Le Roy native's 'Documente' exhibit is more than just paintings

Jul 16, 2012

The painting above is titled "The Clash of Cultures," in it artist Tom MacPherson shows us some of the dynamics of his family history.

It's part of a new exhibit at Genesee Community College's Rosalie "Roz" Steiner Art Gallery called "Documente: The Italian American Family Album," which includes original egg-tempura portraits, old-fashioned furniture, photographs, music and stories. It will be on display through Aug. 27.

"Clash of Cultures" depicts MacPherson's two grandmothers in 1940s Le Roy. Grandma MacPherson (foreground) was a Methodist (the ribbon around her waist reads "Methodist Church of Le Roy") of Scottish ancestry, whereas Grandma O'Geen (Gugino) was Italian and Roman Catholic.

While Grandma MacPherson stands outside, Grandma O'Geen stands secure in the "bastion" of her Catholic household (behind the front door), with Swiss Guards from the Vatican guarding the entrance, St. Peter (the first Pope) standing by her side, and Pope Pius XII (upper left) keeping watch overhead.

Born in Batavia and raised in Le Roy, MacPherson now teaches studio art at SUNY Geneseo. His family history is kind of a microcosm of Le Roy's overall past.

His Scottish forebears came to Le Roy in 1801, before it even became a town.

"They were the ones who set the tone for what the local culture would be all about," MacPherson said. "And then my Sicilian relatives had to blend into that."

From the MacPhersons' immigration from the Scottish Highlands to the O'Geens' (who changed their name from Gugino to more easily fit in with American culture) immigration from Sicily in 1896, "Documente" is a detailed panorama of the artist's roots.

Included are the adventures of intrepid MacPherson aunts, elderly Italian aunts praying their Rosaries, the persecution of Italian immigrants by the Ku Klux Klan in Le Roy, and the experience of fathers and uncles in overseas wars.

Scenes re-creating household decor circa 1940-60 add three-dimensional reality, an intimate visit into the artist's everyday world at that time.

Here in "The Pioneer," MacPherson depicts his bold, adventurous great-aunt Kitty standing on the rocks of her ancestral Scotland.

"No, I'm Not Colonel Sanders" depicts great-uncle Rossolino Barone. Like all of MacPherson's portraits, this is based on a family photograph -- in this case, of uncle "Ross" at a family wedding in the 1970s.

In the background is the drug store that he owned in the Rochester suburbs, and overhead are angels borrowed from Fillipino Lippi's "Madonna with Child and Saints."

MacPherson incorporates images from Italian Renaissance art into his portraits in order, in his words, to "infuse my relatives with their heritage."

"I wanted my Italian relatives to be able to relate to their heritage," he said. "And I wanted (the Renaissance elements) to say something about their personalities."

In the case of uncle Ross, the angels are showering roses on him for the kindness he showed other people.

Great-aunt Catherine MacPherson is the subject of "The Conversion of Great-Aunt Catherine." Catherine was an Army nurse during World War I, and she converted to Catholicism in France after seeing the bravery of the priests and nuns who took care of the wounded and dying.

She is set against the background of her ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands, and the overhead image represents her conversion (when she "saw the light").

The subject of "The Walking Dead" is MacPherson's father, Neil Lewis MacPherson. According to the written description next to the portrait, Neil came back home a "changed man" as a result of his experiences in World War II. MacPherson chose to illustrate this by appropriating the figure of death (right) from German artist Hans Baldung Grien's "The Three Ages of Death."

Here are a few other "Documente" displays:

A series of photographs in honor of MacPherson's cousin, Frank O'Geen.

"La Vita Mia"

"What Ya Gonna Do?" (a portrait of an aunt surrounded by religious icons)

"The Adventures of Great-Uncle Pete" (To view a video explaining this one, click here.)

Having explored the history of the two sides of his family in this exhibit, MacPherson is now working on a book on the subject. He hopes to have it published within the next few years.

Roz Steiner gallery is located at 1 College Road in Batavia and is open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. Admission is free. Gallery Director Shirley Tokash Verrico always welcomes group tours (though children's groups may not be appropriate, as some of the images are more suited to adult audiences).

For more information, email Verrico at stverrico@genesee.edu or call 343-0055, ext. 6490.