A woman with long gray hair and wire-rim glasses wearing a solid black shirt and a contemplative expression against a bright pink curtain.
A portrait of Anna Cerniglia by the artist Marzena Abrahamik. Courtesy of Anna Cerniglia.

“I think I’m going to take Moose for a walk. So she might be a jerk. She has a bad attitude,” Anna says. Moose is her Bulldog, I’ve never met her but have seen videos of her dancing and jumping around trying to bite the stream of water from a hose. She is a frequent feature on Anna’s Instagram, her “kid.”

“Are you in Montana?” I ask. She had scheduled our call in Mountain time which I figured to be a result of her going with her boyfriend to visit his family of knife makers and hunters. She told me once how Sean’s dad had given her a fox scarf and how it was kind of scary yet beautiful.

“I was going to be, I was supposed to be in Montana. Sean left yesterday. Um, and I stayed back. My work is a little too crazy, so I just feel bad, but I was pretty tired last night. Hopefully, I’ll go there in two weeks. Yeah. I would like to go get a vacation.”

She texted a few weeks ago that she had gotten her first dose of the Covid vaccine and my family congratulated her. “Thx! Wild times. Next to bags of chips in Walgreens,” was her response. Today, we spoke a bit about side effects, and she said that hers had put her in a slump for a couple of weeks. I think part of this slump could be attributed to the vaccine, but I also think she has been working overtime, something she has always done. This possible vacation she talks about is deserved.

Anna was a nanny to my sister and me for about seven years, and I remember how she was always working on more than one thing. Always working on more than one thing yet never lowering her standards, she bargained her own time and energy to make things work.

She is “turning forty this year,” she says, which takes me aback because in my memory she doesn’t age, and I haven’t seen her in a few years now. Her hair began turning gray when she was in her twenties, and at some point, she decided to just grow it out. Now her hair is about halfway silver and she still keeps it fairly long, past her shoulders. She’s always worn glasses and she has several tattoos. I used to love asking her about them. My favorites were the Pegasus on her calf and cartoon rabbit in a blue mask and cape on her forearm. She was the reason I said I wanted to be a tattoo artist when my first-grade teacher asked our class what we wanted to be when we grew up.

She was born outside of Chicago and now lives in the city. Her parents were Italian immigrants. “I didn’t grow up speaking English,” she says, “but I did learn English in preschool. I lived in a kind of a different household than a typical American family.” Once when we went to her apartment, her fridge was stuffed to the brim with Starbucks cups filled with her family’s homemade tomato sauce. She would often tell tales of her aging dad, Salvatore, or her older brother. One had something to do with someone putting her in a sack of flour in the kitchen of a restaurant.

“We definitely grew up pretty different. My mom did pass away when I was a kid. So that was pretty. . . it’s pretty wild.” To downplay is very like her. “I came from a very, Italian conservative family. Me having tattoos, Meg, is scary to my family. They still look over it and they pray. I watch their lips moving. . . my family was so different. We ate different food. We lived our lives differently. You know what I mean? I was in every Christopher Columbus parade, carrying an eighteen-pound rosary.”

The conservative aspect of her family I didn’t realize until now; probably because I only knew Anna as an individual, I had very little insight into the reality of her family outside of what she told me when I was young. It was surprising because, as she says, she is quite different from her family. I have always known her to be open to anything, and I am beginning to see this difference as a testament to her independence.

“I did start working pretty early, but I was always really interested in the arts. My dad worked for a paper factory and that was when I was seven or ten years old. And he would always bring home paper, and that’s when I kind of discovered my weird obsession with paper and drawing and the arts. And then, so that was kind of, really kind of funny and crazy. And then I got a camera, I found a camera. I don’t know where, it was like in a box. And that was my other realization. I really loved photography. I just loved the idea of taking photos and making things.”

While she watched me we often did crafts and art projects. She was my first introduction to the possibilities of careers in the arts and the possibilities of art in general. She was encouraging of whatever projects my younger self was interested in exploring in a way that my parents weren’t. I know I wouldn’t be as invested in art and pursuing it in college if she wouldn’t have been there for all those years. I’m not sure the extent to which she understands this, and I’ve never really told her.

Until interviewing her for this piece, I hadn’t known the story of how Anna’s life had played out; how she had ended up working in the arts and how she had ended up becoming the Anna that I knew. I always saw her as having things figured out; very rarely did I recognize moments of weakness or vulnerability in her or the fact that she was still so young. She was Anna and she lived downtown and she had a gallery. My parents worked in offices. When I looked at her, I saw someone grown-up, someone who had done everything right, who proved that there were other ways, other probable ways to live. As I’ve gotten older I have begun to see that her life didn’t just work out, there was so much in her other world that for a long time I failed to consider.

“Then I went to high school and I took four years of photography there, but then after high school, I didn’t want to go to art school. I was actually a dental assistant; it was really weird. I just, out of nowhere, I decided to completely change what I wanted to do. And then, um, I went to community college and just took a bunch of science classes and worked at my cousins’ dental practice. And I think after two years of that, I realized I just didn’t belong there. I knew I wasn’t happy.”

Anna as a dentist? “I couldn’t see it,” I told her.

“I think I had a mental break, like, I can’t do this! And then I applied to colleges and I got my prereqs out of the way. And then I went to Columbia College to study photography. After college, it’s kind of interesting how I met you guys because I was working in the photo world, like in the production photo world, but I worked for Crate and Barrel and all these different people and this production house. It just kinda was not the art I thought it was going to be, and it was kind of boring. And then I worked at the hospital doing medical photography. Nothing kind of seemed to be as creative as I thought. But then I also ran a DIY space.

“It was an old church in Pilson and we used to throw these big art sort of parties there. So, while I was working in the production world, I was also doing these weird, obscure art parties in the church. When I was doing that, that’s when I realized, I felt my creativity was exercised more there than it was in the production world.

“But then I needed a change. I’ve had all these kinds of weird moments of being like, I don’t want to do this anymore, and changing. And that’s when I was like, I want to teach, but I need to work, and, so I somehow got connected with your mom, like through Craigslist. And then I became a nanny, I’m going to try to be a teacher instead. And so I was working toward being a teacher while I was also your guys’ nanny. And then I got this internship in Italy out of nowhere.”

I remember very little about when Anna first met my family and started watching me regularly. She must have been about twenty-five or twenty-six and I was in first grade. She had this little black Volkswagen, and she would pick me up from school and stay until my parents got home. It was a routine that lasted until I was in seventh grade. During the first summer that she watched me, she left for a few weeks for this internship in Italy. I still have the postcard that she sent with a picture of an old castle that she had visited.

“I kind of had a breakthrough there, where I was like, I wanna do what I was doing at that old church. So I got back and I nannied you guys. And I did start teaching at the Art Institute. So I did get the teaching out of the way. And then I started Joholla,” her first gallery space, “in my apartment where I would just throw these art shows, but they weren’t traditional art shows. And I honestly didn’t think it was going to grow the way it’s grown. I kinda watched you guys while I was growing that business, kind of wild.

“I realized that organizing these shows and giving artists opportunities to show their work and help them get paid. And all this other stuff was sort of more my calling. Which is kind of the basis of Johalla. We had an exhibition space for years. And then before I opened the Hoxton, which was a pretty big project for Johalla, I decided to basically shift the company, not having an exhibition space, but mostly about art curating and putting artists in the public sphere, you know? So now we do all these murals and we do all these different activations, but they all have this basis of having an artist involved, focusing on their practice.”

Watching from a distance, I have felt that Anna has found her space. Hearing her tell me about the shuffling around of jobs during the beginning of her career and filling me in with more details about what she is doing now, I find even more confirmation in this thought. She seems somewhat tired as she talks to me but she seems content, I think that maybe the dust is finally settling and she has found a true focus which is something that she has worked for the whole time I have known her.

I asked her if she had anyone who inspired her life course and when she realized the meaning behind what she was doing, how she discovered this focus.

“I have no idea why I do what I do. I literally came from a very, conservative family. I don’t know how to even say this, but it’s so funny. I don’t have—I don’t have any inspiration. I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t know. I mean, this is a little sad, but I think when my mom died, I was like, I’m not living my life in a boring way. You know what I mean? She died young and I was like, I’m going to live my life to the fullest. And even if it means working triple the amount of work I need to do to do what I want to do.

“I think that when I started Joholla and I was watching new guys, I was just basically throwing these art parties at that loft. I wasn’t really thinking about how to make a living from it. I really just wanted to do this. And I think that there were two turning points with Johalla. The first one was basically realizing that this was a business. I need to treat it like a business. And that was like four years in. And then at about the seven-year mark is when I realized I didn’t want to run an exhibition space, that I wanted to basically only do public projects. ‘Cause I realized that we could give artists more money by doing that and supporting them more financially than we were capable of doing in an exhibition world because we just weren’t. . . We sold art in our exhibition in our gallery space, but it wasn’t a super ton. And I just found it more exciting when you would have an art piece in a popular hotel and tons of people would see it that were not in the art world.

“That was kind of the moment when I was like, all these exhibitions are seen by the same people. Every six weeks in the art world, this same art group is all of our same friends. We all are just on top of each other, you know? And I was like, I don’t. . . I don’t want to live like this. I want to be showing more people. So that’s when I realized that more eyes fell on artwork outside the gallery space. So that was a big turning point. We get an email once every two, three weeks from people that are like, I saw this art piece that you guys put up; that’s cool. That person would have never seen that artwork.”

I have always admired Anna and what she does but hearing her talk about it now, though she talks about it simply, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by its significance. It is an inspiring motivation and it speaks to Anna’s character more than I think anything else could. She has dedicated herself to encouraging community and creativity through public art; she sees it not as a brag but as a necessity.

The struggle to define my relationship with Anna has been ever-present throughout my life. How do I express these feelings of respect and gratitude for someone who has so unexpectedly yet so greatly influenced my life? I am still unsure, but I do know that I am glad to have this influence, and Anna, though we speak only minimally these days, will always be a part of my life in one way or another.

As our conversation comes to a close, we discuss the near future and she expresses excitement for her upcoming projects and she tells me about how she looks forward to Covid, and the subsequent tension it has created on her work sites, subsiding.

“I’m an introvert at heart. I’m pretty excited about having a chill life,” she says.

I too am excited for her to finally have time to breathe, but I have suspicions, as a result of who she is, that she may never experience the full extent of this so-called “chill life.”

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