Demolished (from the modern illuminated manuscript series), 2020, oil on linen panel, 18 x x18 inches
Patalano: Two islands, a new country, the desire to make art
My father, Domenico Patalano, was born in 1933 on the volcanic island of Ischia, 20 miles out from Naples, where most of his remaining family still lives. My mother, Silveria DeFalco, was born the same year on another island, Ponza, which is farther out to sea. Much of my mother’s family emigrated from Italy to America from 1948 through the mid-1950’s.
My parents grew up during World War II on their respective islands, separated by miles of ocean. My father had a maternal aunt who lived on Ponza. He went to visit her and saw my mom. I’m not clear on the details, because my mom's family did not approve of his interest in her, but somehow they met and managed to communicate through a secret exchange of letters.
My father joined the Italian Navy and went to a culinary institute in Venice while my mother came to New York with her father and brother. All the while she and my dad were sending letters back and forth. This was 1953, and the plan was that my mother would return to Italy in July of 1956 to marry my father. It was a long engagement conducted entirely through correspondence. Only after my mother’s family saw that my father came from a hardworking, reputable family was approval granted.
After my mother saved enough money working as a seamstress in an upholstery factory in New York, she returned to Italy and married my father in Pompeii on July 26, 1956.
My parents' courtship, conducted on onion skin letter paper via air mail between Italy and America
I came into the world in the Bronx in May 1957, the first female in my family born in the United States. After doing the math, it seems I was conceived in Italy before my mother returned home in late September 1956. My father remained in Italy to serve out the rest of his time in the Navy. He did not come to America until 1958, a year after my birth. He joined us–me, my mother, her parents, and my three uncles–in a small, crowded apartment on Morris Avenue in the Bronx. Eventually, the family moved into a two-family house (with the ever-important extra kitchen in the basement) near the Bronx Zoo.
These are some memories:
. My grandmother teaching me at age six to roll out long strands of gnocchi dough for the Sunday midday meal. Each piece had to be cut perfectly in size and shape. I learned very early how to wield a knife
. My grandfather showing me how to neatly twirl the exact amount of spaghetti in two-handed fashion, fork against spoon rolling the pasta deftly into a sauce-soaked bundle
. Wearing the pressed school uniform to parochial grade school….sitting in the church pews with my class for yet another Lenten Friday Stations of the Cross ritual while drawing in the inside cover of my prayer book with the pencil I’d stashed in my pleated skirt’s side pocket
. In the basement kitchen during birthday celebrations and other feasts, my brothers and I finger-scooping whipped cream off the Italian cakes—amid the cries and flying, wooden-soled sandals delivered with the most precise aim by my disapproving grandmother
. Shopping with my mother on Arthur Avenue for freshly slaughtered chickens and rabbits in vendors’ shops that had sawdust spread on the floors to soak up the animal blood
. Speaking the Ponzese dialect and English at the same time, in one conversation . . . translating between generations
Central to of all of my childhood memories is how they help shape my life as an Italian American and as an artist. The desire to become an artist was not a giddy idea and certainly was not encouraged by my family. Though extremely smart people, they were uneducated and knew nothing about art and its history. My memory of teaching myself to draw and paint (my first painting tool was a single-edged razor blade with cheap paint on pieces of cardboard) is tainted with fights with my mom about why I wanted to be an artist. Still, my parents never stopped me from painting or drawing. I guess they thought I’d grow out of it, find a respectable and successful man, get married, and start a family. This was an idea I rejected, not because I didn’t favor having a family but because I think I knew intuitively that I couldn’t really do both well enough without one negatively shortchanging the other.
So while I can’t say that there was a concrete link between my heritage and being an artist, I did learn about making something out of nothing with my hands. I learned about doing the simplest tasks with care and attention. I learned that it was OK to be myself and not worry about what others thought of me. I learned how to see beauty in whatever was around me with enthusiasm and a generous spirit.
Perhaps it’s because I was conceived in one country and born in another, vastly different country, I have always felt that I exist in a transitional limbo. The crossing over and clashing of two sets of entirely different value systems seeking to define a reasonable existence was, and still is, under constant negotiation. It’s probably the reason why I needed to make art early on. It became, and is, the only language I understand with which to express that negotiation.
Clashing, 2020,oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches
Fast (from the modern illuminated manuscript series), 2020, acrylic on linen panel, 18 x 18 inches