Chris Costan

Tickle, 2019; thread and thread spools, silk velvet, wire armature, 11 x 10 x 8 inches

Costan: Ancestral roots and the Italian life I don’t have


I am a third-generation member of a large Americanized Italian family. My grandparents originated in Abruzzo and Sicily, immigrating to the United States early in the 20th century, arriving and settling in Boston. When my parents married they moved to Chicago, so we were separated from the clan. The Costantino family (the name was changed from Costantini by immigration) were working class.


My paternal grandmother was illiterate, although my grandfather read Il Giornale daily. My father’s generation had Old World customs and viewpoints, although my generation was removed from the old ways. I didn’t have very much exposure to Italy until I was 21, after which I made repeated trips to the homeland.


We know that formative years are when one is young. An impactful period: I spent one graduate school summer in Florence, sleuthing out a way to do an independent study at Santa Reparata Graphic Art Centre (now Santa Reparata International School of Art). During that time I became entranced by the Italian Renaissance in Florence and the Ancient Appian Way in Rome. As I delved further, visiting every museum containing Italian works that I could find, I absorbed this culture and this art. These are some of the influences that have carried me to today. The brashness and the beauty have never abandoned me. Symbolism, idea-encoded imagery, the Old World, the Ancient World, even Roman Catholicism, are atavistic influences; the foundation from which I operate.


That summer and on to the present, visits to Italy are often experienced with a knot in my chest, a knot that does not feel unlike "love." Is this because Italy is a magical, historical country with more visual, cultural riches than most places on earth? Is it about the musical, dramatic language? Or is there something in my genes that makes me feel connected to the characteristics and emotional nature of the people, the architecture, the landscape, the religion and Italian Renaissance art? Is there is a hole in my psyche because I miss the Italian life that I don’t have?


Always a mongrel, I am American in that fierce, arrogant, individualistic kind of way that distinguishes Americans from the rest of the world. What Americans and Italians have in common, though, is a cockiness, and I have that too. The way in which I exhibit passion, fire, explosive drama, my way of gesticulating, all fit the Southern Italian bill. When one of my aunts was robbed in her home, she chased the perpetrator down the street with a raised broom. That's probably me too.


The appeal of artmaking can involve irony/complexity, humor, absurdity and visual delight. Given all, I am living proof of the embodiment of ancestral roots.


You might be wondering about my last name. My birth certificate lists me as Costantino, but when I was five years old and beginning public school, my mother shortened the name to Costan. She felt it would be easier for me in if my origins were not clear. The extended family was disappointed. Once I reached graduate school, I thought about changing it back but felt it was too late. I suppose this is called "assimilation."  


Napoleon, from the series, Tabletop Bricolage in the Time of Cholera, 2021, mohair, glass, thread ceramic, wax, 10 x 7 x 7 inches

Glow Worm, 2016, fabrics and notions on paper, 13 x 15 inches

Chris Costan