Odio i Millipiedi*

I’m in a rural corner of Tuscany for the next 6 weeks to teach a landscape painting class for Boston University students abroad, and everything is much the way it was two years ago, the last time I did this, including: 1. The staggering volume of birdsong in the pre-dawn hours. It’s downright noisy.

2. Having to share my casetta with a multitude of millipedes. They range from tiny to fully 2” long, with a shocking profusion of baroquely curly legs. I loathe them. I whack them dead with a rolled up magazine, but if I don’t get a clean hit and squash them flat they break apart into little pieces which go on twitching spasmodically. They run around on the walls, and I often find them trapped in the bathtub and sink, ineffectually trying to climb out. I wash them down the drain with a furious jet of water.

(I had a legendary english teacher in high school named Mrs. Nunes, whom I vividly remember saying that she thought the reason women tend to fear bugs more than men is because we have a sort of primal terror that they could scuttle up our legs and into our vaginas. That's definitely the kind of thing you remember when you’re a teenager. I think there's maybe . . . something to that? At any rate, I viciously enforce a zero-tolerance millipede policy in my little house.)

3. The suicidal insanity of Italian drivers. It’s the kind of cultural stereotype that one thinks maybe is exaggerated to be colorful . . . but well, no. Yesterday after Mark, the program director, picked me up at the Florence airport, we had a 45 minute drive home through the hills, which are traversed by some of the most sick-making, curvalicious roads I have ever driven on. Lots of blind corners and stretches bounded narrowly by stone walls and houses. No room for error. And Italian motorists don’t believe in maintaining a car’s length following distance:  cars and motorcycles both will cling to the bumper of the car in front of them as though magnetized, only to swing out for the pass given the slightest opportunity — or none at all — often on a blind corner or in the face of oncoming traffic, cheating what seems to the onlooker to be imminent death by a millimeter. Last summer I got sort of immune to it, but in my jet-lagged and nauseated state, it was shocking all over again.

Below is a post that I’ve been meaning to put up for oh, about 3 weeks or so, but which got subsumed in a late May rush of house-guests, travel, and then for the last week or so, preparations for Italy.

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Despite not having posted any progress shots in the past 2 months, I’ve actually been hard at work on a painting that is getting pretty close to being finished. I ditched my first attempt at painting the philodendron, not being quite happy with the format — it felt too wide (that canvas was 24” x 36”). Happily, I had in the basement another canvas ready to go that was 24” x 30”, and lopping those 6” off the width seems to have made all the difference. I also swapped out that pink background cloth. It was just too loud. The new one I originally thought was a kind of warm gray but has turned out to be very purple-mauve, which in any case fulfilled my desire to have a warm complement to interplay with all the green of the plant.

I also made the first couple of passes in acrylic, which is turning out to be a great way to work for me. It’s just so much faster, in the beginning when I’m impatient to get it all down and see what it might look like and if the composition is going to work out. And then after not too long I get frustrated by not being in control of the nuances of color and also with the plasticky feel of acrylic when it gets thicker.  So then I switch back to lovely, creamy, delicious oil paint, which doesn’t change color when it dries, amen.

I was very doubtful that I would be able to finish this painting by the time I leave for Italy in June, but now I think it could maybe happen.**  Apropos of my last post, about trying to leave my paintings a bit more open, to not frog-march them to my own preconceived notions of completion, I think I may be able to stay my own hand on this one. A lot of it has to do with the sheer impossibility of pinning this plant down, anyway. It moves so much from day to day, following the light from window to window, and raising and dropping its leaves depending on how much I’ve remembered to water it. It has ended up being a kind of kinetic painting, a record of the plant’s movement in space. I do want the terra cotta planter at the bottom to be more carefully captured, however, as the only unmoving thing in the painting, and a kind of anchor point for the action above it.

I’m going to Italy again this summer, to teach landscape painting course for a Boston University summer program. It’s very exciting . . . and I love Italy . . . and the location is very beautiful . . . but it’s also hard to leave Dave and the cat babies for almost 2 months.

It’s lonely for both of us, and quite difficult to stay in touch, given the 9 hour time difference between Italy and Oregon, the glacial dial-up internet connection and shared computer, and the fickle cellular reception up on the rural hilltop where I’ll be. Sadly, I’ll also be away for our 3rd wedding anniversary (I missed our first anniversary as well, during the first year I taught this program). It’s also disruptive to my studio flow, now that it’s finally starting to emerge from the scant trickle of the past year or so.  Ah well. I think I can find a way to make a painting or two that is meaningful to me, that isn’t just a totally random slice of Italian countryside. I find myself rather interested in telephone wires, the way they carve up the sky.

I have a lot of other ideas for paintings that I want to make, when I get back, and I’m excited to start. None of them will sound very interesting if I write down here what they are, so I’ll just say that, regardless of subject matter, I feel like I’m finally just setting foot on the right track, a way of painting that feels genuine and generative for me. That eschews spectacle while avoiding staidness (hopefully). Whether I’m painting plants or people or the view out my living room window, I become more and more convinced that to quietly, carefully observe the specificity and strangeness of everyday objects, places and people can be — maybe more than ever — among the most radical of artistic acts.

* I hate millipedes.

** Ha. Dave, if you’re reading this, don’t forget to water the philodendron!!!