styrofoam, gesso, oil and acrylic paint, various sizes, all under 12 inches
Natale: An Archangel and a Home
Back in the 1950s I used to spend school vacations, holidays, and summers in Boston’s Italian North End with my paternal grandmother, Arcangela. When I started first grade my mother went back to work, so I spent after-school hours at my grandmother’s, too. Being with Arcangela was a sanctuary for me, a welcoming place away from my volatile parents.
Arcangela lived in a cold-water flat on Endicott Street. Her three unmarried children lived with her: Aunt Fay (Philomena), Uncle Antonio (called McGuire), and Uncle Passy (Pasquale). I often slept over. By the time I got up in the morning, the three of them had gone off to work, so it was just me and my grandmother. It was cold in the unheated bedroom, but my grandmother would put the legs of my flannel-lined dungarees in the oven so that I could slip into them and be warm. She’d have breakfast waiting for me, eggs and toast. I had been diagnosed with a congenital heart condition, so she would have a shot glass of vermouth for me, too. In her thinking this was good for my heart. It warmed me up.
On the days when she rolled out the large wooden board from behind a bureau, I knew we were going to make pasta. She’d put that big board on the kitchen table, sprinkle flour on it and make the well with flour and eggs. She always gave me little of pieces of dough to roll. Arcangela didn’t have a pasta machine; she rolled the strips of dough by hand with a smooth stick. We would put clean white sheets on the beds. I’d sprinkle flour on the sheets and place the pasta on them. The experience of using my hands and the smell of semolina have stayed with me. I have often thought how wonderful it would be to create an installation—three old iron beds, the sheets, and the pasta.
Arcangela died when I was 15. Her death was a huge loss.
When it came time for college, I went to The Museum School [the School of the Museum of Fine Arts] in Boston. It’s not that I had anyone encouraging me to go to art school, but Italians grow up with such stimulation from the church—the art, the windows, the architecture, the details. The church is supposed to inspire. Plus, I had been drawing and making things since I was a boy.
When I graduated in 1967, I got a cold-water flat of my own in the North End and went to work. I knew I was not cut out for the workplace so I went from job to job, but when I visited a cousin who was a hairdresser, I thought, “I could do that.” I worked at some high-end places and styled for magazines in Boston.
In 1983 I bought a small house in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. The house needed work. On Friday I’d walk to the harbor in Boston to catch the ferry, and then walk from the landing in Provincetown to my little house. Back and forth. I loved being there. I loved working on the house or in the garden. I kept stretching my weekends so that I wouldn’t leave until Tuesday.
In 1985 I tested positive for HIV. I thought, “If I am going to die, where to I want to be? What do I want to do? At that point I’d been doing interior design in Boston. I didn’t want to spend my time fussing over window treatments, so I left my apartment and moved to Provincetown. Not long after the move I was offered a weeklong workshop at Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts up in Wiscasset, Maine. The experience of being in the studio 10-12 hours a day, working in clay, making things, was profound. It didn’t matter what the objects looked like, it was the pleasure of making.
I put one of my pieces—a shelf with a chair and empty bowl-- in the Provincetown AIDS Auction I’d founded. Berta Walker, an art dealer in town, bought it and offered me a show. My crosses came out of that show. They’re actually plus signs. To be HIV positive was not good, but this work was positive for me. From there I made clay vessels. Some had lids topped with chairs or houses. Once I hook onto an icon like the plus, chair, or house, I work with in in many different materials. These elements are symbolic of home. Home to me can be a village, a family, a relationship. I am fortunate to have all of them in my life.
about 30 doors from old Provincetown houses, various stages of stripping with inlaid domino plus signs; detail inset
wood and dominoes with colored waxes, 48 x 48 inches
Photo: Ron Amato