Western North Carolina Woman

profile: elizabeth tomasetti
by arlene winkler

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to art school at all. Now I can’t imagine not going.”
Her remark takes me so by surprise, I drink an entire cup of tea while I think about it. The notion that heros are made and not born is the stuff of mythos, but until this moment in Liz Tomasetti’s kitchen, I had no idea that the same could be said of an artist. I start to play with the notion of artist-as-hero but the parallels just aren’t there. In my personal dictionary, heros and heroines are anonymous people who are suddenly moved by the plight of others to step out of character and take unselfish action. But the artists I’ve met over the years are driven by “the work” and more often than not, fully capable of shutting out the world to pursue it. Furthermore, the command to go forth and create art isn’t sudden; the vast majority of artists claim to have heard it in early childhood. I’m beginning to suspect I’ve fallen in love with an idea of my own manufacture. “Why don’t you follow the advice of the Queen of Hearts,” I say to myself, “And just begin at the beginning and keep on going until you get to the end?”

“I was born in Wisconsin,” she opens, “But my father, who was Italian, moved us to Milan. We lived there for eight years.” She pauses, sidetracked, “I attended the International School but I always felt like a foreigner while we lived there … and when we moved back to the U.S., I felt like a foreigner all over again.

“I was already in high school by the time I got into art in a serious way. When one of my teachers, Anne Wills, encouraged me to pursue it independently, I could have avoided it. But the truth is, I knew it wasn’t an option to not do it. It would always be there, like an itch on my shoulder.”

And there it is again. In my personal dictionary, heros and heroines don’t respond the first time they’re called, they resist repeatedly. The quintessential hero Jonah booked passage on a ship to another city when he was needed in Nineveh, and then he went below decks to sleep when the storm struck. But I refuse to go there, saying only, “Italy must have been a profound influence.”

“It was, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Milan is so big and dirty… and amazingly historical. For centuries, young people entered apprentice programs by the time they were 12 or 13. You can see their legacy in the way attention is paid to the smallest details. Everywhere you look, whether you’re in a library or an old factory, you see that someone put a lot of time and care and intention into that molding … that corner piece … that turning. There are amazing frescos and murals everywhere and incredible architecture.” She throws her arms out, encompassing the work-in-progress that is her current home, “The Duomo, the Galleria, that was my surround. And when I think about it now, I realize that all those amazing works of art were commissioned.”

On that note, we climb the stairs to her studio to look at her canvasses. The walls are covered in sketches of nude and half nude women that remind me of the artist and as I deal with my discomfort I realize I have been granted admission to the intimate narrative of the painter. I tell her the sketches remind me of Egon Schiele, in both their feeling tone and their economic use of line and color. She agrees, pleased, but points out others more focused on family relationships such as the haunting portraiture of Alice Neel, Ida Applebroog’s visions of painful violations in nurturing relationships, the nude family photographs of Sally Mann, and the work of Audrey Niffeneger, a visual artist and author of The Time Traveler’s Wife.

“Intense company you keep,” I comment.

“I am intrigued,” she says quoting her artists statement, “By the limits or confines of personal space. By the invasion of that space when overstepped to experience another’s emotions.”

What she exposes in her work are the feelings that the less heroic (like me) may prefer to hide. But hiding is no longer an option, because she has drawn me in as a participant in her small almost perverse mental space.

The sketches are simple, direct, more subversive than in in-your-face, but definitely uncomfortable. In one a nude woman wearing only a flotation vest is almost, not quite self-explanatory. In another, a bowed figure on a chair appears to be haunted by her own shade.

“I’m struggling to keep as much life in my paintings as I have in my sketches,” she points out.

The paintings are far more complex and scrupulously unsensational, in one a woman in the foreground has had her hands cut off, but the wounds are distressingly bloodless. This is not about terror but about a feeling of creeping discomfort. In another, a little boy dressed up for church in a tiny man-suit blinks in the glare of direct sunlight, waiting to be photographed. That she has captured his awkwardness is immediately apparent, the sadness is like an after-taste. The action, if it can be called action at all, takes place somewhere between dream and fantasy as the figurative discipline kicks in with real-world details.

“When we came back to this country,” she resumes, “I entered Rhode Island School of Design. The painting department was not their strong point, but it was a place to grow and I’m glad I stayed there. In fact I stayed in Providence for three years after graduation. But the artists kept getting pushed out of the ratty buildings we were living in so they could be sold and demolished. After the second time it happened Tom and I came to Asheville to visit a friend of his, a jeweler named Sara West.

“And stayed. It must be very different for you to be so isolated.”

“I’ve slowly met a few artists here, but its very different than Providence where I had what amounted to a running conversation with my roommate, I never got stuck. Here I’m on my own. I’ve only met one or two painters, both of them really talented women. But there’s not much support here for the kind of art that challenges your assumptions. The galleries here are more about craft than art. But the reason I chose Asheville was I wanted to do community murals with kids. If I could do more of that and make my art that would be marvelous.

Elizabeth Tomasetti has lived in Asheville for three years now, where she creates her art and also paints signs and murals under the name “Wild Chicken Pictures. You can see examples of both on her Website at www.elizabethtomasetti.com/sito.htm.

Her work has been exhibited at
520 Gallery
The Wedge /Asheville NC

The Bus Stop Gallery
The Art Garage / Columbia SC

As well as galleries in Brooklyn NY, Providence and Warwick RI.

She has mentored and participated in local community projects including:
Senior Mural Project Mentor/Reynolds High School 2005
Claxton Elementary School Mural Mania program 2004
STEAM mural project 2003-4
Cultural Renaissance summer program 2003
YWCA mural project in 2003

Arlene Winkler is a freelance financial writer, who is passionate about art. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three, a grandmother of four, and the author of three screenplays, she is dealing with her culture shock by writing for WNC Woman.

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