Denise Sfraga

Strain, 2019, flashe and photographs on panel, 40 x 30 inches

Sfraga: Cycles of Life


I was born and raised in Bensonhurst, the Little Italy of Brooklyn, one of the most densely populated Italian communities in New York City. Although my parents had become Americanized, they were first-generation Italian Americans who continued to honor the traditions and rituals that my grandparents had brought with them from the Old Country. Most of our neighbors were “right off the boat,” and although they didn’t speak a word of English, they quickly blended into the neighborhood and helped shape this thriving community.


Growing up, it never really occurred to me that we were Italian. I simply thought everyone was. We lived just around the corner from 18th Avenue, one of the most popular areas in Bensonhurst, a place where the entirety of Italian culture thrived. Everywhere you looked, everything was Italian—Italian bakeries, Italian pork stores, Italian pizzerias, Italian soccer clubs, Italian cafés, and even Italian record stores, each storefront proudly displaying some version of the green, white, and red Italian flag.


The most anticipated event of the year was the local Italian feast which I learned later on was the feast of Saint Rosalina, but we simply knew it as “the festa.” On a typical Sunday in Bensonhurst, particularly on a warm day when the windows were open and the aroma of simmering meatballs, sausage, and gravy wafted out from nearby kitchens, you could hear a range of music, from Enrico Caruso or Louis Prima to the local neighborhood Italian band, The Caleps. A different kind of music echoed from parish churches as close-knit families filled the pews of Saint Bernadette’s, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Saint Francis Cabrini. After Mass we gathered on the church steps to catch up with the weekly neighborhood news or huddled around the parish grotto to chat with schoolmates and take Polaroids of families in their Sunday best.


My grandfather lived a few blocks from Green-Wood Cemetery. As a child I was always eager to visit him, because his second-floor kitchen window gave me a bird’s-eye view of the cemetery’s serene rolling landscape dotted with gravestones, mausoleums, flowers, and trees. When we visited the graves of family members on special occasions like Christmas or Easter, I was consumed with the concept of honoring the dead with ornaments of lifelike photographs, personal mementos, palm crosses, and flowers. This balance between quiet monuments for the dead and vibrant flowers adorning those graves always struck me as the perfect life-death-growth-decay metaphor.


Over the years, from college through graduate school and throughout my professional life as a photographer, photo editor, and artist, I would return to Green-Wood Cemetery with my camera to document the gravestones I was so fascinated with, attempting to capture that elusive emotion I had felt as a child. The Italian Catholic beliefs about death and rebirth have always resonated with me, and in some subliminal way my work has always attempted to explore this duality.


The biology of plants, nature and natural order has always been and continues to be an important and integral part of my creative life. As both an observation-oriented artist and avid gardener, I’ve always found inspiration exploring the various stages in the life cycle of plants, from early germination and growth, to seed dispersion and decay.  


Mensch 1-3, 2018, each colored pencil on paper, 8 x 6 inches

Grief Shower, 2020, flashe and gouache on paper, 24 x 18 inches

Denise Sfraga