THIS IS HOW I SAW THEM
A profile of painter Joanne Onorato Tschida
By Melanie Curran
She remembers meals fondly. There was zeppole and laughter. Everything happened at the table. The extended Italian family came together in Astoria, Queens and Joanne Onorato, as a child, looked up to the adults and committed them to the deep subconscious. These were happy times. So too were the times upstate at her uncles’ farm. “Such good memories,” she says, “but they’re all gone. They’re all dead.”
For twenty-five years she’s lived on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, far from an east coast full of relatives. “I try to have that at my house,” she says of the familial mood, “I’ve always tried to bring it out here.” Her voice has a tone of failure. Last week she made zeppole for her plein air painting group while social distancing at a local park. They had a great time but the family traditions don’t seem to translate to the Pacific Northwest.
The thrill of painting for Joanne is that time collapses. In our interview she returns to this phrase often, and referring to different temporal phenomena. Two hours become eight, just as a Christmas dinner in Astoria from long ago becomes the encompassing present. She’s a little kid again, beholding miraculous adults.
[Aphrodite, oil on canvas, 2019]
Most mornings she goes straight to her home studio, still wearing her pajamas, and works at the easel until breaking for her first cup of tea. Beginning is easy. She uncovers the pallet from the night before, and pours her good, morning brain into the work. She’ll be standing there for two hours, at the canvas, scraping, blending, rendering, “until I ruin it,” she says. At which point she realizes that it hasn’t been two hours at all, but eight. Then it’s up to the bathroom for a foot-bath. Melatonin and magnesium for sleep. The next morning she’ll return and scrape off yesterdays mistakes. Start again with the good morning brain. It’s a cycle. By adding and taking away layer after layer of paint, a ghost forms. A finished painting is many paintings on top of one another. Lots of “what could have beens” lie underneath.
[A day at the Fair, oil on canvas, 2018]
She doesn’t sell these paintings. They’re too personal.
The old masters did it too, she tells me. Degas, Van Gogh. They painted their family members because, “that’s who’s around. That’s who there’s a connection to.”
Joanne scours old family photographs and for material. She seeks moments of relatives caught in motion, interacting, lacking self-consciousness. She looks for photos containing gesture. She likes painting limbs in action, but more than that, “I like to catch that little sly look.”
[Grandpa My Happy Hero, Oil on Canvas, 2020]
Not too many people cite Caravaggio as their central inspiration, but Joanne does. She admires how he beefs up the contrast in his work. To the horror of some painter friends, she often paints using black straight from the tube. She must. For drama. “I’m a dramatic person! I’m happy!” So too are her memories of childhood.
[Sophia, oil on canvas, 2019]
She started painting Christmas 1960s after her aunt died. “She’s the one with the cigarette.” Joanne’s mom is the figure with the beehive, behind Joanne’s aunt.
[Christmas 1960s, oil on canvas, 2017 - 2020]
“I talk to them while I paint of course,” she says, “I tell them, “How do you want me to make you look? Is this good? Help me out! Maybe you don’t like this pose, maybe you don’t like me using this picture of you. I keep working on it until it’s right. I’ve been working on this painting for so many years. It wasn’t ready until I picked the right character pose for each person, one that they would approve of.”
In an earlier version of Christmas 1960s she painted her mom in from a photograph that was not a good fit. “She had a finger in her mouth. It was a goofy pose. I loved it but I couldn’t get it. I said, “Okay ma, you don’t like this picture of yourself. So I found this other picture, of my mom with a beehive. I collaged her in and I got it right away. This is what she would prefer. I’m repainting it again, but it will be that pose, that’s the picture.”
Joanne will scrape off her mom with a pallet knife, put a solid color over where she used to be, whichever color she feels like, and then draw her back in with a paintbrush. Once the features are in the right place, she starts to fill them out with oil.
[Hannah’s Wedding, oil on vellum, 2017]
[Josephine and Anna - Rockaway Beach boardwalk, oil on canvas, 2019]
Christmas 1960 comes from a photograph, but not exactly.
To paint from the original Christmas photograph, she took a picture of the photo on her phone, put the picture of the picture on her computer, printed it out on paper and keeps that print-out by her canvas as reference. The print-out is so blurry and so difficult to work from, she says, that she’s practically painting from her memory. That’s the point. The blurriness allows her to add in the relatives who were not there for the original picture.
“Everyone said I was crazy, because it’s hard to add people into a [painting made from a] photo who weren’t there, and still make it work.”
[Christmas 1960s, An Earlier Version]
She started Christmas by sketching on canvas with pencil. "I didn’t use any rulers or snaplines. I just freehanded it. Then I did an acrylic painting underneath. The underpainting is orange and pale purple. It was so beautiful.” Some viewers wished she’d stopped with that sea of color and abstract form. Joanne is never painting to please others though, unless those people are the family members she is painting. She blocks in their forms with acrylic before filling-in their features with oil. For three years she’s worked on Christmas, scraping people back, starting them over, finding a new photograph of them to work from, and adding other relatives after they pass away. She sketches them in her notebook first to get more familiar, then starts blocking them into Christmas.
[Painting a Billboard at Foster and Klizer/Ganett, 1984, photographer unknown]
Joanne’s been painting for 40 years.
She’s worked as a billboard painter, a mural painter, a preparator at the American Natural History Museum in New York City. She’s even sold work to Panera Bread to decorate the walls of franchises nationwide. “I was trained in photographic realism,” she tells me. Now she’s an impressionist realist, inspired by the cubists, beholden to no style but her own.
[Easter, Astoria, New York, acrylic on canvas wrapped in ecosolvent vellum, 2018]
For Easter, Astoria, New York she started by blocking the painting with acrylic. “I was going to do oil on top, but then I decided not to paint over it. I liked it. It just has a certain light and character that I didn’t want to mess with. It had a life of its own, so I didn’t want to tamper with it. It’s really crazy, but each painting has a life of its own.”
The decision to fill in the faces with a higher level of detail in Josephine and Anna - Rockaway Beach verses Easter, had everything to do with Joanne’s internal sense of when to stop. “Usually I start with realism,” she says, “and then just keep painting, getting more abstract, until I feel that’s who it is. The painting tells me when it’s done. I don’t tell the painting."
[Italian Cowboys, oil and canvas, 2018]
She works on board, vellum, heavy duty multipurpose paper and canvas. She uses acrylic and oil. She collages figures from many photographs into one painting. Her materials and processes are distinct to her, as they are all in service of something highly personal; Joanne’s memories of the people she cherished most.
How they must have whirled around her in bursts of color, smell and sound. She paints to move back into reverie, she says. She is not recreating the moments exactly nor trying to render them in perfect realistic detail. No. What she expresses is a different qualitative assessment of time and space through the photographic vehicle of sentimentality. She is showing the world how the world showed itself to her. How her pantheon of family appeared at intervals, in moments both casual and formal with celebration. She’s gives reports from the past with a kid’s eye view. “This is how I saw them,” she says. She treats the edges of her subjects with loving care, saturating her canvases with longing for a time when these people were not gone but were all around her, collapsing in shades of ochre, red, black and radiant green.
[Joanne in her Home Studio November 2020, Photograph by Sophia Onorato Tschida]
To see more of Joanne's work please visit @jonorato1
ps. Shhhh... here's Joanne's family's secret zeppole recipe. But don't tell.
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