An American Painter in Umbria: Twenty-five Years of Landscapes

I am honored to be participating in this year's Bonazzi Symposium in Perugia, Italy this March. The topic is American Artists in Umbria. The symposium will explore the enduring influence and impact of Italian art and culture on American painters who work in Umbria and Tuscany, what they bring to Italy from America and what they take away. The symposium will also seek answers to important issues in art today such as the role of place in an increasingly global culture. Below are my reflections on the experiences I have had as an American painter working in Italy.

Lago Trasimeno from Monte Gualandro, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

An American Painter in Umbria:
Twenty-Five Years of Landscapes

Formative Influences and Early Landscapes
Italian painting, particularly that of the 19th century, came onto my radar in a big way in the early 1980s when I was a graduate student at American University in Washington, DC.  It was there that I was introduced to the work of the Macchiaioli by three of my teachers, Robert D’Arista, Jack Boul, and Dr. Norma Broude, whose book on the Macchiaioli was published in 1988. Since that time, landscape painting has been the gravitational center of my work. As a painter today, I owe a great debt to the formal language of the Macchiaioli whose concept of the macchia as a structural foundation of image making continues to resonate in my practice and in my teaching. Giorgio Morandi is another Italian painter who has shaped my formal vision, my attitudes and my outlook as an artist.

In 1994 I began bringing groups of students to Perugia for a three-week workshop with my colleague, art historian Mary Echols of Mary Baldwin College, focusing on landscape painting and Italian art history. Dr. Echols and I continued to return to Perugia every May for the next ten years with groups of 10-15 students. After a day of painting in the city, or traveling by train or public buses to nearby destinations to view and discuss art and to paint, we would return "home" to the Hotel Iris and a fabulous meal prepared for us by Maria Massarelli, the wife of the hotel's proprietor. Having a home base and this senso di accoglienza gave us a small sense of belonging to this place in ways that simply being a tourist can never do. Against the daily challenges of painting the Umbrian landscape, which is changed only slightly from the backgrounds so lovingly realized by Perugino and Piero della Francesca, were the enduring relationships we formed with people in this city over those ten years.

Because of the connection to this place and its people made possible by painting, study, and friendship, I can never look at the paintings we did here in the same way that I might look at paintings in a museum, where the works are removed from their original context. Life as lived insinuates itself into art and gives it a deeper, more personal resonance. The landscapes that my students and I took back to America from that period, and to the present, can never be "pure" in the way that late Modernism sought - an art free from narrative and allusion to nature. As Philip Guston said, "...painting is 'impure'. It is the adjustment of 'impurities', which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden."  At least to those who made them, our paintings of Italy will be forever infused with these vibrations of friendship, relationship, and yearning for this beautiful, historically complicated and archetypal land.

Fig. 1. Norcia, oil on panel, 8 x 10 in.

The Pull of Italy
When I attempt to understand the attraction that Italy has exerted on American painters historically and into the present, there are three things that come to mind.  First, there is the palpable sense of a centuries-long continuity and lineage from artist to artist. That’s a strong magnet for those whose home culture is more like a dry-erase board where new ideas continually extinguish old. In any Italian city or village, by contrast, one sees the harmonious, often ingenious, cohabitation of the past and the present. New ideas and forms don’t erase older ones but are contextualized within them. Today, one can even see modern thermal windows inserted into the Etruscan walls that surround this city. The American way, sadly, would have been to tear the old walls down! I’m also struck by how interwoven into all aspects of Italian life is the concern for beauty, form, and design - from food, fashion, architecture and construction, to urban design and agriculture. That in itself is a compelling model of the harmony we seek in art.

Finally, many American artists find in Italy a sense of respect and veneration for their profession that surprises them because of our own society’s ambiguous, almost adversarial relationship to the arts and to artists. As a painter I’m not alone in my sense of being more at home in Italy than in my native country, and these factors contribute powerfully to that feeling.

The Relevance of Place in a Global Context
It is tempting to dismiss the relevance of "place" in today's global art culture. However, while globalization and technology greatly diminish and blur regional differences, the making of art, especially landscape painting, can never completely escape the places in which it is realized. People will always be curious to know where a landscape was painted. Despite the cross-pollination and hybridization of styles that global exchange and internet culture have wrought, the human agencies of temperament, history, cultural values, and conditioning remain for each artist a deep, unconscious reservoir that always reveals itself in the intuitive struggles of artistic creation. The Local continues to inform the art of different artists, countries and regions as a kind of DNA. Like the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy as a response to the cultural invasion of American fast food, perhaps Italian culture will prove itself to also be the birthplace of a new counter-culture, a kind of Slow Art movement taking hold of many artists who are resistant to the tides of homogenization, distraction, fashion, celebrity, and commodification that have plagued art in our time.
  Fig. 2 Silo, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 in.                              

In the last ten years I have spent summers in Cortona, where my wife is from, exploring and painting in Umbria and other sites in Italy. My work, both here and at home, continues to respond to the collisions and elisions of old and new; the liminal landscapes of contemporary environments situated within the enduring traces and topographies of the past. As a painter working between two worlds, it’s not just formal problems that occupy me. It is also the vital dialogue with those Italian painters who have taught me to see; who have provoked in me a deeper understanding of the enterprise in which we as painters are involved. In terms of an exchange, I’m not certain what my paintings of Umbria contribute to Italy but it’s clear to me that this is what Italy has given to me.

Fig. 3 Clouds on the Mountain, Pergo, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 8.5 x 6.5 in.


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