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Can you explain your art education? I have my education in Colombia. I began to study the principal basics of fine arts, like drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, and art history. But I have always preferred drawing. Here in Florence I study the classical techniques, in this case for drawing.
What were some big moments for you as an artist? One of the big moments was choosing this profession. When you choose this profession, you really discover other points of view on life. For me, the big moment was to first travel to Italy. This was one of my biggest moments in my artistic career. My second moment was when I began to study the art I wanted.
Who has influenced you as an artist? Many teachers in my university have taught me about art. One especially, she was like an art curator, I always had class with. She always gave me the desire to explore more about art. She may be the reason why I chose Florence because she studied in Florence, and she always told me that I must go to Florence to build and develop my work in art. So, this is one of my special teachers, one of the special people who influenced my art career.
What were the names of the universities that you studied at? In Colombia I studied at Fundacion Universitaria de Bellas Artes in the city of Medellin. I studied five years ago before I studied here in Florence at the Accademia Riaci, which is like a private academy.
What artistic styles have influenced you? Many artists influence me. One artist that gives me inspiration is Michelangelo, especially with sculpture, the figuration, movement, and the bodies he creates. And maybe the second artist that I have had the opportunity to see is William Kentridge, an African artist. He works in animation video, but also with drawing. Maybe the third is Cai Gou Qiang, a Chinese artist. I like the work of fireworks that he makes, and you can see the abstraction of the drawing and process of this Chinese artist.
How did your family support you in your decision to become an artist? My family always helped me. When I began as an artist, I told them and they believed in me, always, that I could make it here in Florence. Now they help me to study in other parts—Spain. But always they believe me in my process. I told them that they are one of my reasons that I stay here and can go for more work.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have had as an artist? The biggest challenge is beginning when you are nobody in this profession. When you begin and make quality work, you begin to grow up and grow out. This is one of my first challenges. The second is making the decision to learn in another country outside of Colombia. How can I learn other cultures from other countries? How can I grow with my process as an artist? The third challenge may come from my own profession. It is difficult to live with art. It is difficult because there is no possibility to take money or many possibilities to work. It’s difficult; you must look for contacts, people that really like your work and you can make a friendship with them.
How has your style changed over the years? From beginning in the university seven years ago, I can see now that there is a big difference in my drawings. I tried to develop my style in the hyperrealist style, and I tried to look for a reference: how can I make something different, not make only drawings? How can I make my drawings have their own language? So, for me, the works I made seven years ago were a big difference. Over the years you maybe have more quality in your work, more experience. Now you can resolve many problems when you make your work. When you begin with artwork, it’s like you always have a big problem, and the challenge is how to find the solution to these problems. Now, my work has a body, it’s a strong work. It’s very satisfying to see the difference.
How would you describe your style of work? My style is like a figurative style; it’s more like figurative art. I try to combine figurative and abstract. When I began to look for my style, I always began with abstraction. In that time I knew some drawing, but I tried to explore the language of the drawing. Part of my drawings that I made in the last years have a combination between the abstraction. How can I transform this kind of figuration to abstraction in one language, in one work?
What makes your style unique? I think that a style is unique maybe when you have patience to look for your own style. It’s difficult because now in art many people have their own styles. The question is: how can I show my other side to other people so that they can say, “Oh, this is Hugo’s work.” So, I began to make my style when I began to study art. When I went out from the university I began to look for museums, look for references and art references. I was always drawingand making changes to the drawings. I remember I had many mistakes when I began to draw on paper. I remember that I bought many papers in Colombia, and the drawing papers were very expensive. I remember I started to make mistakes, but I learned how these mistakes could give me more possibilities. Now when I see my works, it’s satisfying for me when people can recognize my work in the midst of other works. I had an experience once when someone told me, “Oh, this is Hugo’s work; it’s his language, his own image.” When your work grows up and it grows out and out—in that moment you find your own style. You find your own way. It’s difficult when you begin as an artist and you have many questions. One of the questions is: how can I make my own language? Because many people can draw very, very well, but how can I make the difference in my work from these other people? It’s satisfying for me when people can see that my work is not like other drawings because it has my personality. This tells me that maybe my style is unique from other people’s.
Did you discover these techniques on your own or through others? I discovered the techniques through my own process. I remember when I studied at the university I began to experiment with the same materials, with pencil and graphite. I remember when I began to experiment I was looking for abstraction. When I discovered how to make abstractions with the graphite, it surprised me because I began to find something different in my drawings. I don’t want to make copies; I want to play with the compositions, distort the drawing, and erase the person I made, like a soldier or Jew (the characters I make in many of my drawings). And I began to discover maybe my own process as an artist, how I can make something different, something that has more body. This is when I began to discover my own process. I saw many references, but you must leave the reference so that you don’t begin to copy this reference. This is not the idea, to copy the reference. You have to find a distinction to use in your work.
How do you get inspired for a new piece of art? The inspiration is maybe when I have the opportunity to travel to other parts because when you visit the world, you always find something new. When I travel many times to that place I discover the life situation, and I have an inspiration to make something new. How can you take a new language from another place? My inspiration many times is when I see an image, when I read history, when I see something that stays inside my mind but that I want to make it in a physical material, in a physical drawing. Maybe the process of an artist is how traveling can give you new information, and this information you can use in your work.
How does Florence influence your work? Florence has influenced my work in a lot of ways because when I began to study here I went to the museums, and I went inside the city. It was something new for me. This reaction between me and the city was like the first impression that I had with Florence. When I saw the buildings, the museums, the places in Florence, I maybe changed. I felt something new in my life. When I studied here in Florence, it was like a dream to say that I really studied here. I was more happy when I could expose my work in Italy, but I always say that Florence was the first door I had in my life as an artist and a person.
What are some frustrating things about being an artist in Florence? Well first, the people don’t buy your work [laughs]. It’s the truth. It’s difficult because when you begin, like in Colombia or in other parts, you have the illusion that you will begin to make money. When you choose this profession, you know that it’s like a long process until you arrive, and you have more patience; many times you lose the patience because you have a bad experience in your work; like when many people tell me, “Ah, I will buy your work!” or, “You can show in my gallery,” or, “I want to make an image with you!” After that, these people don’t keep the promise with their word. This is one of the frustrations I have in this career because many people play with your feelings. This is hard. But, you learn, and you learn, and you take a position: I can give you my work, but I need you to show me that you have promised me. When you make a piece of work, it’s your time. You put passion into your work. When these kind of people play with your feelings, they play with your time. This is one of my frustrations in this career. It’s difficult because you have a lot of courage to follow with this profession.
Do you think this is an issue for all artists, or artists in Florence? I think this is for all artists because many people think about artists only as people who do painting and drawing and make something beautiful, and that’s it. No, I tell them. You meet some people in your life who really appreciate your work. They say, “I want this work in my house or in my gallery.” This person has an appreciation for your work. For artists in general it is very difficult, and it’s difficult when you begin.
What is it like to be an artist in Florence who’s not from Florence? For me, Florence was a good experience because I had the opportunity to show my work even though I am not an Italian artist. But the Italian people like my art; I felt like I had a good reception of my work. In Colombia, when I began five or seven years ago, it was difficult because there were a lot of artists who had a similar style. Here it is something different. People recognize your style, and the people like your work. People many times help you expose it here in Florence. For me it is a good experience. Last time I said that maybe it was more difficult in Colombia. For me, I can say I have an opportunity here in Italy or another country.
In your opinion, what makes art meaningful? This is like a question that I sometimes have: what is the purpose of art—why the art? When I see a museum or a work, it’s something that you can’t describe. You can’t describe it in one, general answer. For me, it’s to have a relationship with life. This is the first meaning for me. Second, to have a lot of beautiful experiences in your work. Maybe you know when you make a piece of art it can transmit something different with other people. I had one experience with a woman that I never would have imagined would happen. The woman wanted to buy one of my works but some difficult situation happened in Colombia, and she didn’t have the money. After that, I found this woman again. She wanted to buy my work, and I remember that I told her, “You don’t have to buy my work because I can give it to you for free.” Something happened, and I made the decision to give her my work. I remember she cried. She cried, really, and she called me on my telephone and said, “Thanks, Hugo, thanks.” From that moment I understood that art has a great meaning; it has a great significance with the person. How can the art touch the feelings of many people? What is the meaning of art? For me, it is the relationship between art and life. Maybe the art has more relationship with the life of a person. One work can give some satisfaction with other people. I think this is the meaning of art: to transmit something different that the person won’t see in their daily life. This something is maybe the imagination, something that does not happen in this world, but in our imagination. This is maybe the thing that is beautiful between the art and the life.
You have a lot of similar characters in your work. Why do you create those kinds of scenes? I studied in a military school, so this had a great influence on me; I can’t say if it was a good or bad experience, but it was something that stayed with me. When I had the opportunity to stay here, I wanted to make my own characters. Now I have a career, so I am in the position where I can play with my characters; I can play with the soldiers and make them disappear. When I have the opportunity to travel to other countries—how can I take these cultures and transform these characters into my own language? These Jewish people were from a big experience from my travels in Israel. When I saw these people begin to pray at the wall it touched me, and in a lot of my work I began to play with empathy. When I began to play with empathy in my work, I saw these people begin to make a movement, the begin to disappear. I try to look for these characters in photography, but I don’t want to make the same photograph, a copy. No, I want to make something different. How can you incomplete the drawing, how can you play with the drawing, how can you show your own drawing? I try to play with these kinds of characters and show something different. Maybe this is the reason why I look for these characters. The movement, the situation; I look for a situation for these characters
What do you hope other people will understand when they see your work? I think my own language; how people can see my imagination in my works. How can people see my life in my work? How can they see a similarity between me and my process? Your work is always a process; You’re always experimenting and finding something new. When people see my work, it’s like a surprise because people will find something that I will have never seen in my work. I never push the details in my work. I pose a question, and I try to let people find their own answers. When I have these kind of works, only the works can speak. The work has it’s own language to speak. You are an artist: you make this work, and it has its own language. It can open more and more doors.
Can you describe your process from start to finish when you create? I begin to look for something. First I have an image in my mind. How can I transform this image to the format of the paper? It’s difficult to push something that’s not real, to put it on the paper. My next step: how can I play with the composition of my image? How do you make it? hHw do you put in the thing that will make the difference in your work? I take my sketchbook and begin to draw many compositions, and I push this final sketch into a real work.
How do you get inspired for a new piece? I always look for something. Maybe it’s like an experience when you stay in a place. For me, I take an idea or an inspiration. I need to travel, to go out. I don’t like to stay in one place. I want to travel and look for answers in other places. When I have this kind of inspiration, I put these ideas into my process and style. When I am always thinking, I need a sketchbook because I need to write down my ideas and process. If you don’t write your process down and if you don’t have a book, in that moment you lose your idea. I have a lot of ideas, a lot of things that I think about. It’s bad when I don’t have paper and I don’t write down my idea because I forget it. So for me, it’s important to take a sketchbook and write down the idea as it appears and make a sketch from the image I have in my mind so that I have the opportunity to look at it again. This is difficult because you have the ideas, but you always have to write them down so that you don’t lose a beautiful process.
Is it hard to create new art in a city where everyone is coming here to look at the old art? Maybe—yes and no. For me, it’s difficult because there are a lot of artists here who have a good basis with the techniques; there are good painters, good drawers, good sculptors. I know a lot of artists who make a really good drawing of the body or they make a good painting, but it’s the same as what the Italian artists made years and years ago. It’s not making a new change, a new difference. I don’t try to compete with the Italian or Renaissance artists, I try to learn from them. How can I use this kind of study in my work and make something different in my work? Many people tell me that part of my work is like a photo, but they say, “Oh, but it’s incomplete. There’s a kind of abstraction, a kind of figuration—something that makes the difference from other artists.” I meet many good artists here in Florence, but you want to look for something different; people want to see something different. You draw very well, but what more? What happens? No change, nothing. In Florence, many people come here to learn the techniques, but they don’t have this kind of competition for who is the better artist in Florence. No, they want to learn how to apply these techniques in their work. I think this is the same stance that I take: how can I apply these techniques that I learned in Florence in my work?
Do the things that you see in Florence influence what you create? Yes, I see many things in Florence. First, the masterpieces in the museums. This was one of the biggest influences I received. After that, the city. When I walk around the city, when I read the history of the Florence city, and when I walk around. This is a big influence for me. I think the first impression I had when I visited the Uffizi gallery or the Accademia gallery was something new that I had never seen—maybe only in textbooks or history books or art books. When I had this experience in real life directly with the work, like the David, Michelangelo and Botticelli works, these kinds of images influenced me a lot. These kind of images can show me something different than what I have seen in Colombia. Many things in Florence have had a big influence in my work and in my personal life.
What are your goals as an artist? My vision is more personal, more subjective. My vision as an artist is how can the artist make a difference between the work and the person’s realty? How can a person see something new that they have never seen? Maybe the vision that I have with the art is to give the person something new; a new experience that they have never seen or touched; something new that they want to feel. In the world when you see something new, like a museum, you feel something. You feel something from the work that you see with your eyes. My vision as an artist is to show the person something that they want more and more of.
Borgo SS. Apostoli, 18
When did you first come to Florence? I’m from Toronto originally. I first came to Florence when I was 15 with my mom. It made an impression that didn’t go away. I’ve always loved it. She and I came back again, I think in the year 2000, and I realized that the feeling hadn’t left. My husband and I were lucky because our son had an opportunity to come and study here for a year. So, when he came to study, we came with him to drop him off. That began Frank’s interest in it. His family was originally from here, and he fell in love with Florence too. So, we made another trip back, just us, and decided that three weeks wasn’t long enough and that maybe a lifetime would be better. So we moved [laughs], and as far as art goes, the connection to Florence was a natural one for us because of our interest in art. We had painted and sculpted and worked in the decorative arts for many years, but there comes a time when you feel that your skills are a little bit limited for the ideas that you have. The only training that we could find in those days that was based on the approaches of the 19th century, academic training, (which for a time was almost a lost art) and that would give us access to practicing the craft 10-12 hours a day—with no demand, no clients, just focusing on the learning in a traditional way—was through the Florence Academy of Art. The Florence Academy of Art was a spectacular opportunity for us both because we worked from live models all day, every day, for the most part, and we really learned the skills that were necessary. It’s hard to write a poem if you don’t know the alphabet [laughs]. And that’s how we came to be here, and now Florence is home.
What were some defining moments for you growing up as an artist? I think it’s probably always feeling that the next project or thing that I wanted to try was such a lure. Being an artist or a designer of any kind, I think the things that you want to do are always a moving target. The minute you finish one painting, your ideas for the next take over and pull you away from it, and you want to keep moving forward. I think every turning point for us—the more we were exposed to other people’s art and the more we increased our possibilities by our knowledge of method and materials—opened more and more doors. It’s constantly just moving forward.
What artistic styles stuck out to you the most while growing up? I think when we were actually really full-fledged into the interior design business my thoughts were very much just about aesthetics. Does it look attractive in the setting, does it look good when you walk into a room, does it—embarrassingly I have to admit—match the couch, does it fit the room, does it sit comfortably in the room? I had a number of clients; one client in particular that was really moving. She said that she had a very stressful job, and whenever she came home she had one of my paintings in her living room, one in the hallway, one in her powder room, and one in her bedroom. She said, “When I come home and see your paintings, I breathe again; I’m home. I chose them, they’re things that I connected to. I knew the artist; it’s a signal to me that I’ve left the workplace, and now I can relax.” And I thought that that was really nice. Why I paint now is starting to become very different. There are things that I want to communicate in a painting, and that’s really hard because you’re not there in person to tell the story. The painting has to do a lot of work. But that also leaves room for the painting to speak in a slightly different way to everybody who views it. Some people might see it in one way and another person might react based on their experiences in another way. So that’s both frustrating when you want to clearly say this is why I was inspired to paint it, and this is what it represents; but, it is also liberating to know that the painting itself may take on a life of its own beyond what you originally thought.
What role did your family play in your efforts of becoming an artist? They were really supportive and it was interesting because growing up I must say that my family always encouraged my artistic abilities, but it was never considered anything except something fun to do when you’re young. I don’t think for any of them it would have been something that they would have felt should be considered as a career. They were all doctors and professors, and it was very much expected that you would go and get a degree and get a sensible job, and the art would be something that you would enjoy. I was quite young when I left home, and that gave me some freedom because I didn’t worry about what anyone thought about what I was doing. I simply followed the path as it led. Later though, once I was securely in this position and doing all of this, they were really encouraging.
What were some of the biggest challenges you have had to overcome as an artist? Everything [laughs]. Actually, being an artist, it’s funny because you get a lot of people who say to you—and you try not to cringe—“Oh! Being an artist, being an artist in Florence! That’s living the dream! It must be so relaxing!” No [laughs], no it’s actually really challenging because you have to juggle and balance and not let one thing take away from the other. If you are doing it full time, which I think is both a luxury and essential if you want to be a good artist, it’s not something you do a little here and a little there. It’s the repetition; it’s doing it over and over again. So, to do it full-time is a luxury, but it also means that it has to support you, which means that there has to be a business side to it. It takes a lot of time that I think people don’t realize. The galleries don’t do all the work for you, the agents don’t do all the work for you; it’s a two way street where you have to have a relationship. There are a lot of things that take time that aren’t simply standing in front of the easel. And to make sure that doesn’t monopolize your art time is really a struggle, and I think it always will be.
Who is currently your biggest inspiration? I’ve actually stopped answering that question because there are so many that I admire and they’re all so different. My opinions also keep changing; actually, I find a lot of inspiration now from the current contemporary living artists. We’ve got some fantastic artists coming up in the world right now, and so many of them around the world are doing incredible work and it’s nice to see them getting recognition because there’s always the joke that your art will be worth something when you’re dead. And when I say contemporary, I don’t mean that they’re all necessarily young, either. We have a range of living artists from 88 years old, maybe even older, to the very young who may be just starting out and are starting to show signs of really interesting work. I think when we say young what we’re really saying is living and new art, contemporary art. People often associate contemporary with just modern or abstract, but that’s not always true; by contemporary I just mean living and working in the present day. And as for inspiration for the actual paintings I do: Florence. You go out into a piazza here, and if you love the figure and you love painting people, you see everything. I sit in Santa Trinita quite often and sketch. We don’t separate people here the same way I found we often did in North America. I’m sure there are exceptions, but in North America I found: the children go to daycare, the old people go to the senior homes and have their events there, the professionals of a certain socio-economic class all go out together, and then you have other groups. Here, you go to a bar[café], and you’ve got your postman, shopkeepers, students, you might have a well known fashion designer, a banker, little kids, and all sorts of dogs. It’s a lovely way of life where everyone is integrated together at all levels.
How have your style and techniques developed over the years? It’s still evolving; I think I’ve changed a lot of things, and some of them have had to do with subject matter or techniques. Having the materials responding to what I want to paint in a way that shows it best has been something that has required a little bit of science and a little research because every painter approaches things differently, and materials are a big part of your flexibility and what you want to do. My painting now is a combination of the strength of realism that is anatomically correct and depicts the subjects in a realistic way. But at the same time I would like to get a little bit of abstraction into the backgrounds. A couple of my recent paintings have very abstracted backgrounds and a strong light effect, but you can still feel the bones, I hope, of the people as opposed to it being just so loose that it would be leaning over into a non-realist category.
How do you get inspired for a piece? I have so many ideas, and I keep a little sketchbook and a little notebook with me all the time. Sometimes I like to know before I start a painting 90% of what it is I want to paint. I usually like to be pretty methodical; some artists aren’t, they can just do things. I like to be a little more systematic. I like to know what it is, what my idea is, and to understand where it’s going so that I have a feeling of security starting the painting. But I do find that what’s comfortable for me is letting about 10-20% happen as it happens. And I allow for some change.
How does the city of Florence influence your work? In every way; the quality of life here, the vitality of the people, and being able to see everything. In Canada it’s cold. We stay in our houses or we stay in a mall. It’s beautiful in the summers, don’t get me wrong, but for the most part a lot of our time is spent indoors and isolated. All I have to do is step outside here, and there’s everything. The markets, the people; you get to see life everyday, and it’s not in a mall setting or in the privacy of your own home. It’s out in the streets. David Rocco does a show called The Dolce Vita, and he said in one of his shows, and I’ll misquote him so he’ll have to correct me, but he said, “You know, people in Florence they have very small apartments, very small living conditions—for the most part if you live in the center your space is limited—but that works out fine because all of Florence is your living room.” And I thought that was a good way of putting it. Every bit of life here, from buying flowers to buying food or going for a walk, has possibilities for paintings.
What role does your work play in regards to the city of Florence? How does it reflect Florence? I think that’s probably the same thing. Painting what I know and am familiar with is much more comfortable for me and more rewarding. Whether it’s just something as simple as the light effects from my studio window and the way it hits a model, or whether it’s the food in a still life because we bought it at the market.Those kinds of things for me make it easier to paint because I feel a connection to the subject. For me Florence provides a lot of visual stimulation. Not to mention when I get stuck on a painting and think, “Oh, I wonder how I should handle this,” Piazza Strozzi is around the corner and the Uffizi is just two steps away. My favorite place is Palazzo Pitti, and with the pass cards and living only a couple of blocks away, I have the luxury of going in and thinking, “I’m just going to go in and see how someone else in the past has handled this kind of subject.” And I can go in and study just one painting, take some inspiration from the old masters, look at it, enjoy it, and then quietly come home two blocks away without forgetting what it looks like. And that’s really nice because if you live a distance away from something, you feel an obligation to see everything, and by the time you’ve driven through traffic and gotten home some of that spark is gone. For me to have the freedom to treat the museums here as an extension of my living quarters is truly a luxury for an artist.
How does living in a city filled with old art impact the new art that you are creating? A lot, a lot. You see how people have handled things in the past. Being able to constantly study the works of people who have gone before us and who have successfully painted some beautiful work influences some of the decisions you make as you are making a painting.
What is your vision as an artist? Just to keep painting. I think as time goes on, if budget and time allow, Frank and I will probably do a little more traveling. I’d like to see other places and get other inspiration. I think what I love about painting is that it’s something that you never stop doing; you never retire as an artist. First of all, you can’t afford to [laughs], and second of all it’s something where you’ll probably always have that next painting in your head. I’m sure my work will change, I hope it will change, that’s part of what I love about it; but, I think the fact that it will always hold my interest is what really compels me to consider it not just my work, but my life. It really permeates every bit of your life; you wake up and you go to the easel, and you think, “Oh, before my coffee I just need to fix that,” and you can’t resist.
What do you hope that others understand about your work? I think in this age of digital and fast production, people don’t see behind the scenes anymore. They go to the museums and they say, “Oh, that’s a pretty painting.” But to distinguish what went into that; the thought, the materials, the preparation. I think I’d like people today to have more of an appreciation of how difficult the craft of art is so that when they see a work they have more of an understanding and more of an appreciation of how many decisions in that painting had to be made in order for them to be enjoying the final effect.
What is your purpose for creating? I like to say that it’s to communicate with people or to tell a story, and it is, but for the most part it’s very self-serving, I have to be honest. I like the challenge of it; I like having the idea, and it’s like walking a tightrope. You always feel like, “Alright, I’ve done this before, I’ve walked this tightrope and gotten to the other side—but if I had to do it again, can I do it again? And can I do it better?” Yes, there are a lot of reasons: you want to be better, you want to bring something beautiful into the world, you’d like other people to see it, and maybe learn something that they hadn’t learned before or view something in a different way, or see beauty in something very, very simple. That’s often the case too; I think we get so complicated and life gets so busy and so fast and so technologically involved that just being able to have a quiet moment with a quiet painting that brings pleasure is, I think, something that I would like to share with people.
What’s it like creating in city filled with lots of tourists? It’s funny, we have a love-hate relationship with tourists. One of the things we love about Florence is that it’s a destination place. This brings people here from all around the world. Frank and I say that we don’t actually have to leave Florence because the rest of the world will eventually come here; if we just wait, we’ll meet everyone. Sitting in the square, everyone has an attitude here that is very much of a university campus or summer camp atmosphere. Because of all the tourists and because many people are visiting, everybody is much more willing to chat with the person next to them. You strike up conversations with people that in a busy city where everyone is on their way to work, you probably wouldn’t do. But here, it’s just natural that you sit next to somebody at dinner and you strike up a conversation. You meet people here much more easily, and what’s nice is that you’re meeting people who aren’t in your normal circle.
What are your feelings towards the fact that a lot of people who are coming here to visit are coming to see the historic art? Is that a struggle as an artist trying to create new work? It is. I do find that you can have a little bit of an overload of art. It’s happened to me and it’s happened to a lot of people where you see a painting that you may have studied at school or you may have seen in a book and you know that the minute you’re standing in front of the real thing that you start to cry. I mean physically, you start to cry! And I think people do need a break from that. And if you’re here for a short time, you’re numb by the time you start seeing contemporary works. But both experiences are valuable. Florence does a good job, for the most part though, of having a mix of old and new. There are often new exhibitions of modern day artists. We preserve the buildings here very, very well, and we preserve the art very well, but it doesn’t mean that there isn’t also a modern twist to everything you see in the shows and the shops. An appreciation for the old is good, but the old was once, at one time, new. It was once contemporary. We should give a little bit of the same weight and the same consideration to work that is being produced today.
In your opinion, what gives art value? I think art is valuable in the eye of the beholder. If it makes you feel something, if it speaks to you in a way that you have to keep looking back at it, then I think that it has value. I don’t think that one painting is better than the next because everybody will have a different reaction to each one. One person may like one person’s work ,and I may not like it at all—But that doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t have value because I don’t like it; it just means that it has more value to someone to whom it speaks.
What are some frustrating things about being an artist in Florence? Well, we’ve actually overcome most of them now. Once we got everything figured out, we found that they were actually the advantages of being an artist in Florence. But when you are first here, you have to find all of the logistical things: you have to find the foundries for bronze, you have to find somebody you can trust and rely on, somebody who has good knowledge of the materials and can produce what you need produced; you need to find supplies because the suppliers are different here than they are back home. Doing your taxes in Italian, for example. There’s that learning curve of finding things. I think most of that we’ve overcome. The things that you have to face anywhere that are work related. But as for challenges relating to the making of the art—no, fewer here. Models are so accessible here. We meet people from so many different backgrounds, so you get to know their stories. I found back home we didn’t have that much accessibility to such a great selection of diverse people willing to model.
How would you describe your style? Naturalism, realism. I like my things to have strong form. I like them to be recognizable. I wanted skills and drawing and an academic method so I wouldn’t be constrained by an inability to paint what I see. Training has its risks because once you know how to paint accurately everything that you see, there is temptation to put in every detail you see. For me the challenge is always: what can I leave out? What can I focus on, but what can I abstract? Where can I loose the edges so that I’m not making the painting so busy and complicated with technical bravado? I think there are some things that aren’t essential to a painting, and I must make those decisions of what’s the essence and what are the most important things in a painting. The painting will tell you what it needs if you listen. The trick is listening.
I come from Polish-Italian descent; I’m first generation Canadian. My grandfather and great uncles were into sculpture and art. So I think I’ve had that all my life and just never realized how strongly until recent years. I’ve always had an interest in music, art.
Borgo SS. Apostoli, 18
How long have you been doing sculpture? I have always created sculptural work but in my early years it took the form of fine furniture in wood and handcrafted fireplace surrounds in cast stone. The more “fine art” sculpture began about ten years ago. My first interest was even before that, probably 15 years ago, when I met a sculptor. We did one-on-one sculpting and portrait in clay, and from him I learned how strongly I was interested in continuing in this medium, and then I had to go back to my regular thing, because you have to work too [laughs]. I found out from him that at the Burlington art center there was another artist that did once-a-week group lessons, so I went there and learned sculpting from a live model; that to me was incredibly interesting. It just got into my hands and into my heart, and I thought, “I really, really like this.” So I just kept going. My first commission was doing the Harriet Tubman portrait. It was a bust for a national historical site in our city. Who had known [laughs]? And the next day I’m shaking the mayor’s hand and he says, “Frank this is wonderful, but I heard that you’re leaving us.” And I said, “Yes, actually, we [my wife and I] are going to Florence. And I’m going to learn a lot more about sculpture and continue to pursue this art.” And so we did. We had fallen in love with Florence years and years before that. And to further our training we were accepted into the three-year program at world renowned academy, The Florence Academy of Art. We graduated, and really learned so much from life because there was constantly a model in front of you, whether you’re drawing, painting, or sculpting. Then after-hours we had our own studio here, and we would bring in models as well just to really practice further our academic training, but with our own vision. And the education was amazing, it’s tops. And we just continued to do it, and now I still do work from live models when possible: sculpture, portraits, life-size, half-life sized.
Did you always grow up in Canada, then? Yep, born and raised. Born in central Canada and moved to Ontario when we were much younger, and my dad bought a farm.
How do you think that setting influenced you as an artist growing up? Well, it was beautiful because you had the blossoms that would come out in the spring, and then of course when the fruits come out it’s colorful again against that backdrop. I was self-taught for painting (my wife being an oil painter may have influenced me), but I love to do landscape painting. I truly love to get out, and some people say it’s because I’m Canadian that I need to see trees, but it’s true! I think that helped because nature is just the most incredible subject. There’s always something unique.
Do you still find that satisfaction from nature in Florence even though it’s a city? Oh yeah. I love the city because it’s like every day there’s a new school of fish, or a new sunset, a new start. This whole city is crawling with people from every make and model out there, and I love meeting people and showing them what we love most about Florence. I love the way that the art is here, the fashion, the architecture, the poor, the beauty, the young, the old, the multiculturalism, the history—it’s all here. And I think that’s why all the artists eventually come here.
What artistic styles stood out to you the most while growing up? I think all of it around our home when we were kids; my mother being Italian, of course, had to have the plaster statues all over the place and artwork on the walls. And she did a little painting, and my sister did as well. I think because of the Italian side of it and what we see around the city and in the museums out here, that’s kind of what I grew up with. I’ve always had a really good feeling about realistic art, and I think growing up in the 60s and 70s you had all that crazy stuff, still today, which I think gives you a nice bracket: you’ve got the crazy contemporary stuff over there, you’ve got the historic Renaissance over here, and everything in between. I think it is the realist/naturalistic works that really is most in my heart.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have had to overcome as an artist? I really love meeting new people, and, being an artist, you just have to stay inside the studio [laughs], but I’ve sort of worked things out to where I get to enjoy people, get out there and do open houses and exhibitions, but at the same time I’ve learned to perfect my skills where I am able to get more done in one day. That’s one of the biggest things to overcome; you need to put a lot of time into art. A lot of people think that they’re going to create that one masterpiece and then retire, but that doesn’t happen [laughs]. I think one of the biggest things to overcome as an artist is sticking to your direction. It’s very easy to get distracted by everything that’s around you, and what you see outside. I think you just have to be really dedicated to your end goal, keep that in mind, and just go straight ahead. Play along the way, but definitely you’ve got to stay focused.
Do you think it’s harder to stay focused here in Florence when there’s always something going on versus back in Canada? I think back in Canada I would go stir-crazy in my studio because even if you did go outside, there’s less stimulation, partly due to the long winters which make “sitting in the piazzas” less of a possibility. Here if you step outside your door you meet every age, every nationality… many people who visit Florence come from varied backgrounds and it is unique in that way. Unlike a luxury resort destination we get people from war torn countries, from very rich places, students, professionals … and now that we’ve realized that it never stops, that there’s always something to do here it is easier to stay focused on work in the studio because you feel comfortable that these things will still be there when you need a break or inspiration. I think it has helped me become more focused in the studio because I know that there’s always going to be something else out there; there’s always something new and exciting, always something cool.
Who is your biggest inspiration now? I still like Bernini’s and Rodin’s work, and Michelangelo of course. I think the old masters have a lot to teach us but it is up to the individual to develop their own unique voice.
How would you describe your own style? This [The Conversation] is my own inspirational impressionist work, but my style is classical realism. I want the freedom to play with my ideas and figures, but I still want them to “have bones” and be recognizable as human form.
How do you get inspired for a new piece? Wanting to try a new material has actually given me new ideas. I’ve got some really exciting ones in my heart and mind right now, that I can’t tell you about [laughs], but they’ll come out some day! Inspiration comes from every time I go into the Medici Chapels, the Borghese, or Palazzo Pitti, or anything that’s outside here—also the Bargello; it’s like I’m not worthy [laughs]! These guys are so good, you know. And you don’t want to be copying their work; you want to be as good as them, but you don’t want to copy what they’ve done. And that’s hard because you do want to make an original piece. So yes, I think this city inspires me nonstop.
Do you ever feel that there’s a struggle between being inspired by these historic pieces in the city and being compared with them? I think that’s something to be aspired to; I want to be just as good. It’s really important to have a story. I don’t think you can just make a blob and put it out there and expect people to get all excited about it. I mean, some people can, but I don’t believe in that. I think you should have a life to the work, there should be something in it that’s alive. The Harriet Tubman sculpture, a seated life-sized bronze commissioned by the District School Board of Niagara, is an important work for me. It is my second work of Harriet Tubman, who was an important historic figure in my hometown of St. Catharines. I have posed her with a book in her lap with the title “The Story of Harriet Tubman” because she has a story to tell, and it is for a school and the irony is she could not read. Slaves were not allowed to be educated and her work in bringing slaves to freedom from the USA to Canada has changed everything. The story of how she pretended to hold a book or newspaper to evade capture on her travels was well known. She felt because she was “wanted” and people knew she was illiterate she could cleverly hide by pretending to read. For the schoolchildren of today to realize that this is not to be taken for granted is an important part of her legacy. I think that’s important. You can be inspired by something beautiful, but if you can’t let the audience know why it’s there or why it’s so great, then I think that’s where it falls apart.
What role do you think historic and contemporary art play with one another? I think it’s like what our school did, and it took a little to get used to that. What really good artists do is have a really solid structure to begin with. If you don’t have a basic foundation to build a house on, it’s not going to stand regardless of the decoration. And I think you really need to learn from the old works that went before. I mean, I couldn’t have done this without the education I received because you’re getting the structure you need. Once you have the alphabet it is up to you to write the poem, and that is when the real work begins. For me it’s important to know what the people in the past did so I can build on that and grab the baton and keep running with it.
What do you hope that others understand about your work? The effort that goes into it and why it’s important to me. Again, going back to the story about why is it here, why did you make this piece, and what’s so exciting about it. I want this story to be told later in life, to the next generation. I hope it sticks around forever, like the Riace bronzes, something like that that happened so long ago but that today we’re all talking about it and we go to admire and enjoy. I want my work to continue going out there, and hopefully my work will inspire the next artist.
What are some frustrating things about being an artist in Florence? Sometimes getting materials because a lot of places don’t stock a lot of the materials that I need. It’s really hard to sell art to a country that is surrounded by art because they can just walk outside and see it there for free. They don’t buy a lot of art. They buy art, but not a lot. Their pleasure often seems to be more in abstract, impressionist, colorful. They’re not big into bronzes and marble and that kind of thing because they’re surrounded by it. So that’s a frustrating part in that the market is not really here. Unless it’s tourists; tourists do buy some stuff. But not a lot, they’re mostly here for gelato and walking around and to look at the statues outside [laughs].
Why do you think people are attracted to those newer styles? I think because they’ve been surrounded by the other for forever. I mean, it’s in their blood, it’s been around for thousands of years, and why would they want more in their own home? I think. But I think also that because they have limited space, something with color that punches up a wall, is exciting to them. Laura sells a lot more paintings than I do sculptures here.
What are your goals as an artist for future endeavors? To be successful [laughs] number one, and to me success is being able to afford to continue making art in a place that I love. And two, I think I would like to pass this on to someone: to just continue doing the workshops and to teach, which I love. I love the way students can create things, and when they make a mold and their piece comes out of it and they’re all excited. I think that’s kind of cool. So, to be successful and to be a part of someone’s life, a young artist—who knows!
What is your purpose for creating? I guess self-satisfaction to say I can do that, I know I can do that. The only thing I am having trouble with is the Italian language, but other than that I love a challenge. I think I just need to have a challenge and a goal and to reach it. To me that’s very important.
In your opinion, what gives art value? I think the story is what gives it value. It’s got to have a story and some heart and soul, and you should be able to get pulled right into it and wonder, “How did they do that? Look at those fingernails, look at the color of those eyes; that gesture speaks to me,” and also, beyond the technique, the mood it speaks to and whether people can relate something of their own experiences when viewing it …all these sorts of things. I think that’s really important, something that’s deeper than just the superficial.
What makes your style unique? I guess it’s unique in that I put all I could into it, and so for me that was the challenge. And if I’m satisfied at the end of it, then I think that I’ve succeeded in creating a unique product of my own doing.
What role does your work play in regards to the city of Florence? I’m inspired by the fashion that’s here; all the incredible stores and shops and things, and movie stars that come here. I think it is fashion that has recently has me inspired. The figure in fashion is beautiful to sculpt because you are not only sculpting a human form but you get to play with the beauty, creativity and inspiration of the designer as well.
Do you think, then, that it is important for an artist to be creating in an environment where they are inspired? I think so, yes. There’s always a better artist out there than you, always. And I think that if you can learn anything from, whether it’s fashion, art, jewelry, food, the colors of walls—anything that gives you a little more food for your creativity—then I think yes, it’s all really important. Art is a big thing, whether it’s music or dance or sculpture or food or what have you. It’s a big, big world, and we can all learn something from it. Art can be a record of our times and it is what we leave behind.