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Christine Palamidessi, Artist
As artist CHRISTINE PALAMIDESSI prepares for two exhibits at Atlantic Works, a East Boston gallery, Coeli:Breastplates in February 2016, and Yogi Stupa in March 2016, she shares with LFF about how she got into art and writing, her various inspirations and process, feminism, her wish for art and more…
Where are you from? How did you get into art/writing/etc?
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania and was eager to go elsewhere – as soon as I knew I could. For sure, the round hills and wide rivers of my childhood were beautiful, however, there were 59 sunny days out of 365. I didn’t realize that it was light that I craved and wasn’t getting. Light and color.
From a very young age art excited me in an important way. No one in my family was an artist, though there was singing, dancing and a typical spare Tuscan aesthetic sense surrounded us all. When I was 7, I was awarded a scholarship to the children’s art program at Carnegie Mellon University/Carnegie Museum. We spent Saturday mornings drawing dinosaurs, mountain lions, copying masters, etc. My favorite spot to draw was in the Hall of Sculptures: Egyptian, Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman sculptures displayed in a majestic space, which gave me the sensation of being very small and alive while being enveloped in the presence of whiteness and time. I think experiencing that room instilled a love for antiquities.
I can’t help but think we all know we are artists by the time we’re 4 or 5. We feel like outsiders, witnesses, people who respond to color, to sounds, breath, perhaps to past lives. That awareness compelled me to learn the skills–and be good at them–that I would need to create a life in the arts: draw, write, sculpt. Later, I studied filmmaking. I got degrees, I found mentors, I apprenticed with artisans in Italy.
Tell me about your inspirations, process.
Both writing or visual art: inspiration starts with a snapshot image and a question. For example, for my novel The Virgin Knows I saw a shortish, handsome man in a tweed jacket holding his hand on the small of the back of gorgeous tall, red-haired woman wearing a fur collared coat. Together they strolled down Hanover Street in the North End of Boston, passing men, sitting in cafes, who eyed them with suspicion and admiration. Who was this couple? Where were they going? Did they love each other? What did the men in cafes think about them?
A dream about opening my husband’s ribcage provoked my (many) torso series. I saw the torso opening, like a book. Inside were lights and words–not organs, not blood. A universe inside. Is this where might we carry stories and secrets? What is imprinted on the interior surface of flesh?
Tell me about your current/upcoming show/exhibit/book/project and why it’s important to you.
Santa Vittoria. While on an artist residency in Puglia, Italy, this summer, I began a collection of prints, paintings, and sculptures that amplify and take question to issues generated by the life of Santa Vittoria. According to story, Santa Vittoria was a Roman noble woman born in 230 AD. Her family married her off to another Roman noble. Vittoria refused to consummate the marriage, preferring to be a Bride of Christ. The husband threw her in a cave, hoping she would starve to death, rather than renounce her and lose his status and inheritance. Little did he know the power she would accumulate– managing life from the cave, killing dragons and beasts that terrorized the town, establishing a cult of virgins, turning the heads of the common folk against Rome– whose only goal was to keep the upper 1% rich and toss away the rights of the common people. This project is important to me, because it takes me full circle back to the ideas I researched in my first novel and the sponges I sold as a feminist act ( more about sponges later in this interview). The Santa Vittoria oeuvre, being an historical allegory, is spiritually provocative and a treatise on virginity and power. The project includes large paintings and prints and a book with text in three languages.
In addition to that I am looking forward to the Yogi Stupa installation at Atlantic Works, an East Boston gallery. The installation is inspired by my own yoga practice and a Buddhist shrine: the world’s largest stupa, The Great Stupa, that I visited in Clement Town, India, back in 2007. It was constructed by Tibetan monks as a place to go to pray for world peace.
The installation at Atlantic Works mimics the inside of the stupa: rows and rows of repeated images; in this case, plaster prints of Yoga teacher torsos. I think it will be quite amazing. One grouping looks out over Boston Harbor; some torsos are displayed on a table; and a 3-twine braided rope suspends from the ceiling. The rope represents both the Tree of Life and the gunas. According to Hindu worldview, the interplay of the three gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas) defines character and determines the progress of life. The installation has an audio element as well, put together by Boston musician P J Goodwin that features breathing and temple bells.
Artist Wanda Ewing, who curated and titled the original LFF exhibit, examined the perspective of femininity and race in her work, and spoke positively of feminism, saying “yes, it is still relevant” to have exhibits and forums for women in art; does feminism play a role in your work?
Looking at Wanda Ewing’s work on line, I see a strong sense of engagement and accessibility. Like me, she more often than not used the body, to express her particular artistic vision.
I do both male and female bodies. I never think of myself as an artist that intends to make feminist art. I’ve overheard male artists say my work is female; they of course read the name tag and knew a woman made it. I think once we are identified by our names as female the work acquires a certain patina, a talcing of gender. In junior high school I remember being not only joyful but also legitimized when I came across the work of Joan Miró: childlike, colorful, surreal. Joan ran with the best, top-notch artists in Paris. Her work was elite; in books and museums. There was hope for us all. Why had it taken so long to find her? Several years passed before I found out Joan was a man. Very disappointing. The same kind of disappointment that hit me when I realized other phallogocentric agendas: no stories about women in school history books, famous artists had unacknowledged female assistants, men owned the gaze in cinema.
(Not only name, I wonder about language. I stopped writing novels because I wanted to get away from language. Doing visual art, I am working out of a different part of my brain than I used when I worked as a writer. Still, I have not escaped language and the gender cues that go along with it. I am asked to do interviews such as this one. I promote myself on line. The internet crawls for text, not image. I send out proposals. I label artwork with my name. I wonder if a male perspective might own the language in addition to the gaze.)
My first feminist impulse as an artist incorporated female blood and body. Back in the late 70s and 80s I imported Mediterranean sea sponges and sold them as menstrual sponges. My intention was for women to experience a “theater of self” ; to handle their own red life and fertility.
In the early 90s St. Martin’s Press published my novel, The Virgin Knows. The narrator, an open heart surgery nurse (also involved with the handling of blood and life), has a quirky feminist point of view. Her twin brother, a businessman, gets good breaks and easily acquires everything including love and family because, the narrator thinks, he was born first and born a man.
As I age my artistic intentions evolve. I create work that is spiritually provocative, art that incites a viewer to think about their interior life. I feel my work advocates humanism. For example: In my recent Yogi series, I cast the torso of 50 yogi teachers. My interest was the physical commonality of a profession, a physical profession that possesses a strong spiritual element. I was not looking at male/female, breasts/no breasts but at the space between the breasts, the housing of the heart, asking what might go on behind the heart. As a group the work has more power than as individual sculptures and is political in the sense that both male and female are stripped down to naked skin and the viewer is forced to see both sexes common vulnerability and power and to acknowledge the message of the heart and breath and mind. In Yogi philosophy this is part of the body where the subconscious mind resides.
If you could make one wish for art/writing/etc today, what would it be?
Thanks for asking what I would wish for! Social media is a blessing and a curse. Since it is not politically correct to wish for secretaries and wives, I wish we all had the money or position to pay assistants and apprentices to do the internet for us, to analyze data, to send out proposals, to edit our copy, to catalog the work, to help in the set up of the physical aspect of our art process. Perhaps it is possible that the wished-for assistants and apprentices might learn more helping established artists and writers than they do in MFA programs.
Since Warhol, we are all figuring out the answer to the question: what is art? I think apprenticeships, such as I undertook in my career, provide not only training in material but give realistic expectations about career and and the work involved. We learn we are not in this world called art alone; and art is a big world. We cannot rely on encouragement.
What do you think is the most important issue facing artists/writers—and/or artists who are women—today?
Feminism and standpoint issues of class, race and privilege continue to intertwine the life of artist, individual and community. Those who have power or are in a more powerful group have less reason to understand how those who are in a lesser position live or are treated. I wonder if our knee-jerk reaction is to gain power and compete, rather than to help each other find entry doors to well-respected galleries and collectors.
Galleries: why are they taking 40-50%? Work one day for yourself, one day for the gallery.
Why aren’t more artists collaborating to orchestrate 2-4 week shows in rented spaces?
Are we all looking for the white upperclass client who hasn’t filled up her/his walls already?
What about the working women, widows. Not-white women? Elderly? Single moms raising three kids? They deserve to have meaningful art on their walls. How much do we charge them and can we charge them less than white-upper middle class collectors?
Why is it that a family would rather spend $2000 on a flat screen TV made in China than $900 on a painting made by a fellow American?
Ewing’s advice to aspiring artists was “you’ve got to develop the skill of when to listen and when not to;” and “Leave. Gain perspective.” What is the most helpful advice you have received?
My Italian mentor advised me to, “Always work clean.” It was the same advice he got from his teachers. That means sweeping the floor and putting away tools, clearing off the table. Artists harness transformational forces. When we enter the studio “the next day” it’s best not to deal with old news, old energy. In addition to working clean I think it is a useful habit to almost start something before you leave, so you can think about it while you are gone.
It is the advice that I followed in my writing career; something Ernest Hemingway suggested: Start a new chapter ( 1-2 sentences) before you quit for the day so that when you arrive the following day, fresh at your typewriter and having had a night to clear your head, you do not go backwards and aren’t left staring at a blank page. Establish momentum, keep rolling.
Deskins, Sally, “Christine Palamidessi, Artist”, Les Femmes Folles (Women in Art), Jan 21, 2016