Blue Crystals Revisited, no. 8, 2018; acrylic ink, mica, acrylic paint, and painted collage on canvas, 72 x 72 inches
Filomeno: Saints and Masterpieces
Around 1908-1909 my paternal and maternal grandparents left Italy to begin their new lives in New York City, each couple gravitating to a Little Italy, one in Manhattan, one in the Bronx. There they recreated life as they had known it in Italy, holding tight to their cultures and traditions. Eventually my paternal grandparents moved to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where my grandfather opened a jewelry store. Before he emigrated, he was a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Bologna, and my grandmother was one of his graduate students.
My maternal grandmother, from poverty-stricken Matera, just above the arch of the boot, was a widow with a young son. She met my grandfather in Italy before he came over. Their families had arranged a meeting (if not the actual marriage). She followed him here, where they married. This grandmother was a homemaker and went on to extend her family to five children. My grandfather was a shoemaker with a small shop in the Bronx. Even though he spoke no English, we got along great. He was the chef of the family, and no one came close to surpassing his meatballs. The highlight of a visit for me was going to the Arthur Avenue market with him.
My Italian American heritage began with the cultural influences that came over with my grandparents, including education, filtered down to my American-born parents and then directly to my brother and me. I was born in New York City in the mid-Fifties, during the height of the Abstract Expressionistic movement, as my father was setting up a new homestead for us in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He built our home himself. After the War he began a refrigeration business that enabled him to purchase five building lots, and one by one his parents, all of his brothers and sisters, and a few in-laws joined us. He created a new neighborhood that resembled a much smaller-scale version of Little Italy.
My mother worked in the Garment District as a design assistant and seamstress before she got married. She met my father at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. After they married, she became a homemaker. Her design aesthetic carried through into our clothing and home décor. She designed and sewed my many dresses. She herself was very tall, almost six feet, and dressed as if she had stepped out of Vogue. Being the New Yorker she was, she found it difficult to adapt to rural New Jersey so she returned to Manhattan once a week. She brought me in often for shows, operas, and museums.
In New Jersey our life centered around family, church, music (opera and Frank Sinatra), glorious family recipes, and seatings of 20 or more for Sunday dinners. The gravy simmering on the stove was always the center of attention, along with the fresh cannoli brought from the city. Because not everyone from the family moved to New Jersey, we alternated Sunday dinners between our home and my grandparents’ home in the city.
In my work I see the influences of Catholicism: the saints, the Mass, churches filled with religious relics and icons, shrines, altars, the physicality of the body, the mystery of life. The numerous trips I have taken to Italy allowed me to view the masterpieces: the Caravaggios, Michaelangelos, Berninis, Titians, Giottos, and the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi—and with them a heightened sense of drama, emotive use of color, the physicality of the gesture, the use of metaphors and narratives on a heroic scale, the Baroque, the grandness of it all.
I have hiked the Cinque Terre to experience that dramatic coastline and visited the splendor of Capri, Pompeii, and the Alps. However, Venice has remained my favorite city in the world. (The Filomeno family traces its origins to Venice. There is a lineage to nobility, with a family crest and coat of arms.) But I would be remiss if I didn't add New York City to my list.
This essay commemorates the passing of my mother 21 years ago. Lillian (Carmelina) Filomeno enriched my life in so many ways and taught me to appreciate where I come from. Her greatest wish was that I would carry on the traditions she exposed me to: my Italian American heritage.
Blue Crystals Revisited, no 4, 2017; acrylic ink, mica, acrylic paint, and shellac on canvas, 72 x 72 inches
Blue Crystals Revisited, no. 9, 2018; acrylic paint, acrylic ink, and painted collage on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Collection of the Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
Janet Filomeno in her studio
Photo: Ron Filomeno