Lamentations for Ermenegilda, 2020
vintage lace and silk thread hand-dyed with cochineal, and cast-plaster objects, 126 x 180 x 2 inches
Photo courtesy of ODETTA, New York City
Miranda: Growing a Memory
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.
My great grandparents on both sides came to New York City at the end of the 1800s. My father’s family, from Trentino Alto Adige in the North, lived in Greenwich Village on Carmine Street and went to Our Lady of Pompeii Church. His grandmother ran a boarding house in the Village and made wine during Prohibition. His father and uncle had a restaurant, Antica Roma, on Baxter Street in Little Italy, now Chinatown. My mother, Patricia DeSpagna, grew up in Flushing Queens, her father of Southern Italian descent, her mother from County Cork in Ireland. The Irish-Italian connection in New York City is common; as marginalized Catholics of the time, they found common ground.
I am the middle of seven children, with five sisters. We grew up—first in New York City, then Rockland County—surrounded by music. My father, Victor, was a musician and singer, with an enormous eclectic record collection, from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong to Janis Joplin, opera to Mexican folk music. Shelves of records in our family room, floor to ceiling, stacks facing out, meant a room full of pictures I examined closely, magical doorways to sound and stories. We sat at the foot of Dad’s base fiddle while he played. He was a Frank Sinatra singer and performer. His greatest joy was when the Chairman himself complimented his recording.
My father wallpapered the family bathroom entirely from pictures cut from art history books; I grew up bathing surrounded by paintings. I would dissolve into the landscapes, escape the family chaos into secret worlds and stories. Perhaps it made me an artist, although it didn’t affect anyone else in the family in this way.
Growing up, I always answered the question, “Where are you from?” with “Italy.” My first trip to Italy after college made me acutely aware that I was not, in fact, Italian but Italian American, a wholly different breed. So much was familiar, the way of communicating, the meals, the voices, all felt like family, but not speaking the language, and not knowing Italian customs, meant not having a place there. My language skills have improved somewhat, and I have been back multiple times, including living there for a semester of teaching, but Italy is not Italian America. I suppose this aspect of the immigrant experience is universal, the home left is a complex mix of familiarity and strangeness, of longing and connection, and of loss.
Still, the place, the art, the buildings, the bells, spoke deeply to my artistic heart. One of my solo trips to Italy was to be in Assisi on St. Francis Day, to visit the Porziuncula and the frescos (and tombs) of Francis and Clare; another was to investigate reliquaries and paintings made between 1200 and 1500. I saw these as art and soul pilgrimages.
Resonance of this history continually informs my work, as I make connections encircling ancient works with contemporary thought. These are wells of thinking that open up in surprising ways. In my studio I draw from materials and methods with long cultural histories. This includes using textiles, lace, and deaccessioned religious books, all dyed with ancient color sources such as oak gall, cochineal insects, indigo, and clay—the same materials used in historic painting and book production.
My recent installations began with vintage linens from my Italian and Irish grandmothers, Ermenegilda Eugenia Glorinda Fungaroli Miranda and Rebecca Cogan, and grew from donations from friends and strangers. The textiles are sewn into large. shroud-like works. I add objects of lamentation akin to votives, reliquaries, and other ritualized body forms from hair, pearls, bone, beads, milagros, and cast plaster.
My mending and sewing grows a memory that fans out from my Italian heritage. It is an act of alchemy and community, through the familial and historical, and the transformation of rocks, bugs, and flowers into color. There’s no way to know what person I would be with a different background, as I would not be me. The tentacles of a complex history are wound through everything I do. I am unable to detangle them, as the entanglement itself is a neural network, an intertwined chain of lines that thread through me to my family, my community, my country, my ancestors.
Detail of Lamentations for Rebecca, 2020
vintage lace and silk thread hand-dyed with cochineal, and cast-plaster objects, 126 x 180 x 2 inches. Photo courtesy of ODETTA, New York City
Full view below
Dreaming Awake, 2020
vintage Italian nightdress, lace, and silk thread hand-dyed with cochineal, and cast-plaster objects
Photo: Joanne Mattera Art Blog