Artist Mary Mazziotti depicts earlier, grimmer versions of children’s stories
Before fairy tales were made magical by the likes of Disney, the stories featured incredible and often-random episodes of death, torture and destruction.
Although the best-known collection was created in the first half of the 19th century by the Brothers Grimm — Jacob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) — horrific elements can be found in children’s stories from just about every nation. Princesses lose their heads, queens are danced to death, animals are mutilated and loving parents turn vicious and deadly.
After a Google search revealed several of the original stories contained in Grimm’s Fairy Tales first published in 1812, Lawrenceville-based artist Mary Mazziotti decided to make the stories she read fodder for her art.
Since 1993, Mazziotti has concentrated on creating contemporary memento mori — which is an embroidered outfit or cloth filled with symbols of mortality — ever since seeing an engraving of a 17th-century death crier wearing one.
Mazziotti’s contemporary memento mori are made in a variety of mediums from paintings and time-based installations to cut-paper silhouettes and embroidered textiles. The purpose of the work, as with original momento mori, is to encourage the viewer to be mindful of death and the frailty of life.
The 12-panel series of memento mori on display at the Borelli-Edwards Galleries in Lawrenceville is made of painted and embroidered canvas panels. And, though they are not wearable art, they no doubt remind one of death, because most of the fairy tales Mazziotti chose to illustrate deal with the subject.
Take for example “God’s Food,” in which a rich sister denies food to her poor sister and her five children. After leaving her sister to her own devices, the rich woman cuts into a loaf of bread and the loaf oozes blood. Taking this as a sign to change her ways, she visits her sister. But it’s too late. All of them die of starvation, and the rich sister is left to grieve.
Mazziotti’s version of “God’s Food” is a truncated depiction of the tale, complete with the poor sister begging, the bloody loaf and six skulls surrounded by a decorative ivy border.
The decorative motifs have been included to give the pieces the look of pages taken from an old-fashioned book of fairy tales. “They’re supposed to look like pages from a children’s storybook,” the artist says.
Many of the remaining fairy tales Mazziotti chose to illustrate will be quite familiar to most, such as “Sleeping Beauty” and “Cinderella.” But they all depict the original versions, which are actually quite gruesome. In “Sleeping Beauty,” the evil stepmother is forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead, and in “Cinderella,” the original stepsisters quite literally mutilate their feet, cutting off toes, to fit into the slippers.
“I was astounded at how brutal they are,” Mazziotti says. “And these are not the worst of them. There are some that I thought, ‘Jeez, I wouldn’t even know how to begin to approach it.’ ”
A series of six smaller embroidered works are included in the exhibit titled “Death Gets Married.” The embroidery is in a style called “red work,” a simple running stitch often used to decorate common domestic items and children’s quilts.
They are a continuation of an earlier series Mazziotti made called “A Day In The Life of Death,” in which the figure of death, embodied as a skeleton, goes about a typical day in which he kills everyone he comes in contact with while doing such mundane tasks as waiting for a bus or visiting his dentist.
In this later series, Mazziotti illustrated Death as he looks for love on the computer, proposes to his bride-to-be, meets her parents and kills the mother, chooses a china pattern and has a Star Wars-themed wedding, followed by a wedding reception complete with the happy couple doing the chicken dance while folks fall dead all around them. “Well, he IS Death,” Mazziotti says with a smirk.
Mazziotti’s comedic take on death makes these works, as well as the much larger fairy-tale pieces, much easier to swallow. And therein lies the point, says the artist, “Death is a fact of life, so why not have a sense of humor about it?”
‘I’m Not Making This Up: The True Fairy Tales’
What: Painted and embroidered panels by Mary Mazziotti, based on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm
When: Through Dec. 17. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays
Where: Borelli-Edwards Galleries, 3583 Butler St., Lawrenceville
Details: 412-687-2606 or website