2015 EMERGING PRIZE IN VISUAL ARTS
Gianna Commito’s childhood dream of becoming an archeologist was cut short when she realized you weren’t allowed to keep everything you found.
“That was a turnoff for me,” she confesses with a laugh. “Fortunately, I also knew I wanted to be responsible for the generation and dissemination of art objects.”
Born in North Carolina, she grew up in Maine and in Maryland close to Washington, DC. Gianna is the daughter of a professor of math (Mom) and a professor of marine biology (Dad). As such, she always swore as a child that she would never become a college professor. Today, she is an Associate Professor of Painting at Kent State University.
“In college, I saw that my professors all had thriving careers, actively making and showing their work and teaching,” she explains. “That was very inspiring to a 19-year-old girl trying to figure out what I wanted to do.”
The turning point for the burgeoning artist occurred when she enrolled at The New York State School of Art and Design at Alfred University and earned her BFA in painting and ceramics (1998). There, she met other people like herself: passionate about art, competitive and willing to stay up all night to create or discuss art.
“I didn’t think about being an artist in the broader context of a community until I was a college student surrounded by other people thinking the same way,” Gianna relates.
Immediately after graduation, she was hired to be the chef at Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts, a summer residency program in Maine. Cooking for 50 people three times a day in exchange for a studio, room, board and stipend enabled her to enhance her culinary arts skills, along with her painting and ceramics chops. She also started to shift her focus to painting more than ceramics, because she could paint anywhere, without requiring the infrastructure of a ceramics shop.
She and some friends rented a studio together in Boston for two years, but Gianna decided it was time to focus on painting. She completed her MA (2002) and MFA (2003) in painting at the University of Iowa. Ready to be a college professor, she applied to a number of teaching positions, but the lack of offers convinced her that she needed more practical painting experience.
Gianna spent the next seven months completing residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, and The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, an eye-opening experience in total immersion in her art.
“I panicked at the thought of having to paint 12 hours a day,” she reveals. “But if I still wanted to be a painter after those seven months, then I would know that I wanted to be an artist.”
She took another shot at applying for teaching positions. In 2005, she traveled to Kent, Ohio to teach and paint. Her husband, artist Scott Olson, a fellow student at Alfred University, joined her in 2008. The couple has since added two new family members, Soren and Allan.
She quickly befriended artist Craig Lucas (Cleveland Arts Prize, 2008), whom she replaced at KSU, and Bill Busta (Cleveland Arts Prize, 2014), had a solo show at William Busta Gallery and was later part of a group show at MOCA. Other shows include Shaheen Modern and Contemporary, Bellwether CMA, the Weatherspoon Art Museum in North Carolina, Geoffrey Young Gallery in Massachusetts, The Drawing Center, The National Academy Museum, Taxter and Spengemann, and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Wallspace.
Recently, she saw her investment of time and energy in cultivating East Coast networking efforts come to fruition when she became represented by the Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York, which held an exhibition of her work
“Gianna’s assiduous paintings captivate viewers, bewitching them into following lines that end abruptly or run through one another,” says Allison Cooper, gallery manager of Rachel Uffer Gallery. “Her embrace and investigation of material, space, and color has shown itself through a body of work that is inherently connected.”
“I’ve been able to do a lot of different, wonderful things here with my life,” Commito says of her professional, artistic and family life in Northeast Ohio.
“So you have to give credit to where you live and who surrounds you.”