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Italian America’s Eureka Moment

Italian America’s Eureka Moment

Laura E. Ruberto (October 8, 2010)
Laura E. Ruberto
Romano Gabriel's Wooden Sculpture Garden, Eureka, CA

Finding Romano Gabriel’s Wooden Sculpture Garden along the Italy-California border.


Later this month the Watts Towers Common Ground conference will take place in Los Angeles; it’s only a small part of a larger festival and series of public projects bringing people together, as the organizers explain, “to celebrate the common ground of the Towers, a locus of creativity, of sustained resolve in adversity and of positive public transformation.” Indeed, Sabato (Sam) Rodia’s colorful, mosaic towers have long inspired individuals and nourished communities, sometimes at the most volatile of moments.
The Watts Towers are without a doubt the most visible and well-known Italian American construction this side of the Mississippi. But California is in fact home to a number of site-specific vernacular art environments built by Italian Americans, and while only Rodia can claim to have made his way on the cover of a Beatles album, together they reflect a West Coast Italian American experience.

In the Central Valley, outside of Fresno, Baldassare Forestiere carved out of the ground a sprawling series of living spaces, grottos, and gardens, collectively called the Underground Gardens. In Pope Valley, not far from Napa, in the state’s wine-growing region, Litto Damonte assembled everyday objects into his 62-acre enclosed Hubcap Ranch. Near Stanford University in Palo Alto, John Giudici created Capidro—a cemented garden (now extinct) started in a backyard pond but expanding over a fifty year period. There are even far more modest (and now extinct) site-specific environments throughout the state: e.g., Joseph Formica’s La Casa Formica in El Cerrito and Martin Dioli’s White Cement Artichokes in Menlo Park.

Detail of Silver Madonna at Capidro/Photo © Phil Pasquini
In fact, I had all of these ethnic, creative constructions on my mind as I drove up Highway 101 this past summer to visit another site I knew about but had never had a chance to see in person: Romano Gabriel’s Wooden Sculpture Garden in Eureka, just south of the Oregon border.
The garden was built by Gabriel over the course of three decades and stood until his death on the front lawn of his house. Then, due to the efforts of a number of people, especially Dolores and Ray Vellutini, the pieces were taken apart, restored, and re-constructed in a storefront space especially built to house the Garden.

In fact, Dolores had been working with the California Arts Council and others to keep the structures at the house while Gabriel was still alive. The story of why the structure was moved is complicated: suffice it to say that Gabriel, who had been ill for some time, passed away before anything could be legally finalized. The result was that his house was sold to one family, the art to another, and the Vellutinis—the latter family—were given two weeks to move it.
In that time, according to a phone conversation I had recently with Dolores Vellutini, the structure, which was already in disrepair, was photographed and catalogued and moved temporarily into her four-car garage until a suitable arrangement  for the structures could be found (and the funds needed could be raised).

Romano Gabriel (1887-1977) was from Mura (province of Brescia, in the region of Lombardy) in Northern Italy. He came to the U.S. in 1913, eventually settling in Eureka, where he worked as a gardener. He was drafted into World War I and returned to Italy for some period of time after the war—it seems he returned to Mura to marry, but that his betrothed had since found another mate. 
Most accounts make him out to be a solitary man (it’s not uncommon for folks still today to refer to him as a “recluse” or a “crazy man”). And yet his vibrant garden suggests a person with a keen sense of community.
First, on multiple levels the Wooden Garden was in and of itself a dynamic and living space. Made from scrap wood, mostly salvaged from California produce crates, Gabriel created a colorful Italian-American neighborhood village, a place that, as long as his health allowed, he was adding to or restructuring.

Red, white, and blue dominate the color scheme, and the figures are caricaturized as heavily ethnic, with thick eyebrows and big noses.
Certain faces capture real people that Gabriel knew, especially back in Italy. There are “Italian salami” hanging to dry on one side, and dancers lined up on the other.
Much of it is constructed of bright flowers and abstract fruit trees, perhaps as a response to the coastal fog that surrounds Eureka, making for the dominance of Redwood trees over other vegetation. The Garden also contains more idiosyncratic horticultural details—e.g., upside-down mason jars with plastic flowers on display like a row of specimens in a lab.
In addition to the site itself being a representation of community and a dynamic, changing space, the relationship the site had (and has still) to the people of Eureka further helps explain the community–building nature of Gabriel’s work. Like other examples of vernacular architecture, Gabriel’s work drew people to it. Take, for instance, this telethon produced in 1981 (click here to watch video) that raised over $8,000 to help restore the Garden.

Currently, North Coast Dance, the Humboldt Arts Council, and Eureka Heritage Society are working on producing both a theatrical piece about Gabriel as well as a museum exhibit of his work. These projects point to ways the Wooden Sculpture Garden continues to inspire individuals and sustain communities.
Much more needs to be said about Gabriel and his art, especially in relation to other vernacular environments in the Golden State made by Italian Americans (but also in dialogue with other folk art spaces in the state such as Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village or Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain). Together these structures help mark the relationship individual creative expressions have to work, place, and community. Moreover, in relation to ethnicity, they illustrate how material culture is suggestive of immigrant ways of negotiating everyday life, ways that may have an impact well beyond the visible borders of knowing and being.
(Many thanks to Linda DeLong of the Humbolt County Historical Society, Jemima Harr of the Humboldt Arts Council, Phil Pasquini of San Francisco City College, and Dolores Vellutini.)

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