Antonietta Grassi

Lifelines in the Age of Anxiety no.1, 2020, oil and ink on Belgian linen, 84 x 78 inches,

Grassi: An Interesting and Complicated Sense of Identity


I grew up in an Italian Canadian community in Montreal. My parents, like many of the other Italian immigrants in the community, spoke their language with everyone, including local shopkeepers, because they were Italian as well. My father spoke a little French and no English, and my mother spoke barely any French or English at all. I spoke Italian at home and with my friends from the neighbourhood until I went to kindergarten. There I was exposed to French (I attended with my best friend with whom I spoke Italian and we didn't understand anything the teacher was saying!)

As I got older and attended English school, I continued to speak Italian with my parents. But my siblings and I spoke in English so that my parents could not understand us. English was our code language. Ironically, I now use Italian as my code language. (Language is an interesting topic here in Quebec, because it's a French-speaking province in a sea of English-speaking North America. Because of that, the French Quebec people feel their language and culture are threatened. They are a linguistic minority. Italians are an ethnic minority in Quebec, which considers itself a minority in North America. In essence we are a minority within a minority. This makes for an interesting and and complicated sense of identity in terms of where one belongs.)

If I had to label it, I would say I am an Italian Canadian from Quebec. I grew up very strongly connected to my parents’ Italian roots and was expected to uphold many of their customs. Arriving in the late Fifties, they brought with them a mid-century ideology from a small Medieval village, yet despite the times and customs changing (even in Italy) they were reluctant to change, even well into the Seventies when I was growing up. We became the "translators" for our parents, not only of language but also of the new norms, often assuming roles beyond our years. It was not uncommon for an older sibling to advocate for the younger sibling at school since the parents did not speak the language, as was my case when my older sister would go to my PTA meetings when she was 12.


My mother, who was a garment worker, sewed most of our clothes, a process that started with selecting the fabrics and laying out the pattern. My home was also filled with the plans and blueprints that belonged to my father, who was a carpenter and house builder, as were many of his fellow Italian immigrants. This diagrammatic way of looking at an object is ingrained in my memory.


Many of my paintings resemble the loom’s form or building plans, providing a link to my own roots. The threadlike lines in my paintings hold these influences and memories together. Yet it is not only my personal history that I am alluding to in my work but also my interest in forgotten histories of women, technology, and obsolescence. Drawing on the link between the textile industry and the Jacquard loom to computer programming, I highlight the forgotten contribution of women scientists and mathematicians who were pioneers of early computer programming. The Jacquard loom, a machine invented in the 1800s that weaves patterns using punch cards, was an important development in the history of computer hardware thanks to Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. My works are often titled after the women scientists or the programs they developed such as Linkers no. 1 and Linkers no. 2 (for Grace Hopper) and Ada (after Lovelace).


The lines in my work can reference the warp and weft of fabrics or the data embedded in a barcode; the shapes in my work are based on memories of prosaic objects: filing cabinets, sewing patterns, old computers, and typewriters. The colors are influenced by events in the world and in my life, ranging from the hot pink hats of the Women’s March in January 2017 to banal office supplies such as Post It notes and file folders. The colors can just as easily come from my deep interest in the history of modernist painting, a large social movement, or the human body. My paintings attempt to reconnect fragments of encoded memories of objects, like blueprints for histories that have been filed away, yet delicately retrieved through the physical language of paint.


In 2003, my artist self and my Italian heritage had a chance to merge. I was invited to show my work at Museo MACK Kalenarte, a museum in the medieval town of Casacalenda in the region of Molise, my parents' birthplace. The exhibition, co-organized by artist/curator Massimo Palumbo who is based in Italy, and curator Anna Carlevaris, who was based in Montreal until her passing, was an ambitious project that brought artists from the Italian Diaspora to participate in an exhibition and conference titled Terra Tremante (Trembling Ground). The title referred to the then-recent earthquake that had occurred in the neighbouring town, killing hundreds of people, including children in First Grade. The children had been doing a lesson on cursive writing. To honour and remember them, I created a series of large works on paper with lines that referred to seismographic charts juxtaposed with handwritten cursive text. The entire town was filled with art, including installations, performances and contemporary works that hung in medieval buildings, a melding of eras, continents and artistic disciplines.

It was an incredible experience to have this exhibition with other contemporary artists from the Italian Diaspora in this medieval town, only a few kilometers away from where my parents were born. 


Lifelines, main room solo installation at Patrick Mikhail Gallery Montreal

Lifelines in the Age of Anxiety no.2, 2020, oil and ink on Belgian linen, 84 x 80 inches,

Antonietta Grassi