Italo Scanga was born in the Calabria region of Italy in 1932. In 1943, his family arranged to leave for the United States but they were forced to stay in Italy due to the American troop invasion during World War II. After the war, his family emigrated to Pennsylvania and in 1950, Scanga moved to Michigan where he studied at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit. From 1953 until 1955, he served in the US Army and was stationed in Austria in an armored tank division. He married Mary Louise Ashley, a librarian, and over the following years they had five children. Scanga attended Michigan State University and received both a BA and MFA degree in sculpture. Scanga taught at the University of Wisconsin, Brown University, Tyler School of Art, and Rhode Island School of Design-where he met lifelong friend and collaborator, Dale Chihuly. In 1978, Scanga permanently moved to La Jolla to teach at the University of California, San Diego.
Italo Scanga worked in various media, including glass, ceramics, painting, and printmaking, and he often used found objects like seashells, figurines, and trinkets in his work. His Italian heritage influenced much of his work; he incorporated items that were reminiscent of peasant life like photographs, wooden bowls, and farm tools. “I’m a sponge,” said Scanga in San Francisco Focus magazine. “I take things from everywhere: the sun, the ocean, art.” His work is often classified as neo-Dadaist, neo-Expressionist, or neo-Cubist; he painted in rich layers of color onto free-standing assemblages. Scanga was fascinated by mythology, religion, and politics and his sculptures are a visual language with themes of the ego, fear, icons, and rituals. “I always work with positive and negative, rationality and irrationality, day and night, very basic things,” he said.
In 1983, Scanga’s work was included in the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art. That year, he married his second wife Stephanie Smedley, an artist. He constructed his first public commission with the help of his son in 1984 in Mammola, Italy and they continued creating public commissions throughout the following years. His first retrospective, “Italo Scanga: Recent Sculpture and Drawings” was in 1986 at the Oakland Museum, Oakland, California. After eight years and a second divorce, Scanga met Su-Mei Yu, a chef, who became his companion until the end of his life.
Italo Scanga died of heart failure in 2001 at the age of 69. Before his death, he finished a major work commissioned by the San Diego International Airport titled Continents. His work is in the permanent collections at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Yale University, New Haven, CT; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Select solo
exhibitions were held at Baylor Art Gallery, Baylor University, Waco, TX (1969); The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY (1972); and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA (1983). A foundation was set up in Italo Scanga’s name after his death to function as a nonprofit foundation for the preservation of his artwork and to help fund a Visual Arts Scholarship at the University of California, San Diego.