ArtsConnectEd/ArtsNet Minnesota
Inner Worlds

Art and Artists  Arthur Dove
 Richard Hunt
 Judy Onofrio
 Betye Saar
 Kay Sage
 Yves Tanguy
 Jane Tuckerman

What is Art? Environment Identity Designing Spaces and Places
Judy Onofrio
About the Artist

Judy in her garden

"I consider myself lucky. Every day is spent working in my studio. There is nowhere I would rather be and nothing I would rather do. Though my art, I construct a world of memory, humor, and stories. Best of all I get to live in that world and invite others in." - Judy Onofrio, 1998

Born in Connecticut in 1939, Judy Onofrio spent her childhood moving to various US Naval bases on the East Coast of the US. Her father was a three-star admiral and an avid collector, always bringing home exotic souvenirs of his numerous international trips. Her mother and her great aunt Trude also collected a variety of things from French gloves to porcelain birds. It was from her family that she developed her love of collecting and learned the power of objects to record experiences, travels and memories.

She explains, "My childhood role model was my great-aunt Trude, a lovable, albeit eccentric outsider artist who always worked beyond the confines of the mainstream art world. Aunt Trude followed a personal vision that drove her to make art until she died at the age of 90. It was her influence that launched my lifetime search for grottoes, homemade Watts Tower-like places, and the kind of artists whose personal visions clearly stand apart."

In 1956 her parents were stationed in Japan and it was there that she met her husband Burton Onofrio, a young medical officer. She attended a two-year college studying business law and economics soon after marrying Burton. Judy Onofrio had a family with three children by the age of 21.

In 1968 the Onofrio family moved to Rochester, Minnesota and Judy set up a studio and began exploring art, working with clay. She created sculptural ceramic pieces. She never went to art school, but taught herself by experimenting and meeting other artists. Since the 1970s, Onofrio has continued to learn and create artwork, become a leader in her local, state, national and international arts communities.

In the 1980s, Onofrio turned from ceramics to create collaborative site-specific installations. Her work began to move out of her studio into larger assemblages in her back yard. Then, while recovering from back surgery and unable to create large artworks, Onofrio started making jewelry from her collected beads, buttons and other bits. Bracelets and pins led to small shrines often using images relating to her personal experiences. She became interested in blurring the lines between traditional art categories like fine art, crafts and kitsch. Following the inspiration of Aunt Trude and outsider art spaces created by self-taught artists such as the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin and Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, her artwork began to change. Onofrio explains, "Although I've been acquiring objects, images, and ideas all of my life, it seems that only recently that everything - my art, environment, and life - has come together and merged into a wonderful oneness."

By 1991 she had pushed her assembled shrines into large sculptural and architectural artworks encrusted with everyday objects, from buttons to broken dishes, mirror pieces to seashells. Onofrio's backyard assemblages have become Judyland, an amazing garden of her unique and expressive art that continues to grow. She is an avid garage sale and thrift store shopper. Onofrio continues to fill her studio with a highly organized collection of found art materials used to create her unique sculptures.

Onofrio's work is noted for its spirit of play and humor. She states, "I've always tried to enjoy the good times in my life, revel in the humor and, like Rapunzel, have taken the bad times and tried to spin something good out of them. I think the magic of my work is the natural inclination of most people to do the same. So, humor and playfulness being the fabric of my life, continues to inform my work." Judy Onofrio's artwork is exhibited at several galleries and museums including the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota.

For more information about the artist, visit

Vocabulary Terms

architectural--The art of creating buildings and spaces, or the built structure and its elements.

assemblage--Work of art made from natural or pre-made objects; usually a three-dimensional wall hanging or freestanding work.

ceramic--Art made from kiln-fired clay.

Dickeyville Grotto--Built between 1920 and 1931 in Dickeyville, Wisconsin by Father Mathias Wernerus. The grotto consists of a number of free-standing structures made of cement encrusted with the homely objects of domestic life, from souvenir plates and commemorative statuary brought to him by his parishioners and by visitors. The structures are dedicated to a variety of themes including the Virgin Mary, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln.

grotto--an artificial cave, or special space created using stone or cement and often used as a shrine.

Judyland--Begun in the 1980's by sculptor Judy Onofrio, this ongoing garden artwork extends out of her Rochester, Minnesota garage studio and into her surrounding garden.

kitsch--Cheap decorative objects or souvenirs.

outsider artist--Self-taught artists who create artworks for their own joy and desire rather than to be a part of the established fine art world and market. displayed, protected and/or celebrated.

sculpture--Artwork with three dimensions: height, width and depth.Self taught artists who create artworks from their own personal visions and desires, often creating unique and obsessive imagery.

shrine--A container, space or site made sacred by association with venerated objects or persons.

site-specific installation--Art built to fit and be experienced in one particular place. Site-specific installation art is often temporary.

Watts Towers--Amazing cement and tile towers up to 38 feet tall in south Los Angeles, California were built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia between 1921 and 1954. He titled his work "Nuestro Pueblo", Our Town.

visionary artist--Self-taught artists who create artworks from their own personal visions and desires, often creating unique and obsessive imagery.

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Inner Worlds | What Is Art? | Environment | Designing Spaces and Places | Identity
About the Art | About the Artist | Discussion Questions/Activities | Teacher Lessons