Giovanna Raccosta is an internationally acclaimed portrait artist who was born and raised in Italy. Her passion for art goes back to her childhood. As a teenager she enjoyed spending time with many contemporary artist groups and travelled through Italy to study the masters of the Renaissance.
Giovanna started oil painting in Italy at the age of 9. It was obvious to those around her that she had a special gift. At 14 she was able to persuade her parents to send her to the big city, alone, to attend the prestigious Liceo Artistico (art academy) of Palermo. While learning to be self-sufficient, she enjoyed her daily trips to the local markets, gourmet cooking on a small budget, entertaining new friends, attending art shows, saving money to purchase passes to the symphony and opera and studying art. Every couple of weekends she would return home to the little town of Paceco, near Trapani, to visit her family and friends and then go back to Palermo. She graduated at 17 with top honors and went on to attend an Architecture College in Italy.
One Friday, while in her last year at Palermo, as she was at the bus stop getting ready to head home for the weekend, a bus pulled up with a large group of mostly blonde, clean cut, young men, wearing white shirts and ties. It was an odd sight for Sicily, something she had never seen before.
Her curiosity took over and in the blink of an eye she decided to hop on that bus instead. She approached the young men and struck up a conversation. She wanted to know who they were and what were they doing in Italy.
She discovered that they were American missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was not long until the missionaries invited her to attend a dance activity for youth in the area at the local LDS church. She brought some friends with her and had a great time enjoying the feeling and spirit of the dance. “Even though most of the friends I brought were free-spirited hippies and dressed somewhat inappropriately for a church dance, it didn’t stop the young LDS members from fellowshipping us.”
The sister missionaries arrived at her apartment a few days later with a blue book for her to read, complete with chapter reading assignments. “When asked to read it, my answer was always NO. I specifically told them they can come to visit as friends and enjoy my home cooked meals (I was developing into a fine cook), but I wasn’t interested in religion. The missionaries visited weekly to eat and check on me and the progress I was (not) making in reading the Book of Mormon.” Over the following months, many missionaries came to visit and left her with a gospel message and a prayer.
When the school year ended and she returned home for the summer, a new set of sister missionaries soon arrived at her home near the city of Trapani, in Sicily. No doubt her address had been forwarded by her former missionaries. The sister missionaries were unsure of what doctrines Giovanna still needed to learn, so they decided to give her a crash course.
“Sister Hill, from Ogden Utah, was brand new on her mission. She was not yet fluent in Italian but she was armed with faith and deliberation. Sister Hill “suggested that I should hear all the missionary lessons together in one week.” Giovanna, caught by surprise and intrigued, decided to go to church the following Sunday and to take the lessons.
One evening, during the Plan of Salvation lesson, Sister Hill invited Giovanna to offer a prayer. It was her first prayer ever using her own words. She sincerely asked: “God, if you are here, I want to know. I want to know if you are alive, if you really exist and if what all the sisters are saying is true.” As she was praying, she explains, “I had a beautiful and overwhelming feeling of joy swell up inside of me. It was a strong and sweet feeling. I was filled with happiness. I couldn’t stop smiling. As I opened my eyes, it felt as if we were surrounded by a white, bright cloud. The Spirit, as Sister Hill called it, was so sweet and yet so powerful. It was like a huge gift had been given to me from heaven. I’ve never forgotten the experience.”
Four days later she was baptized. Giovanna explains, “I came out of the water feeling like the old person was literally shed off of me; my sins were gone!! My weight was lifted. I’ve been forgiven!! I was pure. I was new! I was given a fresh start, a white canvas to start painting it the way I wanted, the way that was right!! The joy was felt by all the members that came. There was not a dry eye in the room during the confirmation. What a glorious day!!”
From that day on, Giovanna wanted to do all she could to help spread the Word. She went out every day with the sister missionaries, the branch leaders, or the members sharing her testimony to all her friends and others, but she still needed to tell her parents of her conversion.
Her parents, a month later, still did not know that she had been baptized. Giovanna did not think they would understand, due to their commitment to the Catholic faith. She wanted them to first see the results of her baptism; to see her happiness; to see that she was a better daughter than she was before.
Previously, she didn’t have a very good relationship with them. Disagreements were common. She explains: “I looked at my parents differently after my baptism. I saw them as children of God, as my brothers and sisters and had more compassion and love for them. They didn’t know better; they were doing their best to teach me, and I realized I should live by Christ’s example of true love.
They knew something was different about me; they saw the new friends I was hanging out with, and when I told my parents, my mom was pleased with me. I was the first LDS member in my heavy Catholic town…still until today! Going against the flow has never scared me. I was doing the right thing, and I had my mother’s blessing.”
In her spare time, Giovanna was still painting, but her true desire now was to serve the Lord on a full-time mission. To earn money for her mission, she worked an entire year on still life and landscapes and held a large art auction. Every piece sold out in no time.
She soon received her call to serve in the Rome Italy Mission, financed mostly from the proceeds of her private artwork. In the mission field, she excitedly spoke with everyone she met, on the bus, on the street, on the sidewalk, with members and with referrals. She was bold and energetic. Her companions set and reached numerous goals, and they were very successful.
Five of their converts served full-time missions; many others were sealed in the temple and remain active in the church today. While in the mission field, her mother and sister were baptized. She has also had the temple work done for her father, who passed away from cancer during her mission. Recently, her former mission president, Elder Craig Cardon of the Seventy, traveled to Las Vegas to baptize her husband Bardia. Her daughters and son are all now members of the church.
After her mission, Giovanna moved to Rome. Her American missionary friends invited her to visit the United States, and so with her new passport and $1,000 in her pocket, she moved to California. Once there, she felt there was no market for her artwork. She explained, “Everyone seemed to display posters on their walls, or owned cheap Chinese art, so I decided to put away the brushes and get a real job that could pay the rent.” She worked in Pasadena as a waitress for a couple of years. She then moved to Florida and worked as a waitress in an Italian restaurant for 6 years. She literally stopped painting, to serve food while her amazing art talent lay dormant, and her brushes were hidden away.
Thankfully, one day the restaurant owner told Giovanna that he was going to open a new restaurant which needed some murals, and asked if she knew someone who could paint them. “That would be me,” she quickly replied. She threw herself into the new art project and painted several beautiful and realistic murals from wall to wall.
The owner couldn’t believe his eyes! He loved the results, and so did she. The customers were amazed! That was the last time Giovanna ever waited tables again! “The customers started hiring me, and I was soon booked with multiple commissioned projects.” It was not long until she was booked solid for 6 months in advance. Her income grew by leaps and bounds. To expand her craft she decided to explore the world of portraiture techniques and studied privately for a year with a master teacher. She learned how to see subjects in 3D, to open her mind to see perspectives, to recognize colors hard to decode, and to bring out the personality of the individuals she paints.
Now living in Las Vegas, the subjects of Giovanna’s beautiful and true to life portraits come from various business and professional backgrounds, and include celebrities and casino moguls. Her portraits have been seen on the set of “The Bold and the Beautiful (CBS),” “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” and a variety of media reports. She is often commissioned to paint children and families and even an occasional VIP pet. Her passion for art and life has also opened up other opportunities.
Now an internationally acclaimed portraiture artist, Giovanna enjoys giving back to her community. In a vivid dream several years ago, she received inspiration on creating an organization to feed the homeless. “The dream was so clear that I woke up and started to write everything down — the information was pouring in, together with all the details. I had no idea I was going to help the needy. It was another mission call from God! Who else would bother me in the middle of the night to do this much good?” she asked.
The next morning, “Dinner on Us” was born. She gathers people in her community, especially her Facebook friends, and decides which culture they will highlight at a monthly dinner for the homeless. “It’s like a huge wedding every month: themed decorations, fresh picked flowers on linen covered tables, lavish entertainment provided by local musical talent. It’s all deserved for those less fortunate. I like to celebrate different cultures, and I bring people from different religions, ages, backgrounds and nationalities. Together we serve and share our talents with others less fortunate while having fun. We now feed over 500 meals at each event, and everybody loves it!”
In just two years, her group of now 200 volunteers have provided funds and fed over 17,000 culturally themed, gourmet meals to the homeless of the Las Vegas Rescue Mission. As a local magazine article recently explained, “Dinner on Us does more than feed the homeless. It pampers them with feasts that celebrate international cuisine – and nourish the spirit.”
As a mother of three, Giovanna never stops! She is still painting and currently writing a cookbook. “I’m fired up! My testimony never left me, even when times got hard. I love people and my testimony from that first Plan of Salvation missionary lesson long ago, that we are all brothers and sisters, has truly shaped my life,” she said. Giovanna and her volunteer group have recently worked with yet another local charity, Boys Town, by remodeling the living spaces of the foster children, magically transforming their bedrooms from “drab to chic,” according to a recent TV news broadcast showcasing her talents.
Giovanna was recently approached by the publisher of Distinguished Women of Nevada to include her life story. “My kids keep me humble, while I find true joy in serving others.”
By Mark Albright