Josette Urso

Evergreen, 2020, oil on panel, 24 x 30 inches

Urso: Between the Familiar and the Unfamiliar


The first things that come to mind when I think about my Italian heritage are the rigor, the energy, and the excitement my Italian relatives brought to their every endeavor. I also think about the deep compassion they had for each other and the passionate stories they shared. Perhaps my work ethic and the animated (and hopefully welcoming quality) of my artwork are directly related to my Italian roots. I am certain that the reason I walk so fast, talk so fast, and wave my hands around while speaking is a direct link to my upbringing. These things in turn energize everything I do, including working in my studio. Also my first experiences in New York City as a child, while visiting my Italian cousins in Astoria, planted the seed of love for a place that has been so important for me as an artist.


As a child, I often attended big Italian gatherings and festivities. I didn’t speak the language (as my mother didn’t) so I couldn’t always understand exactly what was going on. Although I was made to feel very comfortable there, I often felt somewhat intimidated and overwhelmed. This might be one of the reasons my work often references places, spaces, and situations that are in between the familiar and the unfamiliar.


I was raised in the American South, but without the usual Southern heritage. In 1904, my paternal grandfather immigrated from Sicily to Ybor City, a “city” within the city of Tampa that was populated mostly by immigrants from Cuba, Spain, and Italy. There he married the daughter of a couple who had also immigrated from Sicily. It was in this unique ethnic environment of hand-rolled cigars, café con leche, and Italian opera that my father was nurtured.


My mother was born in North Carolina. At at a young age she also settled in Ybor City with her mother and stepfather, who had been raised in a community by parents who, like my father’s parents, had arrived here from Sicily.


Although I lived in Tampa during much of my childhood, I never lived in Ybor City as my parents had. But I absorbed the spirit of Ybor City, partly through my parents and partly because this spirit spilled over into the larger area of Tampa. I was intrigued by my Italian heritage—its vigor, color and freedom, but at the same time, as a child I found it almost too mysterious and I sometimes felt separate and a little uneasy. Now of course, as an adult, I appreciate and understand that within that mystery, the true magic lived. 


As a Pearl, 2020, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches

High Beam, 2019, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches

Josette Urso

Photo: Peter Dressel