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How Rome's artists are reacting to lockdown

When Life Gives You Lemons, Paint Them: How Rome's artists are coping with quarantine during Italy's Coronavirus lockdown.

Artists are unpredictable by nature and respond to sudden change in deeply personal ways. So after the Italian government introduced a nationwide lockdown in early March, due to the Covid-19 emergency, the forced confinement had a variety of effects on the creative flows of Rome's artists.

For many, who already work from home, there has been little change, at least in terms of the scenery. For those who work outdoors or from a studio elsewhere, the quarantine has shaken them out of their routine. All have had to adapt to the unsettling new reality in which they find themselves.

Some artists have responded with cheer and a fresh impetus, others are more despondent and need time to reflect. Many have sought beauty in their immediate surroundings or rediscovered old skills. Some have even made quarantine, and freedom, their central artistic theme.

Here we take a look at how a dozen Rome-based artists, Italian and international, have responded to quarantine in the Eternal City.

For Elisa Colarossi, the person behind the blog Roman gal goes around, the lockdown has seen a return to art after several years, giving her time for this “forgotten passion” and resulting in a delightful project called The Roman quarantine. Each day she undertakes a small drawing, made with colured pencils and markers, of “colourful scenes and soothing images to lighten up these difficult days.”

She is interested in capturing the smaller details of being stuck indoors in Rome. Her pictorial diary has brought life to domestic chores such as doing the laundry, making pizza in her kitchen, and views from the balcony of her home in the city's Centocelle suburb.

One particularly pleasing image shows a black cat gazing out the window at aperitivi time, sitting proudly on a windowsill beside a bottle of Aperol and a bowl of olives. Colarossi says she will continue to make a new image each day, with the goal of exhibiting her work when life gets back to normal.

Mauro Rossi, known in the art world as Quelchevale, is primarily a plein-air painter and in non-quarantine times can often be seen painting along the banks of the Tiber or at city-centre landmarks, both famous and lesser-known.

A gifted watercolourist, he works primarily in tempera, a medium he uses to great effect when recording urban scenes of Rome's trams and metro stations, particularly at night. He says the quarantine hasn’t significantly affected his productivity in terms of quantity (he still paints more or less every day).

However it has led to a "radical change of the subjects I paint: my focus shifted from painting mostly landscapes in open spaces to depicting details of my home. I think this change has led my latest works (all depicting details of closed spaces) to also inevitably convey a feeling of isolation."

Asked what will be the first thing he'll paint when freedom is restored, he says Isola Tiberina.

Interior scene by Quelchevale

The confinement has been tough on Alice Pasquini, the internationally celebrated Roman street artist, painter and illustrator.

"My life as a street artist for the past 15 years has always been on the road” – she says – “Obviously this tragedy that surprised us all has upset my plans by cancelling in a very short time all my travels and long-planned wall projects."

Pasquini says she now finds herself with a lot of time available in her studio, "which fortunately is behind the building where I live, but without stimulation or much creativity. All my art speaks about people and feeds off encounters and travels," she says, adding: "Surely there will come a time in which I will be able to elaborate all of this artistically but now is not the time."

Eva by Andrea Gandini

Another person whose artistic life is normally on the road, quite literally, is Andrea Gandini, the 22-year-old Roman artist who in recent years has made international headlines by sculpting tree trunks on streets around Rome.

A talented and self-assured character, Gandini also has a compassionate streak. He has used this time indoors to create Eva, a sculpted head made of oak and American walnut, one metre high and weighing 15 kg. Eva is part of a charity auction on Gandini's Facebook page, which reached a final price of €850 on 2 April.

All proceeds of the auction will go to authorities in Stigliano, a town in the Basilicata region of southern Italy for the purchase of medical supplies such as masks and sanitising gel in the battle against Coronavirus. “I have a very strong relationship with Stigliano” – says Gandini – “they have always welcomed me, over the past two years I have spent New Year's Eve, Christmas, August and even my birthday there.”

Street artist David Diavù Vecchiato, known for his spectacular staircase portraits in Rome, has also offered his artistic talents to a good cause. Diavù recently participated in a charity auction by street artists, organised by Rosso20sette Gallery, which raised €6,285 for the Italian Red Cross.

The next auction will be held by Aste Bertolami Fine Arts on 5 April, in collaboration with Cluster Contemporary, for the benefit of Rome's S. Filippo Neri hospital to help in its response to the Covid-19 crisis. Diavù is using his confinement to work on an "ambitious personal artistic project" called ARIA, connecting the “environmental problems of the current historic period with their main economic causes."

The project foresees future murals, workshops and illustrated stories. In the meantime Diavù is retracing his old comic art, and has seen the size of his work reduced from unlimited walls to small-format drawings. He also plans to film video tutorials about street art, aimed at awakening the imagination of young people and helping them to see the quarantine as a chance to grow, not as a trauma.

Georgina Spengler was once described by Wanted in Rome's late art critic Edith Schloss as “one of the most steadfast painterly painters I know.” In these strangest of days, the Rome-based artist is painting with an even more immediate need.

"When this whole crisis began I found myself questioning the deeper meaning and need for art” – she says – “I started looking at what more spiritually developed people, be they artists or poets thought about the purpose of art, what is its function at such moments." This research led her to Andrei Tarkovsky, the late Russian film director whose films she describes as "true visual poetry which strive always towards the spiritual realm."

Spengler says the best way to sum up her current creative phase is her latest painting, an oil and charcoal work on a wooden board inscribed with a quotation by Tarkovsky on the mystery of art: "An artistic image is something indivisible, intangible, possessing qualities of the world it is depicting. It’s the rapport between absolute truth and our Euclidean conscience.”

Still life by Jimmy Kennedy

Jimmy Kennedy, an Irish artist working in Rome for the last decade, panicked at the start of the lockdown but then decided to face the situation head on, stocking up on art supplies before Amazon ceased delivering 'non-essential' items to Italy.

He began on the first day with a clean-shaven self-portrait and, in true artist style, is growing a beard until quarantine ends when he will paint himself again in freedom. Between now and then he has been concentrating on capturing the light coming through his kitchen window and painting different objects and reflections at various times of the day. Kennedy has completed a successful series of still lifes, in oils, during this time.

“I am also planning on painting my son and a portrait of my wife at eight months pregnant” – he says – “and another portrait of my daughter after she is born, depending how long this lockdown lasts.” When normality returns, Kennedy says he hopes to have a show with a “theme around the simple things in life.”

The quarantine has taken the wind out of the sails of Roman artist Gio Pistone, celebrated for her vivid wall paintings, sculpture and illustrations. “Before we were interrupted” – she says – “I was working on a great sculpture job, supported by a workshop outside Rome that was helping me to make this work.” The sculpture's abrupt stop left Pistone “a bit weakened” and in need of time “to recover from the emotion that accompanied me during its construction.”

However she soon  harnessed some creativity which she directed to projects in the pipeline but on the long finger, including an illustrated book based on a story written and invented together with a writer friend, and some sketches for wall works that, should the situation improve, she will paint between July and October.

Pistone is not optimistic about this prospect however, saying: “I'm not sure that everything will be restored from July and I believe that many of these festivals I had been invited to will be moved or even cancelled, sigh!” In the meantime she is staying “in training” with the hope that she will eventually “go somewhere to paint these drawings of mine.”

Pietro Ruffo in his studio. Photo Luis Do Rosario.

For Pietro Ruffo, the Roman mixed-media artist and rising star of Italy's art world, the timing of the lockdown was unfortunate. Maremoto, his latest show at Galleria Lorcan O'Neill, an installation featuring three vast azulejos, or ceramic murals, opened a couple of weeks before the quarantine came into effect and was scheduled to run until 20 April.

Ruffo says the project took a lot out of him, artistically and physically, and he believed that the surprise hiatus would act as a time of reflection, leading to a progetto di pausa or break project. The time-off period lasted a full "23 hours", he says, before he got the call to undertake an "important commission", which he is undertaking with "a pencil, paper, cell phone, Photoshop and email" from his desk.

Ruffo says that the project is developing “unusual and extremely authentic characteristics” due to him being forced to overcome "small problems related to means other than those available to me in the studio." He holds back on the details but adds: "I have become a young student again with the sketch pad in hand, I don't mind, but I would say that it's time to GO OUTSIDE."

The Roman architect and master illustrator Fabio Barilari found it difficult initially to find his rhythm, a way out of the gloomy disquiet and intense strangeness of it all. "Working in areas related to art, I cannot use art as a diversion" – he says – "People who work in other sectors can possibly dedicate themselves to the pleasure of drawing or painting or playing music to unwind. As most of my work is dedicated to the arts in "normal" life, I have found it more difficult, in these days, to reset my mind in order to be productive."

However Barilari, who in addition to his buildings and illustrations has half a dozen Wanted in Rome covers under his belt, eventually managed to exit the artistic morass with what he terms the CoRomaVirus Session: a series of works conveying the "dystopian sensations" currently offered by the city. In most of his Roman illustrations, Barilari tends to avoid including people, a motif that has taken on a deeper significance now that the city's streets are deserted.

His latest works underscore this unsettling feel, focusing on "architecture and shadows, with no human presence" in a city suddenly devoid of traffic and its millions of tourists.

Giardino degli Aranci by Fabio Barilari

Artist Lisa Fedich, living in Rome but originally from New York, paints in watercolour and oil, inspired by Rome's ruins, nature, spirits and myths, as well as the immortal words of the Romantic poets buried near her home. In addition she runs sketchbook art tours for families and teaches art at St Stephen's School in the city's Aventino area.

"As a painter under quarantine there are only a few changes and obvious restrictions" – she says – "Our perspective in seeing must change for the limitations of staying in one space." Fedich says that although she loves to paint outside at times, "you must find beauty in a corner of the room, a view out the window. You are forced to see the internal beauty that otherwise can be lost with so many possibilities outside."

She is currently working on a series of watercolours for every day of quarantine, capturing different views from her windows and balcony. She also spares a thought for the "really hard time" that students are going through as they grapple with online sessions, "trying to motivate and keep them doing art" during these long days.

Balcony view (detail) by Lisa Fedich

Australian painter Kevin Murray, whose style is grounded in the ideals of the Scuola Romana movement, has lived in Rome since 1960. "I love my Rome studio-home so being confined here is no problem for me" – says Murray, who states that if anything the imposed quarantine is helping him finally to get around to completing a series of paintings, Sydney Surfers, which he began more than 12 years ago.

The works are part of an exhibition originally scheduled to have taken place in June but, with the arrival of the Coronavirus lockdown, the opening slipped to September. Far from upsetting Murray, the artist was quite happy as the new date coincides with his 'diamond jubilee' of 60 years living in the Eternal City. However he now fears that the show "might be shunted off to next year but that's also fine by me as it would give me lots of time to have the works nicely framed, to publicise the show widely and plan posters and invitations.”

Besides drawing and painting, Murray says that he has been enjoying delicious Italian dishes and wines, connecting with friends via email and listening to classical music, adding: "I water my garden terrace, nap a lot and just enjoy life as I always do."


By Andy Devane
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