“Clash of Cultures” juxtaposes Scottish, Italian heritage

The richness and importance of both family history and cultural identity are celebrated in professor of studio art Thomas MacPherson’s “Clash of Cultures” exhibit, which opened Wednesday March 5 in the Kinetic Gallery. MacPherson started exhibiting artwork as a first-year graduate student at SUNY Oswego in 1969 and has been teaching at Geneseo for 29 years. He said that professor of art history Lynette Bosch played a key role in helping him come up with the idea to create a series focusing on his Scottish-Sicilian family.

In 2005, Bosch and MacPherson went to New York City to study the utilization of egg tempera as a medium. It is a medium associated with the Italian Renaissance, tying in perfectly with MacPherson’s Sicilian background.

“On the way back, [Bosch] and I were talking and brainstorming, and it was like, ‘What am I going to do with this?’” MacPherson said. “We started talking about doing a ‘Saints and Demons’ series, but all of a sudden it turned into, ‘Well, I have enough saints and demons in my own family.’”

Bosch suggested that he use the medium to give portraits a distinct Italian look, creating an intriguing concept by using “a contemporary image but incorporating the history and culture in it as well,” he said.

MacPherson began working on the egg tempera series in 2006. After doing a portrait of his Aunt Kitty, a Scottish woman, he was struck with the idea of starting to use oil instead of egg tempera for his Scottish relatives because oil is associated with the British Isles. The exhibit is split into two parts: the egg temperas depicting his Sicilian relatives and the oil paintings depicting his Scottish relatives.

The exhibit features 17 portraits of members of MacPherson’s family, filled with vivid layers of color, detail and symbolism.

MacPherson’s utilization of symbols is captivating and poignant. Elements such as seraphim angels in “La Dolce Vita?” to represent MacPherson’s grandmother’s surviving children (she lost two in childbirth) or a rose garden in “The Mixed Marriage” to depict his mother’s optimism about marrying his father add emotional depth to the subjects and to the pieces themselves.

“I think, a lot of times, people overlook their own family because they don’t think it’s that big of a deal,” MacPherson said. “Hopefully, people look at their own people and go far back enough and see how they were outcasts when they came over, to kind of get an understanding and a sympathy for the immigrant – whether they’re Asian, Hispanic, whatever.”

The exhibit will be on display in the Kinetic Gallery until April 3.