Gabriella D’italia is an artist, writer and mystic living in Harlem with her young child and partner. Her blog, Female Background covers art, design (with a childlike imagination) and culture. Her apartment is full of her own work, like a gorgeous handprinted closet I can’t stop thinking about! Today, she shares how she chose New York (and continues to do so), how she navigates physical and emotional transitions, and her belief that women are able to create worlds inside of worlds…
What is the story behind you moving into this space?
My now husband, Cameron, has been living in this apartment for 5 years. In the summer of 2016, I went through a series of devastating and blindsiding losses including a traumatic divorce and the death of my Grandmother. I grew up in this area and needed to return home. In a blur, I packed up a truck and moved myself and my four dogs into Cameron’s apartment as if overnight.
How was the transition from an old one-room schoolhouse on 2 acres in rural Maine to a small two-bedroom in Harlem, New York?
Adjusting to life without my garden has been among the most difficult parts. On the other hand, I love the efficiency and intimacy of smaller spaces. I love the walkability of the city and the community that just doesn’t exist in the same way in rural isolation. Through the lens of so much personal upheaval, all of my feelings about space and stuff reveal their underpinning in a complex and messy system of values and expectations. Transitioning is an ongoing, emotional dialogue between the depths of grief and loss and the heights of gratitude and inspiration.
Can you tell us more about the brass fruit bowl and wooden chairs?
The brass bowl was my grandmother’s. I can picture just where it sat in her kitchen. She kept papers in it and her reading glasses. It was kind of like her inbox, and I think there were coupons, too. She would sit at the kitchen table and ask me to hand her the glasses. The table and chairs were really the only significant furniture Cameron had before I moved in, but I’d helped him pick them out years ago. They’re from Restoration Hardware. Earlier this year, the caning in one of the seats broke and Cameron learned how to re-cane a chair on youtube. It was quite a process, but I was duly impressed!
You have a lot of art in your apartment, quilts, illustrations, mobiles, paintings. What inspires you to create?
For me ideas are like clues to pursue. It’s a way of living with mystery. Pursuing these clues feels like making the world safe for my family, for those who connect to my work. I’ve known women capable of creating worlds inside of worlds – in their work and in their homes. They have the music set just right, the light, the food. I am sensitive to the fluctuations of feeling and content created by the environment, to the care and love present or absent. I’m always intrigued by what lies around the next corner, literally and figuratively!
When did you paint the closet doors? What made you do it?
While I was pregnant, I painted the entire apartment. I watched a bunch of Hitchcock movies and was inspired by the interiors to paint the walls and trim the same color. The doors are these inexpensive hollow core doors that were stained a dark, high-gloss brown. One had an old Dora the Explorer sticker on it from a previous occupant. They were glaring and gloomy. In short, there was nothing to lose! I didn’t want to spend money to replace the doors so a few months ago, I painted them. I love pattern and color, at the same time I love minimalism and simplicity. Textiles, walls, and doors are opportunities for layering pattern and color without adding clutter. I also wanted to add images that would form my son’s memory of his childhood, that would inspire his curiosity and create for him a sense of warmth, care, and playfulness.
What’s your most cherished piece in here? And where do you like to go house-ware shopping?
I try to be intentional with the things I own and to stick with the rule that new things don’t come in unless old things go out. I think I simultaneously care a lot about many of my things, but I also have a claustrophobia around too much sentimentality or attachment. I lost so many possessions and artworks when I left Maine and I think this disposition saved me from a lot of heartbreak, but it has also been bolstered by the experience of loss. That said, I have so many things of my grandmother’s. I have artworks by friends, including the painting in my son’s room. Those things mean so much to me. I have boxes of old letters. So much artwork, writing, and personal photography are on my computer and I do cherish that digital content.
There were a couple of antique stores in Maine I used to absolutely love. Since I’ve been in New York, if anything it’s been more about paring down. I like to buy used or handmade when possible. Our dishes are pottery made by Maine artisans and I have a collection of Florentine trays that began with pieces from my mother and grandmother, but expanded with finds from other collectors on Etsy. My son’s crib is from Ikea and I love it.
What’s the story behind the sequined top in your son’s room?
Also my grandmother’s. She’d actually given it to me before she died. No one could ever quite figure out how to style it; it’s trickier than it looks! She had a real penchant for flamboyance. She insisted on being buried in black satin pumps with rhinestone lightning bolts on the heels. The sequin color looks beautiful with green walls and reflects light differently at all times of day. My son loves to look at it and I tell him about her; I imagine it connects him to her spirit.
You said your partner has a studio but you don’t. How did you come to that decision?
And how does it feel to work/create from home? Cameron has always had a studio in the city, he often works large and sculpturally, and I’ve always worked at home. I can metabolize a day better when I work that way, intermittently cooking or walking the dogs. It feels more integrated. We are ready and willing to rearrange the furniture for different projects. For example, sometimes we move our bed to the living room, as if in a studio apartment, and I use our bedroom to work.
Space is valuable as an artist. Space is also valuable as a parent, how have these two parts of your life been since adding your child in the mix?
I knew a glass blower when I lived in Maine and at some point she moved from a tiny studio to a huge one and described how her work was able to change and grow. That has always stuck with me and I think now about how I can focus on writing and creating videos because the constraints of space have changed. I love the intimacy of our little family, how we share the bookshelves and my son plays with pots and pans. He eats with us at the table because there’s no room for a highchair. His toys are our sculpture, our doors are his murals; we all love string lights. We nurture the intersections, because in a smaller area, they abound!
How is your home an extension of your identity and how is helping navigate you on some of those paths in life?
When I left Maine, I kept bemoaning the loss of my identity, but at some point I realized what true liberation I’d been granted, what a spiritual opportunity. Of course, some days I still mourn, but I’m trying not to replace that identity too quickly, or perhaps not at all. Not that we can truly live without identity, but from here, the place where I’m not what I once was, I can reflect and grow. I view my home as the manifestation of abundance. I can make our food and play with my son. We are safe and warm in our beds at night. I make the bed in the morning and know, even that small act is a way of creating peace for my family. I can pause to think of my grandmother when I encounter her things. Perhaps in that way home is more like a verb and less like a noun, more what I do and less what I am.
(Photography by Heather Moore for LaTonya Yvette)