Part 3: Essay
All images and essays (c) the individual artists unless otherwise noted
Sheila Pepe, Origin of the World (part one), 2012, installed in the town of Ameno in Novara, Piemonte
Photo: Paola Ferrario
Two Worlds / Due Mondi
By Joanne Mattera
I was born here, a citizen of the United States, but by nurture and osmosis my cultural identity is Italian. At 35 I went to Italy for the first time where I found to my dismay that while I felt completely at home with the culture, language, and food—and, indeed, with people who looked like me—in the eyes of the Italians I was un’americana. Even my aunt Antonette, who was born in Ortona on the Abbruzzi coast and lived there for 25 years before joining her parents and six siblings here, was stunned to learn on a return visit some years later that she had become na'merigan—she who had always referred to her American-born family as "you people."
It turns out that culture and identity are not fixed. We navigate between here and there, us and them, now and then, Italian and American.
The successive generations are more American than Italian. Sunday dinners, with several generations gathered around the table conversing in a mishcoolanz—a mescolanza, a mix—of regional dialect, Italian, and English, are increasingly infrequent, with Italian phasing out and everyone constantly checking their phones. As a group, we are thus at a remove once, twice, or more from the Old Country. Moreover, the Italy we knew from our grandparents—dialect, customs, even geography—may be a century old. A friend who learned Italian as a child from his elderly grandfather laughs now about the time when, as a young adult, he visited his family’s paese for the first time. As he began to speak, the paesani raised their eyebrows and drew their fingers together. “Ma chi è questo gualione che parla come un vecchione?” they asked each other. Who is this kid who talks like an old man?
To add a bit of confusion to our culturally and lingually bifurcated identity, the term “first-generation Italian Americans” may refer to the children of immigrants—the first born as American citizens—or it might refer to the immigrants themselves, who may or may not have adopted American culture. And, of course, there are many families in which one of the parents was born in Italy or some of the children were born here.
Seven people representing five generations
Above: My bisnonna, Rafaella Ciammaichella; her, daughter, Annina, with me, in Revere, Massachusetts in 1949
Below: Grace DeGennaro with her father William (born Rafael) and his father, Dominic, in the Bronx in 1957; Lloyd Martin's grandson, Steven, with Martin's painting in New York City recently
“Though I studied the Italian language, I am far from fluent,” says Jeanne Brasile. Like many of us, she heard dialect at home but was not encouraged to speak it. When she took an Italian class, she was surprised to learn that the “sharp-sounding” language she grew up hearing bore little resemblance to what she describes as the “mellifluous, even poetic” language she was learning in school. “I felt cheated,” she says, “as if somehow my home experience was not quite authentic and I wasn’t really Italian.”
She needn't have worried. Being authentically Italian means carrying within us the entirety of the Mediterranean gene pool, from the Alps to North Africa, Provence to the Levant—and all the languages encompassed therein. Much of Southern Italy speaks some version of Napulitan, considered by some linguists to be a language different from the Tuscan Italian on which contemporary standard Italian is based. The Roman-built Napoli was constructed over the Greek city of Neopolis, after all, and between the 15th and 18th centuries the region was under the rule of Spain, so the linguistic base for Napulitan was wide. Sicilian, also considered to be another language, contains elements of Arabic, Catalan, Norman, Greek, and more. The sounds of both these languages are familiar to us even if we do not know their meaning. Ironically, as Standard Italian asserts itself in Italy, the languages and dialects we grew up with are each a time capsule of the past. In a behind-the-scenes video that accompanied the first episode of the My Brilliant Friend series, for instance, director Saverio Costanzo noted that the young actors speaking the pre-War Napulitan dialog had to learn it phonetically, since most of them didn’t understand it.
In terms of this project, language is an influence on a number of artists, notably Brasile’s word assemblages and much of John Avelluto’s oeuvre.
Jeanne Brasile, Mixed Messages, 2021, blender and various texts
Patricia Miranda sets the table here: “My Italian American connection is first through family and food, the kind with long Sunday dinners that start at 1:00 p.m. and last until bedtime, listening to the grownups tell stories around the table, cracking walnuts into piles of shells to be swept away later.”
For Janet Filomeno, the highlight of a visit to her grandparents in the Bronx was going to the markets on Arthur Avenue with her grandfather. Anna Patalano remembers the sawdust on the floor of the butcher shops there. She also remembers “the ever-important extra kitchen in the basement.”
differences made for different meals. John Avelluto recalls Sunday meals of pasta
con sarde at his Sicilian grandparents’ table. I recall my “discovery” of
pesto as a college student. Why had we never had that marvelous emerald green
sauce before? It was made with all the ingredients we cooked with and loved:
basil, pignole, parmigiano, garlic, and olive oil. I held a jar
triumphantly when I walked into my Aunt Lena’s kitchen. “Oh, pesto,” she said
dismissively. “That’s Genovese.” Apparently Southern Italians didn’t eat
Northern Italian food.
But most of us had pasta of some kind two or three times a week and certainly on Sunday. Milisa Galazzi recalls making tortellini with her nonna. And there is the amusing but not surprising revelation that as children many of us were enthusiastic crankers of the pasta machine.
I could go on about food—dipping fresh Italian bread into the Sunday gravy, the macaroni-laden platter brought to the table by grandma, the kids getting a little red wine poured into their water and clinking glasses with the grown-ups, the trays of jewel-like pastries—and the extensions to the dining room table so that everybody could fit. Those are different stories for another time. (But raise your hand if you still make pastina when you’re feeling moosha-moosh.)
Food as Inspiration
Left: John Avelluto, detail of Take the Cannoli, 2021. Inspired by the pastries in a Bensonhurst bakery, Avelluto crafted these delicacies from layers of acrylic paint
Right: D. Dominick Lombardi, CCWS 50, 2019, mixed media on wooden Sicilian serving tray, 17.5 inches diameter
In her book The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America, Joanna Clapps Herman writes: “I was born in 1944 but raised in the fifteenth century.” She is referring in part to the self sufficiency and communal effort that enabled so many Italians on both sides of the Atlantic to survive, but also to the treatment of girls and women. There is not an Italian American woman born before this new millennium who has not experienced some version of the Middle Ages at home. Indeed, Paula Roland (neé Maenza) places the timeline farther back: "Growing up I didn't want anything to do with my family's . . . rules, which must have originated in the 12th century."
The Double Standard, my god! Girls were not allowed the same freedoms as the boys. And we were reminded in so many ways that we were not as important. “Why were women always in the other room?” asks Patti Russotti. In my memoir, Vita: Growing Up Italian, Coming Out, and Making a Life in Art, I write about receiving a boy’s bike for Christmas. “This way your brothers can inherit it when you grow out of it,” my parents explained—helpfully, they thought—to a crushed six-year-old. It was not the crossbar I found upsetting but the realization in that moment that I, the oldest child and only daughter, did not count.
The lucky ones among us were taken under the wing of a beloved nonna or nonno or zia or zio who loved us unconditionally. To be “the favorite” was to be treasured for the individuals we were, empowered in a way that the rest of Italian American culture, with its ingrained gender preference, could not do.
Folklore, Superstition, and Religion
In his story, Mark Wethli mentions “a hint of magic realism” as an element in his Neapolitan family. Those of us from the tribal South, home of il mal’occhio, la tarantella, and that uniquely Neapolitan method of divination, la smorfia, know this to be true.
Horns and eyes: Immigration and superstition . . .
Left: Claudia DeMonte, II Corno, 2013, pewter and gold leaf on wood ,14 x 3 x 3 inches
Top right: John Avelluto, Eye-talians (Seeking Opportunities), 2017, acrylic paint films, 9 x 7 inches; bottom right: Jennifer Cecere, Evil Eye for Evil Days: Watching, 2018; fabric, lace, and marker, 22 x 30 inches
. . . and the Catholic church
Below: John Paul Morabito, Madonna che allatta (dopo Leonardo de Vinci), 2020; cotton, wool, glass beads, gilded masonry nails, 76 x 41 inches, full image inset into detail
The Evil Eye—maloik in dialect; mal'occhio in standard Italian—is a curse. Less harmful than a vendetta, it is the look you give to someone when you wish them harm. Those horn amulets you see in gold, silver, or coral, shaped like a chili pepper, are worn to ward off the evil spirits. What I didn't know until I did some research is that the horn likely evolved from the sacred prehistoric Moon goddess. A multicultural protector, she is seen most clearly as the Egyptian goddess, Isis, depicted with a moon disc between her horns.
La tarantella, the dance everyone does at Italian weddings, has its origin in the Middle Ages when it was believed that dancing would purge the body of toxins from a spider bite. La smorfia employs dream images to pick lottery numbers. (Smorfia, emphasis on the first syllable, is derived from the name of Morpheus, the shape-shifting Greek god of sleep, who enters your dreams.)
Then, of course, there’s the Catholic religion. Whatever we may feel about it now, there is no doubt that it informed who we are. “Catholicism was a big part of my childhood," says Carolanna Parlato. "I attended Catholic schools through college. My first photo series was of my parent’s bedroom. Portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus as a young man and a small wooden crucifix hung over their bed.”
Paul Corio will tell you that he “embraced atheism at a very early age.” Nevertheless, he says, “I’m still a baptized, confirmed Roman Catholic. When I walked into those many Italian churches, from cavernous cathedrals to modest size spaces, I was instinctively aware that I belonged there, that I was part of the club.”
John Paul Morabito tells the story of immigrant grandparents who worshipped at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in
then-Italian East Harlem, home of the Madonna of 115th Street. Art and religion
are entwined. “The Italian Renaissance
is a heritage that represents an orthodoxy from which I, the queer child of an
Italian American immigrant family, have been ostracized.” Still, says the artist, “It
is a bond I cannot and will not deny.” Morabito's Magnificat series, rendered in tapestry, depicts Madonnas inspired by art history.
As artists we get to be part of a larger tribe that transcends our ethnicity, superstitions, even (sometimes) gender. Our relatives may have come from tiny villages with fixed ideas about how to live in their tight-knit society of family and friends, but as citizens of a larger, more diverse world, we have freedoms they could not have imagined (or if they had, might have condemned). Still, I like to think we carry within us the best of who they were. Certainly their will to survive against all odds has kept us persevering through the dips and crashes in our own art lives.
The 58 artists I have brought together are aligned, generally, in two groups: the ones whose art is manifestly connected to the work or traditions of their forebears, and those whose art does not have an apparent aesthetic association. The division is not absolute, but it does allow us to see the immigrant experience expressed visually in new generations and to understand the Italianità that informs the splendid work in this project.
Nancy Azara (with poet Judith Barrington), Passages, carved and painted wood with gold leaf, aluminum leaf, and encaustic, 18 panels, 15 inches x 18 feet
Part 1: Transitions from the Old CountryIn this group we see how traditions are incorporated or are translated from the original Italian.
A bridge between this side and the other side
The legacy of the Mezzogiorno and beyond is diverse. We start with the artists whose contemporary expression has a connection to the past—to the language, the journey over, the generations, maintaining traditions, making things, making do.
B. Amore, De Iorio Triptych: Family Stories, 1998; wood, tin, photo, mixed media, family artifacts; 41 x 72 x 10 inches
Through a long career, B. Amore has researched and documented seven generations of her Italian family, maternal and paternal, a journey that culminated in 2000 in the brilliant installation of photographs, objects, and papers contained on tables and in vitrines exhibited at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York City. Lifeline, Filo della Vita: An Italian American Odyssey then traveled to museums in San Francisco and Boston, then Rome, and finally to Napoli, where her family’s journey began. Her ongoing interest in immigration continues in the experiences of Spanish-speaking migrants, whose journeys are not so different from our own.
In her monumental wood carvings, Nancy Azara pays homage to the generations before and after her: Nunzia, her mother; Nana, her daughter, also an artist; and Maxi, Nana’s daughter—a bloodline that is intertwined with a force—we call it feminism now—that empowered an Italian American girl growing up in the Forties, who studied fashion and costume design in college, to pick up a mallet and chisel to make art on a grand scale.
John Avelluto, a generation younger, draws from the language, specifically our Southern Italian dialects, to make graphic paintings that depict the expressions we know so well: fingers brought to the lips in a grand show of satisfaction or brushing under the chin in a gesture of me ne frego, I don’t give a damn. These are outsize and familiar gestures. Avelluto’s images are a painter’s take on the drama of talking with our hands, something most of us were discouraged from doing lest we look too ethnic.
Jeanne Brasile grew up hearing dialect but was not taught it as a child. This second language was for her a marker of Italianità, something she felt was missing in her own identity. She studied Italian on her own. More to the point for an artist, she found in words both the inspiration for and content in her work. "My sense of loss is likely the root of my artistic engagement with syntaxes, etymology, idioms, and slang," she says.
There are many in this project, myself among them, who draw from the textile traditions of Italy. Let Jennifer Cecere describe it: “Until a generation ago, almost everyone practiced handwork. Women, especially, knitted, crocheted, and embroidered, and girls learned by example. All of us then had a connection to these traditions. Not so much anymore, but what does endure from my own experience, in addition to a love of needlework, is how intent my Italian grandparents were in weaving their traditions into the experience of their children and grandchildren in this new country.”
Cecere makes public art: large-scale renditions of lace, in materials as diverse as ripstop nylon and brushed aluminum, which she has laser cut, bringing together the modesty of handwork with the ambition of a sculptor. In their expansiveness they have much in common with Avelluto’s operatic hand talkers.
Patricia Miranda takes conventional lace, dyes it red, and pieces it into room-size installations—“shrouds,” she calls them—that pay homage to her grandmothers, Ermenegilda and Rebecca—the red suggestive of birth and blood, and the pricks of so many fingers by so many needles in the making of handwork. The nexus of religion and feminism is another area of interest. A woman of the 21st Century, Miranda nevertheless mines ancient materials, like the red dye cochineal, for her contemporary work.
Handmade lace: Intimate and monumental
Patricia Miranda, assembled lace, from the exhibition, Seeing Red, at ODETTA Gallery, New York City, in 2020; Jennifer Cecere, installation at Pratt Sculpture Park at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, 2010-11, rip-stop nylon, 10 x 18 feet
Milisa Galazzi makes “lace” that originates as a drawing whose line she stitches by hand. After cutting away the negative space, Galazzi dips each handstitched sheet into a vat of warm wax and then installs it, with other similarly cut and waxed sheets, into a layered relief sculpture whose shadows are as integral to the work as the stitching itself. She likens the process to cranking out the pasta dough. I'm reminded of the weekly chore of laundry as it was done by our grandmothers: in a vat against a washboard and then hung on the line to dry, just before those
electricity-powered white tubs arrived to make the chore (slightly) easier.
Sheila Pepe has used fiber to work through the issues of feminism, class, and ethnicity. “For years crocheting abstractions in space was my way to blend the Italian with the American,” she says. I love the way Pepe has resolved the cultural dichotomy. Even more I love that her room-size constructions do what so many Italian American girls were discouraged from doing: They take up space, asserting their place in both cultures—and in the art world as well.
Chris Costan, whose day job for some years was the as the color designer for a ready-to-wear fashion company, brings a number of material influences to her paintings and sculptures, among them the threads and notions of dressmaking. Her work is witty, and even when small has a large-scale presence. It's the antithesis of passive domesticity. Perhaps that's a family tradition. I love the story she tells about an aunt who, finding a thief in her home, chased him down the street with a broom—an urban Befana doing her own kind of housecleaning.
Sculpture from a Textile Tradition
Chris Costan, Tickle, 2019; thread and thread spools, silk velvet, wire armature, 11 x 10 x 8 inches; Sheila Pepe, 91 BCE, Not So Good for Emperors, 2017, foreground, Second Vatican Council Wrap, 2013; Milisa Galazzi, String Theory. M.101.102.103, 2020; paper, thread, encaustic, 36 x 13 x 6 inches
David Ambrose, from a family of tailors, pierces paper as his grandparents once pierced cloth. He does not embellish with thread but rather with paint, applying layers of marks and colors to achieve a surface that appears up close as richly embroidered and from a distance as suggestive of stained glass. Tailoring was needle-and-thread work that was acceptable for men, so Ambrose had role models, even if his work is now squarely in the camp of contemporary abstraction.
Drawing from her early Roman Catholic experience, specifically the glowing light of stained glass windows and the kinesthetic experience of fingering rosary beads, Grace DeGennaro makes geometric paintings composed of orderly configurations of dots, which she refers to as “beads.” The rectangular proportions of the paintings are aligned with the golden mean and thus of sacred geometry.
My own work references fabric. The paintings are first and foremost color fields, but the textile influence is apparent in their edge-to-edge construction and visually tactile surfaces. I am the great granddaughter of a weaver, the granddaughter of a tailor, and the niece of two women—one a dressmaker, the other an embroiderer and lacemaker—whose handwork left an undeniable imprint on my creative expression.
Paintings from a Textile Tradition
Grace DeGennaro, Lattice (Night), 2020, gouache on paper, 82 x 50 inches; David Ambrose, Nocturnal Revelations, 2012, watercolor and gouache on pierced paper, 18 x 12 inches; Joanne Mattera, detail of Silk Road 495, 2020, encaustic on panel, 18 x 18 inches
So much of the Italian DNA comes from people who made things—the carpenters and stonemasons, for instance, or the basement winemakers, or the women who turned out perfect tortellini every Sunday. I’m thinking, too, of the packages tied with rope or string that accompanied so many immigrants on their journey here in steerage. The work by contemporary artists is more sophisticated, but it seems connected by the filo della vita, that thread of life, and the skills our forebears developed to survive.
Don Porcaro stacks stone into anthropomorphic sculptures—some quirky and playful, others like sentinels with a looming, but most often reassuring, presence. Installations of multiple sculptures can feel like family groupings. Cutting stone “felt right,” says Porcaro. “It fed a driving need to work with a material that speaks to tradition, and I knew that the tradition belonged to my culture.”
D. Dominick Lombardi learned to use the hammer, saw, and chisel as a boy at the elbow of his grandfather and father, both of whom were master carpenters. Lombardi has used those tools to go in a different direction, but the Old Country skills remain. Lombardi cites "high and low" aesthetic influences, from Picasso at one end to comic books at the other.
Next, we consider the hand-built ceramic forms of Elisa D’Arrigo, whose influences include the wooden forms used by her Sicilian grandfather, a shoemaker, and the beehive hairdos of the Bronx in the Fifties. There’s more, of course: “Everyone made things, repaired things, jerry-rigged things. That atmosphere had a powerful effect on my sensibility and is with me still.”
Lisa Zukowski’s sculptures are borne of secrets, the legacy of a grandfather who hid the past and was suspicious of the present. Her bundles and packages contain texts and objects that will never see the light of day. The overt materials are old clothes, some belonging to members of her family. Not all of Zukowski’s work is as mysterious, but much of it is made from discarded materials, a legacy of making do. In that regard it is aligned with Arte Povera, that mid-Century Italian movement which employed quotidian materials to powerful effect.
Here’s a little of what I learned about Claudia DeMonte from her 2017 chapbook, Things I Have Done/Cose Che Ho Fatto: She was 5’11” at 14 years old. She danced with Rudolf Nureyev at a disco, walked on the Great Wall of China with Mohammed Ali, had lunch with Louise Nevelson. She sailed on the Ganges, made offerings to the orisha Yemanja on New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janiero, and worked as a model. This is not your average Italian American girl from Astoria, Queens. As an artist, DeMonte brings a global perspective to her work. She curated an exhibition, Women of the World, that traveled to 24 venues around the world. Yet for all that, it is the thread of Italian culture that runs through her work. She holds dual citizenship with Italy.
Laura Moriarty’s prints suggest cross-sections of geologic formations. Her chunky sculptures, constructed from wax, might be miniature excavations from a richly chromatic land. While Moriarty’s interest in geology is clearly evident, she will tell you that “kitchen culture,” with its process and improvisation, is an inspiration as well. Like Milisa Galazzi and others of us, she has memories of working the pasta machine, cranking out flat ribbons of dough to be cut into noodles or stuffed with ricotta.
Laura Moriarty, Ex Uno Plures 3, 2020, encaustic on paper, 35.50 x 25.50 inches; Elisa D'Arrigo, Edge of My Seat, 2020, glazed ceramic, 9 x 7 x 6 inches; Don Porcaro, Everybody Knows 4, 2020; marble, limestone, and brass, 81 x 26 x 21 inches
Lisa Zukowski, Bundles, 2016, mixed media
Land and Sea
The fecund land here offered food, solace, and pleasure. Who recalls seeing the old women gathering chiggodia—that's cicoria in standard Italian, dandelion greens—from fields near their home? This was cucina povera, poor people’s food, nutritious and free. Gardens and grape vines, or at least tomatoes, were cultivated in even the tiniest plots. And, of course, many Italians settled along the water, whose bays and beaches reminded them of home and often provided a meal.
Sandra DeSando recalls foraging regularly with her parents near their home in rural New Jersey and returning with a bounty of edibles. They also planted a vegetable garden along with the requisite and carefully cared-for fig tree. On her own, DeSando has spent endless hours in the woods, inspired by the trees which have become muse and object.
Margaret Lanzetta spent girlhood hours in her grandfather's garden, drawing his plants and flowers and learning from him the dialect names for each. Lanzetta maintains a garden at her studio in Long Island City—with some perennials transplanted from her grandfather's own garden—finding in it inspiration for her paintings, in which she combines plant forms and the geometric patterns of ornament from around the world.
Patti Russotti scans and photographs flowers and botanical forms, the world of life and beauty in her yard. She is taken with the society of plant life—“the interconnectedness of trees, fungi, and lichen”—often combining her photographs with elements from that other interconnected society: the women in her family from whom she learned handwork as a girl.
After a long career on the technical side of digital photography, Brian Alterio returned to the view through the lens, as he had in art school. Described in one review as “a digital scientist with a poetic soul,” Alterio photographs nature in all its aspects, from the human form to landscape to plant life, the latter represented in this project by a selection of vividly illuminated black and white images.
Thomas Sarrantonio makes paintings inspired by land and sea, "meditations on nature and self," he calls them. On a visit to the Abruzzi hills where his father's family is from, he found the landscape not unlike the one in which he now lives, near the Shawangunk mountains of Ulster County north of New York City. Ultimately it is not a specific place he is painting but a striving for a sense of the timeless.
Natura Morte e vivante
Brian Alterio, White Calla Lillies #3; Patti Russotti, Famiglia, 2020, inkjet on kozo, 40 x 30 inches; right: Thomas Sarrantonio, Sea Study V, 2020, oil on paper, 5 x 5 inches
Drawing from nature
Sandra DeSando, 2017, Becoming the Pine, colored pencil and acrylic on paper, 66 x 90 inches; Margaret Lanzetta, detail of Applaud All Songs , 2020; silkscreened paper, fabric, and canvas cutouts mounted on canvas
And finally there is the Catholic church. While many of us have admired the architectural majesty of the structures and perhaps the rituals practiced within them, maybe even the religion itself (although many of us have left that part behind), there is the seamy underside of corruption and abuse.
Joe Cultrera is a filmmaker who has focused on many aspects of community life, but in his film, Hand of God, he tells the story of his brother’s abuse at the hands of one Father Birmingham. His work ends Part 1 on a somber note, but it is nevertheless one of triumph—of secrets revealed, of abuses acknowledged, of a family brought together, and psyches healed.
Joe Cultrera, Fish Tank Boys
Says Cultrera: "Corrupted symbols of innocence are submerged in liquid memory."
Image by Hugh Walsh from the documentary, Hand of God
Part 2: Beyond the Sphere of EthnicityAs I wrote in the introduction, while we are Italian American and we are artists, we are not “Italian American artists.” John Avelluto sums up the sentiment nicely: "I draw from the culture, I embrace the mishmash, but I am not an 'Italian American artist.' I may be painting Italian pastries and Maloiks now, but one day I may want to make blue abstract paintings." Even those of us whose work is informed by elements of the culture see it filtered through our training and our experience as artists in the world.
In this section of the essay we look at the work of artists who are Italian American but whose influences and ideas have come from outside the immigrant culture. Here I’m connecting dots. My intent is not to lock artists into categories, but to provide a way to consider their work. I must admit, however, that as I write about each artist’s work, I am looking at it with Italian American (and feminist) eyes. Pace, in advance if I have come to the wrong conclusions. (And, yes, there are some blue abstract paintings.)
In the Studio
Paula Roland (née Maenza), Carolanna Parlato, and Thomas Micchelli
We are moved, of course, by the art, architecture, history, and landscape of Italy. Traveling there is an opportunity to experience in person what we had seen only in books.
Many of the artists in this project speak of their “art pilgrimages.” Indeed, who among us has not traipsed from church to church or spent long days in museums while ordinary tourists were having leisurely lunches in the sun? We are fortunate to have Thomas Micchelli share some direct sketches he made during a trip to view art in Rome and Florence.
Despite his Scottish surname, Timothy McDowell has had a lifetime of extended periods in Italy among the members of his mother’s family, the Macellari. His history is not one of Southern Italian emigration but of educated Northerners remaining on their ancestral land. His is a lineage of accomplished musicians, designers, architects, publishers, and painters. McDowell’s images, while often drawing from art history, are of our time, evoking mystery and magic, and sometimes the outrage of a contemporary world collapsing into its own destruction.
Victor Pesce, the only artist in this group who is no longer living, was from a Southern Italian family. Although there were mural painters on his mother’s side, his father, a demanding Southern Italian (many of us are familiar with the type) pushed him into the family plumbing business. He acquiesced, but art prevailed. His intimate still lifes animate and elevate the quotidian.
Grace Roselli embraces her ethnicity while pushing beyond it—or should I say vrooms past it on her Ducati. An accomplished painter and photographer, she is also a serious rider. Here, however, we focus on her photography, as she has undertaken a major initiative, The Pandora’s BoxX Project, for which she has been photographing a multigenerational, multiethnic group of women in the fine arts. Her plan is to photograph 360 women, one for each degree in a circle. For Italianità we focused on the Italian American women in the project. Who better to represent the project here than the photographer herself?
Still Life and Figuration
Victor Pesce, Once Upon a Time, 2008, oil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches; Thomas Micchelli, Copy After Caravaggio, 2003, pencil on paper, 10 x 7 inches; Timothy McDowell, Rocky History, 2020, oil on panel, 31 x 31 inches
Grace Roselli self portrait
Given the patterning in Renaissance painting, the geometry-based compositions of painters like Piero Della Francesca, and of course the design of virtually all the churches, we know that geometry was an essential element in Italian art and architecture. Geometric abstraction is a 20th Century movement that has persisted into the 21st. What does one have to do with the other? Sometimes everything, sometimes nothing.
Formerly a realist painter of exquisitely serene interiors, Mark Wethli turned his attention to geometric abstraction 20 years ago. It was a big change, but he carried with him the underlying compositional elements of shape, balance, and harmony. “I try to paint geometry the way that Morandi painted bottles—using something as humble and familiar as the rectangle,” he has written. This aesthetic, the influence of the reserved Swiss/English side of his family, is quite different from the warm and raucous Neapolitan side.
Lloyd Martin typically makes large-scale works that consist of horizontal color bands punctuated by vertical demarcations. It’s an architectural sensibility rife with rhythm, even musicality. There’s nothing necessarily “Italian” about the work (well, maybe the intensity of the color) but it was the force of a strong-willed grandmother and generous artist uncle who guided Martin to his career choice. They might not have used the word mentor to describe what they were for him, but that’s what they were.
Paul Corio will tell you that his trips to Italy have always been organized around the paintings he wanted to see. It’s a sentiment that art aficionados of any ethnicity share. What makes the experience different for Corio is the context of a Catholic boyhood. As he notes in his story, seeing the art in churches “positions them within the framework of a culture that I am intimately connected to.” Influences on his meticulous abstractions are as diverse as a Roman mosaic floor pattern or the music he performs as a jazz drummer.
From a family of stone carvers—her great grandfather worked on Mount Rushmore—and strivers, many of whom developed careers in creative industries, Carleen Zimbalatti combines elements of craft and fine art in her work. (She trained in metalsmithing and created jewelry for many years, then culminated her studies with a master’s degree in painting.) Line is her means of growing geometric shape—grids or networks that offer a sense of deep space, or chromatic squares with a symmetry that invites contemplative viewing.
Karen Schifano is the granddaughter of immigrants. The daughter of artists, she continues the tradition as a painter who has exhibited internationally. Of her work she says, “Shape is the major motivation behind my impulse to paint. . . The shapes that catch my eye are usually openings: mouths, theater stages, circus arenas. These openings are bounded by edges, like lips or curtains, that reveal and partially conceal, the void at the center."
Applying color to strips of translucent Mylar and hanging them in a formal arrangement away from the wall, Mary Schiliro makes paintings that exist dimensionally in space. In doing so, she also expands the way the light in her work is perceived, which is to say not just reflecting from a flat surface but permeating it. Perspective may intensify the color as the work recedes; works hung parallel to the wall, but at a slight distance, create shadows that are integral to the perception of the work. Among many elements in Italian culture, Schiliro says that the translucent color of stained-glass windows has inspired her work.
After years of working as a museum curator, Michael A. Giaquinto has returned full time to the easel. Applying cubist principals to his work, he creates paintings and mixed-media constructions that ask us to consider his pictorial space. A new series of mixed media on panel is playful, suggesting maps or space charts.
Lloyd Martin, Everywhen, 2020, oil on canvas, 12 x 9 inches; Mary Schiliro, detail of Disembody, 2018, acrylic on Mylar, shown full view in Part 2; Mark Wethli, Untitled #5, 2020, colored pencil on paper, 4.125 x 5.875 inches
Michael Giaquinto, Untitled—But for Blue, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 16 inches; Karen Schifano, What is Needed, 2020, flashe on canvas, 28 x 18 inches; Paul Corio, Mephistophelian, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 24 inches
Carleen Zimbalatti, On The Square #22, 2020, acrylic and ink on paper, 16 x 16 inches
There is no idea that is not expressed through abstraction. The artists I have grouped here are physical in their approach to painting as they employ pouring and vigorous brushwork or markmaking.
Janet Filomeno’s big expressionist abstractions are a response to many environmental influences, particularly water. Often working with a stretched canvas on the floor, she pours paint onto the surface, directing its movement by shifting or tilting the canvas, thereby suggesting river currents or ocean tides. Materials such as ink or shellac add the element of fluid interaction. Other elements of interaction: her own “repository of collected personal histories” and her “inner drama in response to the world around me.”
Carolanna Parlato’s poured paintings are buoyant in color and biomorphic in composition. A marvel of fluidity and control, they are built up layer upon layer of acrylic paint applied and then directed into contours and rivulets. There’s nothing particularly Italian or Italian American about them. But allow me to read something into the work without ascribing it specifically to Parlato or her family: When light hits the surface of her paintings just so, you see each one’s history in relief—the ridges, drips, and outlined edges of hidden color. Isn’t that just like our culture? Put on your best face and keep the rest hidden.
Serena Bocchino expresses sound through color and gesture in a physical process that involves pouring enamel paint in vigorous splashes and lyrical drips, layer upon layer. As with musical movements, each passage—in this case, layer—informs the next. The work shown in this Italianità project includes a new element: transparent panels—Bocchino calls them “veils”—hung in the center of a gallery to create a dimensional dialog with the wall-hung paintings. The fabric is reference to her grandmother’s textile work.
Josette Urso makes what she calls “intuitive expressions of places and experiences observed and reimagined." She creates compositional collisions of color, texture, and shape. Once you know that her first-generation Sicilian parents lived in the multicultural Ybor City section of Tampa, with, as Urso describes it, “an environment of hand-rolled cigars, café con leche, and Italian opera,” it’s impossible to not connect the dots to her work.
As an artist who is fully bilingual in Italian and English, Anna Patalano has chosen gesture in paint to say in her work what she cannot express in any other language or medium. “The material itself is seductive in a primal way,” she says. “There is an elegance, rawness, and directness to the material that allows a certain freedom for me. How an image emerges from that is a mystery.”
Anna Patalano, Slow bB (from the Modern Illuminated Manuscript series), 2020, oil on linen panel, 18 x 18 inches; Janet Filomeno, Blue Crystals Revisited, no 4, 2017; acrylic ink, mica, acrylic paint, and shellac on canvas, 72 x 72 inches; Josette Urso, Evergreen, 2020, oil on panel, 24 x 30 inches
Carolanna Parlato, Waiting for Butterflies, 2018, poured acrylic on canvas, 42 x 66 inches; Serena Bocchino, Squeeze, 2020, enamel and mixed media on raw canvas, 54 x 70 inches
All of the artists in this group share an interest in the organic—which includes plant life, the environment, and the incremental development of an image or work.
Spending time in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery as a child, Denise Sfraga came to understand—remarkably, for a young person—the cycle of life and death, or as she describes it, “the balance between quiet moments for the dead and vibrant flowers adorning those graves.” The life cycle holds her interest as a painter and a gardener. Her paintings, some in otherworldly hues, burst with germination and growth and the passage back to the earth.
Sean Capone references the same cyclical transcience, but on a microscopic scale. His Molecular Clock is a digital fantasy of, as Capone describes it, “microbiological flora and virus-like organisms churning in a cyclical swirl of phantasmagoric fission.” It is no coincidence that the work emerged at the same time as Covid, or more specifically, the appearance of the microscopic images of the virus. We humans have always been locked in a tango with microbes and viruses. Capone depicts it as startlingly beautiful.
The disappearance of the world’s coral reefs inspired Sandi Miot to understand the importance of what we were losing and acknowledge the loss with an installation of brilliantly hued relief sculptures. Miot created The Coral Project, which consists of mixed-media sculptures drawn from research and her own imagination, with the intent of inspiring others to make some small effort to halt the destruction of our environment.
With a visual language suggestive of shifting tectonics and geological materials like sand, mica, and marble dust mixed into her paint, Mary Bucci McCoy makes paintings that reference the human body and its relationship to the landscape. The paintings are human size, a little bit larger than your own visage, which brings you quite literally face to face with them. The intimacy is such that you and the earth and the painting merge in the moment.
Paula Roland (née Maenza) is a painter and printmaker who draws from earth and spirit, science and art. “I find connections with quantum physics and the poetic metaphors in scientific terms, such as particle theory, strange attractors, and string theory, in my works,” she says. Her paintings and painterly encaustic monotypes (the latter created by placing paper on a hot surface where wax paint has been melted and manipulated), consist of layers of gestural markings built up to form an image that conceals as much as it reveals.
Mary Bucci McCoy, Vista, 2019; acrylic, iridescent acrylic, and marble dust on plywood, 10 x 7.75 x 1 inches;
Sandi Miot, Blue Coral, 2017, encaustic and mixed media, 13 x 11 inches; Denise Sfraga, Strain, 2019, flashe and photographs on panel, 40 x 30 inches
Sean Capone, still from Molecular Clock II, 2020, HD digital animation, audio; single-channel looping animation
For this group of artists, construction and/or deconstruction are the operative elements.
With his relief sculptures suggestive of the urban landscape, Robert Maloney shows himself to be part architect, part painter, part printmaker. He’s also a master of ambiguity. Does his work show a structure being erected or torn down? In a recent project, the restoration of the Haffenreffer Chimney in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, he was instrumental in rebuilding a brewery chimney with his signature scaffold-like construction, but his relief work offers no such clear-cut answer.
Vincent Pidone will tell you, “There’s no one description of my work, other than to say that’s it’s largely experimental.” The optical drawings he shows in this project feature a moiré pattern that develops as lines cross at oblique angles. Some of the works are executed by hand, others by a mechanical pen plotter.
Paul Rinaldi’s paintings bring together the sumptuousness of material with the rigor of the grid. One look at the work tells you that multiple layers are involved in the construction of the image. In some instances, added layers obscure what’s underneath—barely, if Rinaldi uses translucent paint—or they interact in a pas de deux of the visible and the concealed.
After almost two decades as the owner of a bookstore, Hugo Rizzoli now makes art with a visual, if non-objective, narrative. A builder of small chromatic sculptures and collages in a pared-down geometric style, he typically employs cast-off and reclaimed materials, mostly wood but also antique papers and fabrics. I do see a connection between his previous vocation and this. The intimacy of reading translates to the small scale of his work, which engages the viewer in a similar kind of rapport.
Wayne Montecalvo builds a two-dimensional image from multiple layers. His goal, which he achieves admirably through distortion and intervention with wax, ink, and paint, is “to reinvent rather than reproduce” an image. As he describes it, “I start with something expected, and end up with something mysterious,” Indeed.
Details of work by Robert Maloney, GitM (Arnold), 2019, mixed media, 37 x 21 x 5 inches; Wayne Montecalvo, Collapse, 2020; digital images on Washi with paint, wax, silkscreen, and india ink, 24 x 28 inches; Paul Rinaldi, Sequence 114, 2018-19, encaustic on panel (diptych), 24.5 x 12.5 inches; HugoRizzoli, Crooked Shelf Library of Ordinary Miracles, 2020, mixed media wood assemblage, 16.25 x 12 inches
Part 3:The Embrace of the Italian Diaspora
While Italianità features some splendid Italian American talent, I would be remiss if this project did not reflect the larger Italian Diaspora. In this section I note those artists whose experience is for the most part different from the familiar grandparents-came-over-on-the-boat narrative.
Lucio Pozzi arrived as a 20-something painter for a summer of study at Harvard. Then he moved to New York City and became a U.S. citizen. Pozzi toggles between studios in both countries; here it is Hudson, New York, north of Manhattan, and there, Valeggio, near Milan. One can’t help but think of him as an “American Italian.” A critic and essayist as well as a painter, he writes fluently about art in both languages. And, I would note, like many native-born Italians, his view of Italy is far less romantic than what the rest of us see.
Lorenza Sannai is another “American Italian.” Born in Sardinia, she grew up at a linguistic and geographic remove from the mainland. Now she travels between here and Northern Italy, returning occasionally to her island roots. She shows and curates both here and throughout Europe. In her practice she brings together stitching and contemporary abstraction, a suturing of genre and culture.
Assunta Sera arrived as an eight-year-old with her mother and sister, all survivors of the WWII bombing of their town. Sera grew up in Detroit, becoming fully Americanized in the unique way that Italian-Italian Americans do, which is to say with a psychic foot in each country. The Fragments series that represents her in this project was inspired by the pieces of shrapnel that pierced her arm as a child.
After an earthquake reduced Avellino to rubble in 1980, Gianluca Bianchino relocated to New Jersey with his parents and older sibling. Then they went back to Italy and returned again to the U.S. The saving grace of what Bianchino calls a "rutted journey" were the flights that allowed him to see an aerial landscape without borders and imagine what could be possible, despite fault lines and political boundaries.
Dario Mohr is a Caribbean Italian American whose identity and early cultural influences are black, yet on his father’s side he shares an immigration story that is familiar to so many of us. As an artist he is fully aware of the richness of Italian art history and now seeks to integrate elements of Italian culture into his mixed-media installations, which embrace black culture, and into his life.
Antonietta Grassi shares a parallel narrative with so many of us—the emigration of her parents from Italy to North America, learning to sew at the hands of the women in her family, and making art that reflects her textile heritage—but there is a difference of geographic parallel and cultural complexity. She is an Italian Canadian, living and working in Montreal (juggling not only Italian and English growing up but French as well).
While most Italians made the westward journey to North or South America, Michelangelo Russo headed east, first to Berlin, where he set up a studio during the burgeoning art scene of the early Nineties, and then to Australia, whose light and open expanses beckoned. He settled in Melbourne, establishing himself not only as an exhibiting artist but as a musician whose discography is as long as his exhibition resume. "Regardless of the city I am working in and the series I am working on," he says, "I always feel connected, inspired and motivated by my Italianità."
Although I place these artists within the breadth of the Italian Diaspora, their work is part of the visual narrative of this project. You will see the textile-influenced paintings of Grassi and Sannai in Part One, while Mohr’s installations, the paintings of Pozzi and Sera, and the sculptural constructions of Bianchino and Russo are in Part Two.
Lucio Pozzi, Schwitters' Mambo, 2018, oil on canvas, app 13.5 x 13.5 inches; Lorenza Sannai, Dove ci incontriamo, thread and paint on canvas, app 6 x 6 inches; Antonietta Grassi, Lifelines in the Age of Anxiety, no. 1, 2020, oil and ink on Belgian linen, 84 x 78 inches
Dario Mohr, The First Judgement, 2020; acrylic on canvas, dyed wood, artificial grass, leather rope, assemblage (painting detail with full view inset); Assunta Sera, On the Precipice, 2015, oil on shaped canvas, 84.5 x 58 inches
Below: Michelangelo Russo, Cartone Rosa, 2019, encaustic on cardboard on panel, 8 x 8 inches; Gianluca Bianchino, Mechanical Landscape #2 in Deep Blue, 2021, mixed media, 48 x 48 x 9 inches
Recording Our Own Stories
While I have loved every image posted here, the stories are for me the heart and soul of this project. There are the expected commonalities—like the backyard tomatoes, the everybody-around-the-table Sunday dinners, and the tradition of the women teaching the girls to sew— but there are also particular commonalities. I hope you will discover your own as you read.
For me it was learning that Carolanna Parlato’s maternal grandfather, Carlo, left Ischia, that island so far out in the Bay of Naples that it is not visible from shore, and stowed away on a ship to the United States, just as my paternal grandfather, Antonio, did. Fourteen-year-old Antonio walked down the mountain from Serrara Fontana to catch the ferry in Ischia Porto that took him to the port of Naples where, somehow, he slipped onto a freighter and made his way here by himself. Those two homeboys—paesani—strangers to each other, ended up in New York City and Boston respectively. Each would have, among their many American-born grandchildren, a granddaughter who was a painter. Those painters would find themselves in the same art orbit in New York City, sometimes exhibiting together, getting to know each other as colleagues and friends.
I would encourage the participating artists—and indeed, anyone reading—to seek out and record your stories. Ancestry tests have their place, but it’s the lived history, recounted and probably embellished over multiple tellings, that is embedded within our genome. Do it now while the generations before you are still here, otherwise, as Sandi Miot notes, the questions you have will remain forever unanswered.
Many artists will respond with, “But I’m not a writer.” The stories you read here will refute that. My editing was light, mainly for style. The words are the artists’ own. From my own experience, I can tell you that once I opened the floodgates of memory, I could not stop writing.
Our advantage as artists is that we don’t have to tell a story with words if they are a barrier to the narrative. We can come up with numerous ways to record our history and make it visually interesting. If it’s a personal story, excerpts from your diaries and journals can become the core of the narrative. If it’s a larger family project, photo albums are a wealth of visual history that can be edited, scanned and compiled into print-on-demand books. There are drawings, or a combination of drawings and photos that can go into sketchbooks; scan them if you want to make more than one copy.
While not everyone has the experience or means to create a film as Joe Cultrera did, you can shoot videos on your phone in cinema verité style, or with a combination of photos and talking heads, a la Ken Burns. Record a Sunday dinner before too much wine is consumed—or maybe after, when the secrets slip out. Create a Facebook page. A blog. A website. A newsletter that goes out to the extended family with a request for their stories, which you compile. Do it before the pictures fade, before the memories recede, before the history is interred. Do it before the pandemic ends and we resume our non-stop lives.
Thank you to all the artists who have participated in this project. You have made my life richer.