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Memorial Art Gallery exhibit: The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota

Josephine Tota at home, surrounded by her paintings, dressmaker's mannequin, and ceramics, c. 1990
Credit photo by Larry Merrill
Josephine Tota at home, surrounded by her paintings, dressmaker's mannequin, and ceramics, c. 1990

Eight years ago, Jessica Marten – Curator in Charge/Curator of American Art at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery – was poking around among the paintings in a museum storage space when a small piece caught her eye.

It was many things. The artist’s medium, egg tempera and gold leaf, suggested medieval paintings, and the illuminated manuscripts of monks. The extensive use of borders is what might be seen on a tapestry. And the central figure looked like an image from Frida Kahlo: A woman in pain, clutching her head. Her eyes are bleeding.

Marten investigated. The work was by an unknown artist, Josephine Tota. Marten kept digging, uncovering a vast catalog of hidden, extraordinary work, most of it in the hands of Tota’s daughter, Rosamond Tota. And Marten also uncovered an amazing life, now on display at the MAG in an exhibit called The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota.

Ninety-three paintings, plus a few sculptures and one paint-enhanced dressmaker’s form. Tota was an Italian immigrant who came to Rochester in 1921 and worked as a seamstress for much of her adult life. She also took art classes at the MAG, but Tota didn’t discover her true artistic voice until she was in her 70s, as she evolved from harmless landscapes to surrealistic, harrowing images. It was her discovery of the ancient processes of egg tempera and gold leaf that triggered the transformation. As her great niece, Lisa Rosica of Brighton notes, Tota once hinted at a little reincarnation at work here: “She told me, ‘I’ve done this before.’” 

Tota was startlingly prolific. This Grandma Moses of Fantasy created unearthly paintings depicting decapitated heads. Humans that look like plants and plants that look like humans, “the interconnectedness between people and plants,” Marten says. Elastic arms disappear into the swirling background designs. Telephone receivers dangle from their cords. A woman sheds black tears. Another woman hangs from a cross as tiny fairies dance in rings at her feet. What are the strange black fingers emerging from the floor by the bed of a sleeping woman who appears to be dreaming of more floating heads? Sometimes the panels themselves are random, irregular shapes.

The influences are Salvador Dali, in the great, seemingly non-sequitur detail to be found in the paintings. The fantasy imaginings of Lewis Carroll. And Kahlo, whose own work reflects the pain in her life, both physical and emotional. Tota had cataracts and flat feet. And in one year alone, 1967, her husband and mother died, and Tota and her sister were both diagnosed with cancer. The radiation treatments for Tota’s cancer are reflected in one of only two of the 93 paintings that aren’t labeled “Untitled.” And Tota herself didn’t name it: “Radiation” shows Tota, surrounded by burning sticks, including sticks that spell out “Radiation.”

It is a startling exhibit, art once forgotten. A Rochester artist who worked in the seclusion of her home, translating her unique visions through art. As Marten says, “She’s someone who needs to be on the map.”

The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota is at the Memorial Art Gallery, 500 University Ave., through Sept. 9. Marten will present a talk, Behind the Scenes With the Curator: The Story and Art of Josephine Tota at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at Rochester Brainery, 176 Anderson Ave.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.