Gennaro "Jerry" Prozzo: Prospero's Touch
"Gennaro always followed his muse," said his wife, Cyndy. "He might paint, do woodcuts, etch or draw. Sculpting began when we moved to Vermont. One snowy day he stuck his head out the door, saw three feet of snow to shovel, and thought about the armloads of wood required to warm up his studio. He came back inside and took up the bag of wooden clothespins I'd scavenged from my mother's cellar when we moved here. Some dated back to the twenties--there was a great variety."
Gennaro picked out a clothespin and carved a female nude. It was 1977, and he was about to hit his stride. The clothespin figures drew him to his own form of three-dimensional art. With Prospero's touch he combined the figures with castoff objects to create colorful and mischievous assemblages and stand-alone pieces. The alchemy would intensify in time to focus on themes of humor, the circus, and the nude, rendered with eccentric and haunting accuracy. Gennaro created his perfect fusion of fine art and found objects.
Gennaro wrote about his discovery: "Since the clothespin already suggested a figure and I enjoyed drawing and painting the figure, especially the nude, I carved a figure. Then another and another.
"The challenge was how different I could make them since there was the limitation of a shape. Variety came in the shapes of the different styles of clothespins, plus I could articulate the limbs by cutting and arranging them into varied positions.
"Once I accumulated several dozen figures, I had the problem of how to present them. One of my favorite periods of art history is the Middle Ages, and being raised a Catholic, I had the experience of seeing many icons of the saints' triptychs. Taking my cue from that, I modernized the icons. They are no longer just saints but include sinners, or simply they represent the human comedy."
A brief look at Gennaro Prozzo's life may help us understand the forces that shaped him. He was born in 1929 to a Bronx bar owner and his wife. He was the last of six children. As a boy he took a stool at Prozzo's Bar & Grill and did his homework while his father drew beers for neighborhood clientele. And perhaps Prozzo's bar gave Gennaro his first sightings of the human comedy he was to render with the relaxed but steady pace of his work. After high school at LaSalle Academy in Manhattan, he enrolled at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington. D.C. There were four years in the Air Force during the Korean War followed by study at Pratt Institute for Etching in Manhattan. He met an artist named Cyndy Szekeres; they married in 1958, moved to Brooklyn Heights, and started a family. Cyndy published her first children's book, and Gennaro taught art at several schools in the borough's parochial school system.
While teaching, Gennaro began to show and sell his etchings and woodcuts of abstract images and Biblical scenes. He was teaching, raising a family, and quietly pursuing his art. Mostly he made prints from woodcuts and etchings. Cyndy refers to this early work as "very obedient stuff," that is, abstract images so popular at the time.
But one circumstance soon would send the 'obedient' artist down a different path. It was the federal Title I program, which provided abundant art supplies to the public schools. The fed was less generous with parochial schools, and Gennaro's students had little more than paints and brushes. There was nothing for the three-dimensional art Gennaro wanted them to learn, partly because it was beyond the limits of their supplies and partly because of his growing interest in other art forms. But he needed materials.
Gennaro acquired sawdust from a bowl mill in Weston, Vermont and showed his students how to mix it with wallpaper paste to make a clay-like substance for their sculptures.
"He had the kids making crucifixes," Cyndy says. "These were painted to look marvelously bloody and terrifying."
As his granddaughter Nina Prozzo recently observed in her poem about Gennaro: My Grandpa ... can make anything out of a misshapen scrap.
Art from scraps--ham bones, sea shells, nails, tin cans, broken eyeglasses--Gennaro's penchant for found art grew as he turned from obedience to a technique aimed at his favorite themes: the circus, the nude, and perplexed old men, all part of his human comedy.
Gennaro, his wife, and their two sons moved to Vermont in 1974. Fifteen years of teaching at Brooklyn parochial schools came to an end. Cyndy had illustrated a number of children's books by then and had a steady job creating greeting cards for a New Hampshire company. The garage at their Westminster West home was converted into Gennaro's studio. One year after their arrival in Vermont, Gennaro took a job as Art Department head at Windham College, where he served for three years.
In his spacious studio Gennaro began to work more intensely with found art--chosen pieces of firewood carved into sensuous nudes reaching for the sky; stunning, wood-sculpted head-to-toe 'portraits' of family members. Friends gave him olive oil cans, which he flattened and snipped into dancing bears and circus figures. More and more the small, elongated clothespin figures were articulated and incorporated into a repertoire of assemblages.
Gennaro continued to see art where others saw junk. A few simple lines on a broken clam shell became the drawing of a nude. He discovered figures inside pieces of driftwood. He sculpted a face on a ham bone and built another face around a set of false teeth, a pair of sunglasses minus their lenses, and clay lips painted red.
Clothespins are the constant. Hold one up. You can see legs and a head, but from that small space between crotch and crown Gennaro's knife drew forth hips and breasts, bellies and shoulders, ears and toes, shoes and trousers, necks and bottoms. The figures could be displayed alone--as in "General de Gaulle Out of Uniform"--which shows the gaunt Frenchman uncharacteristically nonplused. Or they were displayed in numbers, for example on the spokes of a mock Ferris wheel in a construction called "Once Around" or in the allegorical "Ship of Fools," a wheeled ship on which figures representing a cross-section of humankind slowly float into eternity. The sea life painted on the ship creates a feeling of levitation while the wheels imply forward motion--the effect is one of simultaneous movement and suspension.
Certainly in these pieces the human family may be as adversely affected by the modernity we find in the works of Bosch or Giacometti; but Gennaro levels this world view with a colorful, inventive sense of humor. The figures may be thin, their bellies may protrude: yes, we are imperfect, we hang out, but we must laugh in the teeth--so to speak--of our imperfections. Behind Gennaro's trapeze performers with their crazy hair, behind their breasts and bellies, we find the inspiration to laugh at life.
Gennaro used a cart or ship mounted on painted or rusty wheels to combine the clothespin figures with parts from his collection of old toys and gadgets. He saw the ship as an opportunity to dramatize a theme by mounting multiple images--fools, circus players, carnival workers, clothespin figures inside of cigar molds. The assemblages are both comic and bleak, yet decorated with subtle reds, blues and pinks. Are his ships crossing the River Styx and carrying the passengers into Hades? Maybe, but these sensuous constructions also suggest that the destination is less important than the journey.
One cannot divide Gennaro's work into well-defined periods. To stretch Cyndy's words a bit, Gennaro followed the muse of the day. While the circus and mortality were the major themes of his assemblages, he also turned out any number of snipped tin and especially wood sculptures which astonish for their display of sculpting talent, an ability more striking when one considers the difference between a sculptor who can correct mistakes by adding more material, and one who cannot. Make a mistake in a medium like wood and the piece gets thrown away. The figure inside that chunk of firewood will be born, or not at all.
Gennaro Prozzo died of lung cancer last May. Quietly prolific, he was an artist who saw beauty and joy in useless and broken bits transformed by the power of his art. He also sculpted with metal and possessed a stunning ability to shape the human form, especially the female nude. But as Cyndy says, he was also an artist who moved from one opportunity to the next, from sawdust to wood to clothespins to olive oil cans, old gloves, clothes hangers, cigar molds, broken toys, and as the auctioneers say, 'items too numerous to mention.'
Nina Prozzo sums it up best:
At the time of his death, Gennaro was preparing for a July/August exhibit at Brattleboro's Gallery in the Woods. That show will still take place. Gallery owners Dante and Suzanne Corsano are presenting Gennaro Prozzo, Sculpture Retrospective from July 7 to August 29. The show will feature more than forty pieces of Gennaro's wood sculptures and assemblages. Images from the show can also be seen at the gallery's website: www.galleryinthewoods.com.
Copyright 2006, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont