Nancy Azara

Leaf Altar for Nunzia (1913-2004), 2007

carved and painted wood with aluminum leaf, 80 x 53 x 17 inches

Maxi's Wall, 2006

carved and painted wood with gold, silver, palladium leaf and encaustic, 10 x 12 x 3 feet

Azara: Balancing Act


Although I was born in the United States I was brought up according to many of the folk and religious traditions of Southern Italy. I feel a creative bond to Italy, its countryside, its people, and its art. After all, my ancestors lived there for thousands of years, and I feel this history still within myself.


Kindergarten and first grade in the school around the corner, PS 201, were very difficult for me. Everything was so strange. I did not feel safe. I did not feel comfortable. I did not feel as if I belonged. It was the first time that I was around many girls and boys who were not Italian. And the teachers were not Italian. We never said Italian American in those days.


I do remember something that I had amnesia about for many years. In the first grade I spoke a combination of Italian and English. It was that my English was interspersed with Italian (Sicilian) words. The kids in the class laughed at me and said that I didn't speak right.


I felt in school that I was confined. I couldn't spend so much time in the garden at my house anymore. It was a difficult adjustment. For instance the songs that we were supposed to sing frightened me. Imagine being frightened by Row, Row, Row Your Boat. But I was. A whole assembly of kids singing these songs that I had never heard before—was so strange to my little girl's ears—I who had heard the Italian music station that my grandmother always had on at her house.


In school nobody could use their hands to speak. We were told to sit on our hands. We couldn't speak with raised voices either. This was considered very bad in school. It was impolite, not proper. So every day I went home to gesticulating and loud laughter, and painfully loud expressions of frustration or joy or whatever, or the crooning of Frank Sinatra, and every morning I left this to go to an alien ground and to learn a different way to be.


When challenged in even a very small way, my parents would puff themselves up and declare that they were American. But we all knew that deep down we were really Italian. How this group of people managed to function in the world with these balancing acts of identity is a mystery to me. I know that when I got old enough to understand what this quasi-slippery identity represented, I didn't know how to place myself.

Dawn/Light, 2009

carved and painted wood with aluminum leaf and encaustic, 10 x 6 x 2 feet

Nancy Azara at at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation Residency, Umbria

Photo: Francesco Capponi