Paula Roland (née Maenza)

Codex, 2019, encaustic monotype, 39 x 52 inches

Roland: Growing Up Italian in Mississippi


My Sicilian grandparents on both sides settled in the deep south, in Birmingham, Alabama, as did many other Italians seeking work in the coal mines and steel industry. Dominico Lusco, my mother's father from Cefalu, arrived as a young man in 1889. Dominico soon left the dark mines, rented a farm, and began to implement his ideas of below-ground pipe irrigation. These ideas paid handsome dividends in early harvests and better-quality crops. Later, he adapted above-ground irrigation to a 45-acre farm he purchased. His lush gardens and beautiful crops attracted neighbors to take frequent excursions around the farm in their cars and led visiting Italians to exclaim, "Bella Figura!"


Considered an early founder of Birmingham, Dominico was a skilled organizer who shared his production techniques with other farmers, organized the Italian Farmers Truck Growers Association which gave them a competitive edge, and evolved into a huge Farmers Market. That in turn led to wholesaling, importing, exporting and food manufacturing businesses, as Italian Americans stuck together and took advantage of family ties.


In 1948, my parents, Peter and Pauline Lusco Maenza, left the security of their large Italian community in Alabama to move to Mississippi to begin a new business venture. They bought land and built a "tourist court" which later became a motel. I was born a year later–surely a surprise, as my siblings were much older. Yes, I grew up in a motel in Biloxi, Mississippi. But it was a park-like setting with the Gulf out my front door.


My Italian heritage influenced nothing in particular about my art, and everything. My mother sewed beautifully and made our elaborate Mardi Gras costumes and ball gowns for us that rivaled Givenchy. Most importantly, she taught me to see the beauty in small things and in nature–wabi sabi Italian-style. Among the direct art connections that I can see are the Sicilian Baroque tendencies that sometimes show up in my work. This may be Influenced by my mother's taste, her penchant for quality and stuff–lots of stuff–including crystal chandeliers and gold leaf cherubs. More is more and proves one's status. After all, her great grandfather was in the service of the King of Two Sicilies at his Chinese-style summer palace in Palermo. (True, I think).


My parents brought their Old World ways with them to the Coast, but without the support and context provided by an Italian community. They were proud but ethnocentric. I didn't want anything to do with my family's Italian religiosity, suspiciousness, superstition, and their rules which must have originated in the 12th century. Rules like "you can't date until you are 17" and "You can't shave your legs until you are 16."


As a teenager I defied them, then fearing for my life, learned to become sneaky and do what I wanted without their knowing. I think that determination to do what I want has served me well in my art. I'm persistent, a fighter and risk-taker, and a bit of an entrepreneur and organizer.

At age 50 I made my first trip to Italy, and met some of my extended family in Sicily, in Bisacquino. They were normal, not deranged or in the Mafia so far as I could tell. They were welcoming and kind, like my family here. I feel happy to know who my people are. And that's good for my art as well. 


Studio view of work in progress, encaustic monotype, 60 x 72 inches

Cosmic Debris, 2020, encaustic and india ink on panel, 40 x 60 inches

Paula Roland