Here is a sculpture for a wonderful setting at Den Bosch, the town that gave the name to one of the most fascinating painters of the Dutch Renaissance, Hieronymus Bosch. The figure recalls one detail in the central panel of his triptych, the Garden of Earthly Desire, the part where a circular procession of men ride a variety of animals, as if on a merry-go-round. Here, at loose in the circular garden of Den Croon, a new building by the Florentine architect, Adolfo Natalini, a she-boar carries a boy while a heron raises him upwards.
The importance of animals in Bosch’s paintings and their interaction with man have to do with a very special way of looking at the world. It brings to mind some issues concerning the role of animals in the world today. The primatologist, Frans De Waal, from the same town as Bosch, has written about empathy and its evolution in animals. (A good book on the theme is “Primates and Philosophers” by Frans De Waal).
However, the subject of this small work can be narrowed down to… joy.
You are invited to see this sculpture at Frilli Gallery in Florence on Via dei Fossi 26r!
Here is a table I made commissioned by a friend who lives in the Crete Senese.
The fundamental idea of project was to make an object that could have a role in every day life that would show individuality, warmth and affection. We decided on bronze because it is a medium, which has a very long life and also represents a tie to ancient art found in this territory.
Etruscan settlers are always treated as mysterious figures but one thing about them we definitely know from the artifacts found in Etruria is that they had a warm, witty and sensual connection to the rituals of daily life. Pots, candelabra, bowls, mirrors, furniture are decorated with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures in playful narratives.
There are five hares distributed on the table because they are attributes of Pan. They have to do with fertility (of imagination), of the senses, of individuals caught up in the dance of nature. They also may represent the eager willingness of five diverse individuals to converge in delight and lighthearted pleasure. (I imagined a child searching for the hares and having trouble finding the last one hidden in the back where he listens from his burrow.)
The structure of the table, made with the hollow canes used since Etruscan times for venting during a process of lost wax, have been merged using bees’ wax and the joints reflect the finger position at the time of putting it together – before fusion in bronze. I think this is the warmest sign that can exist in sculpture, that is the print of a hand. It has to do with time, foreseeing by thousands of years the moment in photography when light from one millisecond is captured permanently on a silver surface so that it becomes the absolute authentication of a moment of light. In this case, a moment of touch.
It is hard to tell if the nymph is listening to the faun in a dream or if she is awake. This is not too different from how we feel about music or art when we are moved by it. However, the music of the faun requires a listener in order for it to exist – and it may not be important whether she is awake or dreaming.
I think for the table to be complete it requires a carafe of wine and a few fluted glasses slightly wobbling on the meadow of its surface.
Artists have a natural affinity for collectors. This isn’t just for obvious reasons, that the collector plays an essential role in getting the work of art out of the studio where it can take on a life of its own. There is something even more basic that the two have in common. The artist is a spontaneous collector; in his everyday life he constantly accumulates and arranges things that for some particular reason resonate for him.
By “collector”, I don’t mean someone who merely amasses a great number of objects within a specific category. I know there are so-called collectors who, through various agents are able to fill entire warehouses with valuable pieces. There are men and women (but mostly men) who seek to increase their worth, either financially or socially, by purchasing works of art whose futures look bright in the art market. In a few years they will be able to make a profit.
The true collector has a different sense of time. He is interested in a continued present tense. His collection is defined by what he has been able to put together of a diffuse past. He is a protagonist; his motivations have more to do with the process of discovering a piece and the eventual steps in acquisition or accumulation than investment concerns.
The story of discovering and finally possessing something becomes an important part of the piece’s identity. The collector’s insight can be exciting, his ability to see curious similarities between ideas and objects adds new meaning, new directions to explore. This kind of collector is a poet. His relationship to everyday life is intense and direct. From earliest childhood he (or she) has developed the habit of picking up things and putting them in his pocket.
Gathering certain items is away to materialize memory The basic value of an object derives from how it fits into the collector’s personal system of reference, his memory and his associations. In the end, the true collection is, in itself, a work of art. Its character is closely entwined with the personality of its creator - his consciousness, his decisions, his ordering of limited sets, repetitions and an (often imagined) system of representation in space.
Linus Pauling said that you aren’t going to have good ideas unless you start with a lot of ideas and some sort of principal of selection. What results from this reordering may be a fresh narrative for the past, an insight into the story of art as a fertile territory. What the collector knows better than the art specialist, historian, critic, is that a written version is only part of the account. A rich and vibrant story can be told by the retrieved objects themselves.
In memory of Giovanni
Recently I have been sorting out my notebooks. The earliest of these date to childhood when my mother gave us empty notebooks – actually the agendas given at Christmas by Insurance companies and banks – to draw in and, every now and then, an enormous book of expired wall paper samples donated to her by a local home decorator’s shop.
These latter volumes were at least 50 cm. wide and you had the choice of the cream colored back side of each page where only a serial number disturbed the space or the pattered front side. Here, you could use larger crayons, pastels or tempera while we usually used pencils or pens in the smaller books.
The only order to our work was chronological, a date on the page at the lower right hand corner. Everything else about the drawings was anarchic. There was no real subject or clear theme. Or, if there were, it had to do with the mysterious relationship that objects and places have to you before functional values become part of the equation, the way you renew your existence.
There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain
part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
(Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass)
An artist’s sketchbook has a more immediate connection to his life than is true of work prepared for exhibition. In its purest state its contents are like children’s drawings, tied to existential factors that have little to do with style, and even less with intention or communication directed to the outside world.
There is a kind of paradox here because the value of drawings like this lies in their very lack of material worth or importance. Even a discussion of quality is irrelevant here. A sketchbook may be – ought to be – chaotic in theme and style because whatever else it may seem to be about, the main subject is the going forth every day of its author.
In the Studio
I am going to clear out my studio today. I promise. It has just started raining, a gentle spring shower that will keep me in and undistracted by what is going on in the garden. I have just finished a painting or think I have finished it…but the total disorder that only now disturbs me – as if I were a different person than the one who left the floor strewn with rags, dripped wax all over the place, scattered capless tubes of pigment, and left books open face down – is a distraction that won’t let me see what my efforts look like. I move back, the same way I did while I was working a few minutes ago, but now it is even harder to see.
Part of the problem is the process I use. Wax is melted in a double boiler used by restaurants for preparing pasta and contained in stainless steel pots that I alternate while painting. Everything takes place very quickly before the wax hardens. I use wooden panels and a good part of my painting takes place on the floor. When I see an image appear, I prop the painting on an easel. That way I can move freely away to see if it looks right from a distance or move very close to see if it has a the surface qualities I like. Very often, while I am waiting for the wax to heat, I pick up a something to read or start modeling a figure or working on a drawing, but everything is dropped once the wax is ready.
This makes me think. The process an artist uses is by no means a matter of efficiency or technical ability alone. Not even both factors together would explain what goes on in the studio, which always remains somewhat unpenetrable, and at the same time uniquely itself. For example, there are the movements required for stepping over instead of into the painting, the music that supports this dance, the wax harvested from the bees in the garden, the rare pigment found in a restorer’s shop in Rome. The friends you were thinking of while you were working.
And this last thought. In the real world you live in a specific place. But in your studio you can inhabit – you must inhabit – many different worlds, invoke a variety of companions without regard for time or distance. While this might not be the point in painting, it must be at least one of the reasons people make art. Not long ago I stood in front of a work of mine I hadn’t seen for twenty years and there they were: some fragments of Scarlatti played by Glen Gould, a meeting with a son’s teacher, an abandoned kitten, and some lines by Wallace Stevens:
Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night. It is
For that the poet is always in the sun,
Patches the moon together in his room
to his Virgilian cadences, up down,
Up down. It is a war that never ends.
(Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction; Cummington Press, 1942).
Now while I try to create order in the disparate objects distributed over every horizontal plane, a new source of confusion invades the space. Outside, the sun has just emerged through a hole in the dark grey sky. Inside, rays of light penetrate the darkness making a golden mosaic of everything and, into this new opus, my painting has completely disappeared.
Not long ago, I stole a big slice of time from my painting to work on a garden. This happened just after my mother’s death. She had involved me in her love for outdoor work from earliest childhood – helping me made a vegetable plot, letting me pick out my own flowers for a tiny bed edged with a border of oyster shells. But, as an adult, a need to jealously guard my painting time made each spring blossom as seductive and threatening as a Siren’s song. When I finally gave in to my desire to construct a garden it became a refuge from sadness, a protection, and the best means for me to invoke my mother, Margaret.
What I began to understand was that gardens, like any art form, exist in a in a realm of their own, somehow estranged from everyday life. They may imitate or represent natural phenomenon but they are anything but natural.This is dramatically true of the gardens that inspired me, the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden you see in miniatures painted by monks in monasteries, friars who also tended the plants of the cloister. One idealized tree becomes the symbol for all trees; several blades of grass, three strokes of a fine brush, alternate with single flowers, delicately rendered, to represent all flowers, every detail intensified in luminous tempera and gold. At last a sort of frame is invented, a shape suggesting mass, meaning protection, a wall high enough to exclude the landscape and horizon…the materialization of an escape from the real world.
The hortus conclusus is an introspective garden, a metaphysical room with a sky for a ceiling. Because of its scale, the room shows each treasure – even the smallest detail – to great advantage. Fruits and vegetables seem more colorful, brighter and larger than they do outside. Fleeting sounds and fragrances get captured within: bees humming around the pear blossoms, the first drops of a spring shower in the fountain, the peppery scent of the marigold. The room itself remains constant, a foil for continuous changes in color and form as fruits and vegetables mature.
Puttering is a good word for describing what you do in this kind of garden. A good deal of time is spent wandering, hovering, and performing chores in a movement that looks random. A little pruning here, some tying back there, strawberries to pick, a bit of weeding, a new bug to identify – then back to pruning. And even when you aren’t at work, your mind is puttering, moving from one thought to another and back again.
This way of thinking, this mind – puttering, is good for a painter…and different in kind than the intellectual exercise required by the classical Italian garden. In this space there are no meanings to be revealed, no narrative to accompany your path, no prospective views; everything is visible at once. Here time is not linear; it is cyclical having no beginning and no end. The hour of the day, the season, the weather – what you observe today are only temporary installations.
I pass by my studio, a hay barn, trying not to look in the door at the half finished painting on my easel, waiting for a rainy day. Right now, except for winter salads and some black cabbage, the orto seems to be resting…but already the earth is beginning to stir and life goes on. We have to sort out our seeds and organize the beds. There are certain rules. For example the tomatoes like being near the onions and the marigolds. It’s time to plan a nice new structure for the beans to climb and another one for the tomatoes. The squash will enjoy clinging to a south wall and the beans will like the plot where the tomatoes grew last summer.
First you have to imagine a young girl in an upstairs bedroom where there is a window facing a narrow road with an unpaved sidewalk backed by a rustic wooden fence. From the window she can make out the shingled roof of a rundown shack recently occupied by a hobo; just beyond it, invisible in the mist, begin the juniper growth and muddy terrain of Dismal Swamp and the tide waters of Virginia.
This girl will become my mother about fifteen years later but right now she has just lost her own mother and this is the first time she will sleep alone in a room she had always shared with her favorite sister who has just left home to live with relatives in New York City. Now she is afraid because across the street she can see a dark shadow lurking in the gap where a board is missing in the wooden fence.
This is the territory of Billy Bo Possum, a terrible creature who lived in the swamp, crawled out of the quicksand and captured children, dragging them under the earth with him. The hobo said that he saw the monster slip through the fence at night … Sometimes even in the day. The girl, her name is Margaret, pulls the sheets over her head and lies very still. Her father, at the far end of the house is pacing in his room.
At a certain point a door opens softly and she is overjoyed to hear her older brother’s gentle voice. He is home from the army, on special leave. His name is Buddy – this was the traditional nickname for an older brother in the south. I know he was tall and lanky and had red hair because my mother described him to me. I used to think of him as Uncle Buddy but I never met him.
However at this moment, in my mother’s story, he is her big brother sitting on the bed while she is crying. She is sure that Billy Bo Possum will come to get her.
Buddy looks out the window and stares at the fence lit by the street lamp. It is a damp night and the mist clings knee high to the ground. He tells Margaret not to worry, that he is going out for a short walk. She hears a screen door shut, then footsteps down the stairs of the front porch and looks out the window towards the swamp in time to see Buddy with his old hunting rifle squeeze between the wooden slats. He disappears into the mist. A billow of fog rolls from the direction of the Chesapeake. The only sound is a distant foghorn. Suddenly a shot rings out! She waits, motionless, at the window.
Finally she sees a shape move near the fence. Buddy emerges from the fog, his rifle over his shoulder. He looks up at her window. In a short while he is tiptoeing into her room to tell her not to worry, to settle down. He strokes her forehead; everything is going to be all right now. No one is going to harm her.
My sister and I were snooping through my mother’s keepsakes one day – we especially liked to rifle though her button box – when we came across a small silver box. In it were an eagle scout pin, medals, ribbons, a photograph of a field in France with rows upon rows of white crosses and the snapshot of a lanky red headed boy in a uniform. This man (who never became our uncle) was the hero who shot Billy Bo Possum.
When I was a child my father liked to tell us stories of the different cats who had inhabited the farm he lived on during the summers upstate New York, Little Falls. Very often these stories – while not being exactly moralistic – did nevertheless illustrate a point. For example there was a blind cat that lived in the barn, a good friend to the cows, and caught mice despite her handicap. She also managed to raise a litter of four kittens and when she died of old age the cows stopped giving milk for almost a week. He liked to joke about cats being much more reliable than people since they let you know where you stood in their materialism and wisdom. Moreover their demonstrative warmth showed the absolute confidence, of someone who knows affection to be a birthright.
Daddy liked to joke about death and reincarnation – I am sure that, although he was officially Episcopalian, his religion must have been a hodge-podge of spiritual beliefs mixed with ideas about nature from Emerson. But he liked to joke that in ancient Egypt they had a more accurate concept of god – at least as far as the cat images were concerned. He warned us repeatedly that he would be reincarnated as a big black cat.
I returned to the US from Italy with my new born son and five year-old only days before my father’s death after a long illness. We traveled upstate, my mother, brother, sister, husband and children to the old Iroquois burial site used by generations of my father’s family: the funeral was small and quiet with an unmarked grave under an ancient oak. We visited my father’s childhood home, a rambling wooden farmhouse on the edge of an overgrown forest, and then headed back to the house my mother and father had lived in during his illness. This was a small cottage on the outer banks of New Jersey, about 200 meters from the surf of the Atlantic Ocean. It was late August and the island was almost deserted; summer vacationers had headed back to their homes in the city.
When we entered the house there was that familiar beach house smell that you only notice after an absence. Everything was as it had been the day we left except there was an oversize black cat sitting upright on my father’s chair. We looked at each other calmly, petted the cat, put out some chopped meat for him while my husband walked around the neighborhood to see if anyone was missing a large black cat. No one came forward so the animal casually continued on at the house for several days, showing us affection the way cats do until one day he disappeared. We never talked about this but I think my brother, sister and mother took it as one of those special gifts that chance often gives.
This event came to mind a few years later during advent when the parent-teachers’’ association at my son’s grammar school in Florence were discussing what to do about Christmas. Florence is politically to the left and so a holiday like Christmas, most of the parents felt, should be celebrated without much emphasis on religion. But my son’s teacher pointed out – rightly I thought – that the risk was a celebration that had more to do with consumerism than the traditional-cultural significance of the day. I was, though not religious, sympathetic to her view and started to say so when she said that the children in her class were so ignorant in their religious culture that one of them (and my face burned) actually believed that when you die you come back to the world for awhile as a large black cat to comfort the family you leave behind….
Years later I was going through a box of books my sister sent me that had been in the family library when my mother left our big old house on Staten Island. Some of these were like old friends, the Ernest Thompson Seton books on wildlife, the James Fennimore Cooper books that took place along the Mohawk River valley of my father’s childhood, the Washington Irvings. But one I had never seen. A black photo album with small snapshots, several for each page, neatly mounted, labeled in a child’s hand. Nearly all were photographs of cats…Folded notes tucked into the binding included comments or short accounts of each. In the unfocused background a farmscape – barns, pastures, a kitchen. The book ends with the boy – now twelve years old – on the top of a building in New York city.
There are any numbers of ways of acquiring a dog today. The first is going to a pet shop, after due research on pedigree and characteristics, and purchasing one. An alternative to the pet store – and more adventurous – is the adoption of a dog from the local dog pound or acquiring one after a search on the Internet. Another way – and this one seems to be the most favored in this area (where most of our dogs work for a living either hunting, guarding vineyards from deer or finding truffle) – is waiting for a puppy from the new litter of a friend’s dog’s.
A more worrisome way of acquiring a dog – especially when you have never been a dog owner – is finding one in front of your studio door. Frankie was still a puppy of undetermined race and future size but easy to determine sweet character. Unlike all the cats I have known, Frankie’s chief goal in life seemed to be, from the very beginning of our acquaintance, to please me. “Unconditional love” is what they call it but as I observed him at work and play, I wondered if the situation wasn’t more complex; after all; didn’t I also enjoy pleasing him?
As far as his education, he seemed to intuit that I had little experience in dog training so he’d invent some of his own tricks until I picked up on them. Some, like his pointing at a bush where a pheasant was hiding, seemed to have been part of his black and white package.
Lately I look at dogs when they pass me on the sidewalk…I guess the same way mothers look at babies, by way of comparison. Of the animals I see, Frankie looks most like what I think of as a real “dog”…Maybe because he contains so many different combinations, he is able to speak not only for himself, but for all dogs. The other day, a hunter looked Frankie over and said he didn’t know what in the world he was. But, if he had seen him a few moments later, taking off, sprinting through a field, reappearing in leaps through the blowing grass he would have known: he is pure joy.