LAURA THOMPSON

DSC_0087I am an oil painter. I do a little of everything: still life and a little bit of landscape, but for the most part my primary interest is figurative and some portraiture. 

www.theflorencestudio.com
theflorencestudio@gmail.com
Borgo SS. Apostoli, 18

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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