My grandfather was born in upstate New York in 1906. Around 1908, he was taken back to his mother’s homeland, Altofonte, Sicily, and stayed there until he was 18. Because his mother insisted that he keep his American citizenship, he received no Italian schooling other than what he learned on the dusty Sicilian streets. Around 1924, during the beginnings of Italian Fascist rule in Italy, he traveled back to upstate New York in the middle of winter with no coat on his back. He escaped the direction of his country and the lack of opportunity for himself. He came to the US and rarely looked back to Sicily for sustenance or guidance – even discouraging his sons to speak the language. His story is not dissimilar to so many immigrants from so many countries – ambitious individuals escaping lack of opportunity or worse and aspiring for something better.
Fast-forward to year 2000, I marry a Sicilian, also in the US for ambitious reasons. However, instead of running away from Sicily, we make a decision to maintain our connection, dependency, and stewardship of our Sicilian family and olive yard. This translates into a month-long trip every summer with our children into the arms of our nonni, cugini, and amici in Agrigento.
For 13 years I have written, photographed, and mulled over my relationship to Sicily, my children, and the complicated clash between tradition and contemporary reality.
As an artist and teacher, I have long been interested in the psychology, biology, and geography of community, learning, and motherhood. I have wanted to make visible the contributions of the lesser celebrated – the mothers, the house-keepers, the farmers, the peddlers, the students, the artists. Currently, Sicily is in economic shambles with 38.8 percent of young people without jobs, twice the national average. Corruption, despondency, and depression is high and locals feel invisible in the global theater. Our grandfathers’ flights continue to have relevancy. Yet, you have never had a peach unless you’ve tasted one from Sicily. The food, the family loyalty, the intense commitment to survival and beauty – I affirm that these assets are to be preserved in a climate of change, globalism, and capitalist bullying. During these many summers, I have prepared myself and my Sicilian supporters to embark on a project that will bring many of these interests together while also providing opportunities for several participants, both Italian and American, to bridge our cultural divide at least for a time.
I am seeking $25,000 from various resources in order to realize the following project.
Each summer I am struck by the treasure-trove of objects in my father-in-law’s house that represent several lifetimes of acquisition. For him each painting, figurine, sterling silver money clip, or vintage car, is a story, a memory, a way of proving the relevancy of his nationality and connection to tradition. Though his generosity with us is extreme and unconditional, we live an ocean and a sea away and these objects inevitably stay with Nonno. Each time his son leaves “home” and returns to the US with his American wife, I feel we chip away at the importance of these objects. Sicilian culture is often sited for its hospitality and warmth. It is true. In Sicily, gift giving is an obsession, a cultural norm and highly refined system. The research of Paul Zak and others has shown that the act of giving has also been linked to the release of oxytocin, a hormone that induces feelings of warmth, euphoria, trust, and connection to others: more generosity, more empathy, stronger community. Giving changes us at a molecular level.
For this project, I will invite 10 artists that will be organized into 5 teams. These teams will meet, interview, and document at least 30 local citizens of Favara, Sicily, a town in the province of Agrigento, in southern Sicily. These will be a broad range of people (bakers, butchers, fishermen, pharmacists, farmers, teacher, mothers, grandmothers, politicians, lawyers, etc.). Each will be asked to offer up an object that will be included in a gallery exhibit of gifts. The artistic teams will draft interview questions and document the citizens via audio/visual means in the particular style that each team chooses. These documents will be exhibited alongside the objects. The artists involved will work side by side for 2-3 weeks in July of 2014, with a physical exhibition to be installed during the last 3 or 4 days of the residency. The exhibition will remain up for a month following the residency and travel to the US to be exhibited at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (the US exhibit is outside the scope of this grant proposal).
The participating artists will be 5 emerging American artists and 5 emerging Italian artists. We will do a call for artists as soon as possible and choose them based on their portfolios, skillsets, availability and visa status, as well as letters of recommendation. For the 5 American artists, I am particularly interested in bringing Massachusetts College of Art and Design students in their junior or senior year as well as recent alumni. As a MassArt faculty member, I choose Massart because of my personal connections obviously, but also because it represents an arts community dedicated to the public sphere and social action. As the only freestanding, public college of art and design in the US, MassArt has a unique position. All the participating artists should be interested in community -based social practice and international relations, and be skilled in audio/video technology.
I am working closely with “Farm Cultural Park”, a new contemporary arts center in the midst of Favara, founded by Andrea Bartoli in 2010. The Farm is an ambitious and exciting urban renewal project that has transformed the run-down and semi-abandoned heart of Favara into a modern art exhibition and community space. Artists, tourists and locals have come from far and wide and the Farm’s efforts have begun to revitalize Favara. The Farm has several gallery spaces, a bookshop, apartments, and an open mind. They have offered exhibition space, lodging for the visiting artists, as well as logistics and installation support. This collaboration would be the first of its kind with the United States. Additionally, the Farm will choose the 5 emerging Italian artists and facilitate the interactions with the local citizens of Favara.
Lisa Wade, one of the Farm’s member artists, is my Italian co-leader and the liaison with Farm Cultural Park. Lisa is an American-born artist living in Italy for many years. She is a conceptual artist working with socio-political content using video, installation, and painting. She has exhibited all over Europe and the United States. She is an experienced teacher and mentor. As an American woman in Sicily, Lisa shares many of the same perspectives as I do, however, having lived there for so long, she is far more embedded in the culture and more adept in the language. Lisa writes, “As an American living overseas, I am daily switching between English and Italian, American and European perspectives, literal and metaphorical meanings. I often complete sentences in whichever language offers the more descriptive finish. In my art, I use diverse materials as I do different languages. No one material is more significant than the others, I use them all together to express myself to the fullest.” Lisa will as act a mentor for the artistic teams, the artistic director of the gallery installation and my main communication link with the Farm staff. I look forward to working in the months preceding the actual residency with Lisa to prepare the groundwork for July’s visit.
In addition to this application we are seeking funding from several other sources including a Kickstarter campaign. We plan to approach a Boston-based individual donor with an interest in contemporary art and Italy. I plan to proceed with the project at any level of funding and will make adjustments accordingly. We could work with less artists however the impact will not be the same as it is important that we interview as many Favarians as possible.
About the Artist/
I am defined by my passion as a mother and teacher. I have 2 young daughters (6 and 9) and I have been teaching in the Studio for Interrelated Media at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for more than 10 years. These two identities flow in and out of each other and both inspire the artwork that I produce. The Studio for Interrelated Media is a unique and groundbreaking undergraduate program that allows for both a highly individualized and an interdisciplinary plan of study. Our students become experts at collaboration, live event production, and articulating their artistic visions. For the last three years, I have been the chair of this department. I teach courses exploring career skills, event planning and production, the intersection of art and science, and multi-media production. I have been a project manager for several large-scale collaborations. During the spring of 2013, my class, Art and Science Immersive Media, produced an original 45 minute full-dome audio/video show at the Boston Museum of Science’s Hayden Planetarium. In 2008, I began a multi-year project in which I gifted 12 Sicilian women gemstone necklaces representing a particular hormone. This project became a website followed by a book. In 2003, I led a team of 5 artists in the first flash-based, GPS-enabled artwalk through the Boston Common as part of the Boston Cyberarts Festival. I speak a fair amount of Italian and have already put in place several organizations and individuals in Sicily ready to begin this project.
Regali will intertwine the fields of fine art, story telling, social practice, education, and community development. It will contribute to the resolve of the Sicilian people to survive in an extremely depressed area during severe recession and continuous corruption. The Farm Cultural Park has already begun to contribute to the livability of Sicily and its revitalization. New hotels and restaurants have emerged and the local medieval castle has been renovated in its wake. This project will further these efforts as well as share the gifts of the Sicilian people with those of us who are seemingly better off. My goal is to trigger conversations about defining the quality of life, the assets of an ancient culture, and how we determine the “best practices” of old and new.
I believe this project will transform the lives of the participating student artists and the citizens of Favara. Because Sicilians are a naturally generous and welcoming people, they will make life-long connections with their interviewers. They will open their homes, invite them in for long meals and conversation. They will form cultural linkages that will extend beyond this project. We will use the gallery space as a way to celebrate their gifts and bring together the town in an action of pride and self-awareness.
This project is symbol of gratitude to my grandfather for his Sicilian heritage, as well as his bravery to seek a better life for himself and his children in America. It is an apology to my father-in -law for taking away his son. It is a promise to my daughters that they will have the power to invent a future for themselves that is the best of both worlds.