by Kathy Weinberg
It is fitting, as you drive toward Albion to the town of Freedom, that you must take the slight left fork onto the North Palermo Road—part of Maine’s network of international town names—just the sort of place where an Italian-American from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, like artist Joe Ascrizzi, might settle. On one day that I visited his studios, a statue of the patron saint from and of their family’s hometown of St. Euphemia de Aspramonte in Calabria was on the workbench being restored by Joe, and will later adorn the interior of John’s Ice Cream in Liberty, Maine, owned and operated by his younger brother, John Ascrizzi.
“It’s like something out of 100 Years of Solitude,” says Joe. “My Grandfather went to visit his mother and this statue got passed along.” The statue has been a little battered and at one point repainted badly. Now Joe will to help guide it into the next millennium.
I made the trip one day in late fall to visit Joe at his home and studio. I followed the sound of hammering to the studio to where Joe was shaping a metal top for a box he was making. To call what he makes a box is to simplify his unique art pieces into their most obvious attribute. These are more than boxes, they are portable shrines or receptacles for precious objects, consummately crafted, adorned with semi-precious stones, glass melted to resemble tears, or sperm. Carved linen-fold elements are inlaid with bone and brass. These boxes are acts of poetry; some of his boxes have housed manuscripts and books of poetry.
“You both do boxes,” renowned Surrealist art dealer and collector, Julian Levy, told Joe one day, years ago, as he compared Joe’s work to Joseph Cornell. Levy was the first to show Cornell, in 1932, at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. “His are more whimsical,” Levy continued, “and yours are more serious.” Ascrizzi met Levy while Joe was running the business of picture framing at Walter’s Gallery in Woodbury, Conn. Levy came in with a Man Ray to be framed and Joe began working for him. For more than 20 years, Levy was a collector of Joe’s art and commissioned more than a dozen of his box sculptures, some of which were featured in an article on the Levy home, published in Architectural Digest (Aug.1981). Joe’s wife Lynn was pregnant with their son Max while they were house sitting for Levy. There, several months passed in Levy’s art-filled writing studio built by a stream near his home, in Bridgewater, Conn. Levy was in southern France, and Max was named for a Max Ernst artwork that was hanging in the studio.
Joe was included in a group show at Betty Parson’s Gallery in New York City in 1974. This led to a solo show at the New York Cultural center in 1975, and another at Ellen Meyer’s Gallery in New York, in 1977. “You’re young and you think you’ve made it,” he told me, “and so you say ‘I’m going to move to Maine. And why not, it’s as good a place as any.” By the 1980’s Joe was showing in Maine, at the Farnsworth and other venues, including a 1993 solo exhibit at St.Mary’s College in Maryland. These were heady times for Joe Ascrizzi.
There is a small silence as we both think of youth and the opportunities that once seemed endless, the cold of early November, the pewter sky, both amplify the passage of seasons. Our conversation turns to physics, specifically particles, and the position of particles, how we are just an arrangement of an arrangement. “There is a word for it,” Joe says, “ ‘Wakan Tanka.’ When the Lakota speak of the Great Mystery, they speak of an abstract force of creation and spirituality, a life force and energy existing in all things.”
Joe starts things and finishes things according to an internal rhythm.
A guy came in recently and wanted a fish painted onto a basket, so Joe got out his paints and created one. “I asked him how much he had to spend, and I made him a nice fish, “ says Joe, “and now I started working on some new paintings.” He points over to his easel and paint boxes, neatly arranged, the work highly detailed and well under way. Another painting hanging on the sidewall he says has been there for many years, not yet finished. Yet another is on the workbench, Joe is unsure if it is finished or not, “Who knows where it even comes from?” asks Joe. But he is certain that the painting is a living dream, and that this particular one is one of his favorites.
Joe’s philosophical nature contains humor inside the wisdom. He once told me “You’ve got no car, you’ve got no car troubles. You have a car, you have car troubles.” It is a simple equation that shakes one’s thoughts out of garden-variety complaints. Or his phrase, “Nothing IS forever.” As he says this we laugh like a couple of kids with an inside joke.
We spent some time opening drawers, and looking at raw materials, half-finished, close to complete neatly organized box sections in a room full of drawers and shelves filled with exotic/quixotic wood sections, thorny sections of briar rose stems, deer antlers, shells, metals, semi-precious stones. The multiplicity of materials form a labyrinth. A stack of frames that Joe is working on contains fragments retrieved from the Twin Towers after September 11th. They form an art project that anther artist has envisioned and Joe is helping to bring to life, a wood tower composed of segments that are all framed collages.
There is a book on the table in Joe’s shop by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who was the head curator of Indian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the 1920’s-40’s. He was instrumental in introducing Indian and Persian arts to the West.
“The main difficulty so far seems to have been that Indian art has been studied so far only by archaeologists. It is not archaeologists, but artists who are the best qualified to judge of the significance of works of art considered as art,” wrote Coomaraswamy. Joe has been reading his writings since he was 19 years old but is conflicted.
“His words are so well wrought, but you can’t entirely agree with him, “ says Ascrizzi. “I believe what he says, for humanities sake, but he’s wrong about some other things, or there are ideas of his that just can’t be squared with our times. So I argue with him!”
“The contentment of innumerable people can be destroyed in a generation by the withering touch of our civilization; the local market is flooded by a production in quantity with which the responsible maker of art cannot compete; the vocational structure of society, with all its guild organization and standards of workmanship, is undermined; the artist is robbed of his art and forced to find himself a “job”; until finally the ancient society is industrialized and reduced to the level of such societies as ours in which business takes precedence over life. Can one wonder that Western nations are feared and hated by other people, not alone for obvious political or economic reasons, but even more profoundly and instinctively for spiritual reasons?”
“I’m talking about something else, but along those lines,” said Joe, “The Greeks had no word for art. Everyone was an artist or called to be an artist, as in someone who tries to make the invisible visible, and bring something forth that has never existed before.” Or, he mentions the medieval society where everyone has their craft and trade. Joe prefers the idea of the guild system to our current gallery and exhibition hall gigantisms’.
Joe works on several things at once so that when the mood strikes him he can pick up or put down a project. When he gets tired of making the fine marks in his paintings, he picks up a mallet and begins to hammer out a sheet of metal into curved form. Then there are also his intricate carvings in pieces of deer antler that become centerpieces for ceremonial necklaces made of bones and stones.
We go into the house for a while and have scones with, and baked by Joe’s wife Lynn. Some friends drop by to check-in, and his sister–in-law drops by and we discuss the rising tick problem, poetry, and then ordinary matters that are also and most often a part of our daily lives. Lynn shows me their son Max’s paintings, black and white landscapes that are spare, not peopled like Joe’s work and reflect a different age, his own personal challenges and outlook. One of Max’s musical arrangements plays quietly in the background; it is also a form of a landscape, the music like a train journey taken with sound. The title of the piece, “Thank god I’m a bum,” reflects the humor and humility of his father’s philosophy.
Leaving the house, and returning to the shop Joe regrets that his shop space is not larger, it is, in fact small. But then, he puts his hand on the back door knob and opens it outwards, “Do you want to see my Garden of Entropy?” Joe asked, smiling and sighing, “I go out and save something from total disintegration and make something with it.” And like a Fairy Tale, we step through a back door, onto a porch full of odds and ends and I see that the workshop we came from is duplicated and multiplied. There, across a clearing is another workshop filled with large, woodworking shop tools and workbenches. Upstairs is LeBouton Studio, operated by Max’s partner, clothing designer, Lisa Dorr.
There are three or more sheds chock-a-block with spare parts that form a complex and compound of raw materials from floor to ceiling and spilling out into the yards around.
There is a world of parts and pieces awaiting his creative energy to bring them to life, out of their state of dormancy, and just ahead of their potential to decay. Joe awakens an inner life in dull surfaces, exposing the true colors of wood grain, stone’s inner fires, the secret dreams of metal.
The first time I visited Joe and Lynn Ascrizzi a customer came, a man who had an antique table that Joe was working on.
“I have to see a man about a table,” Joe said heading to his workshop.
My husband and I went with Lynn to view her gardens before settling on their side porch while Joe saw to the client.
“My gardens are my art,” said Lynn, and like any true gardener went through a litany of the pests and challenges that besiege her garden world. All around I saw healthy plants and tall lilies in bloom, but like an artist, Lynn sees what more there can be even while presenting a vision of beauty.
We sat on the porch in the wicker and cushioned chairs and realized that the sidewalls of the porch were made of string trellises and the vines of scarlet runner beans. The small, bright red flowers added highlights, accents, and the long pods hung down around the heart-shaped leaves like a Tiffany design. We talked about Lynn’s writing. She wrote a weekly, syndicated, reader-response column called Dreams, which included Jungian interpretations of our collective dreaming mind. She also wrote art-related and other cultural articles, when for many years, she was lifestyle editor and feature writer for the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal. Now, she freelances for environmental and trade publications.
We sat talking on the porch and the afternoon faded. When the customer left we said our goodbyes and reluctantly drove away.
Now I sit with the November winds blowing in practice for the winter ahead.
I saw Joe last night and he was thinking that he wasn’t ready yet for the winter. We agreed that the South held a special appeal this year; perhaps a visit to a friend in Mexico was in order? Or perhaps he will dream through the winter with visions of Mexico and travel into his projects to uncharted galaxies. Joe has a box of glass beads that resembles a universe and he uses them in the background of his assembled and collaged paintings as stand-ins for the stars.
If I had a box like the boxes that Joe makes, in it I would put the seeds from Lynn’s scarlet runner beans, which are now in a bag on my bookcase. In that box would be the mothers of all of summers. Inside each seed the potential for an endless afternoon on that porch, with a book from the neat stack on the table, and the scent of Casa Blanca lilies mingling with the fading afternoon light.