Mandala #P5-72, 1991, Prismacolor pencil on bristol board, 18 x 18 inches
Longo: The Similarity of Disparate Cultures
I was born on June 22, 1933, a sultry day in New Haven, Connecticut. My grandmother was there, my father was not.
Truth is my mother had left my father prior to my birth and had moved back in with her parents. I was raised with my grandparents and my mother’s younger sister and brother. It was a typical Italian family, except for my mother being a single parent. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were Italian immigrants, both had settled in Connecticut, my maternal grandparents in New Haven, my paternal grandparents in East Haven. Since being a single mother in this era was considered shameful, my mother had very little to do with the Longo side of my family, although when I became older I did visit them occasionally.
My mother’s name was Ann (Nannina) Minieri. Her father, Luigi Minieri, was born in Napoli. He married my grandmother, Marie Adinolfi, who was born in Salerno, and they immigrated to the United States. My grandfather died in New Haven in 1910. Some years after he died, my grandmother married Giovanni Donzelli and gave birth to six more children.
This is the family I was born into on that sweltering day in June.
The early days of my life passed with little incident, although several events stuck in my memory. Our house was on the route the circus took to get to their venue. They travailed the route late at night, I sat at the window, sitting on my mother’s lap, and watched as the cages of animals and the elephants passed. It seemed so dramatic.
Later, when I was about eight years old, our class went to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The museum had recently installed a dinosaur skeleton. Sure, I was impressed by the skeleton but even more impressed with the huge mural being painted on the wall behind it. At that moment I decided I wanted to be an artist. Periodically I would cut out of school to stand in awe as I watched the depiction emerge. To me it was miraculous.
The local community center offered free art classes. I enrolled, starting with pencil drawings, then pastels, finally watercolors, all in what I thought was the impressionist style. It wasn’t until high school when I began to be exposed to more contemporary artists: Franz Klein, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollack, and more. School was boring for me; going into New York City to visit the galleries and museums was more important, which I did with regularity.
After high school I moved to New York City and studied at the Whitney Art Studio. Shortly thereafter I left to join the Navy. And thus began an education that changed my life. In 1954 I was stationed in Japan, a country I knew only from the propaganda of the Second World War, a country I was neither familiar with nor interested in.
All that changed. I found the Japanese people to be cultured and friendly. As I spent more time in the museums and galleries there, I was struck by the beauty and depth of the art I saw, so much so that I began to emulate the works I had seen. After my discharge, I moved to Hawaii to study art at the University, but again my aversion to scholastics led me to quit after my first year. The Honolulu Academy of Art offered classes, and that was more to my liking, at least for a while. Eventually I quit the Academy, took a job, and ended up moving to the island of Kauai working at the Pacific Missile Range tracking station. It was a fateful move. I met my future wife, Chiyomi, fell in love, and moved with her to San Francisco. Chiyomi was also an artist and we shared much of the same philosophy about art, life, and love. It wasn’t long before we met other artists and became involved in the visionary art movement, exhibiting at galleries and sharing our home with a variety of artists, writers, and musicians.
As the years rolled on, we watched as San Francisco began to change, a darkness was creeping into our beloved fairyland city, and so we uprooted our family and moved North to Sonoma County. Chiyomi had gone back to school and eventually received both her BFA and MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. We built a studio on our property and soon began exhibiting, first locally, later nationally, and internationally.
During this time, I grappled with melding my ingrained Italian culture and my interest in Japanese culture; often listening to the operas of Verdi, Puccini, or the Neapolitan songs of my forebears, as well as the Zen-inspired music of the Shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute). For several decades I studied chado, the discipline of the Japanese tea ceremony, which is steeped in the Zen philosophy. My studies have had a profound effect on my life and work as I continue to define, meld, and hone them.
Just as the dichotomy of my cultural interests pervades my works, so does my close affinity to
nature and the built world.
Although I have only been to Italy once, the memories of the bright, warm colors, the friendly faces, delicious meals and wines, and, of course, always the sun, dazzling in its brilliance, combine with the memory of my Connecticut family seated under the giant horse chestnut tree in our yard, singing, laughing, talking, lively and loving, the essence of my Italian heritage.
Simultaneously, the memories of my years in Japan with the families of my Japanese friends are filled with the same warmth, conversations, and, after enough sake, singing. Also there are the memories of sitting in quiet temples, meditating, and feeling the energy well up inside me.
All my works reflect these diversities, but none so much as the mandalas which are a bridge between those two experiences: the memories of the stained-glass rose windows in Catholic churches and the intricate details of the painted mandalas of the temples. To me they represent the melding of what appears to be disparate cultures but in truth are the same.
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