Geoff Gibbons reports on his recent Artist Residency in Venice

I travelled to Italy in late September to take up a residency at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice. There were 7 other artists from the USA, and UK working there at any time, with most staying for about a month to 6 weeks.

mooring-poles-and-barge

I was joined later in my first week by Mei Wong who arrived there from Paris following a few weeks visiting her children in the UK. The Scuola runs regular full time courses in graphic design and short courses in printmaking and book arts for local people. However the main very spacious printmaking workshop is primarily for the use of the international resident artists and is very well equipped with about 4  beautifully engineered Bendini etching presses, three purpose built relief presses, a litho press, and a large tracked offset press. There is also a smaller room equipped for screenprinting. I was quite impressed by the huge aquatint box in a separate room for this function. It yielded a dense layer on your plate in a remarkably short time.

I was also able to sit in on several demonstrations given by the school’s founding artist Matilde who is very knowledgeable and skilled in many techniques, especially line engraving with the burin. She also conducted sessions on book arts and mezzotint. The workshop supervisor is Roberta, a very accomplished printmaker who was always helpful in answering queries and acted as a great translator during demonstrations by artists who did not have a good command of English. Many of the artists there from the US and UK had recently completed their MVA or MFA and were in their late 20’s or early 30’s but there were also a few mature aged artist there like myself. One was a college professor from Colorado and another was a very experienced artist from Brooklyn.

I found Italian rag papers like Fabriano were quite cheap to purchase, especially if you travelled to art supply shops in the adjacent mainland city of Mestre but copper was quite expensive compared to Oz. However they offered a wonderful range of quality printmaking tools and there are many shops in Venice selling a superb range of high quality pigments that would be difficult to find here.

Of course living in Venice has its own rewards and it took me quite a while to get used to the amazing visual stimulus on offer at every turn. The apartment that houses resident artists is about half an hour’s walk from the Scuola along a route that connects a number of campo’s ( piazza’s) and is nearly always densely crowded with tourists. The alternative was to catch a vaporetto (local ferry ) that traverses the Grand Canal on a regular schedule, transporting hundreds of tourists and locals every hour. The huge cruise ships that now berth in Venice disgorge many thousands onto the streets swelling the tide of people jostling for space along the narrow thoroughfares. A new phenomenon for me was to see the penchant for selfie sticks. You had to be careful to dodge them coming at you as their owners advanced with a phone protruding at arms length admiring their image but oblivious to others. They were essential equipment to take on a gondola cruise.

However despite these pressures it was possible to find quiet neighbourhoods away from the crowds and see something of the daily lives of local people. I also enjoyed the quiet at night because there are no cars or trucks. I soon discovered that everything from food supplies to bricks and stone for repair work had to be carted by hand truck ( oversized wheel barrows ) from the many barges that plied the canal system. A special pleasure was waking to the sound of church bells from one of the many tall campanile that abound in Venice. I made an etching of one that towered above the campo near our apartment building. My main focus thematically though was to produce a series of prints that made references to the presence of earlier artists in Venice and the consequent interchange of ideas and images from their visits. 

I was fortunate to be able to see many wonderful exhibitions during my stay in Venice. Apart from the famous collection of Italian painting from the late thirteenth to the nineteenth century at the Accademia, the Cini collection also had a great selection of works by such luminaries as Botticelli, Titian, and Piero della Francesca. So many of the churches have great works of art installed in their chapels and niches, such as the Frari, St. Zaccaria, and San Giovanni & Paola. I hadn’t visited the Guggenheim before which has a very representative collection of twentieth century modernist works by artists such as Ernst, Magritte, Rothko and Pollock. Over at the Dogana there was a big exhibition of minimalist art from the late 60’s and early 70’s and in a very different vein, a wonderful show of medieval illuminated manuscripts out at S. Giorgio Maggiore.

As if this wasn’t enough I was able to indulge my interests in Italian Renaissance art when I spent a final week in Florence before returning to Adelaide. A highlight there was to finally get to see a fresco by one of my favourite mannerist artists, Jacopo Pontormo, out at one of the Medici villas in the Tuscan countryside.

The friendships made with other artists during my residency are one of the enduring benefits of such an experience. I hope to see some here in Adelaide and to perhaps visit them in their home countries in the future.

Geoff Gibbons

images: workshop, artists pigments at a shop, canals.