Mano dei Tesori, 2020, bronze coins and gold-leafed carved urethane, 2.5 x 13 x 4.5 inches
Photo: Jean Vong
DeMonte: Lives of the saints and women of the world
For the last 40 years my work has dealt with the roles of women in contemporary global society. Working in series and using various media, I focus each body of work on various aspects of gender issues: stereotypes, family, religion, daily life. My work is influenced by my Italian Catholic background and my interest in and collection of Folk Art.
It would be hard to be raised Italian American and not be influenced by the richness of Italian culture. My grandfather emigrated from Abruzzi to Astoria in 1903. He was a decorative ironworker who quickly found work on the Hell Gate Bridge in Harlem [a railroad span over the East River that connects New York City with New England]. My grandmother’s early death in the 1918 pandemic left my father and his siblings on a rough homeless road. However, they never lost the importance of their heritage. My sister and I were raised in a house filled with books and music. Weekends included regular trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
We were sent to Catholic Schools and participated in processions for various saint days with appropriately colored wreaths of flowers for our hair. I even was selected to Crown the Blessed Mother statue. We celebrated St. Joseph’s Day as a major holiday as it was the name day of my father, Giuseppe Jacomo DeMonte. We would send lilies to the church in his name. We ate—and still eat—zeppoli di San Giuseppe on March 19th.
Queens is the most ethnically diverse county in the United States. My parents were community activists, and we were raised with friends of every race, religion, and social economic strata, a rarity in Queens at the time. It gave me the gift of thinking globally.
I think it was the richness of the imagery—the reliquaries, the Lives of the Saints—that never left me. I was often singled out in school for not having been named after a Saint. Claudia is only a Blessed, so I made a life story for her, and created an entire series on her, combining stories of other saints that I liked. She was not a scary saint, but a city-based joyous saint who would appear on fire escapes and shower the world with flowers. My tower to her was influenced by the guglio carried in Neapolitan neighborhoods in New York, which both fascinated and terrified me as a child; I always feared that this tower being carried by a team of men, complete with band on the first level, would fall as they danced with it.
Little I do does not reflect the unconditional love of Italian parents. I remember when I was eight years old my parents sitting me down and telling me that when I grow up I could be the first woman president. I thought about this until I was 16, and then told them I didn’t want to live in the public eye and did not want to be the first woman president. What a gift they gave me.
Cose Che Ho Fatto, 2017, mixed media, 70 pieces, each 10.5 x 8.5 inches; inset, installation view at June Kelly Gallery, New York City, 2017. Photos: Jean Vong
Left: Ammeda, 2016, bronze, 18 x 13 x 13 inches. ("My mother's name was Ammeda, and she handled all with dignity," says DeMonte); right: Exotic Illusions, 2016, enamel and mixed media on wood, 30 x 12 x 10 inches
Photos: Jean Vong
Photo: Firooz Zahedi