From The Pandora's Boxx Project: Nancy Azara, 2019, archival ink print, 18 x 24 inches
Roselli: Breaking Boundaries
I’m of Italian descent from both parents, primarily Southern Italian. My father’s family is from Bari and my mother’s mostly from Naples.
Most of the family on both sides came here in the late 1800s, early 1900s, however my father’s father was born in Italy and emigrated to the United States as a young man. He delivered ice for refrigerator boxes, then opened a gas station and worked on cars. The paternal side of the family presented their culture in a norm core way—extended family get-togethers in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, pasta on Sundays with huge pots of sauce made from scratch, and my grandfather’s ever-present tomato plants. I always found it odd though, that despite an enormous amount of pride the family took in their Italian heritage, my father and his sisters were discouraged from speaking Italian growing up.
My mom grew up in Manhattan’s Little Italy, but her family was less conventional. My grandmother divorced my grandfather and worked in the factories then present on Canal Street. My grandfather was an alcoholic who was beaten to death on the Bowery. There wasn’t any acknowledgement or understanding of homosexuality in my parents’ families. My mom’s only brother was gay, went into the Jesuits at 18 in the late Fifties and left the order in the mid Seventies. My mom was unaware of this part of my uncle’s life until he was dying of HIV/AIDs in the early Eighties.
Both my parents were the first of their families to attend and graduate from college. I was born in 1960, the oldest of six. There’s only nine years between me and my youngest brother. We didn’t have much money growing up but lacked for nothing. My siblings and I continue to be very close.
Italian culture is very patriarchal, but so was America, and my family was no different. My mom loved art and had the voice of an angel but was discouraged from pursuing anything beyond the church choir. My ability to draw anything I saw manifested early and was encouraged by both parents. I went to Rhode Island School of Design. I started out in the Illustration Department and moved into painting. I didn’t know fully yet what being an artist really entailed, only knew I was one. My father certainly didn’t; he thought I’d graduate with all my great talent and get a great job, then a great husband. The only problem is that women had a hard time getting the great job, and I didn’t want a husband. That was the time though, both in art and in the greater society, and my dad was a man of his time.
My artwork and life became about struggling against the boundaries I was coming across—within my studio practice, my lovers, my physicality. Until beginning work on the Pandora’s BoxX Project, I hadn’t realized that identifying and empathizing with the origin of those boundaries was just as important as breaking them.
The Pandora’s BoxX Project is an extensive photography portrait archive I am creating of womxn and nonbinary people in the fine arts over the last six decades. This community of acclaimed and emerging professionals brought together in one place becomes a necessary resource focusing on connectivity and greater understanding both between the participants themselves and throughout the broader cultural conversation. The complete project will be a place of illumination and celebration for their impact, visibility and achievements. The portraits I’m showing here are of the five Italian women participating in the project to date: art dealer Mary Sabbatino, performance artist and writer Katie Cercone, and artists Nancy Azara, Claudia DeMonte, and Joanne Mattera.
Katie Cercone, 2019, and Mary Sabbatino, 2019; both archival ink jet print, 24 x 18 inches
Claudia DeMonte, 2019, archival ink jet print, 18 x 24 inches
Joanne Mattera, 2019, archival ink jet print, 18 x 24 inches
Photo: Melissa Diaz