After growing up as a first-generation immigrant in a vibrant small town in the eastern United States, during my college years I returned to my home country of Italy to study art and art history in the country that I thought I had left behind. The north of Italy was foreign to me, so I was challenged to study in Florence. The cultural life of the city was a revelation. Not only was I introduced to standard Italian, which is quite different from my native Calabrian dialect, Piero, Uccello, Giotto, Donatello and Michelangelo became my daily inspiration.
While there, I wanted to complement my academic studies with a hands-on art experience. I apprenticed myself to a marble-carving studio in the historic town of Pietrasanta. I cannot emphasize enough the impact that this community of working artists had on me. For the first time, I saw that one can function confidently as an artist, even in the shadows of the Great Masters.
Even as I was learning to carve marble, I began a serious (and the more modern) pursuit of making photographs. Starting with images of village life (almost as a tourist), I expanded my vision to include my relatives in the South (of Italy). This was the first time I photographed them. Thus, in a rather ironic twist, I had to go to Italy (to begin) to follow in the footsteps of the American photographers of the 1930s such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans who worked in their American rural South. Their documentation pioneered a combination of journalism and art that has been greatly influential to me.
When I returned home to this country to pursue my graduate degree, in my backyard I found a fertile subject in my immediate family who carry on their old-world traditions in the suburbs. Over the years season by season, I have followed their work, such as preparing the ground for planting, tending the farm animals, preserving the harvests and celebrating holidays. My documentation of the family circle was made with an eye for their unusual place in the community.
As you know, the American suburb is famous for inspiring alienation. On display is what we want other people to see, but our prized possessions and daily routines tell of another reality. My immigrant’s essential “otherness” is emphasized in this environment. What is beyond the facade of a grand house and a green lawn? How could anyone be happy there?
The search for an answer to these questions has driven my work for years. Most recently, my still photographs feature a cast of characters in their personal environments. I search for individuals who are separated from a “normal” social environment by their grandiose and difficult personalities. I persuade them to welcome me and my cameras. Complete strangers become intimately-known companions.
I often highlight their decor, regalia, gardens and animals. The work of their daily activities adds drama. I display them more oddly than they may actually be in real life. Out of their person and personal space, through careful framing, color tone and point-of-view, I create a shadowbox world devoted to the expression of the human condition. The viewer joins me inside this created world, open for our viewing pleasure.
I focus on the objects or acts that are the most telling of the essential person. I carefully explore the natural environment that my subjects create for themselves. With study through the camera lens, a straightforward scene begins to reveal layers, layers of light, texture and meaning. The image begins to clarify.
Thus upon the trappings of documented reality, I build an alternate world, a vision that is my art. Reality is the intimate world of my subjects; the fantasy is my invented frame of reference.
The tension between exterior and interior, belonging and alienation has always been an essential dynamic of my work. I bring the fundamental mindset of sculpture to my photographs. Not only do I do this within a single image or series, I have created whole-room installations in a quest to add the third dimension to the graphic image.
My current body of work is expanding into new areas of concern. I am exploring how the everyday becomes strange, how the familiar can degrade into terror and how and why “whole” and wholesome personalities begin to split apart. I have begun planning my images as if they were three-dimensional maquettes, following Renaissance perspective exercises. My search for subjects and material is more rigorous and intentional. My professional portrait skills have honed my ability to discerne what is real and what is artifice. I am adding complexity and poetic license.
Each new image is the result of a more confident, controlled and sensitive artistic stance. I have become an artist who is exploring my own created landscape. My work as a whole has become almost a small museum of humanity, an asylum for dreams and desires. With my quest for visual expression, I hope that I can inspire others to join in the adventure.
I think of this work as a small museum of humanity, a shadowbox world. I have been an observer all my life. I see people who have made up their own world. Within the cracks of their world, I find a way in, almost a peephole. I see myself as a witness.
Maria was raised in southern Italy and Westerly, RI. She attended Rhode Island College and also apprenticed herself to a marble-carving studio in the historic town of Pietrasanta in northern Italy. Even as she was learning to carve marble, she began a serious (and more modern) pursuit of making photographs. When she returned to this country to pursue her M.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts in New York, she found a fertile subject in her immediate family who carry on their old-world traditions in small-town America. Her recent work features a cast of characters in their personal environments. The photographs are planned as if they were three-dimensional maquettes, following Renaissance perspective exercises. The images are a shadowbox world, her own created landscape, almost a small museum of humanity and an asylum for dreams and desires.
She has received numerous awards including a post-graduate Anthony Cerino Fellowship at the School of Visual Arts and a 2013 Fellowship Award in Photography from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. Her residences have taken her to Székesfehérvár, Hungary, Lazarea (Gyergyószárhegy) Romania and Pietrasanta, Italy.
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