in Part 2
All of the artists in this group share an interest in the organic—which includes plant life, the environment, and the incremental development of an image or work.
Spending time in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery as a child, Denise Sfraga came to understand—remarkably, for a young person—the cycle of life and death, or as she describes it, “the balance between quiet moments for the dead and vibrant flowers adorning those graves.” The life cycle holds her interest as a painter and a gardener. Her paintings, some in otherworldly hues, burst with germination and growth and the passage back to the earth.
Sean Capone references the same cyclical transcience, but on a microscopic scale. His Molecular Clock is a digital fantasy of, as Capone describes it, “microbiological flora and virus-like organisms churning in a cyclical swirl of phantasmagoric fission.” It is no coincidence that the work emerged at the same time as Covid, or more specifically, the appearance of the microscopic images of the virus. We humans have always been locked in a tango with microbes and viruses. Capone depicts it as startlingly beautiful.
The disappearance of the world’s coral reefs inspired Sandi Miot to understand the importance of what we were losing and acknowledge the loss with an installation of brilliantly hued relief sculptures. Miot created The Coral Project, which consists of mixed-media sculptures drawn from research and her own imagination, with the intent of inspiring others to make some small effort to halt the destruction of our environment.
With a visual language suggestive of shifting tectonics and geological materials like sand, mica, and marble dust mixed into her paint, Mary Bucci McCoy makes paintings that reference the human body and its relationship to the landscape. The paintings are human size, a little bit larger than your own visage, which brings you quite literally face to face with them. The intimacy is such that you and the earth and the painting merge in the moment.
Paula Roland (née Maenza) is a painter and printmaker
who draws from earth and spirit, science and art. “I find connections with
quantum physics and the poetic metaphors in scientific terms, such as particle
theory, strange attractors, and string theory, in my works,” she says. Her paintings and painterly encaustic monotypes (the latter created by placing paper on a hot surface where wax paint has been melted and manipulated), consist of layers of gestural
markings built up to form an image that conceals as much as it reveals.
Sandi Miot, Purple Coral, 2017, mixed media, 24 x 15 x app. 4 inches; Denise Sfraga, Strain, 2019, flashe and photographs on panel, 40 x 30 inches; Sean Capone, still from Molecular Clock II, 2020, HD digital animation
For this group of artists, construction and/or deconstruction are the operative elements.
With his relief sculptures suggestive of the urban landscape, Robert Maloney shows himself to be part architect, part painter, part printmaker. He’s also a master of ambiguity. Does his work show a structure being erected or torn down? In a recent project, the restoration of the Haffenreffer Chimney in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, he was instrumental in rebuilding a brewery chimney with his signature scaffold-like construction, but his relief work offers no such clear-cut answer.
Vincent Pidone will tell you, “There’s no one description of my work, other than to say that’s it’s largely experimental.” The optical drawings he shows in this project feature a moiré pattern that develops as lines cross at oblique angles. Some of the works are executed by hand, others by a mechanical pen plotter.
Paul Rinaldi’s paintings bring together the sumptuousness of material with the rigor of the grid. One look at the work tells you that multiple layers are involved in the construction of the image. In some instances, added layers obscure what’s underneath—barely, if Rinaldi uses translucent paint—or they interact in a pas de deux of the visible and the concealed.
After almost two decades as the owner of a bookstore, Hugo Rizzoli now makes art with a visual, if non-objective, narrative. A builder of small chromatic sculptures and collages in a pared-down geometric style, he typically employs cast-off and reclaimed materials, mostly wood but also antique papers and fabrics. I do see a connection between his previous vocation and this. The intimacy of reading translates to the small scale of his work, which engages the viewer in a similar kind of rapport.
Wayne Montecalvo builds a two-dimensional image from multiple layers. His goal, which he achieves admirably through distortion and intervention with wax, ink, and paint, is “to reinvent rather than reproduce” an image. As he describes it, “I start with something expected, and end up with something mysterious,” Indeed.
Robert Maloney, GitM (Arnold), 2019, mixed media, 37 x 21 x 5 inches; Wayne Montecalvo, Collapse, 2020; digital images on Washi with paint, wax, silkscreen, and india ink, 24 x 28 inches; Paul Rinaldi, Sequence 114, 2018-19, encaustic on panel (diptych), 24.5 x 12.5 inches
Creating a History
We end this project with Grace Roselli, who embraces her ethnicity while pushing beyond it—or should I say vrooms past it on her Ducati. An accomplished painter and photographer, she is also a serious rider. Here, however, we focus on her photography, as she has undertaken a major initiative, The Pandora’s BoxX Project, for which she has been photographing a multigenerational, multiethnic group of women in the fine arts. Her plan is to photograph 360 women, one for each degree in a circle. For Italianità we focused on the Italian American women in the project. Who better to represent the project here than the photographer herself?
Grace Roselli self portrait
Recording Our Own Stories
While I have loved every image posted here, the stories are for me the heart and soul of this project. There are the expected commonalities, like Sunday dinners that lasted all afternoon, and the amusing but not surprising revelation that as children many of us were enthusiastic crankers of the pasta machine. But there are also particular commonalilties, and I hope you will discover your own as you read.
For me it was learning that Carolanna Parlato’s maternal grandfather, Carlo, left Ischia, that island so far
out in the Bay of Naples that it is not visible from shore, and stowed away on a ship to the United States, just
as my paternal grandfather, Antonio, did. Fourteen-year-old Antonio walked down
the mountain from Serrara Fontana to catch the ferry in Ischia Porto that took him to the port
of Naples where, somehow, he slipped onto a freighter and made his way here by
himself. Those two homeboys—paesani—strangers to each other, ended up in New York City and Boston respectively. Each would have, among their many American-born grandchildren, a granddaughter who was a painter. Those painters would find themselves in the same art orbit in New York City, sometimes exhibiting together, getting to know each other as colleagues and friends.
I would encourage the participating artists—and indeed, anyone reading—to seek out and record your stories. Ancestry tests have their place, but it’s the lived history, recounted and probably embellished over multiple tellings, that is embedded within our genome. Do it now while the generations before you are still here, otherwise the questions you have will remain forever unanswered.
Many artists will respond with, “But I’m not a writer.” The stories you read here will refute that. My editing was light, mainly for style. The words are the artists’ own. From my own experience, I can tell you that once I opened the floodgates of memory, I could not stop writing.
Our advantage as artists is that we don’t have to tell a story with words if they are a barrier to the narrative. We can come up with numerous ways to record our
history and make it visually interesting. If it’s a personal story, excerpts from your diaries and journals can become the core of the narrative. If it’s a larger family
project, photo albums are a wealth of visual history that
can be edited, scanned and compiled into print-on-demand books. There are drawings, or a
combination of drawings and photos that can go into sketchbooks; scan them if
you want to make more than one copy.
While not everyone has the experience or means to create a film as Joe Cultrera did, you can shoot videos on your phone in cinema verité style, or with a combination of photos and talking heads, a la Ken Burns. Record a Sunday dinner before too much wine is consumed—or maybe after, when the secrets slip out. Create a Facebook page. A blog. A website. A newsletter that goes out to the extended family with a request for their stories, which you compile. Do it before the pictures fade, before the memories recede, before the history is interred. Do it before the pandemic ends and we resume our non-stop lives.
Thank you to all the artists who have participated in this project. You have made my life richer.
-- Joanne Mattera
Comments and recollections are welcome below.