Josephine Tota does not have an image.
(Corato, Italy, 1910 - 1996, Rochester, NY)
Josephine Tota was born in Corato, Italy on August 11, 1910. Corato is in Southern Italy in the province of Puglia. Josephine recalled her childhood in Italy with fondness as it was a time spent outdoors on her grandmother’s farm where she could lie in the grass looking up at the clouds and imagining.... This was a time of peace, tranquility and security.
Josephine and her family came to the United States in 1920.
Parents: Vincent Tota (1878-1956)
Isabelle Tota (1883-1967)
Children: Louisa (1906-1971)
The family's passage to America was like that of so many immigrants. The overcrowded conditions on the boat and being herded through immigration and "fumigated" (stripped and showered with hundreds of other arrivals) likely made for a traumatic experience. Arriving in Rochester brought its own difficulties; language barriers, few family supports, poverty, and a much harsher climate than that of Southern Italy. The family travelled by boat and entered the country through Boston, MA. They moved directly to Rochester because a relative was there and because of the work opportunities offered by the city’s garment industry.
From early on Josephine showed an artistic spirit that set her apart from her siblings. Family stories tell of her as a young girl using the slats from wood crates as surfaces for drawing. She was unusually bright, inquisitive, sensitive, articulate and outspoken – these characteristics sometimes got her in trouble and she became the target of cruelty that affected her self-worth throughout her life. In the 7th grade she was required to leave school to obtain a job to help with the family finances. At 19, Josephine entered into an arranged marriage with her first cousin Frank Tota (hence keeping her same last name). In 1930, she and Frank moved to the Bronx where he had some family and worked with his brothers in a bakery. Josephine struggled with her time in the Bronx. She missed her family, her sisters, and felt isolated as she was not working or going to school; she suffered a series of miscarriages, ultimately falling into a state of depression.
She and her husband moved back to Rochester. Shortly after moving, Josephine gave birth to her only child, Rosamond (b. 1940). Along with her sisters Louisa and Nancy, Josephine worked in the Tailor Shop at the National Clothing Company in downtown Rochester. She found her job of repairing clothes monotonous and exhausting. At nights she would design and make clothing for her family at home until late at night and wake up the next morning to go to work. During her work years, she would use her lunch hours to visit the Rundel Library and take out books on art and art history. Although she found her job at the National Clothing Company unfulfilling, for financial reasons Josephine worked there until her retirement in 1967.
Sensing her mother’s dissatisfaction with work and her need for a creative outlet, in the late 1940s, her daughter Rosamond suggested she take an art class at RIT in downtown Rochester. Josephine began taking these classes while she was still working. Painting became a source of great joy and release for her. At this time, she was painting mainly realistic landscapes and still lifes in oil.
Sometime in the 1960s, Josephine started taking classes with Al Melenbacher at the Creative Workshop of the Memorial Art Gallery. In 1967, she suffered a series of tragedies including the death of her mother and husband, the diagnosis of her sister with cancer, as well as her own diagnosis of uterine cancer. She received radiation treatment that resulted in neuropathic pain that she likened to being stuck with many needles, or being on fire. The storm of personal tragedies led to a severe depression. She ended up being hospitalized and subjected to ECT treatments (shock therapy).
It was in 1967 that Josephine retired from work at the National Clothing Company. She continued to paint and eventually began taking Creative Workshop classes with Fritz Trautmann. Josephine and Fritz formed a friendship, and she would often take him on errands and help him in many ways. After his death in 1971, Josephine continued taking classes at the Creative Workshop in painting and sculpture.
Sometime in the 1980s, Josephine developed a friendship with a local artist, Miriam Sellers Lapham, who introduced her to the medium of tempera. Josephine would tell the story of painting for the first time with tempera and thinking to herself, “I’ve done this before.” She had found her passion and her primary medium for the remainder of her creative life.
Josephine told the story of having her creative breakthrough which coincided with her introduction to tempera as a medium. She was painting a still life of flowers in a vase when she unexpectedly included the abstracted image of a bird’s head in profile in the composition. It was at that moment that she realized that she didn’t have to paint only realistic, representational images, but that she could paint whatever she wanted. Through her painting, she could start to tell her story. This was the first step towards her later more personal, surreal style.
In 1990, she had her first exhibition in the Lucy Burne Gallery of the Creative Workshop of the Memorial Art Gallery. Then director, Larry Merrill, convinced a reluctant Josephine to participate. Despite her shy and introverted personality, the exhibition was a milestone in the life of the artist and the exposure and positive response provided her with a welcome confirmation of her talent. Unfortunately, it was not too long after this exhibit that Josephine began to develop progressive dementia. Around 1995, she moved from her apartment into nursing care at St. John’s Home. While there, her creative impulse continued to assert itself, and Josephine filled a sketchbook with drawings despite her declining state. She died on December 29th, 1996 from complications of vascular dementia.
Josephine Tota had begun her life as an outsider within her own family. Deeply sensitive and intelligent, she was misunderstood for much of her childhood. Her young life as a wife was one of isolation and loss, due in part to her multiple miscarriages and her frustrated desire to obtain more schooling. Her adult life was riddled with tragedy and depression, but she managed to maintain an incredible life force that found an essential outlet in her creative expressions. Josephine could not get enough of consuming and creating art. To Josephine Tota, the ability to create art was a transformative gift that helped her to express and transcend the pain and difficulties of her life.
Jessica Marten, Assistant Curator
December 6, 2010
(Thanks go to the artist's daughter, Rosamond Tota, and niece, Lisa Rosica, for the information provided in this biography.)