Florence and the Road

by Julia A. Rooney ‘11, Artist Development Fellow: 2009

A VES concentrator and Mather House resident, Julia A. Rooney ‘11 was awarded a Fellowship to travel to Italy to work on a series of urban and rural landscape paintings while working as a

teaching assistant at Studio Art Centers International (SACI). Rooney has studied drawing and painting at Parsons the New School for Design, and is a member of the Tuesday Magazine Art Board. Her future plans include working as a professional artist and teaching art.

I ask myself many times what this project is about. One answer is an objective one: it is a project about cities, in particular, the geographic and psychological identities we have constructed for a number of cities in northeast Italy. Formulating this thesis has proved incredibly useful in directing my research: over the past few months, it has lead me to libraries and tourist offices where I gather maps, writings and histories of these places. It has also led to other questions whose answers will hopefully make my work relevant to a larger public and reveal something significant about a topic which has long been studied and perhaps dampened as a result: the "Italian landscape." But for all the formal explanations I can present to dubious listeners, whose immediate impression may be that I want to paint beautiful Umbrian countrysides and terracotta roof-tops, there is, at its heart, an element of this project which follows no official agenda. The second way I explain what this project is about, is to admit that it is deeply personal and aside from its more scholarly pertinence, it is about simple things: arrival and departure in new or familiar places, the simultaneous sense of community and solitude one experiences on the road, and finally the way we encounter, remember and return to places.

I am perhaps merely recapitulating my project without revealing anything of my recent work. But I felt as though I needed to start there because for the past six weeks of travel, my constant struggle with understanding both the "objective" and the "subjective" structure of this work has directed where I go, what I see and how I think.

The first month, I traveled to ten cities, cutting down and revising the original list of fifteen to Trent, Bolzano, Venice, Caorle, Verona, Ferrara, Rimini, Perugia, Assisi and Cortona. My days consisted of constant walking, nearing 15 km in some places, sketching at sites of interest, photographing profusely (over 2000 shots by the end), and writing accounts of my personal and visual impressions of these places. In each city, I started from the core and made my way to the periphery, to suburbs and paese as far as 6 km from the the centro: Rimini’s lungomare brought me to the neighboring town of Riccione, the descent from the elevated city of Cortona brought me to the newer town of Camucia, and the exit from one of Perugia’s many porte brought me to the rural town of Ponte Felcino. I changed my itinerary on a city-by-city basis: after a few days in the visually cool mountains of the Alto-Adige, I longed for the brightness of the Veneto. After the sterility of Caorle’s animated hotels and the endless expanse of sky and beach, I visually craved the closure and grit of a real city: Verona.

Though I had not necessarily planned this, over the weeks I found myself returning to the same types of places in each city: the cemeteries, train-stations and vast residential zones of each place. I sought these places out, as points of rest in the constant bustle of tourists and "city-center activities." Especially in cities where tourism seems completely interwoven with the city’s fabric, I sought out the places where the city breathed: in Venice, this meant the relatively unvisited island of Giudecca, the industrial mainland city of Mestre, the rare stretch of uninterrupted land near the maritime station and the former Jewish ghetto of Cannaregio. Train stations visually interested me because of their rawness and pure practicality, especially in contrast to the "beautified" aesthetic of the city’s churches and monuments. Cemeteries attracted me because of their location – often removed from activity – and their layout – small, intimate and strangely colorful.

The bulk of my research came from these day-time activities: walking, sketching and photographing. But again, I am brought back to the much more personal element of the project, the time in the day when I returned to my hostel room and had nothing to do but read, reflect, write and rest. Very early on, I realized that while a significant amount of these paintings will deal with the exterior composition of these cities, a group of them must necessarily deal with the internal aspect: looking out from the more intimate space of one’s room. There are many ways a city can be depicted: for instance, in the explicit, literal depiction of its train stations or walls, as I have mentioned. At the same time, scenes from my hostel rooms will offer a more implicit, personal rendering of these places. Both are equally important.

And finally, after a month of this travel, which I largely considered to be visual documentation and research, I reached Florence and began the creative culmination of this work, the painting itself. I arrived with much anticipation and even unease, mostly because of the expectations I had, the hundreds of paintings I was thinking about, the urgency I felt to finally execute a project I had merely been theorizing about for a year.

Painting has been an incredible experience. More so than ever, I have an obsession with the work to be made. Very quickly, I realized this project would stretch well beyond my month in Florence and carry through for the next few years. I have been working every day, between 3 and 8 hours, reading a fair amount about these cities, sorting through my thousands of photographs, making watercolor or pencil studies, and again writing my ideas down; I am afraid I will forget them if I do not. Speaking with the students in the class about their work and my own has proved to be equally enriching; quite broadly, it has made me question what an arts education should consist of – what one leaves an art school having learned. I have been looking at the work of Antonio Lopez Garcia, Peter Doig, and Michael Raedecker, artists with diverse takes on depicting interior and exterior spaces. I have been looking at Philip Guston merely because of his sincerity.

Equally stimulating are the materials I am using, ones which are different from American brands and are changing the way I can work. I have been priming my canvases with rabbit-skin glue and making my own gesso from talcum powder, water and acrylic resin. The surface I have been achieving is much softer and chalkier, absorbing the paint much more so than the slick surfaces produced from American gesso. I am altering the way I paint and selecting my imagery according to these new properties, composing scenes of cities which I had initially described as dusty, still places. I will continue using this gesso for a select number of paintings when I return to the States. I am also becoming interested in raw pigments, the possibility of mixing my own paint, and the doors that opens into how I apply paint in the first place.

By the end of my stay in Florence, I foresee having produced four paintings; there are dozens more I will make upon return. I have never felt so right, exhilarated or earnest about my work as I do now. For that, I would like to express my sincere gratitude, and thank this community for the incredible experience I am having.