( A Biography)

Joseph Ascrizzi grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, New York, where one strike was out in stick ball and when a slice of pizza sold for 15 cents. His father and mother, Ferdinando and Frances Ascrizzi were both immigrants from Santa Euphemia de Aspramonte, a tiny mountainous town in Calabria, southern Italy. In Brooklyn, his father owned and operated Aspramonte Macaroni Manufacturing Co. The oldest of four children, Ascrizzi’s first language was a now-defunct southern Italian dialect.

One of his maternal uncles, Fred Messina, was trained as an artist, an early influence in his childhood.

His family moved to Deer Park, Long Island, N.Y., and he was an art student at Babylon High School.

He earned a full scholarship to the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Later, he transferred to Hofstra University in Hempstead, Long Island, N.Y. He took a leave of absence from Hofstra to live a year in Italy. He visited with his relatives in Calabria and met a great uncle who was a master woodworker. He watched with fascination as his relative, working in a primitive wood shop, turned olive wood to create a banister for a monastery.

Another catalyst was his friendship with an artisan in Rome, who specialized in restoring fine frames and other antiques. He studied with him and began to learn the fine art of gold leafing and use of medieval techniques and materials, such as gesso, rabbit’s skin glue, clay surfaces, ox gall and gamboge.

Later, he incorporated these age-old materials into his original works.

Upon returning to New York, he went back to Hofstra, where he met his future wife, Lynn, an art education major. They moved from Long Island to Connecticut. There, he managed a custom-framing shop and fine art gallery in Woodbury.

Working at Walters Gallery, he found himself at a surprising cultural hub. He met high-end antiques dealers and gallery art patrons, such as author and playwright Arthur Miller.

But by far, his most important influence was art connoisseur and collector Julien Levy (1906-1981), who at the time Ascrizzi had met him, lived in Bridgewater, Connecticut with his wife, Jean Farley Levy. Levy soon struck up an acquaintance with Ascrizzi and spoke of his former New York gallery, and the artists he had introduced. Levy brought in fine art for framing, objects and drawings that Ascrizzi had expected to see only in museums.

From the early Thirties until 1949, Levy was the owner of the legendary Levy Gallery in New York City. There, Levy introduced works by Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti, Arshille Gorky, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Cornell and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among many others.

Levy was also a major force behind the acceptance of still photography as an art form. He organized the first Surrealist art show in the United States and created the film society that produced the nucleus of what is now the Museum of Modern Art’s film collection. Levy’s gallery was Manhattan’s equivalent of a Paris cafe. Artists, intellectuals and society people all went there to exchange ideas.

It was not long before Ascrizzi became Levy’s protege. It began with the following incident:

Levy offered Ascrizzi and his wife the use of his writing studio for living quarters, while Levy and his wife spent six months in southern France.

During that time, Ascrizzi exhibited his art work at Walter’s Gallery, fathered a son and ran up a monumental electric bill, the one expense he was obligated to pay. Ascrizzi vividly recalled Levy’s raised bushy eyebrows and the tone of his gravelly voice upon his return from France, when faced with a shut-off notice on the writing studio, from Connecticut Light and Power. Levy paid the bill.

"I had no money at the time, and I wanted to do something to show my good will. So I made a small, inlaid wooden box, ‘Touchstone,’ and gave it to him. He was very taken with it. He said it was ‘real.’ Months later, he asked me to make three more, larger boxes to hold manuscripts he had written, because he never thought they’d be published, and he didn’t want them to disappear," Ascrizzi said.

He felt a need to read Levy’s work before proceeding with this commission. Soon, he was poring over the proof copy of "Memoirs of an Art Gallery," later published by The MIT Press (1998). Together, with long conversations with Jean Levy, Ascrizzi began to piece together the story of this pioneering New York art dealer who championed Surrealism.

After Ascrizzi made the three box sculptures, Levy was so pleased, he asked him to make 12 more sculptures. He promised to buy five, which he did. Altogether, 19 box sculptures were later shown at the New York Cultural Center in New York City. Julien and Jean Levy flew in from France to attend the opening.

The show was reviewed by John Russell, art critic for The New York Times. Russell wrote:

"Boxes that open, layer upon mysterious layer, and can sometimes be seen through. Elaborately crafted, made up in every case of an accumulation of peculiar and unexpected materials, they are almost too private to go on show. But patience and sharp eyesight will find their rewards."

What attracted Levy to Ascrizzi’s hand-carved wooden boxes, inlaid with stone, shells, glass and intricate segments of metal and wood, was their masterful craftsmanship and its parallel to the work of Joseph Cornell, whom Levy had discovered in 1931. But unlike Cornell, who came to Levy with small collages and was advised by the art dealer to work three-dimensionally, Ascrizzi had already found his forte.

"Cornell’s boxes are whimsical; yours are more serious," Levy told Ascrizzi, who was not familiar with Cornell’s work at that time.

Later, Levy wrote the following tribute to Ascrizzi’s work:

"JOE ASCRIZZI is an artist who has had to discover himself, crossing  time barriers to gather the skills of his artisan ancestors work; from his uncle who was a painter that studied the academic school; and from a relative in Southern Italy who was a master woodworker. Along the way, he mastered the increasingly rare techniques of gold-leafing, creative framing, furniture-as-an-art, wood carving and even house building.

"First and last, he has stayed true to his instinctive love of wood, of stone, of shell, of the sounds and patterns and mystery of woods and streams and fields, even of debris and the magic of these things. He has primitive man’s reverence for nature. This combines with his years at Hofstra University and the School of Visual Arts to which he was given a full scholarship; to achieve a curious combination of the medieval and the modern man. He is that new kind of artist who lives his art — the creative craftsman, and uses his many skills to express his deepest beliefs in man, in nature and their mysterious relationships."

In 1975, Ascrizzi moved with his wife and young son, Max, to Freedom, Maine. He wanted to be close to raw materials and live in a place that was rural, mountainous, even primitive. "Maine was about as close as I could get to southern Italy," he said.

In Freedom, he built a house on six acres of woods, a sheltered niche surrounded by perennial and vegetable gardens and trees, where he currently creates his sculptures and other objects d’art.

In later years, he expanded his box sculptures to include functional forms, as in pieces commissioned by Robert Jackman of New York City, which include a masterfully executed, large secretary with carved, tamboured doors, as featured in Fine Woodworking magazine.

Besides the one-man show of box sculptures at the New York Cultural Center, Ascrizzi has shown in numerous other galleries in New York, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire and Maine, including Betty Parsons in New York City and the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine.

Nationally known artist Leonard Craig, former art director of Unity College in Unity Maine, said of Ascrizzi’s art:

"Ascrizzi’s work is related to (American artist) Joseph Cornell. Cornell’s work is satirical, while Ascrizzi’s work tend to include the magical quality of tribal fetish objects. The technical quality is simply incredible. He has the talent necessary to be an internationally recognized artist."

Currently, Ascrizzi owns and operates his workshop/ studio in Freedom, Maine, where he does commissioned sculptures, carvings, paintings, jewelry, furniture as an art, fine restoration for museums and private collectors, museum exhibitions and special projects in visual communication. He also gives hands-on art workshops at his studio/workshop and at Waterfall Arts located in Montville, Belfast and Liberty, Maine.