Tracy Spadafora

Vestige (Part 9), 2017

mixed media on wooden box, 13 x 16 x 2.5 inches

Spadafora: The Genetic Code in Culture and Art

My connection to Italian American culture comes from both of my parents. My father’s father, Joseph Spadafora, was from the South, Calabria, and came to the United States after serving in the Italian army in World War I. He settled in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, working as a machinist for GE for 37 years. He married my grandmother, Santina Guristante, who worked as a stenographer for GE and raised a family of four children. Santina’s parents were from the Abruzzi. 

My mother’s parents were both from the North, near the Alps. Lino Dassatti from Trento and Emilia Eccher from Vigo Cavedine immigrated here with their respective families when they were teens and settled in Readsboro, Vermont, along with other families from the Trentino area of Italy. Lino worked at the Readsboro Chair Factory before getting a job with the Glassine Paper Company in Monroe Bridge, Massachusetts, where he worked for most of his career. Emilia worked as a nurse’s aid in Readboro before starting their family.

While growing up, it was clear to me that family, religion, and food were valued as the most important things. Attending Catholic Mass was always an important part of spiritual practice and a weekly social activity, and food (lots of it) seemed to be a part of everything. I especially remember the Italian food from my mother’s side, which was influenced by Tyrolean culture. Most of the food was cucina povera—the very opposite of gourmet—made of simple ingredients. My maternal grandmother was famous for her homemade gnocchi, polenta with rabbit, canederli (bread dumplings), and crostoli (a pastry of fried dough strips sprinkled with powdered sugar).

The Italian language was a familiar sound to me when I was a child. I remember listening to my grandparents, mother, and aunts speak Italian to each other in the house, often when they didn’t want the kids nearby to know what they were talking about. Music was also a part of my family’s cultural tradition. Both of my grandmothers played the piano—Santina even played the piano for silent films when she was a young adult. Emilia loved to sing, and Lino played trombone in the town marching band. My maternal grandparents passed their musical talents down to their four children, and music became a regular part all our family gatherings. Impromptu singing was accompanied by a guitar and/or accordion, and often featured Italian songs that my mother and her siblings grew up hearing.

Although there were no visual artists in the family, both of my grandmothers were skilled at sewing, knitting, and crocheting, talents that were passed on to my mother. While I never learned any of it, I loved receiving beautiful handmade afghans, mittens, and hats and appreciated the talent and creativity that went into their making.

My grandparents on both sides were avid gardeners, growing beautiful plants and flowers, and providing food for their families. This love of gardening was handed down to my parents, their siblings, and their children. I think that my own love of gardening and appreciation for the natural environment is one thing from my Italian heritage that has influenced my artwork directly. I was fortunate enough to take my first trip to Italy at the age 19 with my grandmother Emilia. I got to visit the small town she grew up in and many other cities and towns in the area. I was overcome by the beautiful mountainous landscape in this region, which was so powerful and inspiring! I couldn’t help but think that growing up in a place of such natural beauty must alter your view of life.

The human relationship to the environment has been a larger existential question underpinning much of my artwork for many years. In my DNA series, I use DNA sequences as a base to provide both visual patterning and symbolic reference. I layer images of our natural and built environment over the genetic code, looking for connections. Some of the work also incorporates actual organic matter, as a preserved reference to our natural world. These paintings are built on visual and symbolic associations, and the revealing, obscuring, and preserving of images/objects within the layers of paint and wax help me to address a complex and shifting relationship between humans, our biological roots, and the shaping of our natural environment. As I look at this body of work as a whole, it is clear to me now just how much my upbringing and cultural heritage influenced its creation.  

Intervention (Part 3), 2016

encaustic and mixed media on panel, 20 x 20 inches

Intervention (Part 4), 2017

encaustic and mixed media on panel, 20 x 20 inches

Intervention (Part 5), 2020

encaustic and mixed media on panel, 20 x 20 inches

Relic 2, 2018

mixed media sculpture, approx. 12 x 12 x 15 inches

Leaf Archive, 2020

encaustic and mixed media on panel, 36 x 36 inches

Tracy Spadafora

Photo: Sophia Winsch