Hortus Conclusus:the Margaret Garden

Margaret Garden
Margaret Garden

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.

Looking out from the pergola
Looking out from the pergola

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.

Pergola
Pergola

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.

Frankie in the Garden
Frankie in the Garden

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.

Garden Gate
Garden Gate

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.

Bench in Margaret Garden
Bench in Margaret Garden

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.

The story of Billy Bo Possum

Porch, 9ox72cm., etching, 1978

Porch, 9ox72cm., etching, 1978

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.

Trees night, 100x70cm, pastel, 1996

Trees night, 100x70cm, pastel, 1996

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.

About Cats

Lulu's milk; 15x10 cm., ink, 1999

Lulu's milk; 15x10 cm., ink, 1999

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.

•	Gatto (Lulu) arrabbiata, 27x12x6, bronze, 2009

• Gatto (Lulu) arrabbiata, 27x12x6, bronze, 2009

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.

My father's house (scrapbook)

My father's house (scrapbook)

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….

My father's cats (scrapbook)

My father's cats (scrapbook)

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.

My father in N.Y.C. (scrapbook)

My father in N.Y.C. (scrapbook)

Frankie

 

Frankie; 10x20x10 cm., bronze, 2009

Frankie; 10x20x10 cm., bronze, 2009

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.

Frankie (peeing)

Frankie (peeing)

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.

Frankie in the wind

Frankie in the wind

About Reality


Boy, icecream, dog; cm.10x15, photo, 2004

Boy, ice cream, dog; cm.10x15, photo, 2004

The following piece was written to introduce eight photographs selected as part of a project initiated by ALINARI24ORE.  The famous Alinari archive in Florence has joined the journal Sole24Ore in a project presenting works by contemporary artists who have been inspired by historic photographic images. A series of exhibitions, starting at the Scavi Scaligeri from the 5th to the 31st of September 2009, will show the prints of 18 artists in a  limited edition. (The picture above is a study for one of eight final prints.)

Reality

Reality, that superficial layer that envelops material objects, and living subjects and keeps them in the present, seems to be preserved by the photographic process. By definition, a photograph is a fact of light, an absolute.
In 1852, Leopoldo Alinari, with his brothers Giuseppe and Romualdo, founded a photographic workshop specializing in preserving reality through portraiture, records of art and historical monuments, studies of landscapes and their inhabitants.
Yet it is something beyond their celebrated technical capacity that inspires an irrepressible yearning to look below the surface of subject-matter to the subtle, often unintended, detail. Contemplating their pictures of quotidian life (student gatherings, animated street scenes, women at domestic work, people taking lone walks, children at play) it is hard not to sink below the layer of reality to the realm where a potential fiction lies: that hill, that child, that unruly dog running by, that figure lurking out of focus in the corner…
The miniature subjects on an invented stage depicted here seem to have been caught by the camera as they pass through everyday life. While they are small and inconsequential, they are as large as life because photography always has to do with reality in the world at large. And in life, don’t we sometimes pause suddenly when nothing particular is happening only to look around and discover a world shimmering with meaning?

Frances Lansing,  31 March 2009

Diary (excerpts 1973)

FL with Yates, Taormina 1973 (C.Toraldo di Francia)

FL with Yates, Taormina 1973 (C.Toraldo di Francia)

Florence, 1973

July 18 – Today is my birthday. This morning, to honor the occasion, Yates and I ate our breakfast at Rivoire, then sat in the shade under the Loggia dei Lanzi to watch the piazza. A friendly old woman sat down next to us and started up a conversation with Yates. He is making better progress with Italian than I am. When she asked him how old he was, I looked up in time to see him hold up three fingers. I was busy trying to read in La Nazione about Nixon’s tape recording system. At a certain point, she asked him where his mother was. He acted confused as he pointed in my direction. She glanced over at me and apologized, “I’m sorry dear; it’s just that you look so young!” ” I am young!” I said.

July 20 - As I write, I’m gazing out over the Arno through the green slats of the shutters while Yates plays with Lego at my feet. It’s around two o’clock. There is no movement outside; the whole scene could be a photograph. Even the flow of the river, opaque as pea soup, seems suspended. We used to walk at this hour, keeping to the shadows made by the over-hanging roofs. The streets were deserted and the lull in traffic let us step carefully out onto the pavement every now and then to look at the facades above. Now, it is too hot even for our slow pace.

July 30 -What Yates loves best here is the night. Way past what would be his bedtime in Boston, everyone is down in the piazza moving around, talking, shouting, singing. You can hear children – even very young ones – running around and squealing. Gradually we are conforming to patterns that have been established for good very reasons.
I guess you could say we are learning to be at home since that’s what home is really, not just a roof over your head but a set of rituals that, by being familiar, give comfort to everyday life, no longer having to be worked out one by one.
In some ways, even while we were traveling, we were at home. We had our rituals. Yates had his playtime, I had my reading, then a pause for lunch – a bag of cheese and fruit or a stop at a trattoria. Around nap – time, we made up what he called his “special bed”. This was my old trench coat smoothed out, the sleeve and collar part folded to form a pillow. He got so attached to it that for months later – even in his own bed – he couldn’t sleep without it, flicking the collar point between his fingers before dropping off.
We took local trains so we could get off whenever we felt like it. Visits to museums and churches were usually short and to the point. Maybe because he so recently was one, Yates was always on the lookout for babies in the paintings and sculptures.
In our conversations with strangers on trains, I made up stories about where we were going, meetings with relatives further down the line. It wasn’t that I was reticent but – until recently – I had been so focused on the decision to leave home that I had given much less practical thought to where we were going. I decided on Florence. It had become a dream of mine ever since childhood when I had seen frescoes from Florence temporarily displayed on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum. These had been removed from their original walls so that they could be rescued from the flood. I was awe-struck.

August 16 – When I’d first thought of leaving Boston, a man I know who is a New York artist, invited me to dinner. He showed me his sculptures, big steel boxes that were beautiful in the way a big steel box would have to be. I held off showing him my drawings of everyday objects, children and friends after he insisted that art today had to be impersonal, unequivocal, and a reflection on it’s time.
Time. But it’s my time, I mean my own interior time – what is going on inside my mind – that I really need to reflect on now.

He calls this “avoiding reality” and “escapism”. But isn’t running away a legitimate alternative when nothing else seems to work? Vietnam; I don’t want to think about it but there it is…calling, over and over again, everything we knew and felt strongly about into question. If a person could really understand all that goes into making one do certain things, even the most trivial circumstances – the John Wayne movies – would he be able to avoid that helicopter, that missile, that descent from the sky?

We don’t have a television – one way of keeping reality at bay. The other night in the trattoria, there was a television on but nobody was giving it any particular attention. Some numbers flashed up and I could feel my stomach tighten the way it did for the daily body counts in Southeast Asia, but they were soccer scores. Then several women who looked like showgirls from Las Vegas started dancing on a table (on the television screen, not in the trattoria). Shortly after, during desert, they were followed by a group of men seated around a large table, shouting at each other, sometimes all at the same time. And just as we were leaving, it flashed on – the news that the bombing of Cambodia is officially ended…

August 18 - I’ve always felt like a foreigner. Even growing up in New York. Maybe it’s because family roots in Upstate New York made me feel that our life in the city was temporary, that any day we would leave. I remember, even very young, looking at things carefully, photographing them in my mind’s camera, the way you look around a house you are leaving for the last time…
But being a genuine outsider seems like a good thing for an artist. You can observe and question things that an insider can’t see because he takes them for granted. Besides that, it frees you from the strictures of social norms that can sap valuable time and energy. Once you’re away from the claims of your own society, you can choose to take on just what is essential from the society you join.

20 August - A dog is barking in the street below. There are several dogs joining him now, panting in the shade and looking puzzled, as if they don’t know what to do next or where they belong. You can see the shimmering waves of heat rising around them. Beyond the river and houses lining it, the hills and their geometry of olive grove and cypress look like a blue mirage.

21 August – I am learning to read the landscape – a necessary first step before being able to draw it. It doesn’t belong to me, too different from the landscape of my childhood. I mean the one I carried in my head – made up of stories of Mohicans and yearly visits to the ragged woodland of our old farm in the Mohawk valley. We were constantly – even in the empty lots of Manhattan – looking for wilderness. In our minds we were pioneers.

25 August – The Tuscan countryside really disturbed me at first. It’s harmony oppressed me in the way perfect things do because they leave so little space for a critical response, no where to hide and no chaotic corner I might put in order using my own creativity. Nothing is left to chance – terraces, walls, olive groves – even the trees in the forest are lined up in rows like corn
When I came upon a window in the Uffizzi the other day, I was startled by a sudden view of the countryside because it looked like a painting. All at once, I saw the landscape as a work of art. And as soon as modern farming takes over in Tuscany, that kind of scene will be a precious reminder – like the fresco still adorning a church wall. The same thing is true of the American wilderness that has been completely consumed except for those scattered areas set aside as parkland. Still these two landscapes survive, not just as relics but as ideals, each emblematic of a special approach to life.
I am thinking of art, in particular. In America where novelty is everything, the artist must be a pioneer, constantly staking out new claims in virgin territory. Here, artists seem to employ their history more actively, not just by using traditional techniques, but by consciously elaborating on art from the past, reinvesting it with new dreams.

August 29 – Last night, we saw a different side of Florence. A friend took us to the Festa dell’ Unità, a kind of fair to raise money for the Communist Party. I had to overcome a reflexive reaction of fear before entering because there was a huge red hammer and sickle suspended above the gateway.
Inside, there was a long exposition stand with photographs of appalling things that the USA is doing in Chile through the CIA and so on. Even after Watergate and Vietnam, I still find it hard to believe. There were also discussions about the political situation here but I had trouble understanding, not just for the language but due to the amplification of a concert right next to us where the singer looked exactly like Elvis Presley. There were also carnival games (shoot the duck and so on). We won a fern and a teddy bear but didn’t buy chances on a new red car because I was afraid I might win it.
Walking home as the sun was setting, Yates pointed out a star barely visible in the dusk. I told him, since it was the first star he saw that night, he could make a wish on it. He took this very seriously and slowed his pace to a halt. When I asked him, after a few minutes, if he had decided on something, he nodded but still didn’t move. After deliberating for several minutes longer he looked up and asked,” who do you have to see about getting a wish changed?”

September 5 – The apartment we are living in is fairly modern – it must have been built to replace a building destroyed by the war – and is on the sixth floor. We have a really big balcony that we are gradually filling with plants helped by a Persian student of architecture who lives on the first floor. The building has a cage-like elevator with a slot where you need to insert a ten-lira piece in order to make the thing work. It is nearly impossible to find! We have finally found out that stores who sell milk usually have a few – which we hoard jealously. This was one of our more important discoveries.

September 12 – Chile’s democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup…

September 15 – The Persian student has become a good friend. He is a big help, especially if I need to go out, because Yates likes staying with him. Sometimes we go down to his house to take a shower because – from six o’clock in the morning until late at night – we have no water. This is due to a lack of pressure in the summer. His apartment is very beautiful. The walls and floors are covered with carpets his father sent him from home.

September 18 – Yates has his own room. My old raincoat lies spread out on top of the bedspread.
Yesterday he was so quiet right after going to bed that I called him to find out what he was up to and he answered, “sleeping.” When I went in to check up on him a little while later, he really was asleep. But right over his head – like the caption in a cartoon – there was a big black circle drawn in crayon on the wall. Inside it, there were flowers and cats and what looked like a family, all dancing under a big yellow sun! I wonder if I could extract this piece of wall, save it the way they did with the frescoes… Yates woke up while I was standing there, so I asked him what it was. He said it was his dream.

Window

This is the way it has looked out my window for the last week…it is wonderful to watch color gradually emerge from the grey – similar to the feeling that comes when the a landscape materializes out of  paint.

The word “landscape” may be misleading as a description of the most vital works covered by the genre. They are not descriptions of land; their true subject is time – cyclical time – the seasons, the times of day and the weather.  (These naturally refer to an analogous interior subject.)

Window

My imaginary friend

When I was about five I had a friend who’s name was B. He was, in a way, the first friend I ever had and everything about him is vivid to me. He had soft blond hair with a rolled curl at the top and he wore clothes that were loose fitting. He looked like a very young child, large head, small body, but he was able to do the things one would usually associate with being a grownup: reading me stories,  holding my hand at the crossings, helping me put my toys away.  My mother told me that he was an imaginary friend  and we left it at that. B’s physical appearance may have been influenced by a book my godmother gave me for Christmas about a guardian angel who did all sorts of companionable things and also participated in miniature tea parties with the dolls of the household. The illustrations were what I liked best about that book.
One day the ladies of the guild came to tea and I was commissioned to help serve tiny little pink cakes to them while my mother was bustling around in the kitchen. In the parlor, there were two places set for me at a small end table. Out of boredom, I guess, I began to talk to B, to remind him to behave and so on. One of our guests asked me if B wouldn’t like some cake too. I said, no …he didn’t have any teeth except for imaginary teeth.
In the next few years my younger brother, Yates, took most of my attention away from B. However, B never left me completely. He grew up too and, thankfully evolved beyond his angelic appearance into an interesting man with a beard like Walt Whitman’s. He was a welcomed presence in my studio, patient, ever open yet willing to present an alternative viewpoint. In painting or sculpting, I check with him frequently as I squint my eyes and walk closer then farther away from my painting. What do you think;  is that green too acid? Is the texture overworked?  Can you read that as space? That kind of thing.
Now my brother is a sculptor and I’d much rather talk to him about my work than B. But he lives in Boulder…while B is always extremely accessible.

Yates and Frances Lansing, 43 Belair Road, Staten Island

Yates and Frances Lansing, 43 Belair Road, Staten Island

Notes for a journey

Rinascita nel campo (10cm.detail); cm. 120x125, encaustic, 1996

Rinascita nel campo (10cm.detail); cm. 120x125, encaustic, 1996

Notes for a journey
From a conversation with the artist by Ginevra Quadrio Curzio
“Frances Lansing, 1989-2005″    Sondrio

GQC I would like to begin this conversation with you speaking about your travels, both biographical and artistic, which haven’t been at all linear. You have chosen to become a painter after having undertaken an academic career. What motivated this change of yours and what have been your roots in art?

FL It might seem a paradox but the fact that, more than for more than twenty years I decided to dedicate myself to a career in art instead of following a course in linguistics, wasn’t a rupture in the order of things or a personal revolution. Instead it was a question to of adhering to an interior motive, an instinct cultivated since earliest childhood.
I was born in New York in a family that today in Italy would be defined as intellectual but which in that period was somehow special – an environment where manual creativity and intellectual research were part of everyday life. These were as much a part of my early explorations as the New York of my childhood, the important museums, the exciting character of my neighborhood.
I always experienced my formal education as a sort of dissociation. The more it refined itself towards specialization, the greater the distance grew from my real roots, those most profoundly radicated in the creative world of my family. In the end, this disassociation worked itselrf out. The occasion was the climate of the first years of the Seveties, from the contestation of various formalistic social values, as for example, to terminate studies which no longer were relevant to me.
In this context, I was swept up in the dramatic consequences of the war in Vietnam – even on a personal level – to the point where the existential crisis forced me to recognize my deeper identity. The decision to leave Boston and transfer to Italy and become a painter was a simple and coherent consequence of this consciousness.

GQC The years in which you abandoned your studies in linguistics for art and America for Italy were years of great fermentation in American art. What motives did you have for your choice to leave then and what was your relationship to contemporary art in those years?

FL Living in New York and Boston, in the early Seventies, in contact with one of the most radical artistic and intellectual environments of the period, the mutations in the art scene certainly couldn’t elude me. It was a period of intellectual Jacobinism so that art was a concept or nothing. The artistic process became so reductive that it no longer required any distinctive identification with its creator or its form.
The general theories of the period, omnipresent, simply didn’t interest me. In reality, I didn’t waste much energy in opposition. I mostly took refuge in studying the art that appealed to me….I don’t believe that art can be defined by “innovation”. Art history is not linear. Its movement is elliptical connecting works made in diverse moments, embedding them in a substance that is always actual so that they are constantly free to communicate with each other. These thoughts were at the basis of my desire to leave for Florence.
I despair of ever being able to describe in its fullness the absolute privilege it was – and still is today – to live in Tuscany, where I have been able to study at close hand the Italian art tradition. It would be difficult to say, considering the many years I’ve spent here, what has enriched my work more: the creative influence of this country, its enormous tradition and the extreme beauty of its countryside, or the nostalgia I feel for an America which, like the wilderness I dreamt of as a child, I know doesn’t really exist.
The conflict of these two visions is almost irresolvable but fortunately the space of a painting is different from the confines of the real world. When you paint you can find yourself in any place or even various places at the same time. In fact, it’s better if you are in more than one place. In these spaces a particular world is recomposed, colors and surfaces are reinvented so that a new map can trace the convergence of two rivers: the Arno and the mighty Hudson.

GQC Among the fonts of inspiration of your work you name impressionism or – even more – the Barbizon school and the American Landscape painters. From your works appear clear influences of the literary tradition of authors like Whitman and Thoreau, Emerson. What ties you to these Eighteenth century sources, mainly American, of that period?

FL For me it’s simpler to speak about tefchniques and materials used in the paintings more than the various influences behind or beneath the work. A painting isn’t just a simple object but the physical space in which relationships between many other paintings merge together. The significance derives from this very fact and. seeing that the medium is visual, it reveals itself in its evidence. The viewer has the essential role here because he or she will “get” the message. A great part of the pleasure in art comes from the imaginative process used in reception. I think it all works better when word-thoughts don’t interfere.
But if you insist, I’d have to repeat that my precedents have, in a very general way, to do most with the surroundings of my childhood home. The landscapes on the walls of my home were often scenes of Eighteenth century America – not necessarily important ones and some pictures from Dutch artists contemporary to Ruisdael, brought by my ancestors to New Amsterdam from Holland.
I think what was important about these works to me was their depiction of an “active” nature rather than their description of a specific place. They had to do with transcendentalism of Emerson…so that the wilderness they presented was a kind of symbol for raw creativity. Besides that iconographic aspect, for a family who lived in New York City with a profound longing for the countryside, these paintings took on an almost religious character. And, finally, in my early adulthood, they became associated in my mind with the political and philosophic ideas in the air during my years in Boston, where, much more than Marx, it was Thoreau and “On civil disobedience” we were discussing.

GQC As with the Barbizon school, in your work two different spirits coexist even in the use of different techniques. On one hand there is the temptation to gather a spiritual dimension of nature, an inspiration which is paradoxically completely antinaturalistic, that expresses itself it seems in particular in the encaustic work; on the other hand it surprises us to discover a consciousness which is extremely realistic or naturalistic which reflects your interest in photography – and in the etchings so precise to the point of being almost photographic, and in the choice of subjects like the Tuscan Farmers. What relationship is there between these two aspects of your work? Are they distributed on different periods or do they cohabit the same territory?

FL My transfer to Italy coincided with my meeting and staying near Cristiano Toraldo di Francia and his colleagues of Superstudio. For me, in the earliest days of my work in etching and photography, it was an opportunity to enter immediately into the heart of the most radical research in Italy, which in that moment combined architecture, urban studies, anthropology…With Cristiano, I participated in some campaigns of documentation where we used many different graphic forms (etching, photography, photomontage, film) to express the reality of the Tuscan countryside.
Those were years in which I could perfect the secret techniques of etching, thanks to Giuseppe Gattuso Lo Monte and Denis Olson at the Santa Reparata Atelier in Florence. In etching it was the characteristic indirectness of the process that interested me – as did any technique that opposed itself to an immediate reproduction of the image. This challenge, present in any number of means, creates a sort of dialogue with the work. It is as if the work, during its execution, could put forward its own point of view.
This loss of absolute technical artistic domination lets you achieve associations of meanings that would be otherwise out of reach.
In the Eighties I focused on some of the manual, experimental and technical aspects already present in etching. Through documentary research on the various artisan trades, (including restoration, goldsmith work, the laundry, mosaic making, embroidery) and in visits to various workshops with Cristiano, I liked the direct contact I had with matter, the symbiosis between hand and mind that renders material inseparable from content.
But the significance of certain substances seem integrated and inseparable from an eventual reading. For example, if you live on an island confined by rivers and near the ocean, it seems natural to tie certain abstract ideas to a liquid substance. I am unable to think of time, for example, without imagining it as a pulsing liquid.

GQC If it is true that every technique has its own spirit or, as you say, its own ideology, then to use drawing instead of oil, etching or encaustics, entails possibilities, problems, different scopes…. How does this relate to your large wax paintings?

FL In the large format landscapes, which I have been painting since 1989, I use bees’ wax united to pigments. In these paintings the layers of colors are dripped from a large flat brush onto a wooden panel on the floor. As the paint accumulates , the image gets more legible to me until I can fashion it into something real to me by scraping, rubbing or smearing the surface.
This way of working reminds me of the way memory operates. The layers of color underneath partly determine the tone and the quality of the surface and can be revealed or re-elaborated in their complexity.

GQC In the last few years you have begun to work in three dimensions, with a series of sculptures in small sizes. How do you see this development in the context of your artistic progress?

FL Thinking about my relationship to three dimensional objects, what comes to mind first are some small inhabited landscapes I made in the early Eighties. I placed small figures – the kind used with model trains – in a way that they could narrate moments, … and then photographed them. What the film captured if the light was right were scenes of everyday life which, abstracted from their apparent banality, assumed a truth of their own, a kind of aura.
I’m thinking of these images now as I imagine the small sculptures which are still new to me, after such a long period of working almost exclusively on my encaustic paintings.
My return to the figure is also a return to a small dimension. These sculptures, infact, are meant to be held in your hand, touched, without any heroic scale. The true font of inspiration comes to me from Etruscan art. One thing that is no mystery about this culture is the loving attention they gave to the domestic aspects of everyday life. The small animals and figures in these works echo that feeling in my version of the lamp or Thymiateria. Some of the animal figures can be used as handles or tools.
My husband, Sheppard Craige has been the commissioner of a great number of these works. Their destiny is his garden situated in the town of San Giovanni d’Asso in the Crete of Siena. Since his “Bosco della Ragnaia” is in itself an artwork, designed and realized like the work of a landscape painter, it would have been inappropriate to add a sculpture of monumental proportion. And so I’ve concentrated on the realization of very small figures, which don’t impose themselves on the landscape but rather reveal themselves little by little, barely emerging from their settings.
Children should enjoy turning around them while adults might be able to “read” them much as the figures accompanying an Illuminated text which have nothing to do with the contained text. These objects have no real relation to the Garden and its contents.
But as to the relation between the wax paintings and the lost wax sculptures, both are very centered on the plasticity and texture of the material used…the same material. And, as with the etchings, the artisan aspect of an indirect process – manipulation and transformation – still fascinates me.
The sculptures in terracotta, instead, are very direct and have a relation with the profound desire for simplicity, with the desire to return to the essence of making and to join that long vertical line that since prehistory renders us participants in that eternal rite: here the earth, here the water, here the fire…(come Spirit!).

Concerning Bees

Frances-studioin Feb.'08

Frances' studio in March, 2008 (Stefano Baroni)

My studio is a hay barn. A date on a ceramic plaque above the door says it was constructed in 1911, the year my father was born on a farm in upstate New York. The building is brick; on three walls high grill-work windows, typical of hay barns in this area, let in blades of light that move around according to the time of day. On a morning of sun like this one today, the sweet darkness of the interior becomes a mosaic of luminous tiles. Not far from where I paint, an imposing device designed for kitchen use as a double boiler, maintains a mixture of bees’ wax, Venetian turpentine, and various pigments in three stainless steel pans at 63 degrees C.

On the easel there is an unfinished painting; the thick surface suggests the presence of vegetation. From nearby you can see a lone bee. She hovers in the air as if in search of pollen or nectar, but her real interest is in the material itself; she suspects – correctly – that it has something to do with her. She lives just 150 meters away, at the foot of the hill on a terrace next to a small orchard. I shoo her out the door and she disappears into the celestial blooms of a rosemary bush. The branches tremble as if animated by a chorus of voices murmuring in a temple. The farmers who lived in this region 2000 years ago thought that bees were sacred… Maybe they were right.

From where I am standing, near the front door, my painting is just beginning to look like a landscape. When I move back inside and up close, it breaks up into abstract colors and forms. Both views are important to me. But what I was searching for when I first started experimenting with bees’ wax was not specific subject matter but a way of painting, one that would feel coherent with a way of thinking.

“Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws.” Emerson said. The almost random gesture of dripping warm colored wax on a panel creates signs and textures of increasing complexity. It only takes the slightest change, a subtle rotation of the wrist, to create an unpredictable variation. This system, in favoring a interlacing of signs, integrates the foreground with the background. The composition spreads and becomes abstract. And a certain distance is required in order to recognize the subject as a landscape at all.

The rhythm of the process is fast. As if under a spell, the color on the large flat brush hardens after only a few minutes and requires a new immersion in the warm viscous medium to soften it. Once the result looks promising, the painting is promoted to an upright position. At this point, I can manipulate it, scraping, wiping, smoothing (with a hot iron). What I like about this stage of my work is that it represents a metaphor for memory. The layers of color underneath determine the quality of the surface and can be revealed, suppressed, or elaborated.

Memory plays an essential part in every phase of the operation. The sudden realization of an image or a scene depends on its being triggered by an evocation. Recollection is a good word to describe what happens because what is retrieved is never an intact picture but rather the collection and reassembling of various moments from various places: damp maples huddled on a small island, mist rising from a northern lake, an old love letter disguised as a sunrise, a distant shore, barely discernable.

The tingle of recognition I feel when this happens is one of the primary reasons for painting in the first place. Patterns imitating nature seem to be most convincing when they are not caused by an imposed treatment. Instead when entwined branches, ripples on a lake, richly furrowed bark, result from a course of action such as dripping or melting, they can be as astounding as the markings on a butterflies wings that make it resemble a leaf.

Only rarely does this process lead to figures in the landscape, and when it seems they are starting to emerge, I dismiss them before they start giving order to what had been left purposely vague.

When I was a little girl I lived in New York City, and, desiring more Nature in my room, I painted a supplementary window – complete with a tree-lined view – along a good part of one wall. My mother let me do that kind of thing. But a guest of hers, a portly woman wearing a long necklace with shiny jet beads, seemed skeptical. She asked me, “where are the people in your landscape?” I was speechless. How could an adult woman be so stupid; we were both standing right there!

Instead, the human form as a subject in itself has always interested me and, in this period, is gradually becoming the theme of a series of small sculptures. The subjects have evolved – even in a Darwinian sense – from small animals into upright Homo sapiens, and are proliferating in the Bosco della Ragnaia, under the guidance of Sheppard Craige, its creator and my husband.

The Bosco marks a point in Sheppard’s artistic development. He stopped painting or – more accurately – changed the scale of his landscapes and began transforming an abandoned piece of land into a park. In this project, Sheppard follows no preconceived overall design, but works the way he paints, with the same diffuse joy an artist derives from physical contact with his materials.

On a trip to Greece several years ago Sheppard and I gathered acorns from under a grove of stooped evergreen oaks into a big white handkerchief, tied into a bundle. We rested for a while, watching the sky above an electrical plant some distance away. The steam billowing from the enormous stacks, transformed into clouds, were perfectly round and spotlessly white. In the foreground – dominating a field of wild flowers – a score of wooden containers rested on a stone wall. Painted in varying shades of blue, each hive was a whirlwind, a hum of palpable energy.

We planted the acorns in a corner of the Ragnaia and what I wonder about now are the following: When they grow, will they feel different from the existing trees around them? Will something remain from that day, when we gathered them, something that will attach itself to the new roots like a parasite of joy? And will they think they are in Arcadia?