Friday, October 27, 2017

Traveling in Italy - Traveling


"Can't be late if you don't have a timetable
 Can't get lost if you don't have a destination."       
                                      Colin Stafford-Johnson

On a plane going to an airport I've never been to, in a country I've never visited, with a language I don't really know, to catch another plane to another country, to find a bus to meet a ride to a facility for an artist's residency.  What was I thinking!  But as one instructor told me if you aren't uncomfortable then you aren't learning.  I'm about as uncomfortable as I've ever been so I'm ripe for learning. I’m on my way to an artist residency and have no idea what to expect except that I selected one that allowed me do just one week in length, at La Macina di San Cresci, to try it out and also coincide with a workshop afterward in Florence that I’d already signed up to attend.

But, where to start on this journey?  There's been a minor seismic crisis of confidence and focus in my art related goals since I decided the crowd funding project called the Art of Food wasn't going to work out – it consumed my life for eight months and then cancelled for lack of confirmation of commitment by a partnering group.  Now, is food even still my focus?  Do I concentrate on egg tempera or oil as my medium?  Do I paint still life, landscapes or are there already enough of those or do I have a passion at all?  What do I do when I get to my first residency??  I'm beginning to panic a bit that I won't know what to paint or will be so overwhelmed I can't focus on painting at all. On the first flight I sat next to another artist with a similar problem. We both decided that it's time to explore and just see what happens. Serendipity?

After skipping over a few time zones it's actually the next day of my travels, but I haven't slept and instead have gone directly into travel mode. The airline delayed my checked bag containing all my painting supplies that were the whole purpose of this trip for an additional security check. My carry-on bags contained mostly clothes and more importantly this iPad and my cameras.  But I'm still tethered to the world of technology as my lost luggage included all chargers so this blog will only last so long.  The age of being wireless is a misnomer - it's only as good as it lasts without all the wires. Now, with all our technology, we’re really only pretending.

So here I am in the 10th century church of Le Pieve di San Cresci (pieve was a rural church with a baptistery, upon which other churches without baptisteries depended), known as one of the most important Romanesque structures in the region of Chianti, Italy, situated just outside of Montefioralle, above the town of Greve in Chianti.  After a shuttle bus from the airport into the Florence bus station, and a bus ride to Greve, I’m now somewhat settled in and Demetria has given me a tour of the facility.  She'll come back to collect me to drive into the town of Greve In Chianti to make a stop at the market for some food.  No, this isn't a hotel.  Artists are on their own for cooking and eating. The residency philosophy is ‘freedom’ – freedom to do your own thing.  This will become important later.

But getting too far ahead of myself.  Greve in Chianti is a small town about an hour south of Florence (towns in Tuscany, at least in this area, are referred to as the town name and then In Chianti) and is actually in the heart of Chianti and Tuscany wine country and this is wine harvesting season. The church and adjoining buildings have been restored by Demetria, an architect, and her husband Duccio, a designer, under the auspices and approvals of the national registry (similar to our historical commissions).  Part is their home, part is still owned by the Catholic Church (and although still sacred is no longer an operating church and, with approval of the church may be used for artistic exhibitions and performances) and the rest is La Macini di San Cresci that runs as an artist residency program listed with ResArtis and the Alliance of Artist Communities. 

Adjacent to the church and Mimma's and Duccio's home is the Artist's House where the artists live in two separate buildings. Each artist’s room is a sizable private room with sitting area, bed, and study area, two shared bathrooms, the main living room, and, in the building I’m in, a well-equipped communal kitchen.  Another connected building on the other side of the facility contains the studios, but was originally used for the olive and wine presses.  These are still there and meticulously restored - amazingly impressive since the olive press is about a two-ton mill stone and very large.  The wine press and original wooden vats take up two rooms.

In the center of all of this is an interior courtyard garden, open to the sky, and onto which my room overlooks. Bird song fills all the rooms.

All of this is set on the side of a hill overlooking a valley of vineyards and olive groves for miles in all directions, farms and a collection of very old and beautiful villas, a huge fig tree in Mimma's and Duccio's private gardens that makes the one I try to grow in my garden at home puny by comparison.

Traveling in Italy - Greve In Chianti

Greve In Chianti

So Mimma and I have driven into Greve In Chianti.  Now this puts life into perspective.  The well-worn stones on which we're walking were centuries old before Columbus even discovered America!  The town is now 1,069 years old and one of the town's famous citizens was Giovanni Varrazano who's name is recognizable to anyone living in and around New York City as the bridge was named after him.  Here in Greve there's a statue of Giovanni in the main town piazza as well as a stone commemorating the bridge in New York.  And in New York alongside the bridge is a similar stone commemorating the town of Greve In Chianti. As immigration and migration have played such a vital role in America our current political administration should take note as without it the U.S wouldn't  exist at least as we know it (some would say couldn't into the future) and certainly not without the Italians who helped make America great just as every other ethnic group that has contributed (something our alt-right and conservatives should also take note of as they undoubtedly descend from some of the immigrants, as we all have, at one time. Saying we are taking back our country just highlights the extent of our murderous, racist thievery as it was really the North American natives' country when we arrived and before we raped, pillaged and appropriated it away from them.  But this kind of talk is leading me down the path back to too much of today's sad realities.

As part of the lost luggage I was to blame for losing my own sunglasses so Mimma very kindly took me to an optical shop in town to buy a new pair on a beautiful non-mall side street off the piazza. Most of these side streets house small shops, pasticcerias, and of course the ubiquitous gelato shops!

We also went to the food market to buy a few things.  Both were a wonderful opportunity for noi parleremo in Italiano!  I've been trying to learn Italian over the last year but it's been slow.  Actually having to survive by living in the local environment and using their language is a much better way to learn a language.  It's comical, but effective if you want to buy something like toilet paper instead of asking mistakenly for sugar!  I knew zucchero!  I also wanted to buy a small amount of sliced meat I watched the butcher cut for another customer, but was so intent on asking in Italian for "a small amount.... just one more slice" that I ended up with enough slices to feed four people before I realized what I’d been saying!

Exhausted and finally a healthy meal in me I'll sleep well tonight!

Traveling in Italy - The Wine Harvest

The Wine Harvest

Buona giornata (good day)!  Now it's truly the next day in my body clock and any other form of time keeping. I slept soundly and ready for the next day.  It's very early and who needs technology anyway.  A distant rooster takes the place of an alarm clock.  The air is lovely and cool and still. Waking up in a room with stone walls and a 20-foot ceiling of centuries old timbered beams. A little later, now about 6:30 am, the sound of birds is beginning to fill the rooms and I'm set for a day of exploring. Because there are many churches, the church bells ring across the hills frequently - a lovely distant sound.

But taking away all my own art supplies will add to the challenge of exploring where to go with my art - perhaps the best way.  The facility provides everything, but there's nothing like having your own.  What will today bring?  Perhaps my luggage, perhaps some surprises?  Again, serendipity?

An early email tells me my luggage has been located and will be delivered in a day or two, but not soon enough to have my gear. So I set off for a morning walk taking photos and sketching.  Fortunately, as a last minute addition, I threw into my carry-on bag a small sketch book and one pencil in case I was stuck in an airport.  The air has a light pungent aroma that is probably a combination of olive trees and grapes.  Then I settled into the studio to read the books about other artists who have been here in the recent past. Some high quality and innovative work, but I'm going back to my sketching for the moment.  Plenty of time to paint when I join the workshop on Sunday. My first goal here was to photograph vineyards and olive groves so I set off to do just that yesterday and today, dozens of them.

The very next day they had all quietly disappeared – all of them gone!  They had been harvested quietly.  In amongst all the rows of grapevines I could occasionally glimpse a worker. But I have dozens of photos and this morning the sun was bright, the day cool and everything here in Greve looks beautiful and they’ve begun to get rain in the night after a severe drought. The surrounding hills stretch forever and the breezes sweep down across the valley and beyond.

The luggage is finally here and intact, but I no longer feel compelled to use paint so I'll keep sketching.  And most importantly the chargers are here and adapters work so I'm back in business writing this blog.

Traveling in Italy - Impruneta - not just your ordinary clay pots!

Impruneta and Terra-cotta, not just your ordinary clay pots!

Another beautiful day.  Clouds and sun, temperatures in the low to mid 70s and Demetria is driving the other two artists and me to the Masini Fornace Terrecotte in Impruneta for a tour.  This is a wonderful surprise to me as years ago I used to be a potter and we’ll be touring a facility of great history.


The town of Impruneta, north of Greve and just south of Florence, has been known for 500 years as the center of the terracotta craft. There are many groups creating terracotta here as well as around Italy and other parts of the world, but the Masini workshop here in Impruneta is the oldest and best and where Filippo Brunelleschi selected his clay and fired his finished tiles for the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence – otherwise known as Il Duomo, begun in 1296. As a potter once myself it was fascinating to watch today as their work is not thrown on a wheel but built by hand using the most difficult method of building up, the "coil method."  No moulds are used for the largest jars and pots, some of which must weigh hundreds of pounds before and even after firing.  To start a pot they rely on ages old drawings and measurements. The process for the largest pots like the one below takes weeks to complete.  We actually watched one craftsman putting the finishing touches on a very large pot.  The clay used in Impruneta pots is mined from quarries only found in this area and only the pots created in Impruneta can have the Impruneta stamp on them.  Right from the earth it looks like a fine gray gravel.  Only when fired does it take on the characteristic rusty red color we're all used to seeing in terracotta pots. The Massini terracotta is so durable it can withstand freezing, damp, scorching sun without so much as cracking, but here in Italy people apparently never discard an old pot. They just wire, wrap, drill, reconstruct around it to hold them together if they should become damaged.  These take on even more character and appeals to my sense of never throwing out anything beautiful.

The drive to and back from Impruneta was on twisting, turning roads across what they refer to here as the hills of Tuscany.  To me they are small mountain ranges, much like the southern edge of the Green or White mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont. Everywhere you look are vineyards and olive tree groves.  All the homes, especially the very old, are made of either local stone or finished with a pale yellow ochre paint or stucco.  I've not seen any variation in this which makes building and designing a house a lot simpler.

This afternoon the jet lag I thought I'd avoided finally set in.  At the same time so did the rain.  So with this perfect timing I decided to rest and return to more walking and sketching later.

This evening one of the other artists, the writer Agnes Marton, gave a poetry reading.  Very interesting, lyrical and imaginative poetry.  Agnes works for the courts in Luxumborg and speaks/understands more languages than she can count. Wonderful fun with others attending and a birthday party for another artist, a Korean painter studying in London.  This turns out to be the one time I have seen, met and interacted with the other artists!