The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota

July 15–September 9, 2018

Josephine Tota (1910–1996) was a seamstress and amateur artist who lived a conventional life among the Italian immigrant community in Rochester, New York. In her seventies, she spent countless hours painting in the privacy of her home, where she imbued over 90 small jewel-like paintings with the richness of her strange imagination. Themes of metamorphosis, family bonds, physical pain, human frailty, the natural world, loss, and tragedy dominate Tota’s obsessive and otherworldly depictions. Despite her relative isolation in producing this body of work, Tota was profoundly influenced by years of amateur art classes at MAG’s community art school, the Creative Workshop, and her personal interest in medieval and modern art.

It is this powerful body of work—dozens of intense paintings in egg tempera and gilding on board, completed at the end of her life—that The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota explores and advocates for inclusion into the canon of self-taught, visionary art. “Unusual paintings like these,” writes Curator in Charge/Curator of American Art Jessica Marten, “near death-defying expressions of a little-known artist’s interior world, with incisive inquiries into womanhood, age, and power, rarely find their way inside an art museum’s walls.” Surreal Visions explores the “audacious and radical voice” of a singular artist almost lost to history and challenges our commonly held assumptions about female artists working outside the mainstream.

The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota features over 90 paintings created by Josephine Tota; 14 from the collection of the Memorial Art Gallery, many never-before-seen paintings on loan from family and friends, and a small selection of ceramics and textiles. After it premieres at the Memorial Art Gallery, additional venues will be arranged by International Arts & Artists.

With this exhibition and its accompanying catalog published by RIT Press, Memorial Art Gallery forges new territory in the introduction and exploration of a little-known and unconventional artist of significant talent.


Sponsored by Todd and Stephanie Green, Paul Marc and Pamela Miller Ness, Rosamund Tota, the Gallery Council of the Memorial Art Gallery, the Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Fund, and the June Alexander Memorial Fund.  Additional support is provided by the James and Jacqueline Adams Fund, the Nancy E. Hyman Charitable Fund, Marguerite and James Quinn, Jane Labrum, Lisa Rosica, and The Century Club of Rochester.

Image credit: Josephine Tota, Untitled, 1984, egg tempera on panel, Collection of Rosamond Tota, daughter. Photograph by Andy Olenick, Fotowerks, Ltd.

Additional links:
International Arts & Artists
RIT Press