Karen Schifano

The Road Ahead, 2021, flashe on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

Schifano: An American Life with Italian Roots

I am a second-generation Italian American on the Sicilian side, and third generation from the Basilicata area, east of Naples. My four sisters and I were raised in the suburbs of New York City to become good American girls with bland American names, and my parents spoke only English. However, in the Italian American style, we ate a big home-cooked meal after church every Sunday, had a fig tree in the back yard, and spent the holidays at my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Little Italy or with cousins, sharing meals that stretched on for five hours. My Sicilian grandmother lived with us my entire life and cooked in tandem with my mother. Food was a sensual pleasure and a place to come together. Family was everything, we were noisy, and there were a lot of us. 

My parents, Natalie and Vincent, both respected and created art, providing us with a life of enthusiasm and excitement. Arts and crafts were family events, with holiday decorations made at the living room table together. On Halloween, we were the stars of our neighborhood, in our lively handmade costumes. Appreciating every detail for its own particular beauty (“Look at that!” What do you think of this picture?”) was a part of everyday life for us. Visual literacy was the result.

My mother, whose own mother dreamed of being an opera singer, and whose cousin was a music critic for the New York World Telegram & Sun, taught art classes in Hastings High School. After my sisters and I were mostly grown, Mom received a EdD in Art Education from Columbia University at the age of 63. She went on to teach art teachers how to teach and is a member of many professional arts organizations. Her students keep in touch. A few of them went on to be well-known artists and gallerists. She continues to make collages, prints and small paintings in her home studio.

Although my father’s family was impoverished by his father’s early death, Dad attended Pratt Institute on the GI bill and majored in commercial art. He felt that his father’s little shoemaking business on Long Island was what inspired his love of shape and form, sculpture and architecture, and he kept the wooden shoe models in his basement studio. Mounted on the wall in this studio were tools that he found intriguing, from eggbeaters and antique pliers to old fan blades and currying combs. He invented useful objects in his spare time and set them down in notebooks or made maquettes. After he retired as an art director on Madison Avenue, he became a full-time sculptor and painter, which he said were the happiest years of his life.

His favorite artist was Ellsworth Kelly and my mother’s was Barnett Newman, and we were brought as children to look at abstract painting at MoMA, rather than the Metropolitan Museum. We were never “afraid of red, yellow and blue”.

From this brief history, one can see how my work as an artist reflects these formative influences. I went on to major in Art History, got an MFA in Painting, and then went to Paris and Rome to look at everything I had missed seeing while looking only at abstract art. My paintings employ the flat expanses of graphic color that I grew up seeing in my father’s advertising, shape that reads as figure and ground, and sometimes metaphors of theater spaces (Italian opera!) among other subject matter. I aim for a witty exploration of abstract tropes from our modernist history that I saw growing up at MoMA. In hindsight, I see that my parents’ Italian American heritage is the foundation for my own strengths and focus as an abstract painter. They inherited the love and appreciation of what comes to us from our senses and the romantic artist’s spirit of La Boheme. The life of stylish beauty they created in our home comes from from their Italian roots. If I hadn’t become an artist, something would have been amiss!

Birth, 2021, flashe on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

Looming 3, 2020, flashe on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

Karen Schifano