A Bay Ridge wine bar that also slings oysters is serving up some “Mary on the half-shell.”
On May 20, an ethnologist will devote an evening to talking about Italian-American devotional art — like the statues of the Virgin Mary ensconced in the shell-like yard shrines prevalent in Bensonhurst — at the Owl’s Head wine bar in Bay Ridge. The academic, who recently published a book on the subject, began researching the significance of yard shrines and traditional Neapolitan nativity scenes as a way of legitimizing what outsiders often dismissed as kitsch, he said.
“Nobody was really documenting this stuff,” said Joseph Sciorra, who grew up in Marine Park and Bergen Beach and is now the director of Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute. “When the media wrote about places like Bensonhurst as the new Little Italy back in the ’80s, it was all, ‘Where you can go to get mozzarella or a cannoli’ — nobody was looking at the interesting the ways that people were creating ‘home’ in these spaces.”
After World War II, a wave of Italian immigrants flooded the city, bringing their Catholic faith and their penchant for putting it on display, he said. But art communities and the media largely ignore their meticulously hand-crafted nativity scenes — called presepio — and perfectly aligned brickwork surrounding saint statues as simple folk art, he said.
“This is creativity and artistic expression in ways that are not recognized by galleries and museums,” Sciorra said.
Sciorra began his field work 35 years ago, conducting countless interviews and attending myriad Italian-American cultural festivals citywide. But as southern Brooklyn’s Italian-American population wanes from its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, Sciorra’s work has taken on a new role in preserving that heritage, according to the owner of the bar that will host the academic’s talk.
“What I like about it is that it’s very specific to here and investigates what is becoming a cult phenomenon as the ‘new Brooklyn’ culture moves in,” said the Owl’s Head owner John Avelluto. “I’m very interested in the arts in this part of Brooklyn — how they are being marginalized and also reversing that.”
Most of the art Sciorra examines has roots in the old country, but one truly Italian-American phenomenon gets an entire chapter — Dyker Heights’ Christmas light displays. And Sciorra is prepared to give a full-throated defense of the practice some lampoon as tacky and others gawk at without context.
“I want people to not simply dismiss them as the doings of nouveaux riche,” he said. “They are displaying a sense of pride in having achieved the status of home ownership — a key thing among Italian immigrants. People talk about their Christmas house displays as gifts back to the community, and others have used them as a votive act. It’s the devotional art tradition tied in with the American sensibility of Christmas displays. They are at that cusp where Italian and American are both in full play and being negotiated.”
“Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City” at the Owl’s Head [479 74th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Bay Ridge, (718) 680-2436, www.theow