04 May 2010

The beauty of a shadow

I have often claimed that all I have to do in order to be inspired is walk out the front door of the building I live in. But that’s not strictly true; I don’t actually have to even leave my apartment to find inspiration. Four stories up (three if you’re counting all’italiana), among the terracotta rooftops, there’s plenty to engage me. I love being able to hear and to watch the street life below, and lately I’ve been keeping a discreet eye on two pigeons who are building a nest under the eves (rather unpoetically in a gutter, to be precise). At dusk they perch, in profile, on opposing sides of a pair of arched shutters, often tail-to-tail—almost as if they’re ‘going to bed angry’. Sometimes they face inward, toward one other, or they might both strike identical poses, with all eyes trained on the nearby nest.

Even up here, in my own sheltered nest of sorts, I am surrounded by inspiration. From the apartment below us, notes from a grand piano resonate through the building for several hours each day, and I can glance into the studio of the painter who lives across the sdrucciolo as I work in mine. The woman across the hall is also an artist (as well as a mother of four); even her four-year-old’s exclamations of curiosity and general busyness often inspire me. Somehow it’s reassuring to know that those around me are also expressing themselves, in whatever form.


I have noticed that the new moon often ushers in an upward shift in my creativity level. Whether this theory stems from seemingly corroborated proof or mere coincidence, my creative habits definitely follow a cycle of perceiving/thinking/doing. There will be a period where I can hardly write down the ideas quickly enough—a time with much exploration and experimentation, which leads to more ideas. Next is more of a planning stage, when I tend to focus on working out the logistics involved in executing particular projects; the exploring/experimenting from the initial phase continues, but with more direction. After all of this preparation comes the moment when I feel ready to commit to producing something tangible. Then, once I am feeling confident about being able to successfully complete the current work, my mind once again returns to a state of generating new ideas. The cycle will repeat many times during the course of long-term projects, but I always hope to find myself with something new at the end of each cycle.

At the April meeting of a writer’s group that recently formed in Florence, we discussed our sources of inspiration. I find it’s something that usually begins inside me—a thought, a memory, an experience—which means I don’t suffer from the proverbial ‘writer’s block’. (It’s more a case of having more ideas and possibilities than I can find time to execute; having a variety of simultaneous projects seems to keep the creative energy flowing.) Inspiration often comes to me in the form of ‘possibility’—a train of thought that begins with the title of a book, the curve of a line drawn in ink, a color I notice. Even though it might not have anything to do with the original, the interpretation of the thoughts and feelings that are provoked provides an never-ending supply of inspiration.

There’s no doubt that living in a place that is filled with so much beauty also inspires me; I feel as if a basic, integral need has been met, which in turn frees me to be more creative. Instead of being distracted by the depressing sight of ill-proportioned and bizarrely-scaled strip malls and a plethora of pre-fab chain stores, fast food joints, Neo-this and Neo-that, architectural styles cobbled together with no regard for context—and other built forms that offend my architectural sensibilities—my surroundings give me a sense of contentment that I am grateful for literally every day.

Another source of inspiration is my daughter. At the writer’s meeting I used the example of how, if she wants to draw a horse, she simply sits down and starts doing it—whereas the thought of drawing such a complex creature with which I have little familiarity intimidates me no end. I admire her ability to express herself without inhibition and judgement, to not over-think things, and to trust her instincts. She is also great company; I love to look across the long studio table and see her working on her own creative projects as I work on mine. Like me, she has managed to grow up without knowing the concept of ‘bored’.

I am also lucky that my daughter is so supportive of the intense periods I spend working toward deadlines. She cheerfully puts up with having the floors and other surfaces strewn with piles of books and large sheets of art paper, as well as things like the dwindling stacks of clean clothes and clean plates (what habits she is learning!)—not to mention an utterly absorbed and rather exhausted mother. While she is a child who generally appreciates order, she seems to recognize the benefits of having what is essentially an in-house art store, and I think she quite enjoys the spontaneity that characterizes these periods.

With la festa della mamma (Mother’s Day) just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to acknowledge my mother as a creative inspiration. I grew up thinking she could make anything, and I continue to be in awe of all that has come from her two hands: porcelain dolls, Washi paper angels, oil and watercolor paintings, necklaces made from beads collected on her wide travels—and countless other creations. When we lived in Brazil she cultivated a passion for dollhouses. Teaching herself to upholster, sculpt and carve in miniature, she crafted much of the furniture herself. Her masterpiece was a fireplace that she carved from soapstone and faced with individually-made miniature bricks, then finished off with a carved wooden mantle and hinging doors for tiny cupboards. If I’m ever struggling with a project, I remember the realm of possibility represented by this fireplace, and the ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ attitude that my mother lives by...


With the renewed light of this season, I have become more aware of the return of the shade and shadow that the grayness of winter tends to suppress. Through notes and photos, I have been recording shadows I observe from my window. I think the beauty of a shadow lies in its deliberateness; while the form of the object itself may sometimes be hard to read, on a sun-filled day the shadow is always certain, direct and clear. What a contrast is created, for example, by the shadow of one of those small brackets that holds an open shutter in place—by the strength of its line against the warmth of the yellow plaster. Compared to the compactness of the bracket, it’s surprising how far the shadow’s length stretches.

One recent morning, an elderly man pausing to read his newspaper in a patch of sunlight drew my attention when I looked down onto the sdrucciolo (the narrow street below the studio window). As I thought about how glorious it feels to be able to stand in the warmth of the spring sun, I noticed more of these little ‘rooms’ (or pockets) of light all along the edge of the sdrucciolo; the profile of the roof outlines had projected a pattern of tooth-like shadows that created several sunny spots.

To these and other shadows I owe the title of this Arzigogolare entry, ‘The beauty of a shadow’. The image at the top of the page derives from a photo I digitally altered to emphasize the distinct swathes of shade, shadow and light that I observed on the plaster wall of the palazzo across from me. The top third indicates the shade that results from the building’s roof overhang, while the lower section comes from the shadow cast by the roof of the building our apartment is in (with the serrated pattern mimicking the roof tiles); the space in between portrays the sliver of sunlight that falls between the shade and shadow. After my experiments with the photo, I was especially interested to see what happened within the area representing the sunlight; it ended up being bounded by a distinct, dark line along the top, and fuzzy white & pink undulating lines below.

In summing up this rather organic exploration of inspiration and creativity, I can only conclude that you never know where these complementary concepts may find their origins—anywhere and everywhere, it seems.

09 March 2010

Forty day & forty nights

Visions of letters have been dancing through my head lately. During this period of Lent, known here as Quaresima, the latest seasonal treat in the local bakeries are quaresimali [shown in the photo above]. Composed of sugar, egg whites, flour, cocoa powder and miscellaneous ingredients that vary from one recipe to another, the cookie batter is piped into the letters of the alphabet before baking.

The story of the cookie’s origins possesses that same elusive quality I have stumbled across time and time again when researching anything pertaining to this country’s far-reaching history. One source claims that nuns at a convent near Florence invented the Tuscan version in the mid-1800s; their choice to shape them into letters is said to be symbolic of the words of the Gospel. I’ve also read that the cookies assumed the form of letters to amuse the younger set, for whom they were mainly intended. In any case, the light and not-too-sweet quaresimali were once the only sweets allowed during the period of Lent; while perhaps austere compared to other dolci, they are nonetheless satisfyingly crunchy, with a whisper of chocolate. The inclusion of cocoa powder may seem out of place during Lent (I can’t help but think of Joanne Harris’s novel, Chocolat), but tradition says that it was added to make the cookies dark in color, out of respect for the religious season of mourning.

I imagine the bakers in charge of piping out endless alphabets during these forty days must trace letters in their sleep, but my excuse for breathing and dreaming letters more than usual lately stems from the days and nights I spent working on an abecedary (which I recently submitted for consideration in an exhibition of abecedaries at a Denver-based gallery). I find the concept of these books that follow the alphabet, unfolding one letter at a time, to be very inspiring—it’s a solid structure with endless possibilities.

I love the potential inherent in the design of an artist’s book, and notice the same kind of parallels I used to appreciate between my Treasure Boxes and buildings (a basic structure/exterior, an interior and the accessories/decorative details). Despite the intimate scale of a one-of-a-kind book, the cascade of decisions can feel overwhelming. But ultimately it’s satisfying to see a book through from beginning to end—to have control over every choice, from the theme, content and layout, to the size, medium, binding type, construction and cover. And I enjoyed the process of letting it evolve in a way that balanced the designated structure with the available time (of which there never seems to be enough for this kind of thing) and materials.

In fact, I was thrilled to be able to salvage just enough ‘scraps’ of the creamy, heavyweight Rives paper that first brought me to the path that led to The Piazzas of Florence. I still remember that July day, nearly eight years ago … I sat in the light of a sunny window, admiring the paper’s slightly toothy texture and deckled edges, knowing I just had to create something from it. I am fascinated by books that open in unexpected ways, revealing new layers . . . little surprises . . . so I started experimenting with miniature books whose pages folded out. I ended up with chapters that began with a historical background of each of Florence’s main piazzas, which was then followed by pages that unfolded to reveal different types of increasingly more ‘personal’ information: excerpts from the writings of past travelers, watercolored maps that could be personalized by readers, ‘Invitations’ to inspire creative expression and blank space to use however they wished. When I was ready to present the proposal for my ‘interactive travel guide’ (the original concept for the book that eventually became The Piazzas of Florence), the package included a mock-up chapter showing how the various elements worked together—which I constructed from the gorgeous Rives paper.

But back to the abecedary . . . One of my goals for each of the places in my multimedia Cities project is to create a one-of-a-kind book. For this one I chose to focus on the familiar, but endlessly enthralling, city of Florence (I can’t imagine ever running out of ways to express the many rich layers that characterize my adopted home). From the Arno to the Bridges, the Cupola, Dante and so on, I interpreted each element through an arrangement of photographs and accompanying text (for which I used Arno Pro, a font named for the river that I cross almost daily). After several rounds of experimentation, I decided on a modified accordion binding, a format I am drawn to because it can either be experienced like a traditional book or expanded for display in a series of ever-changing forms.

How good it was to work with paper again, to let my hands guide me wherever they were so inclined. Even photographing the book was rewarding as I manipulated the accordion folds into different shapes, allowing me to appreciate the sculptural quality of the piece. [Please click here to see a few photos.] Although I am very happy with the end result, I can’t help but reflect on other things I would have done if time had permitted (an inevitable part of the creative process). For example, I had originally envisioned individually hand-designing the letters, as well as creating collages to complement the photographs that portrayed each letter’s theme. I wish there had  been more time to contemplate the cover too but, in retrospect, I like how the juxtaposition of corrugated cardboard with the more refined gold and cream-patterned paper alludes to the contrasts that are intrinsic to Florence.

Now that the deadline has passed and my studio and life have regained some order, I am no longer breathing and dreaming the letters of the alphabet. But still, I find my brain wandering restlessly through the night, turning over ideas for other artist’s book: I am already planning the next one…


New growth is emerging from tender buds and birds have been twittering among the trees and the rooftops as local temperatures begin a general upward trend. But, as is typical of marzo pazzo (crazy March), winter isn’t ready to blow out of town just yet . . . in fact, snow flakes have been flurrying through the air much of today. A visit to the enticingly sunny Pitti ‘Beach’ over the weekend lasted about five minutes before the bone-chilling wind sent us inside. And after spending yesterday afternoon standing in near-zero temps while my daughter participated in a middle school triathlon, we could hardly wait to get home to our cast iron radiators, feather duvets, hot water bottles and steaming bowls of stew. After we had warmed our numb feet and purple hands and noses, we indulged in tiny cups of potent hot chocolate served with a handful of crispy quaresimali—the perfect accompaniment.

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