Tony Mazzega is as a chiselled gem in the crown of achievements fashioned by post-war Italo-Canadians. His repertoire amazes: 101 carved pieces, mostly items of clothing, whittled from BC and Alaskan red and yellow cedar. His creations, so precise, so natural and authentic-looking that they are often mistaken for the real thing. La Valigia is an example of his unique gift.
The suitcase is normally found in the library at Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre. This treasured acquisition was made possible by Gemma Scotton and other patrons of the Club Femminile Italiano. Presently, however, it is being showcased at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. It shares a position of tribute with other artifacts, heirlooms and articles of association that complement the story of Italians who formed part of the post-World War II wave of immigration to this country. The exhibit’s dramatic and poignant ambience is to be worn proudly on the sleeve of every Canadian of Italian origin. It’s that good!
Mazzega began his carving career rather surreptitiously during primary school. “You know the white crayons? They are wide and very good for carving. I was sculpturing in class with a needle. The teacher, she never knew. I never told my mother because I was doing this in class and wasn’t supposed to do it. I was only seven or eight; maybe six when I started to try. I never told nobody,” he reflected.
Mazzega is very proud of his valigia, but is quick to point to his favourite piece: Romans in Battle. The two-metre scene of Roman charioteers in attack formation fashions an imagery of culture, history and artistry. Astride the brick-encased fireplace mantel in the family living room, it reflects the passion and inner soul of this artist originally from Padova. A visionary, Mazzega has drawn on his knowledge of history and cultural experience in crafting this classic wooden mural.
But there is a lighter side to this heavyweight wood carver who resides in Burnaby, BC, where he is known primarily for the display of thousands of lights that festoon his house and property at Christmas. With a recipe of fresh humour and a dash of the colloquial turn-of-phrase voiced in Italian and Latin, this retired bakery specialist tells of his antics. In a gesture of romantic eloquence, he proposed to his wife Nadia in Venice, the cradle of Italian cultural brilliance. With entrepreneurial spirit and no money, Mazzega persuaded a restaurateur, located near the Rialto Bridge, to agree to prepare the wedding reception in exchange for a virtual unending supply of cakes. Mazzega, of course, created his own astonishing two-metre high wedding cake. At the appropriate moment, he invited his wife to join him in cutting the cake. Slicing open the towering epicurean delight, Nadia immediately drew back in amazement as several doves fluttered skyward, to the enjoyment of the guests.
Unlike his ageless creations, Mazzega’s three score and eighteen years affect his ability to travel with ease. Fortunately, he remains bright and articulate and possesses a youthful twinkle in his eye that seems, on occasion, to flash an exclamation mark at the end of every important utterance.
Notwithstanding, he is unable to travel from the comfort of his home to take a deserving bow at the exhibit site. Instead, Mazzega extends a warm but simple message to those who would marvel at his valigia, today and in the months ahead.
“I would like to be there to see the public but I am in a situation that is not good. My legs are very bad. La valigia and all of the items of clothing that I have carved were modelled from my own things. In the suitcase I put a map of Alberta, a passport and an opuscolo about ice cream. I thought that maybe the owner had something to do with the ice cream business and needed the brochure. I also put gloves, a shirt, a pair of pants and a belt at the bottom – all carved from wood.
They are the things that Italians brought with them to Canada, like me.” I am very proud of my work, but please don’t refer to my carvings as being anything special. You too can do what I have done, simply by trying. If you don’t do it the first time, try, try and try. You can do it if you try,” stated Mazzega with conviction.
Raymond J. Culos is the author of Vancouver’s Society of Italians, Volumes One & Two, and an active member of Vancouver’s Italian Canadian community.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 3.