Elisa D'Arrigo

Edge of My Seat, 2020

glazed ceramic, 9 x 7 x 6 inches

D'Arrigo: Deep Roots from Sicily to the Bronx

It is impossible for me to tease out which of my early influences were related to being Italian American (or more specifically, Sicilian American) from other factors, but I do think that having Sicilian/Italian American heritage and being Bronx bred in the 1950s were all of a piece.

In my family a repeated refrain was that Sicily was only recently considered a part of Italy (mid-1800s), and had been conquered by “everyone,” creating a unique and insular collective sensibility. The rich cultural history was often discussed, from the Greeks to the Arabs and Normans, as well as the genius of relatively recent locals, Vincenzo Bellini, Luigi Pirandello, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa, among others. Yet the deprivation that caused so many to emigrate, as well as the irony of leaving a place of great physical beauty for dismal tenements, was a frequent topic as well.

Growing up first-generation Sicilian/Italian American, there was a pervasive do-it-yourself ethos, but also an express-yourself atmosphere. Everyone made things, repaired things, jerry-rigged things. That had a powerful effect on my sensibility and is with me still.

Before emigrating, my grandfather was a shoemaker who tanned his own leather. My grandmother was an expert embroiderer and the only butcher in her town. My mother, a self-trained painter, also revived forgotten recipes. And my father, a serious cook, self-taught poet, and superb dancer, said he learned English on the Roseland Ballroom dance floor.

Our backyard had fig trees (of course), wrapped with multicolored oilcloths and rough blankets, all tied together with rope each winter, resembling twisted, grotesque, disjunctively textured looming abstract figures. Those fig trees, and the prevailing 1950s visual culture of curvaceous cars, brash comics, and extreme hairstyles, were endlessly fascinating.

In retrospect I think the Italian Americans in my Bronx neighborhood brought 1950’s hairstyles into especially outrageous realms; they were gravity-defying sculpture, held together with industrial-strength hair spray. I was entranced by these visuals, considering them on a par with art I saw at the Met, Cloisters, or Museum of Primitive Art. My parents loved art, and we went to those museums (they thought the best stuff was Italian), but contemporary art was not on the radar.

My grandmother’s needlework inspired me to learn traditional embroidery stitches, and I found drawing with thread, as I thought of it, especially appealing. I was attracted to art that also functioned: reliquaries, fountains, vessels, devotional objects. Creating a beehive hairdo seemed like a legitimate expressive endeavor. Maybe that's why I've never understood the craft versus art divide.

The work I’ve done over the years, from hand-stitched sculptures to my current hand-built ceramic works, which additionally function as vases, can trace at least some deep roots to my Sicilian/Italian American Bronx background.

Dothead 2, 2020

glazed ceramic, 8 x 8 x 6 inches

Morpher, 2019-2020

glazed ceramic, 9 x 9 x 5 inches

Elisa D'Arrigo