Lisa Zukowski

Prosopopoeia, 2020, mixed media, 9 x 10 x 4 inches

Zukowski: Keeping Secrets, Making Do


Gay Talese, in Italian Americans on PBS, said Italian immigrants had a great respect for authority yet a distrust of authority. My grandfather hid the past and was terrified of some mysterious authority figure that was going to do us harm. We were taught never to talk about family matters with others. The heritage of being blue-collar working class created a condition of secrecy that offered a protection from the world outside the family.


This has manifested itself very strongly in my work. Working abstractly helps to hide, to mask, to not be overt. I almost always hide things in my work, secret meanings, hidden objects, covered up text. In the Bundles series what is unseen is almost as important to the work as what is seen. The bundles are filled with shredded ephemera. The outside materials are also significant; the fabrics are old clothes, some belonging to my parents. They are wrapped up in string as a kind of safekeeping, a way of keeping their secrets.


I grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Being of Italian descent made me an oddity, somehow less equal to the Irish kids. My insular neighborhood fostered the racist attitudes of several generations earlier, when Italian immigrants, especially Southern Italians, were somehow not quite white, not quite equal. Such was my world outside the home. But inside, we were beautiful, talented, and interesting. The men in my family could build anything—boats, houses, furniture, you name it. The women were all expert seamstresses who could sew, knit, and crochet without patterns. I benefitted from all of it. I helped my father build boats and houses and learned all things needlework from my mother and grandmother.


I was the first of my family to graduate from college. One of my father’s favorite sayings was, “If you can’t make it or steal it, you do without it.” Not that he would steal anything, but he really did make everything. And if possible, made it from what was around.


Prosopopoeia, and much of my other work, is very much in that tradition. Sometimes the materials speak to me, other times I enjoy the challenge of making discarded material work for what I want to say. My husband and I are remodeling our cottage in Florida, and the materials for this piece came from the construction debris.


When I was growing up, extended family was always around. I lived next door to my maternal grandparents; an uncle’s family lived above my grandparents. My parents’ social circle consisted primarily of relatives. My brothers and I were told that “friends come and go, but your family is forever.” My family is still my foundation, and the subject of much of my work.


I was thinking of my mother when making Heaven, and about feeling loss. I was in the midst of dealing with her estate so she was very much on my mind.


Heaven, 2017, mixed media, 48 x 20 inches

Bundles, 2016, mixed media, variable dimensions

Lisa Zukowski