Remembering this fun photo shoot I had last year around this time inspired by one of my favorite artists Alphonse Mucha.
We sat together on the couch that day
and didn’t speak of all you’d lost,
of the car you crashed in the grocery store parking lot weeks before,
the job you could no longer work,
the cancer that moved like a thief through your body,
stealing your bones, your breath, your blood.
We didn’t speak of the shadow of death,
the Psalm you read me as a child,
“Yay though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…”
We did not speak of fear,
but of small things that flickered
like birds across the TV screen.
After weeks on the couch,
you’d assembled yourself a kingdom,
Sour Patch Kids stashed in the table drawer,
remote planted beside your knee,
issues of Coin World within arm’s reach.
You’d grabbed one and thumbed through,
stopping at an ad for a Buffalo nickel.
“I need this one!” you said,
the shadowy valleys of your eyes filling with light.
Disappearing into the next room
you wrote a check and called the seller,
chatting for a few moments
as though the world weren’t ending,
as though you weren’t leaving it.
Returning to the couch,
your face beamed.
“What luck!” you said.
“I’ve been searching for that coin for years
and there it was,
there it was.”
This poem first appeared on Poets Online, July 2020
A poem I wrote recently about my travels through Italy in spring 2019 after losing my grandmother unexpectedly just a week before her 95th birthday. She’s on my mind lately as the snow is melting and days are growing warmer. She died on Easter, which is fitting as she was the center of our family Easter traditions, baker of Easter casadella cakes and pizza gain. Rest in Peace Grandma Betty.
I fly away from you,
away from the wooden box
that holds your ashes.
Once I land,
swallows are everywhere
like the Scirocco
sweeping up from the south,
dancing like patterns on the robes
of the Senegalese women who sell wooden beads at the market,
black shapes cutting into blue sky.
They appear in Siracusa
where the old men sit lined up in the square,
brown hands folded in rest
and again in Sienna
spilling from the clouds like seed,
pouring over the city’s stone walls,
flowing out over rooftops.
In Venice they flutter above gargoyles like confetti
as if trying to escape tourists
who trail in pink plastic ponchos and rain boots
like a carnival parade
in and out of alleyways,
across ancient bridges.
They follow me to San Michelle,
the stone city of the dead,
mosaics and iron crosses,
mourning doves roosting like
stone angels above children’s graves.
There a chapel sits empty,
a row of wooden chairs waits
beside a candle lit by some unseen hand.
My own angels resting.
The end of a migration.
These are photos I took of residents at Cathedral Square Assisted Living a few years ago, which feel particularly meaningful these days when so many older people have been socially isolated. I had the pleasure of working with these people daily as an activities coordinator, so I got to know their many faces and moods. The first woman “Dolly” joked when I asked if she’d like to pose: “You mean with my clothes on?” The second man “John” totally hammed it up for the camera, posing with a favorite scarf. He ended up posing with an old childhood photo of himself with a boy, which you can see if you scroll down, and which I found really powerful. The woman with her hand in the air, “Maria” was so proud because after many months of waiting (without any teeth at all!), she’d just received her dentures. (Scroll down to see her dentures in action.) The woman in red, “Bonnie” was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. She came to life whenever music came on the radio and could sing the lyrics to any Beatles song by heart. I treasure the memory of this photo shoot and hope I succeeded in capturing everyone’s inner essence and spark.
I’m hosting a poetry reading and open mic later this month at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. It’s on Wednesday, January 27 at 6:30 pm and will feature Vermont poets Geof Hewitt, Tricia Knoll and Joanne Mellin. The open mic spots are all filled up , but you can still hunker down at home to watch!
Sign up here to attend.
Unraveling a Family’s Legacy in Silk City:
I like to imagine my great-grandma, Anna, at 37 walking home from the silk factory in Paterson, New Jersey, during the late 1930s. Her long, gleaming black hair, never once cut, would be coiled into a bun—sweaty tendrils escaping around her temples. Her olive cheeks would be flushed from working for six hours as a quill winder beside tall windows that let in the burning sun. With her two sisters by her side, she’d walk the three miles home to Hawthorne in silence, too weary to gossip, her heart comforted by the thought of the pot of pasta e fagioli her ten-year-old daughter would have waiting for supper.
Anna (née De Negri) Pecchia had arrived in the U.S. in 1907 along with her father, grandmother, two sisters, and three brothers. Having had a cousin in Italy who owned a silk factory, they’d presumably had some work experience and were able to gain American sponsorship through a cousin who’d opened a factory in Paterson. My ancestors worked at this mill for a decade before the three brothers Tony, Louie, and Alec borrowed money to start a factory of their own. Made up of 20 looms, the De Negri Brothers’ Factory was a small outfit that employed mostly family members, including my great-grandmother. Few in my family remember the factory firsthand.
My grandmother’s brother my Great Uncle Sant Pecchio, 97, and his cousin Joe Landi, 83, both worked there as boys when they were 15 and 9, respectively. Joe’s father Valentino, who married a De Negri sister, worked as a mechanic and textile designer. Joe recalls accompanying his dad, who was part owner of the mill, to work on weekends and occasionally being called upon to help out when a machine got out of sync. “I’d cut and tie all the threads that needed to be retied,” he says. “They utilized my tiny little fingers. This was not child labor we’re talking about. This was a mom of nine trying to get rid of her youngest son and sending him along with Dad to work.”
My family’s factory was known for its richly patterned Jacquard fabrics that contained lamé, a metallic thread from France. Through the years they fashioned silk for draperies, priests’ robes, furniture upholstery, and, according to family lore, a shimmery gown that Eleanor Roosevelt wore to the inaugural ball of 1933.
Though it’s been decades since his last childhood visit, Joe’s memories are surprisingly vivid. He recalls playing with wooden spools as if they were Lincoln Logs, hearing the steady cacophony of the looms, and smelling the oil his father used to grease the machines. “It had a distinctive odor that permeated everything,” he recalls. “I remember [after my dad died] his wool overcoat was hanging in the closet and for a number of years it still smelled of that oil.”
The Birth of Silk City
Standing atop the 77-foot-high Paterson Great Falls it’s not hard to imagine how this city of 146, 000 was once America’s cradle of industry. Though the city was booming with factories in the early 1800s, turning out everything from locomotives to firearms, it wasn’t until John Ryle arrived on the scene that it earned its nickname of Silk City. John Ryle (who later served as Paterson’s mayor from 1869-1870) had been a “bobbin boy” growing up in Cheshire, England. After working in factories through his youth, he set sail for America and settled in Paterson, New Jersey, hoping to earn his fortune. In 1835, Ryle bought one of the city’s first struggling silk factories and transformed it into a great success. As Ryle’s factory grew, other silk mills were born, and by 1913 there were 300 factories that employed skilled immigrants from around the world. Italians made up the greatest percentage of the workforce, followed by Jews, Germans, English, and French.
At first the Italians did not assimilate well, says New Jersey historian and author Steve Golin. “The Northern Italians were prejudiced against the Southern Italians. They looked down on [them] as backwards.” Diverse dialects and cultural differences added to the conflict. Soon, however, the Italians bonded over the prejudice they both faced in their new home. Up until 1910 there was only one church in Paterson, and like the police force, it was Irish. Facing discrimination pushed the Italians to band together to build their own community of shops, restaurants, and churches.
Many skilled weavers came from Italy’s Naples region, which had a commune of weavers who had been producing silk for over a century. These workers, though prideful and more likely to strike, were valued for their years of experience. As one Connecticut factory owner reflected, weaving could not easily be taught. “… Take a man from a farm in the United States and it’s a very different matter to make a silk worker of that man… than from taking men who have been brought up in countries where silk is produced…A man with clumsy, awkward hands handling silk warp is a very different factor than the man whose grandfather before him handled the silk fabric.”
Paterson remained the hub of the American silk industry through the 1930s with highly skilled weavers running its looms. But according to Evelyn Hershey, Education Director at the American Labor Museum in Haledon, New Jersey, conditions in the mills, especially in the early 1900s, were often “deplorable.” Workers labored for ten hours a day, five days a week, and then five hours on Saturdays. Many dye-house workers often worked double shifts. The factories’ lighting and ventilation were poor and the noise was deafening. Children were often employed to do jobs that required small bodies and fingers. “Bobbin Boys and Girls” changed the wooden bobbins on machines when they ran out of thread and climbed up on moving parts of machines where adults couldn’t reach. Women weavers risked losing part of their hair, or even their scalp, if their hair got caught in a moving machine. The dyer’s job was perhaps worst of all. “Dyers were expected to taste the thread dye in order to determine the proportion of chemicals,” Hershey says. “They also inhaled toxic vapors from big vats of boiling water.”
The Strike of 1913
In January 1913, a strike broke out at the Dougherty Silk Company in nearby Clifton, and 60 strikers took to the streets to protest new work demands. Dougherty, the factory owner, had changed the number of machines workers were responsible for from two to four, reduced his workforce by half, and kept wages the same. Soon, encouraged by the Industrial Workers of the World, an advocacy group that supported immigrants, more workers throughout the city went on strike, petitioning their employers for better working conditions. Altogether, 300 mills shut down and 24,000 men and women of all backgrounds went on strike for a total of eight months.
The strike gained support from Greenwich Village writers and intellectuals of the time who were advocating for quality of life. One writer said, “They who cherish hopes of poetry will therefore do well to favor in their day every assault of labor upon the monopoly of leisure by a few. They will be ready for a drastic redistribution of the idle hours.”
Strikers met weekly and gatherings became lively exchanges complete with rousing speeches, sing-alongs, and brass band music. When police padlocked city meeting halls, an Italian weaver named Pietro Botto offered up his home and its adjacent green as a meeting place. His home—The Pietro Botto House—is now the site of the American Labor Museum.
“Well known labor leaders of the time such as Elisabeth Gurly Flynn and William “Big Bill” Haywood spoke from the second-floor balcony to more than 20,000 workers,” explains Evelyn Hershey.
During the strike, hundreds of children were sent away to live with “strike parents” in New York, families who volunteered to care for them. There were fundraisers held to earn money for the strikers, the largest of which was a pageant or staged reenactment of the strike put on at Madison Square Garden. “There were vignettes, highlights of the strike assisted by New York City artists and writers,” says Hershey. “The Pageant sold a lot of seats, but it didn’t earn very much money to feed the families. They soon were starved back to work.”
Though many mill workers returned to the same conditions, Hershey says, the strike did have a lasting effect on history. “The four-loom system was held back, wages stayed the same, and some jobs were saved. And it helped win reform in the American workforce including an eight-hour work day, minimum wage standards, and child labor laws…”
Through the decades, Paterson’s silk industry gradually declined as the bulk of business shifted to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where factory owners were able to pay lower wages to local workers—often the wives and children of coalminers—and didn’t have to contend with prideful immigrants’ demands.
Over the years, Paterson’s cultural identity has changed. The streets today are filled with shops that reflect recent waves of immigrants from the Middle East, South America, and Central America. Little trace of the city’s Italian history remains. Over the years the descendants of the Italian silk workers have moved outside the city, though Hershey says many still come in to shop at Carrado’s Italian Market or the local farmers’ market. “They buy grapes for making wine and tomatoes for making sauce,” she says. “And they still visit St. Michael’s Church, the parish of many Italian Americans.”
Remains of a Legacy
Nobody in my family recalls exactly when the De Negri Brothers’ Factory shut its doors. Both Joe and Uncle Sant suspect it was after World War II, during which it became impossible to import silk thread from Japan and the factory switched to making nylon parachutes for the war effort. Over the years, stories of the factory have been traded across generations like colorful legends. One cousin keeps a precious swath of De Negri silk in her closet. Another says she used to scrub pots with leftover metallic thread from the looms. Joe recalls for many years having a wardrobe full of silk ties, “enough to last a lifetime.”
After years of listening to stories, I longed to see physical proof of the factory’s existence. One day in 2018, during a visit to my grandmother’s house in Hawthorne, I suggested going for a family drive to search for it. Uncle Sant, Joe, and I piled into my Uncle Ralph’s Toyota, and within minutes were driving up and down the streets of Paterson. We weren’t sure of the exact address, though Uncle Sant thought it was on East 24th Street. The car spun past 21st, 22nd,and 23rd streets and…
Uncle Ralph slammed on the brakes, earning a glare from the driver behind us. But here we were at 24th Street. We turned and drove slowly, surveying the row of brick buildings.
“I don’t see it. It must be gone,” Cousin Joe said, shaking his head.
But in the front seat Uncle Sant smiled, his dark eyes sparkling. “I think we’re getting close,” he said calmly. Then, a moment later, “Yep, there it is! Down on the right.” He gestured to a single-story brick building. We parked the car and stepped out onto the sidewalk to survey the object that held so much history. Here was where my great-grandmother and her brothers had once stood near powerful looms laboring at their livelihood, our own family’s tie to Silk City. Over the front door, a blue awning read Touch of Class Fine Finishing. On the door hung a sign: Open by Appointment. The only hint at the building’s former life as a factory was a row of nine high narrow windows stretching the length of the street.
Uncle Sant stared up at them. “They’ve been bricked in at the top, but it’s the same as ever,” he said, grinning. “Kind of makes you jump, seeing it again after all these years.”
Click to read the original published version of this article (pdf) “Bound by Silken Thread: Unraveling a Family’s Legacy in Silk City” by Kristin D’Agostino, from Italian America Magazine, Summer 2020
Libor Havlicek is accustomed to bleeding on the job. After 10 years of making mosaics, the Brno artist no longer bothers with Band-Aids; he just wipes the blood from his fingers and continues to glue broken bits of tile to his latest work. As for wearing gloves, he dismisses the idea with a snigger. “Making mosaics in gloves is like having sex with a condom,” he says. “You don’t feel what you need to.”
Havlicek is working on a piece in his bathroom, which he has kindly offered as a guinea pig for a mosaic lesson. Two large triangular shapes have been cut out of the white tile wall, to be filled in with bits of colored tile. The mosaic will wrap around to cover the mundane white porcelain bathtub like a rich tapestry.Havlicek demonstrates how to break tiles, cracking them over his knee one by one like Saltine crackers. The triangular pieces fall into his lap, and he trims them to size with a metal cutting tool. Using thick glue, he applies the pieces to the wall, stopping every 20 minutes to smoke. It’s tedious, solitary work. “Sometimes I am quiet for days,” he says.
And so the work proceeds quietly, a pattern slowly emerging from the red and blue slivers of tile, accented in white, black and tea green. During the five hours the project takes to finish, Havlicek finishes off two packs of Lucky Strikes and six CDs, including James Brown and Leonard Cohen. He cracks an occasional joke but does not offer any real instruction. Whatever you do is right,” Havlicek says. Mosaics are free.”When the mosaic is finished, the bathtub seems balanced on its side in the center of a dizzying diamond shape. Climbing into it from now on will be like mounting the Tilt-A-Whirl at a carnival. This optical illusion quality is a mark of Havlicek’s work.
‘I like to work with space,” he says. A mosaic should have some trick, some surprise.”
One can admire this quality at Shakespeare & Sons bookstore in Prague, where one of Havlicek’s pieces is on permanent display. The hallway leading from the cafe to the bookstore has been converted into a kaleidoscope of blue, white and silver tile. The sea-colored glass scattered across the walls and floor makes you feel as though you’re standing inside a glass-marbled aquarium. A spiraling mirror of tile in the center of the floor seems to pull you in.
One of only a few mosaic artists currently working in the Czech Republic, Havlicek is part of a long and storied tradition. The first significant mosaic in Prague was made in the late 14th century at the behest of King Charles IV. Inspired by the work of the great Italian mosaicists he saw during his second coronation in Rome, Charles commissioned a grand mosaic from an unknown artist for the Golden Gate of St. Vitus Cathedral. The Last Judgment contains over one million tiny stones and cubes of glass in more than 30 different shades of color.Karel Spillar is perhaps the best-known Czech mosaicist. His Homage to Prague (1911) adorns the magnificent exterior of Obecni dum (the Municipal House) at namesti Republiky. Decadent blue peacocks on the former Novak Department Store on Vodickova street frame another exquisite mosaic, this one by Jan Preisler.
Havlicek, 36, was born in Brno, where he has done most of his work. He is thin and wiry, with a shaved head and cobalt-colored eyes. He is soft-spoken, with a warm face given to quick, mischievous smiles. Havlicek did not always make his living as an artist. After a couple of years at technical college studying boring things like physics and math,” he worked as a plumber for two years. In 1990, he decided he’d had enough. He borrowed some money from his parents and opened a pub in Brno. It was there that his first mosaic was born, almost by accident.
“By regulation, I had to have ceramic tile in the WC and behind the bar. It was very expensive,” he says. A friend of mine offered me some broken tile he had at his house. It was a mess, all different colors – so I made a mosaic. When I finished it was good, and I saw what a tool [mosaics are].”Although he continued creating mosaics as a hobby, Havlicek did not devote his energies to them full-time until two years ago, when he sold his pub. When I owned pubs, I didn’t make many mosaics because I was drinking,” he says. I didn’t have the time or the energy for mosaics.”
Last year he assembled a Web site, printed colored postcards of his work and began advertising. He has had 10 commissions since then, including two in Prague.
Havlicek’s work has taken him all over Europe – he’s willing to travel anywhere for an interesting project. In addition to working for businesses, he creates mosaics for people who want to personalize their homes or gardens. His portfolio includes sculptures for the mayor of Brno and a terrace mosaic for Czech singer/songwriter Iva Bittova. The latter took a month to complete and cost about 20,000 Kc ($666), one-quarter of which was spent on supplies. I ask [clients], How much do you have?'” Havlicek says. I try to work with them on finding materials within their price range.” He buys ceramic tile from factories or in smaller quantities from stores in Brno. More-expensive marble mosaics require a little extra travel. Havlicek goes to northern Italy for marble seconds” gleaned from the Dolomites, the mountains where Michelangelo gathered material for his Renaissance sculptures. One of Havlicek’s most interesting pieces, a freestanding sculpture of a bird with a snake’s body and a long, pointed orange beak in white, black and gold, is located on Pekarska street in Brno. Six meters (19.6 feet) tall and perched in the middle of an art nouveau square, the creature seems to have flown straight out of an ancient Greek myth. Havlicek has designed another public sculpture he hopes to build in Brno this spring: A giant replica of his own colored drawing pencils, standing helter-skelter in a mug. A sketch of the sculpture hangs in his downtown studio, awaiting word from the mayor to bring it to life.
Currently, Havlicek is working on the interior of a house in Brno he helped design. In the past, he has created mosaic facades that cover the entire exterior of a building. His Web site includes those, along with indoor mosaics, including a bathroom piece that stretches out over the tub in chalky blue and yellow pastels. Coitus in aqua saluti prosit,” it proclaims – Latin for Sex in the water is good for your health.”
Why does someone spend so many hours of his life assembling tedious jigsaw puzzles with dangerously sharp edges? “Mosaics are, for me, like a drug,” he says. My brain needs [them]. Some people think about cars or girls. I think about mosaics.”
Havlicek’s obsessive devotion to his art becomes clear when he finishes his own bathroom mosaic. After the last tile has been glued and set in place, he grins like a kid and runs for his camera. Then he stands in the doorway admiring his work, confiding that he believes mosaics contain the energy of the artist, passed from his fingertips into the tile. To prove his point, he places his palm over the smooth mosaic, as though checking a child’s temperature. It is warm,” he says. And good for your health.
“Mister Mosaic” appeared in the Prague Post, 2003
Anyone with a taste for the arcane has heard of Kutna Hora, the medieval town 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of Prague, with its assortment of esoteric treasures – the Gothic cathedral of St. Barbara, the underground labyrinth of silver mines and the ossuary, or bone church,” in the nearby town of Sedlec. But if you’re willing to explore beyond the obvious, there is a more intriguing route through town encompassing a mysterious chapter of the city’s history. The ossuary is only the first stop on a Philosopher’s Walk” that loops into the heart of Kutna Hora to the Alchemy Museum, the country’s only establishment to pay tribute to an ages-old mystical tradition. Located in Palackeho namesti, the museum is operated by Michal Pober, a former shiatsu instructor with a penchant for alchemical history and a flair for storytelling. At the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century, alchemy went through a tremendous boom in Europe. The Prague-based Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II was the highest of many noblemen who employed alchemists in the hope of discovering the secret formula for creating gold. According to museum placards, many of the world’s leading alchemists visited the area now known as the Czech Republic, including Swiss physician Philippus Paracelsus, who is said to have acquired his vitriol in Kutna Hora. A museum placard displays the alchemist’s goals as if they were a checklist for those considering signing up for a lifetime quest: first and foremost, to discover the elixir of life,” a rejuvenating concoction that confers immortality. Other goals include finding the secret formula to convert base metals into gold, and the general preparation of remedies of great quality and purity … achieved by separating the pure from the impure to achieve perfection.”
Back in time
The museum’s location – in a grand stone building complete with massive creaking doors, an underground laboratory and a Gothic tower straight out of an Edward Gorey drawing – is no coincidence. Legend holds that Jiri of Podebrady’s alchemist son Prince Hynek – who conducted experiments in a basement laboratory – also once inhabited the place. The building’s architectural layout supports this theory: The tower contains a round, majestic room that appears to be a small chapel or oratory, and the basement harbors a deep pit that could have been used by a black” (illegal) metallurgist sifting through metals for forbidden secrets. All alchemy laboratories contained a separate space for working and praying, as dictated by the Latin phrase Ora et Labora (Pray and Work), which alchemists abided by. Only by balancing their quest for material wealth with spiritual transcendence could they achieve success in their experiments. Walking through the museum corridors feels like a time trip back to King Arthur’s castle library, with framed illustrations from old alchemy books hanging on the walls. In one, representing the fusion of two substances, a tiny bird flutters up from the mouth of a glass bottle where a pair of naked lovers lay intertwined.
Pober is well cast in his role as museum curator and guide. With his shaggy white hair, beard and glasses, he resembles the drawings of alchemists in books. His British lilt echoes eerily as he explains the assortment of objects, meant to invoke an alchemist’s study, laid out on the chapel table: candles, a feather and an inkwell, a first edition of an alchemy book with recipes for various potions, a human skull (no one in particular) and a small, shriveled crocodile the size of a Czech sausage. Reptiles, Pober explains, represent the first stage of experimentation, reflecting alchemy’s ancient Egyptian roots. He admits that the crocodile, given to him by a taxidermist friend, is a bit of a joke and then points to two large metal rings dangling from the ceiling overhead about six feet apart. We have the perfect spot waiting for when we get the real one!”
A spiral staircase winds down into the basement laboratory, where a massive bellows is bathed in artificial red light from a nearby fireplace. The clay pots and vessels crowding the shelves are modern reproductions that have been carefully arranged to tell an ancient story. Pober brings them to life, explaining how each strangely shaped vessel – fashioned after different animals – had a specific purpose . The containers with the long, sloping swan necks, for example, were like ancient cocktail shakers for mixing ingredients. In the next room, rows of glowing glass cases filled with odd-sized bottles bring back memories of biology class and floating gray cow brains. Upon closer inspection, these jars reveal less-grotesque contents – metal instruments, dried lavender, mustard seeds and other herbal treatments. There is only one museum room barricaded from visitors: a prison cell Pober has recreated at the foot of a small stone staircase. Here, with Pober’s thin finger gesturing at the tiny window, you can almost make out the haggard remains of a wizened alchemist who died after stubbornly refusing to reveal his secret formula to his patron.
The Philosopher’s Walk
Begin at Kostnice, or the ossuary, which is an inconvenient 45-minute walk from the center of Kutna Hora. The easiest way to get there is by bus from the main train station. There’s only one bus, so hop on and get off at the Tabak” sign near the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary. Walk up Zamecka street to the ossuary and feast your eyes on the chandelier, coat of arms and other creepy sculptures made of human bones. Hop back on the bus or hike into the city center to the Alchemy Museum (Palackeho nam. 377). You can get a map of the city and brochures at the adjacent tourist office. Next, head to the Museum of Medieval Mining (Barborska 28), where you can tour the tunnels of an ancient mine while wearing an oversized jacket and a real miner’s hardhat, complete with headlight. The tour should help you work up a good appetite, which you can satisfy at Pivnice Dacicky (Rakova 8), a medieval-themed Czech restaurant with plenty of outdoor seating. The menu is reasonably priced and includes a special alchemical section,” with dishes reputedly created by alchemist Bavor Rodovsky in the Middle Ages. Legend has it that he traded them to get out of prison. Pober’s favorite is the alchemical chicken, which comes adorned with chopped almonds in a white wine and garlic sauce for 89 Kc ($3). Finish off dinner with Horka laska (hot love), a magical concoction of hot raspberries, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. After dinner, stroll the main streets of Kutna Hora by night and admire the buildings illuminated in subtle blue and gold light. The Gothic Cathedral of St. Barbara, the tall, upright St. James Cathedral, the Italian court and the silver museum all seem to glow with a supernatural light.
“A Mystical Quest” originally appeared in The Prague Post
Passersby often ring the doorbell just out of curiosity. With its pointed roof and arched windows, the building appears to be a church. But the sculpture of a frowning giant above the door hints otherwise.
Few pass the threshold — the doorbell doesn’t work and the building at 115 College St., in Somerville is usually closed to the public. But those who do enter are apt to feel they’re walking into a Grimm’s fairy tale. Inside, nearly every inch of the church’s walls and ceiling have been covered in frescoes depicting myths from around the world: Dragons, centaurs, genies, goddesses, kings and queens all greet the eye with the glow and vibrancy of stained glass.
Russian-born artists Nicholas Shaplyko and Katerina Sorokina have worked for the last several years to cover the 10,000-square-foot 19th-century Masonic temple in their artwork. The couple purchased the building in 2002 with the intention of turning it into a living, working and exhibition space, however, they say local officials have prevented them from opening it up to the public due in part to lack of parking. But they’re quite content to call the church home. They say it is both accommodating to their large-scale work and cozy enough to live in.
“You feel not like a bug in a box here,” Shaplyko says in a thick Russian accent. “It’s not too big to make you feel small.”
The artists have named their home the Museum of Modern Renaissance and their goal is to transport people back to a simpler time.
“The first Renaissance brought beauty and humanity back to society, and we think it is time to do it again,” says Shaplyko. “A museum [today] is a warehouse where paintings are stored. But the word museum actually means the house where the muses live, not the cemetery where they die and dry like butterflies on a pin. We created our museum so you enter a single piece of art. It surrounds you…You become a part of this world like Alice in Wonderland.”
Through the looking glass
Today, the front door opens.
Shaplyko and his wife, Sorokina, both elegant and dignified, seem like a king and queen who have sprung from one of their own paintings. Shaplyko is tall and dark with a close-cropped beard. And Sorokina, petite and blonde, wears leopard print leggings and lots of oversized jewelry.
The immersion into art is immediate. The front entryway has been transformed into a vast solar system complete with Roman planetary gods. On one wall a pensive Neptune sits, holding a trident between his fingers like a poet might hold his pen, while across the room a blue-bearded Jupiter stands poised to fling a lightning bolt.
In the chapel, you’ll find a kaleidoscope of frescoes painted on canvas, then mounted onto wooden frames and secured to the walls and ceiling. Here, Christian saints stand head-to-head with pagan gods, and lions from Chinese legend walk outside the gates of spired Russian cities.
Behind the chapel is the artists’ studio, an addition designed by Shaplyko in an altar shape because a studio, the artists say, is a sacred space for creating art.
“People come to the church to pray, to concentrate their energy, and get some connection,” Shaplyko reflects. “Many people do it every day. Churches are like a transformer; [they’re] an energy source.”
The room is a tropical paradise with sun streaming in from six skylights and large potted plants lining the bright-painted walls. A fireplace flickers in a cozy corner. It’s made of ceramic plates painted by Sorokina in Sicilian-inspired patterns.
A small staircase leads down to the artists’ living quarters. Two huge tables, recently built by Nicholas, sit in the dining room. They’re so large they seem fit for King Arthur’s feast. The artists often invite friends over for wine, dinner and conversation. “We discuss religion and philosophy,” Sorokina says.
The couple chooses to live without a television, preferring to spend free time reading, traveling or entertaining. TV, Shaplyko says, makes people feel as if they’re participating in life when actually “they’re sitting on the couch eating popcorn.”
Last is the living room with its rows of fiery orange bookcases painted with bright suns. There is a Russian rug on the floor, and Indian textiles draped across a low couch lined in bright pillows. The room fairly glows with all the warmth of a kerosene lamp.
“After we finished this room,” says Shaplyko, “I was always thinking I forgot to turn out the light because through the door it seems like the light is on.”
Ancient values, modern times
Shaplyko and Sorokina, both in their 40s, met two decades ago on a white water canoeing trip in Russia. Though they work together to create all their paintings, and consider their styles to be complementary, the two artists come from very different backgrounds. Shaplyko, who is also a skilled carpenter, studied architecture and went on to own a successful design firm in Russia. Sorokina, who designs fashion as a hobby, is self-taught. She grew up in a family of art collectors where she says she honed her eye for color and pattern.
“She feels and dreams in colors,” Shaplyko says of his wife.
When creating a painting, Shaplyko lays out the overall composition and Sorokina chooses the colors and adds detail. The artists, who work on commission, paint anywhere from six to 10 hours a day. Paintings begin on canvas covered in black gesso, which adds depth to colors. When creating art, the two say, they strive to be free-spirited, working without preliminary sketches. “Artists should be like children,” Shaplyko says. “The child has no regulations… A child doesn’t know what it’s all about; he just wants to explore and create. He sees an empty space on the wall, he grabs a crayon and fills it up.”
The couple chooses to create only uplifting images. They dislike the work of artists like Frieda Kahlo, who depicted pain and struggle, saying that art should be an escape from the world.
“We are striving to make people feel good,” Sorokina says. “Sometimes friends ask if they can come in and sit [in the museum] because they need this energy.”
Shaplyko and Sorokina moved to the U.S. in the early 1990s. After a couple years in Brighton, they moved to Somerville when they found the church. They have exhibited their work in galleries around the world, including India, Italy, France and Russia (Vladimir Putin owns a painting). Though they’ve had local gallery exhibits in the past on Newbury Street, and at the Cambridge Multicultural Center, the couple seems in no hurry to pursue more. They admit that creating art — not selling it — is their priority.
“To paint and sell piece by piece is like an 8-to-5 job,” Shaplyko says. “I think art is bigger than that.”
“The house where the muses live’” appeared in Good Life Magazine, 2008
Some would say that Salem’s Italian neighborhood began in a small room next to a fish market at 27 Front St. in the year 1914. It was then that Rev. Pietro Piemonte began the city’s first Italian Mass with a group of immigrant families who didn’t speak English. According to city records from 1910, about 1,300 people were Italian, 3 percent of the population. Many families had settled into the area around Margin, Endicott, High and Prescott streets.
By 1925, Rev. Piemonte’s congregation had raised enough money to build the St. Mary Italian Church on Margin Street, which quickly became the center of the community.
By the time she was a teenager, Anna Della Monica played organ at the Sunday Masses at St. Mary’s. When she was 16 the church paid to have painters come from Italy to paint Renaissance style frescoes on the sanctuary ceiling. After hearing her practice her music one afternoon, the three men asked her to come back and play for them. “They’d say please come, our angels will be more beautiful if you come,” she says, smiling. “I’d run all the way from school to church and play for them all day and they’d be up on the scaffolding painting.” Families came together at St. Mary’s to celebrate traditional Italian feasts, holidays, weddings and births. “I grew up in a household where all they talked about was church, church and church. My whole life revolved around it,” says Della Monica whose father, a stonemason, built a downstairs chapel. Going to church was a deeply meaningful experience for Italian families on many levels. It provided them with place for worshiping God, celebrating their heritage, and over the years as they stood in the chapel, they were able to feel close to their ancestors whose names adorned stained-glass windows overhead.
La vita Italiana
Salem’s Little Italy blossomed in the 1930s and early ‘40s. During this time, former St. Mary’s historian Regina Camarda says there were a few hundred families attending church. For these families there were potluck picnics at Centennial Park and religious processions through the streets to celebrate holy days. The Italian community was close-knit and very exclusive. “We always thought Endicott Street was the pillar of Salem,” recalls Paul Cultrera, 94, who today lives on Prescott Street. “There were the Italian and Greek people … We never associated with the other kids.” Over the years Italian markets sprung up on nearly every street corner in Little Italy, offering old-world specialties like prosciutto, cheeses, barrels of chickpeas and beans and tubs of Sicilian olive. Of these shops, Steve’s Quality Market on Margin Street is the only one left today. At that time the store was in a small wooden building with a long old-fashioned counter behind which were stored bulk quantities of goods.
At that time people would come in and you had to serve them,” recalls owner Steve Ingemi, 85, who was 8 when he started working at his father’s store. “I’d say what do you want, I want a 5-pound bag of sugar, I want this, I want that — that’s the way it was then.”
In those days markets hung prosciutto and smoked cheeses from the ceiling and offered live chickens for sale in crates on the sidewalk that would be slaughtered fresh for Sunday dinner.
Italian traditions were alive and well both at home and in the streets. Former Salem mayor Tony Salvo, who used to visit his grandmother in Little Italy, recalls her trick of being able to cure malocchio, the enviously cast “evil eye,” which Italians believed could cause sickness.
“Anytime we’d get sick we’d say, “Nonna, fa malocchio please!” he recalls. “She’d get a dish of water and a teaspoon of olive oil. She’d take her finger and dip it in the oil, drop it in the glass. If it spread that means someone put the malocchio on you … she’d say prayers all the time, no one knew what they were. I don’t know if it was psychological but it worked. My brother, when he was in the Navy, he used to call her up from all parts of the world to do the malocchio.”
With houses stacked close together gossip drifted as freely between neighbors as the smell of homemade tomato sauce drifting from open windows. Many homes were connected by clotheslines that were strung between windows on pulleys. As one resident recalls, the lines often served as the excuse to talk to your neighbor, while leaning out the window. Josephine Cultrera, 90, recalls the days her sister lived behind her Prescott Street home and the two women would use their clotheslines to transport kitchen goods.
“If I needed something I’d say ‘Grace, put it on the line,’ and she’d send it right over,” she says. She laughs, adding, “If she needed something I’d put it in a bag and send it over … One time I even sent a turkey over.”
Changes in Little Italy
After World War II the Italian neighborhood started to shift. Soldiers returned and moved away to start families of their own. Steve Ingemi and his brother Joe took over Steve’s Quality Market after their father retired. The brothers had the wooden building razed and a new, modern store constructed. Out went the prosciutto, the smoked cheeses, the bulk bins of beans. And in came a more diverse mix of foods designed to appeal to other ethnic groups in town.
“There was a big French section, a big Polish section …” says Jodie Fenton, Steve’s daughter, who grew up working in the shop. “We tried to bring in whatever these people wanted.”
Beginning in 1962 the market began carrying Polish kielbasa and corton, a traditional French pork spread, products the store carries to this day. Over the years, one by one, other Italian grocery shops went out of business as the community diversified and abandoned old-world traditions. Meanwhile, through the ‘50s and ‘60s, St. Mary’s prospered; a youth center was built and 16 tons of marble were transported from Italy for constructing new altars. However, the need for a separate church for the Italian people was diminishing. The children of the immigrants, in general, didn’t speak Italian. Masses were no longer held in Italian, they were in English. In 2002 when the Boston Archdiocese was rocked by the sex abuse scandals, the archbishop gave orders to Salem priests that one church must close and left it up to them to choose. St. Mary’s was selected, perhaps because church officials felt it had fulfilled its duty. St. Mary’s held its last mass Jan. 12, 2003. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” Salvo recalls. These days Italian-Americans still live in Little Italy, mixed in with Latino immigrants and other ethnic groups. Most are third- and fourth-generation Italians whose parents tell stories of the old neighborhood. Some residents are still upset about losing their church, which they say was the heart and soul of the neighborhood. “Even though you don’t leave your neighborhood, your neighborhood leaves you,” Della Monica says. “Everyone needs something to love that they can all get together and socialize about and now that’s gone.” Despite the loss of St. Mary’s, remnants of the old neighborhood remain. Some locals visit the Christopher Columbus Society, a social club that offers a place to get together. Many visit Steve’s Quality Market, which remains owned and operated by the Ingemi family. Others still visit the old church, which is now owned and managed by the Salem Mission, a shelter and social-services organization. The Mission runs a secondhand clothing store inside the former downstairs chapel. Store manager Ann Richardson says former parishioners often come to visit a grassy area outside the property, where a Mission worker recently restored an old St. Mary’s grotto. Sometimes people come in and ask to go upstairs to pray in the former sanctuary.
“Any parishioners that come in, I let them go up,” says Richardson. “We would never deny any parishioners.”
Rich Richardson has tried to make visits easier by hiding painful reminders of the old days. A room divider blocks the marble altar at the head of the chapel where people used to pray. Above it, a landscape painting partially conceals a large marble cross. Upstairs, Little Italy’s past is locked away in the old sanctuary. High on a balcony, beneath the watchful eyes of a painted angel, sits Anna Della Monica’s organ covered in dust. On church pews where parishioners used to sit, thrift-store boxes of old toys and clothes are piled.
It must be difficult for the Italians to see their beloved church this way, but still, five years later, they come back. They say a prayer or just look up at the stained-glass windows that bear the names of their parents and grandparents, the first Italians of Little Italy.
“Salem’s Little Italy” was part 1 of series Changing cultures, changing neighborhoods for the Salem Gazette, September 2008.