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Friday, April 29, 2016

Artist-En-Route: Umbria, Italy (article appears in Art Avenue magazine)

It's April as I write from the Umbrian countryside, midway between Florence and Rome. We live in a tiny village in which nothing happens. The bells jingle on new lambs in the pasture up the rocky road from our house. Wild boar hide in nearby forests, as do truffles. The bees are out, and the silvery olive trees are growing fuller. The birdsong is absolutely operatic as I walk the 6km to and from the nearby village, looking for wild asparagus along the way. The view is spectacular coming up through worn paths overlooking rolling green hills and patchwork agrarian plots typical of this region. Walking here each day I'm sure Leonardo developed his sfumato technique from these smoky landscapes that soften edges and blend contrasts. Except for some hard winter months, it's been idyllic.

A visiting friend wants to go on the Piero tour (click here). I'm glad to oblige this pilgrimage for a local boy from a neighboring Tuscan village. Piero della Francesca is high on my list of Renaissance masters. His sense of serenely sculpted light, of physically solid yet beyond-real forms in space, of emotion perfectly contained yet dramatically expressive remains remarkable to me. 

As for artistic tours, you could pick any of your favorite Italian Renaissance masters and plan an interesting tour of Italy just by following the trail of their displayed works. Following the trail of Perugino, for example, will take you to Perugia, home to delicious chocolates as well as equally sweet and highly decorative paintings by his associate, Pinturicchio. Like many ancient towns in Italy, there is so much to see and enjoy just by walking around and looking, and often there are festivals to add to the celebration. 

Nearby in Orvieto are the muscular and fascinatingly original Last Judgment frescoes by Signorelli (from whom Michelangelo learned a thing or two). In the other direction there's Perugia (of the famed chocolates), where you can also savor paintings by Perugino, the town's namesake. And lovely painted ceramics in Deruta to take home with you. Go eastward and there's Le Marche, with Crivelli as its local wonder, whose paintings provide an odd mix of Renaissance perspective and Medieval decorativeness. The treasures continue, with fresco-lined chapels by the vigorously emotive Giotto (Padua and Assisi) and the sensitively ethereal FraAngelico (Florence, with some of the most personal on site, as they were painted, in the Convent of San Marco). Pick your favorite early to late Renaissance master: it seems they're all here.

What's especially impressive is when you see all these artists' works in the settings for which they were painted. Even Leonardo's crumbling Last Supper retains much of its gravitas in the actual chapel in Milan whose architecture it replicates! I especially enjoy scouting for treasures in relatively lesser-known places. But who'd want to ignore the big showplaces of art-filled Italy? Rome, where the ancient Colosseum nods to Renaissance feats like the Pantheon and Brunelleschi's dome derived from it, the dizzying treasure troves of the Vatican, and unsurpassed Florence. Art is everywhere in the architecture, statues, fountains, museums and public works of such cities.

Two duomos/cathedrals that I like especially are some distance apart. Milan's is staggering. Coming up from the metro station, it's a filigreed vision in honey-white marble that took nearly six centuries to build. It hardly seems real in its intricacy and apparent weightlessness. The best of it for me (sated by now on church interiors, no matter how magnificent) was walking outdoors on its huge, multi-tiered roof. It was stunning being surprised by gargoyles, fanciful architectural flourishes, statues standing on pillars in the air, and vistas across the city.

In contrast, Orvieto's duomo seems to me more humanly appealing in size, proportion, and narrative flourishes. Sitting outside on stone benches built into buildings lining the piazza, you watch as the sun glints on golden mosaics illuminating biblical narratives and assorted statues on its facade. Inside are the Signorelli frescoes I mentioned and, to top it off, in this piazza is the best gelato I've tasted. 

Surprises and delights abound: just keep your eyes open and venture on!

 Contemporary Art and Tradition
What I've noticed about recent contemporary art seen throughout my travels is that it's much the same everywhere. That is, trends seem global rather than regional, with influences like Twombly, Basquiat, and Richter variations everywhere, especially in abstract painting. Yet, major if not as well-celebrated modern Italian painters, like Morandi in still life and (my favorite) Burri in uniquely abstract works, have pushed new stylistic boundaries. 

No longer apprenticed to guilds or schools, emerging artists now seem to gravitate towards their preferred international icons. Historically, however, Italian art has shown recognizable regional stylistic variations and "schools", like Perugino's in Perugia. Tradition remains important here where people live with centuries of art history at their doorstep. The great humanistic emphasis of the Italian Renaissance, especially, is a tradition that endures even in contemporary paintings. For example, look how many figurative works are included in Saatchi's recent online Focus on Italy.  

Old Artists and the Avant Garde
Visiting the Sforza castle (Milan) and seeing Michelangelo's final and compelling Pietá emerge unfinished from stone, I thought about his spending his final decade on earth working, on and off, on this sculpture. I wondered why some master artists turn away from their attained mastery and refinements to produce, in their old age, something apparently more raw, unsettling, dramatically different, and far less popular with their contemporaries -- but seeding the future avant garde. True of Rembrandt, Turner too, and others, this development runs contrary to the too common clichés for old age.

Practical Matters: Art as a Way Not a Brand?
When I left Canada more than half a year ago I thought that, while I travelled and lived in Europe, I'd settle my continuing argument with my painterly self to move along one track instead of many and do what art-marketeers advise: develop a brand. I haven't. Instead, away from the marketplace, I've decided this isn't for me. Not for lack of self-discipline or indeterminacy in directions to take, Instead, it's a genuine preference for working and learning that is broad in scope. I don't think I'm alone in this struggle. But I've come to regard (and respect) this as a stylistic preference in how one chooses to explore, experiment, learn, and bring things together in order to create. Away from the usual influences at home, it seems clearer to find one's own creative direction.

Looking back over the art I've seen, the art I've done, and the life I've had here, I hope to have shared some enjoyable and useful facts and personal insights with you, whether you're en-route in similar or different ways.  I see the artwork I've produced here (it's been plentiful and surprising to me), as fitting into several unpredictable "series" resulting from new ventures into fluid painting and mixed techniques (if interested, click Saatchi Online). A practical note: I tried to mail a sold painting to the US from Italy, but the duties on both sides were prohibitive.    
It's been a remarkable journey, with a month remaining before returning home. This way of life has become 'home' now --- travelling from place, setting up one's life anew in each place for awhile, learning the necessary, exploring, making do. Never long enough to lay down roots ... or ruts. The only constant has been one's own sense of continuity and of change throughout this voyage. I haven't finished. I'm not ready to "go home." I want to find a way to take some of this way of living with me, even when returning to all the comforts of home, friends, and family.
This trip has been about lots of things, both external and internal. Learning to do without the familiar, reassessing priorities, decisions, needs, and desires. A bit of a juggle between making and making-do, keeping to a plan or letting the winds decide, moving on or staying safe. Living away from home provides opportunity to re-examine decisions and expectations, to re-align oneself without the supports, stimulation and constraints of family, friends, and the familiar buzz of art shows and fellow-artists wanting to get their work noticed. It's been an opportunity to expand, to break out of molds that need breaking, and move in ways that feel authentic and rewarding, whether or not they are applauded by anyone else. 

 My artwork has taken different directions, depending upon where I've been: inside and out. I've met with local artists, seen shows, visited sites, museums, and galleries in each town. Everywhere I've been I've keenly felt how art, whatever form it takes, is a vital part of living life. How this is personally vital for me is the lesson I'd like to take home with me ...  plus a few gallons of gelato.

I hope, in reading these articles, you've shared in this sense of adventure, each of us being artists-en-route in our lives and in our work.

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Friday, April 15, 2016

More Monochromes

I keep wanting to do more of these. They seem to be just lying in wait, like lots of little fish in the ocean you hardly notice, except when the light strikes. I'm trying to figure out why they keep circling around me. One reason seems that I'm travelling...  and these seem to travel with me, available for work with limited tools on paper. Yet, even when I'm settled in my studio spot in Umbria and creating new paintings in full color, these monochromatic ink-paintings keep bristling at the edges of my consciousness, wanting expression. So:

Here's another little slideshow.

 You can see more of this work by clicking here,

Keep swimming in your own favorite ocean! 

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Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sometimes You Get Lucky!

Here's a true story for you. We've been living in Europe for over 7 months. It's been a great experience  but, as you might have been reading here, not all has been positive. For example, I haven't yet mentioned that a wallet was picked out of pocket, literally (in Marseilles). Despite many forewarnings about such things, they happen even with many precautions. And they happen in all places in the world.

It happened here in Italy, too. My iphone was stolen. I know where: somewhere from the train station in Umbria to the main one in Rome. It was awful, given all the personal stuff one typically loads into such devices: info and pictures plus itemsI wanted for my art articles, etc.

cartoon credit click here

Despairing, I still went through the motions. I activated the Find My Phone app from my computer and saw it was in Venice! I've never been to Venice on this trip. But I supposed my phone was enjoying it. I went to the local carabiniere. That's an experience in itself.

The carabinieri would have dismissed me immediately after I said I didn't have the serial number of the phone because it was on the  phone that was stolen. Catch 22! Despite my clear evidence that it was stolen (a copy of the screenshot of it in Venice), I got  no help with getting anything from them. Good that I had a friend with me who spoke far better Italian than I, and she persuaded them at least to file a report I could take with me for insurance back home. This took all morning to accomplish.

I was imagining how it could have happened.  So were they. Nothing was going to happen. Imagining a nefarious thief (perhaps the same one who took the wallet in France: they're all of a kindion in one's imagination, arent' they ), I directed my evil eye at them. This has not been known to work previously.

Absorbing the blow of my lost iphone, I purchased a relatively cheap local replacement phone using the same phone number. Some days later I got a text message on my new phone saying the iphone had been found! What an incredible piece of luck, I thought. Then, some cynicism made me check online for "iphone found scams". Indeed, several were noted and admonished. Does stealth never sleep?!

After some to-and-fro messaging with the texter, and a direct phone call, I was assured this was a one-in-a-million real human being who just wanted to return my iphone. She said she'd found it on the the train to Venice (that I hadn't been on, so someone may have tossed it or ... whatever). The message on my now-blocked iphone was still on, activated in the  "Find My Phone" notice I'd written to call if  found.

What turns out to be a lovely young woman  went to the trouble to text and phone me several times, work out postal arrangements with me, and return my phone by mail. 

Now I've got my phone. Thank you Jessica! The world is strange. Bad things happen. But sometimes people, especially strangers, are humane and considerate people. Sometimes you get lucky!  

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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Letting It Flow

As the days lengthen, my time here in Umbria grows shorter. I'm growing bolder and experimenting with free-flow paints. Poured directly onto canvas, they flow themselves into a painting. The challenge is to catch the flow in the way you want it. Aha, like the big challenge of life! It's messy. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.


One on the left is "Nexus". One on the right is "Dispersion". Each is  36"x20"
multi-layered on canvas . After the initial pouring, I added some deliberate touches by brush and other implements.

Soon, I'll post a blog focused on Italy, with more info and photos on my latest Artist En Route article for Arts Avenue magazine.

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To COMMENT from the homepage: Click on Title of Post to get to its own page. Comment box appears below post. Subscribe for updates on art, travels, and adventures in creative life. You can also find me at my Facebook Page and Website for my art and news of upcoming shows/sales.