Cianne Fragione

Heaven and Earth Dressed in Their Summer Wear, olive netting and found materials, hung on the clothesline of the studio balcone at an Artist Residence in Monasterace, Calabria, Italy, 2012

Below: The artist changed the clothesline daily

Fragione: It began in a big house in Hartford

I remember so many stories. As an Italian and Sicilian born in America, I know two very different sides of Italian culture. My momma’s family is from Torino/Cigliano in the North, my papa’s from Floridia/Solarino, in the Sicilian province of Siracusa. My parents had sufficient love to bridge those differences.

We lived in a large, multifamily, multigenerational, four-story house in Hartford, Connecticut. My parents had a street-level apartment for the first 10 years of my life, while the rest of the paternal side of the family, the Sicilians—grandparents, aunts, and uncles—all lived upstairs. My nonna, an accomplished dress designer and seamstress for women in the area, kept her shop in the front of our apartment, with our living area directly behind it. With only a door to separate us, I saw her all the time. She made me dresses, coats, and hats almost weekly, which reinforced the integrity of the crafted object for me and at the same time contributed to my sense of composition and form. 

After we moved to our own house, the kitchen in our former apartment became my nonno’s barbershop. My grandparents now had their businesses side by side. All the Italians patronized each other’s businesses, and lot of their trade entailed barter. What lingers so vividly in memory is the talk, the spill of words and the theater of their conversation, which imparted a love of poetry and music. We all (including customers and friends) convened there on Saturday afternoons to listen to the radio broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. Since my grandfather played the clarinet, he liked having music around. He also spoke five languages, and I was always delighted and impressed when he translated the opera lyrics for us or narrated the plots of the librettos.

At 18 months, I had a life-threating illness. My entire family—parents, brother, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, as well as our pediatrician—stayed together at our home for 24 hours before I could be moved to the hospital. I was in a coma for three days, and during the long hours of waiting, nonna prayed to St. Sebastian, the Virgin Mary, and St. Anne. She vowed that if I lived, she would arrange a procession for me. She told my parents if I woke in three days all would be fine, and this would, in fact, occur. At one point, my papa told me that when they came to my room, I was not there (the hospital moved me to another room), and they thought I had died. When they found out where I was, he kept calling out my name and I suddenly stood up, crying out and breaking the straps with which I had been restrained (so that I would not pull out the attached tubes). I recall that as I moved towards his voice, I came to a black hole, which I somehow knew I must not enter. My papa said it was the greatest cry he ever heard.

There was a priest from Sicilia in nearby Middlebury, and my grandmother asked him to perform the procession for the Italian community. Not all parishes did this, so it was something special. (My papa told me that when he was little, prejudice against the Sicilians was still strong enough that they had to go to a separate church in a basement.) First, they built a scaffold. Nonna had made two outfits for me, one red and one white, of the best material, with a reversable cape. A Mass was celebrated and then the procession began, with the priest at the head, followed by altar boys, my parents, who carried me, my grandparents, and family, carrying statues of the three saints; then came friends and musicians with candles and incense. As they continued along the streets, others, including strangers, pinned money to the saints as they advanced to the scaffold, where the priest told my story. I then changed clothes, from one color to the other. My momma wanted to have me redressed inside the church, not in front of everyone, but otherwise everything was done in public.

While the priest was re-blessing me back into this world (I’d had last rites while I was in the hospital), his chasuble caught on fire from the candles behind him. As the altar boys doused the flames, he never missed a beat. Later we had a festa of food and music. From that day, my momma made a practice of pinning group of small medals to my undergarments: Mary, St. Anne, a cross, a rose, and a red ribbon on a safety pin, worn each day, until junior high. Other girls made fun of me in the gym locker room. But I still wear a miniature silver medal of the Madonna that I received then, the size of my smallest fingernail, and I keep the others in my jewelry box.

We often saw my momma’s family, too, but that is another story. These are among my first memories, experiences that, I believe, have given my work an evanescence, a sense of the fragility and transitory nature of life, as well as an imagery that I understand as at once cultural, utterly personal, yet connected to the circumstances of daily life. I would go on to filter such experiences through my study of art history and Italian literature, as well as my involvement with contemporary art. I place tremendous emphasis on process, layering, the slow construction of surface textures and rhythms, and qualities of interior depth and illumination that trace their origins to my early experiences. Nonetheless, I cannot hope to separate or quantify what is Italian from any other aspect of my life or art. Some traits or characteristics may be more apparent than others, but where, finally, does one end and another begin?

Heaven and Earth Dressed in Their Summer Wear, installation view

The canvases are based on the clothesline as a template, and when they are hung side by side, they become a single, unified environment of landscape, motif, atmosphere, mood. Together, dresses and paint reveal their clarity of conception, expressed in a harmonious, if intricate, flow of colors, shapes, patterns, spatial elements, and visual rhythms. The motif captures the 'spirit' of the clothesline as poetic space, and as a significant cultural site at once rural, suburban, and urban, past and present — the artist’s experience of actual places shared through the work itself.

Two paintings from the installation above

Left: Heaven and Earth Dressed in their Summer Wear (pink jacket), 2007. right: Heaven and Earth Dressed in their Summer Wear (eyelet dress), 2007-09; each oil mixed media, assemblage on canvas, 60 x 30 inches

Heaven and Earth Dressed in Their Summer Wear, (black skirt & secrets ), 2010, oil, mixed media, assemblage on linen, 58 x 41 inches

What is Left is Lace, 2019; oil, college, textile, mixed media on linen mounted on panel, 40 x 30 inches 

Writes the artist: "I was living in Calabria, within easy walking distance of a Magna Grecia archeological site along the Ionian coastline that exposed the bare remains of an ancient Greek temple and residence, in essence the ghost of a two-thousand-year-old space. However, the paintings do not illustrate this background. To the extent that a 'story' is in effect, it might instead be described as an imaginative atmosphere in which my studio process goes forward on its own journey.” 

Cianne Fragione in her studio at ArtOmi, Ghent, New York, in 2019

Photo: Bryan Zimmerman