A Dream Came True in Bella Italia
For the last ten years or so, since the last time I attended an artist residency, I'd been pining to go away again to focus only on painting. And, very specifically I wanted to go to the Italian countryside, which is where 16 years ago I had begun my journey as an artist and plein air painter after a long hiatus from art-making. Finally, last winter I made my plans.
Upon arrival in Italy as a way to adjust to the time difference and take a break after a long travel day, I scheduled a long weekend in Umbria a couple of hours north of Rome. A dear, long-time friend from Milan joined me at the agriturismo (farm stay) we had booked in advance. We had a lovely weekend touring tiny nearby villages, relaxing by the pool in the late afternoons, and stuffing ourselves with delicious home-made dinners at the farm. It was a perfect transition.
At last, I headed to the artist residency hosted by International Center for the Arts. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but all I hoped for was nothing to do or think about except where to paint next.
As I drove up the road toward the tiny, hilltop village of Monte Castello di Vibio, I was a little disconcerted to see several new apartment buildings. I had been anticipating medieval stone walls with the countryside lapping right up to the bottom of the walls. Well, it had been 16 years since the last time I was there.
Soon enough the old town walls appeared. I parked the rental car, which seemed monstrously big compared to the Fiat 500s and other tiny cars, in the lot surrounding the walls. One of the directors of the program greeted me and showed me around. My simply furnished room was in a former 12th century convent. I was offered a choice of studios in the nearby Palazzo Persianni, a ramshackle 15th century palazzo, and took a small one without a window being optimistic that I would be painting outside all the time. The palazzo is made of stone with brick patches, as is all the construction in this small town of around 1600 residents (that's as of a 2004 census - suspect that current number is much lower). You can find out more at the town's website.
Monte Castello is big enough to have its own butcher, bakery, pharmacy (open from 9-11:30am, 5-6:30pm, except on Sundays and only in the morning on Tuesdays - yikes!), two small grocery stores (more like convenience food stores, but with fabulous local cured meats, cheeses, olive oils and produce), a cafe/bar, a hotel (with its own big bar and restaurant), and a tiny post office. I saw a sign for and heard about another small restaurant, but never saw it. So, what's it missing? A gelateria (gelato shop)!
The next two weeks flew by. I painted every day - morning and afternoon sessions - except two afternoons. There were heat advisories almost every day with temps in the mid 90s by 2pm, so I waited until around 3:30 or 4 to go back out in the afternoons. Being on a hill meant there was almost always a breeze somewhere in town, but some days it felt like I was standing in front of an oven with a fan pushing hot air at me. Fortunately, the humidity stayed relatively low, which made it somewhat bearable. (This heat was unexpected - generally at this time of year it should have been in the 80s!) And there were no-see-ums (midges? tiny flying insects which are out all the time) which bit me mercilessly until I switched from organic/natural repellent to full-on DEET. Unfortunately, I had an allergic reaction to these bites, for which I got to know the local (and only) pharmicist in town all too well. Between feeling itchy and hot, there were a few nights when I did not sleep well without an air conditioner (at least I had a fan). But none of this hampered my spirit or energy.
I never had trouble finding things to paint. Unique architectural components, patchwork farmland in the valley below, mountains in the distance, olive groves, winding roads, near and far views. The clear light and range of colors were incredibly inspiring. Before I had arrived there, I thought I would have to get out of town occasionally to find things to paint, but as it turned out I didn't have to. I only did that one afternoon mostly out of curiosity and a very small desire for a change of scenery.
Spending a lot of time in different spots around town (and it only takes about 20 minutes to take a circuit within the town walls!) I was able to observe the townspeople going about their daily business and became familiar with the routines of a few notable characters. There is a group of older gentlemen who meet every morning on the benches next to the convenience store and debate solutions to the world's problems (at least that's what it sounded like!). There is the surprisingly busy hairdresser, where the village's women stopped in for a wash and styling, and seemed to be a perfect excuse to hang out and share gossip and recipes (what else could it be? I heard "Blah blah blah pomodoro blah blah formaggio blah blah al forno etc. etc.). There is the noisy little white dog, a terrier mix that accompanies its elderly owner who takes a walk every morning around one part of town, and yaps relentlessly at everyone and everything as if announcing their arrival and complaining about it at the same time. The friendly British expat who retired and has been living in this little town for 15 years takes his morning coffee every day at the café in the main piazza. The beleaguered young mother with a toddler and baby in a stroller who took walks around town in the morning and in the afternoon with her mother (or mother-in-law?) with a high pitch voice that intends to sooth, but I was convinced kept one child crying all the time. In the beginning it was all "Buon giorno" and "Buona sera", but by the beginning of the second week we became familiar with one another and it was "Ciao" with most of my regulars.
Mealtimes were the perfect punctuations of my painting days. I had the great luck of being at the residency when a small group of philosophers, mostly academics from the US and two Europeans, were also there for a workshop on the environment. They proved to be a source of interesting conversation and light-hearted camaraderie. But the true highlight turned out to be food. Not a big surprise, right? Well, I had expected that a local housewife might have been hired to throw together some simple homestyle meals for us, which would have been more than fine. Not so. We had Lucio, an instructor at a local cooking school, who took great pride in making and presenting fresh, creative, delicious dinners using local ingredients, and one of his enthusiastic students did the same at lunchtime. It took quite a bit of self-control to not over-indulge.
At the end, I was remarkably relaxed, physically a bit tired, but spiritually and emotionally fulfilled. I brought home 13 paintings (11 are officially finished and you can see them on my new webpage Italy-Umbria. Two weeks to give myself completely to painting with freedom from obligations, deadlines, chores (ok, I did laundry twice), and decision making (except stuff like, where will I paint this morning, and shall I have a bit more of the ridiculously sweet and juicy cantaloupe?) were the best gift I have given myself in almost 20 years. It made me realize how content I can be with these (relatively) simple things - countryside, my paints and canvases, a firm mattress, cool shower, good company, and wholesome food. Admittedly, being able to do this in Italy meant that I am one very fortunate Brooklyn plein air artist. I can't wait to do it again, sooner not later.
* Credit for the photos of me painting goes to Dave, a tourist who unbelievably lives one block from me in Brooklyn and is the creator of a cool app for making music videos and films, Triller)