The spring of my junior year was spent abroad with Tyler School of Art in Rome, Italy: the best, most life-changing semester of my life as I’m sure most students who’ve spent a semester or year abroad would say. That was the semester I knew I would be a painter for my entire life; not because I was driven, (I was), but because of a remark one of the professors who is younger than I am now, (I’m 45), made to me.
I turned 21 years old in Rome. In the Fox Pub on the night of my 21st birthday, a bar full of Italian men (Were they really men? No, looking back, mostly boys) sang “Buon Compleano a tu!”.
When I wasn’t in the pubs downing pitchers of beer or sharing a bottle of vino with my friends while sitting on the Pantheon wall, I was painting or drawing. I had arranged my schedule so that my semester consisted entirely of studio courses and not academics. I had a little cubicle/studio that looked out over Lungotevere and the Tiber River and every day, I would swing the casement windows wide open to hear the chaotic sound of Roman traffic and to smell its pre-catalytic convertor fumes.
I looked up to my instructors like they were Roman gods. The most influential was Richard Reisalis, a landscape painter who, when not teaching in Rome, was an art professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Before arriving in Rome, I was told by a friend, who had studied with him in the fall, that Richard Reisalis looked like a bug because of his dark hair and eyes (so dark, his pupils and irises were one). No matter – I loved him just the same! His opinion of me and my work mattered the world to me.
One night, I was at a student party when Richard and painting and drawing professor, Susan White, showed up. They were drunk. Richard pulled me aside and said, “Susan and I were talking about you at dinner. Even though you are NOT the most naturally gifted of our students, we think you are the one who will continue to paint for the rest of your life.”
That remark has stuck with me for 20 plus years. It played on my insecurities about my talent, but eventually I began to think, “what good is talent anyway, if you don’t continue to make art?” Painting and being creative every day or almost everyday sustains and fulfills me. It makes me feel alive.
(As a side note, Richard also suggested that I try drinking alcohol while I paint. He thought is would loosen me up!)
The painting above is a commission that I painted for someone who wanted a painting of Rome to remind them of their honeymoon in Italy. While I was working on this painting, memories of living in Rome in the spring of 1987, kept coming to my mind. I wrote the following memory down and taped it to my easel. Although this painting is not a view from the Palatine Hill (it is a view from the Botanical Gardens in Trestevere), I wanted to convey the feelings that I felt the spring of 1987, when I was 21 and knew I would be a painter for the rest of my life despite (and to spite) my lack of natural talent.
“I remember lying in the spring grass on the Palatine Hill, looking out over the ruins of the Roman Forum. The cherry blossoms are in bloom. It is a perfect mix of warm and cool – a perfect day for a pair of capris and sneakers. I can feel the cool breeze on my skin, but it is negated by the warmth of the afternoon sun. Later that evening, just when the sun is starting to set, I will walk (practically skip) along the Trestevere, on my way to an end of the semester party. The sun has made my skin blush and my freckles deepen and multiply. They spot my face like the crocuses that mark the new spring grass. I am happily alone and free. Liberated. A girl on a wire.”