Mark Wethli

Untitled #6, 2020, colored pencil on paper, 4.125 x 5.875 inches

Wethli: Straight Lines and a Hint of Magic Realism


1. In Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Fanny and Alexander, we’re introduced to two households—the joyful, colorful, and boisterous one of the title characters’ first home and, after their father dies and their mother remarries, the harsh, spare, Calvinistic one of their stepfather, Edvard Vergérus. The moment I saw it I recognized my own upbringing—on one end of town the farm of my Swiss/English grandparents, Bill and Mattie, and on the other the home of my maternal grandmother, Theresa Lopreste (neé Condello), born in Reggio Calabria in 1909.


While the Wethli family was much nicer than the Vergérus’ household in the film, I remember sparse furnishings and quiet mealtimes. Except for the ticking of a clock, sounds rarely interrupted the sunlight streaming through the windows onto the linoleum floors. My grandfather and grandmother, both of whom I adored, could have easily stepped out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic.


At the Lopreste's, on the other hand, there was constant banter in both English and Italian, punctuated by hand gestures and filled with equal parts laughter and fretting. It seemed like something was always on the stove or on the table, and the smell of tomato sauce permeated every room. There was also superstition, like the time I was seven or eight and I was hooting like an owl, the way kids do. My great aunt, Sarah, went ashen and admonished me that when you hear the call of an owl someone in the neighborhood will die that night.


When I read Joanne Mattera’s wonderful memoir, Vita: Growing Up Italian, Coming Out, and Making a Life in Art, the early pages could have just as easily been written about my own upbringing, but only by half. The Wethlis were Lutherans and the Lopreste’s Catholic (by heritage). The Wethlis, in addition to my father and grandfather, were predominantly uncles and farming people; the Loprestes were a matriarchy comprised of my mom, grandmother, aunts, and great aunts. I learned valuable and lasting lessons from each.


When I look at my work now, I can see my reserved, Swiss heritage in my predilection for straight lines, rectangles, clarity, and simplicity. From my Italian side I see colors that remind me of my mother’s sewing room, the vernacular Forties- and Fifties-era furnishings of my grandmother’s home, and the lively, constant, and unpredictable flow of conversation, along with a hint of magic realism.


2. When I turned 50 (one legal drinking age ago), I celebrated in two ways: I rented a local movie theater for a private screening of Jim Jarmusch’s Year of the Horse, for a gathering of friends, and I flew to Bologna to see as much as I could of Giorgio Morandi’s work and hometown (as well as sampling the renowned food and wine). The muted yet quiet energy of his paintings, and something innately Italian about them, are qualities I always aspire to.


Untitled #2, 2020, colored pencil on paper, 4.125 x 5.875 inches

Untitled #4, 2020, colored pencil on paper, 4.125 x 5.875 inches

Mark Wethli