From The Pandora's Boxx Project
Nancy Azara, 2019, archival ink print, 18 x 24 inches
Roselli: Breaking Boundaries
I’m of Southern Italian descent. My father's family is from Bari and my mother's primarily from Naples.
Most of the family from both parents emigrated here in the late 1800s, early 1900s, however my father’s father, Vito Roselli, 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. I remember looking at his fingers with permanent half-moons of grease under the nails and thinking they were so beautiful! The paternal side of the family had 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 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, an alcoholic, was beaten to death on the Bowery.
Sadly, there wasn’t any acknowledgement or understanding of homosexuality in my parent’s families. My mom’s only brother was gay, went into the Jesuits at 18 in the late 1950’s 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 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 manifested early and was encouraged by both parents. I went to Rhode Island School of Design to study Illustration or fashion design and moved quickly into painting when I realized I could be a painter. I didn’t know fully yet what being an artist really entailed, only knew that 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 I didn’t want a job that left me no time to paint, 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 my current series, 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.
Pandora’s BoxX Project addresses the changing face of women, trans, and non-binary creators and visionaries in our culture over the past six decades through photographic portraiture. The project celebrates womxn whose art, actions, struggle, and perseverance have reset the status quo and transformed our experience of the world. Pandora’s BoxX Project is ongoing and will include 360 portraits, interviews, and oral accounts of womxn with representation across generations, races, ethnicities, and fine-art practices.
We live in a complicated present, where more bridges, not walls, must be built. Concentric circles of knowledge, talent, and innovation represented by the womxn joined together within Pandora’s BoxX Project centers unity, support, and continuation. Through the conversations created by art and shared experience, the project strives to bridge the gaps between generations, communities, and identities as we continue to push forward for full equity regardless of gender, race, class, or age.
The portraits pictured are of women of Italian descent participating in Pandora’s BoxX Project: art dealer Mary Sabbatino, performance artist and writer Katie Cercone, and artists Nancy Azara, Claudia DeMonte, and Joanne Mattera.
Mary Sabbatino, 2019, archival ink jet print, 24 x 18 inches
Katie Cercone, 2019, 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