Italian Studies PhD Student Lauren Bartone Discusses Research, Residencies, and Archival Work

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March 4, 2024

Lauren Bartone is a PhD student in Italian Studies with a designated emphasis in folklore. Her background as a visual artist strongly informs her approach to studying Italian culture. Before joining the Department of Italian Studies at Berkeley, she completed a B.A. in Fine Art at UCLA, followed by an M.A. in Education at UC Berkeley, and an M.F.A. at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Previous work in collaborative map making, community dialogue, and participatory art forms led to her projectA City in Maps, completed as the artist in residence at the de Young Museum of Art in San Francisco, and lead to other collaborative projects includingParadise, A Map for the Centennial of the Panama Pacific International Exposition,andSF New City Atlas, a series of creative maps for the San Francisco Arts Commission. Her current research examines how culturally based identity and belief systems change in form and function across national contexts. Her academic interests primarily focus on belief systems about luck, migration, and the visual and material culture of Sicily and the southern Italian diaspora.

To start us out, would you be able to tell us more about how you chose to pursue a graduate degree in Italian studies, and a little bit about the research you're doing?

I had a whole other career before I came here, as a visual artist. My background is in visual arts. It actually started a long time ago, with painting classes in Florence. After high school, I spent two years in a small art school—averytraditional art school—and had a deep love of art history, and the craft of painting through art history, and Italian culture through that. I did a bunch of different things, and I worked with all kinds of art later on, came back to the United States and all of that, but my interest in Italian culture never went away. One of the ways that I thought, over the years, about making art is as a researcher: really doinga lotof research into the subjects that I was making art about.Eventuallyat a certain point I felt like that better aligned with the kind of research that a PhD student would be doing. It was quite a stretch, but I wanted to continue using archival research alongside material space research—studiowork, as an artist—together, to look at some of the things about Italian culture that I’m interested in.

Would you be able to talk a bit about that experience in Florence? How has your background in the visual arts affected your scholarship?

I am Italian-American, and my family actually came from the South of Italy, like many Italian-Americans—nothing to do with Florence at all. But I think when I was 17 in high school, when you think of studying art, and you think of art history, you often think of the Renaissance. And so, withoutthinking through toomuch, I just went straight there, where I could be close to the paintings I wanted to learn from. That was a really wonderful experience—really nontraditional. I was young; I graduated high school early, and I was there alone, and I made a lot of wonderful friends. I had an incredible experience. But I remember very much missing the idea of a university environment, and having access to a large university with extensive libraries, or really deep elective choices. I couldn’t take a geography or an anthropology class in the arts school I was studying at. So, I eventually came back, thinking I would just come back for a summer to take some classes here and think about what it would mean to transfer to a university, and I stayed, and transferred to UCLA as an undergrad. But I always felt some regret at that. I’ve felt torn between both places ever since.

In terms of the arts, I wound up making art as a contemporary artist here in the Bay Area, and thinking a lot about the evolution of our shared space. I did projects thinking about Golden Gate Park, and public spaces like Market street, or even the public spaces in my own neighborhood, where I live in San Rafael  I often used some very traditional techniques that I had learned as a painting student in Florence, but also non-traditional materials like trash. I do a lot of public interactive projects: community dialogue, things like that.How thatplays innow? Sometimes what I end up doing is very different, and doesn’t always feel connected at first, and then there’s always a through-line. I’m still thinking very much about the evolution of shares spaces in Italian Studies, but I’m thinking more about things like the development of nationhood in the early-modern era, or the colonial period in Italy, and I’m thinking about the space of the Mediterranean as a shared space that poses a lot of challenges around our identities as something national, or citizenship and overlapping areas of culture. My work this last summer: I got an artist residency at the Botanical Gardens in Palermo, and that’s a place I wanted to do a lot of archival research as a PhD student, because they have an interesting position of using nature in ideas about agriculture and nature, and was related to of expanding Italian citizenship. My proposal was to have a studio space there, and make art in the gardens. At the same time, I was able to go in and do research in their archives. It would be like, half of the time digging through books, and the other half of the time actually being in gardens, and drawing or painting from the remains of their colonial garden . That back and forth between studio and archive something I’m hoping to continue as a graduate student.  

As a graduate student, have you found it difficult to balance your work commitments with your personal life? How do you best manage this?

Oh yes, always. It’s always hard to manage. That said, being someone who has had other careers, and done other things, those are hard, too. It’s never easy in adult life to manage pursuing the things you care about along with the practical realities of life. One thing that I try to remember when I get overwhelmed is that nothing lasts forever, and this is actually a really short period in our lives that we get to be here, studying things in this way. And so, just making room for that as much as I can, now while I have a chance.

I was especially interested in your emphasis on folklore. I think because of my background in literature, I usually think of ‘folklore’ as being written or orally-told stories, but I was thinking about the ways folklore might also overlap with your studies in the visual arts. Can you tell me more about the different ‘forms’ of storytelling you study, and the ways that they overlap, or depart from each other, in your academic work?

So, of course, folklore includes things like oral storytelling, but I got interested in folklore more through a material cultures perspective. I was really interested in how ideas about folklore were used in the way people express cultural identities in more contemporary settings. How do people use what they think is a folkloric tradition in the expression of their identity online? Particularly with Italian-Americans, Things that become a tradition because people use them over and over again in order to code something: traditions around foodfor example; I’m really interested looking at domestic labor, so things that happen in the home, like foods, cleaning, or cooking, or the production of household items, like tools. The other thing I’m hoping to be able to study more of as a dual-emphasis folklore student is how certain practices around culture help us understand things about the economic and cultural belief systems of people at a given time and place. Thinking about migration, and economic instability: how do people carry these beliefs with them, and how do they express them later in generational patterns? These things come up as sayings, jokes, coded ritual celebrations around the holidays, things like that. I even think—not everyone would agree with me—but I think that a lot of social media expression is folklore.

"The Italian Studies Department in particular is incredibly supportive, and I love the community we have here. It could be very different—I’m acutely aware of how things go in other competitive environments—but I have generally not found that to be true here. I feel like I’ve found my spot."

I saw that one focus you have is ‘community dialogue.’ Though I definitely have found a sense of community at Berkeley, and especially in the Arts and Humanities departments, I think academia can generally have a reputation for being more isolated. How have you been able to keep a sense of community within your academic life?

One of the things that I learned as an artist working with community dialogue is that if there’s no disagreement at all in a conversation, it’s not really a conversation. You always have to have room for antagonism in any kind of public or shared conversation or space. If everybody is always in agreement all the time, there’s actually something wrong with that. That gave me a different attitude around conflict, andmakingroom for comfortable expression of conflict. I think that ties a lot to academia right now. I feel really lucky though; I’ve always felt comfortable in a classroom environment. I mean, not always, of course—I can think of times when I haven’t. But, I’ve always felt like the opportunities for growth that happen in the classroom outweigh the things that tend to exclude us. The Italian Studies Department in particular is incredibly supportive, and I love the community we have here. It could be very different—I’m acutely aware of how things go in other competitive environments—but I have generally not found that to be true here. I feel like I’ve found my spot.

What book would you recommend to everyone reading this interview?

Oh, that question! It was very hard to choose, so I thought about that question for a while. Right now, I’m really enjoying teaching Calvino’sBaron in the Trees. Calvino is a wonderful author, but this book  expresses all of the things I’m interested in as an artist. It’s this fantasy about a baron, who chooses to live the rest of his life in the trees in Northern Italy, instead of the ground. It’s set during the Enlightenment period, so it brings up all these complicated ideas humans have about the separation between man and nature, and as an artist, the symbol of the tree has been something I’ve been really interested in. I’m enjoying reading that; I’d recommend it.