Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Italian Art-Immersion Adjourns

I could not leave Italy without declaring my intent to return. Angela promised a magical land and she delivered. The uniqueness of the light, the landscape, the art and the people (not to mention the food and wine) stole my heart. I am hooked!

Nepi was our last stop. We spent a long weekend in the ancient town that is located about 35 miles north of Rome. It has been inhabited since the 8th century, B.C. and the "old" part has a river on two sides, with an archaic wall built into the rock cliffs rising high above. A waterfall and the remains of a castle mark one entrance. A section of Roman aqueduct introduces another. We arrived after an easy drive from Monteleone Sabino, parked the car and walked along the narrow, cobbled streets, looking for our rental.

The address brought us to uneven steps that led down past several child-sized doors of wood, decaying in places and held together with padlocks and big bolts. Did people really live there? What kind of dwelling would we find behind "our" iron gate? Incredibly, we opened the door into an apartment with a modern kitchen, two bedrooms, two full baths, a living area with a fireplace and a view of the green valley beyond. Good work, Angela!

Up until then, I had felt relentlessly driven to make art. Suddenly, I realized that slowing down in order to actually experience the culture was a completely valid (and essential) part of the total art-immersion process. The buildings' colors and surfaces alone were mesmerizing. The custom of serving a spuntino, or snack, with every glass of wine was endearing. The cadence and song of the language were enchanting (despite my inability to understand it). And the Italian people were charming and warm. I relaxed. I drew a fountain. I watercolored from our terrace. We explored. I set up my easel on a path behind some homes and painted a view with a distant manor on bluffs. I breathed in the sweet smell of Spring and thought about what I had learned.

For one thing, it is very good to travel with another artist, especially one who has knowledge of the country and its language. Angela was an exceptional tour guide, but - more importantly - we shared the focus of making art. That goal informed our days in such a way that we took advantage of early evening light rather than eat just because it was dinner time. A second reward was the opportunity to experience how another artist works. Angela settles in and gives herself time to look in order to find out what interests her. She waits for her eye to tell her what to do. She works with the abstract shapes of any given subject so that her finished piece is as much about the relationship of those shapes, as about the subject itself. I love the idea of reaching past the landscape to the feelings it invokes in me. Now I'd like to combine that with a more measured approach, where I consciously consider the composition, apart from the scene. Explore the shapes. Be curious about the light. 

And so, my initial take-aways are artistic. I cannot wait to see how they impact my work at home. I imagine that this trip may also affect my lifestyle. Perhaps I will let my days flow, responding to what's around me rather than trying to force-fit expectations. Possibly, I will better weave art-making into the rhythm of living. Look. Paint. Relax. Then look some more.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Monteleone Sabino

Yes, the name of this tiny hillside town just rolls off your tongue. Monteleone Sabino is guarded by a stone lion on a pedestal, so old that its teeth are rounded, its tail embedded in the curved flank. There is a one-room grocery tucked into a steep street, a butcher, a post office, a school and two "bars" where the cappuccino is savory and strong. A couple of kilometers away, down a steep road and up a bluff, sits the stone cottage that became our art studio and home. La Torretta's walls are thick and peppered with remnants of Roman ruins. It sits on the foundation of an ancient bath and the grounds have dug-up pieces of pillars and capitals scattered about that provide seating. Olive groves with century-old trees surround the property and several yellow-ochre buildings across the valley reflect the sunrise each day, blue mountains behind.

After spending most of my time drawing in Rome, I again picked up my pen and recorded the landscape with line, then watercolored some of these pieces, coloring-book style. It was a pleasure to settle in and really focus, the hum of bees my only distraction. The second day I pulled out acrylics. I have not used this medium since I painted the backdrop for a high school play. I was curious to see how it would compare to oil paint, my current favorite. Because of my inexperience, I allowed myself to play, not caring about the result. It can be a challenge to let go of the familiar, but - once done - it is sweet indeed to simply explore.

Sometimes, while painting, I would lie down in the scratchy grass with my sunhat over my face and wonder if I had somehow passed through a portal to a previous century. We were living so simply: hiking, painting and eating, our meals easy combinations of fresh fruits and vegetables, meat grilled over an open fire and lots of local red wine. Night brought interesting discussions about what makes a good composition, how did Van Gogh respond to olive trees and why our art-making goals here might be different from those at home. Each morning I felt fresh energy, invigorated by these conversations and inspired by surroundings so different from West Michigan.

Ten days flew by. I struggled with rendering the strange shapes of olive trees. The chenille-bedspread texture of distant groves tickled my vision, teasing me. Acrylic paint's tendency to dry quickly and its jelly-like consistency (compared to oil paint) just about drove me crazy. But I learned so much by letting go of expectations and simply experiencing. And now I'm sure that these old olive trees will remain in my heart and my brain, perhaps taking on new life in my studio at home.