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A bunch of words about two paintings.

4 Apr

I have this habit of visiting a place, and not truly knowing where I have been until I am home.

Sometimes this is is a tad terrifying. Like when I cajoled my travelmates into swimming at a mysteriously empty, remote beach near an abandoned gold mine in Aruba, only to learn later that the spot was named “Shark Feeding Beach”. Other times, as in the case of the small town of Vizzola Ticino in Italy, the sensation of having passed through something fascinating without knowing until much later just why I was fascinated, is close to magical. Admittedly it also brings on a hectic, close feeling – like claustrophobia – as the impossibility of wandering through the place one more time, right now, to look more closely, pushes in.

I went to Italy this past summer with one main purpose; to bike over the mountain passes of the Dolomiti mountains. Pretty fancy purpose, I know… but it was my honeymoon trip, and we like hills. The town of Vizzola Ticino was just about the least emphasized location on our entire trip. In fact, I only saw the name of the place on a map because we needed to pass through it – it was a negligible side note on the route between the boring airport-hotel town of Gallarate and an obscure bike path that we rode as a warm-up, waiting for some other cyclists to fly in. “Vizzola T” appeared on a number of humble traffic circles that we rode through repeatedly, and for the most part the town seemed unremarkable and like the suburbs around it. It’s inhabited part was just the size of a neighborhood and looked like a planned community… flat grid of roads, white convenience stores primarily selling ice cream novelties, flapping notices on the white community center, tiny houses with kind of startling electrical gates at the end of their car-length driveways.

What put Vizzola T. on my radar at all began with a few unexplained attractions that sprung up after we passed the “center” of town. A vast field with a completely empty farm building at its center. Old rock walls and gates to nowhere. A tall stone column bearing the town name beneath a crumbling eagle, in lettering old enough to boggle my sign-paintery, new-worldy mind.

The part of Vizzola T. that followed this sign was breathtaking and strange; beautiful, so old, and completely empty. Aged doors stood open, leaf choked. Intricately painted property walls drifted towards dust. Again, we were just supposed to be passing through, looking for a bike path somewhere on the left, near a canal that I found it impossible to find for three consecutive days. We were traveling with people who’d been to this area repeatedly, and no one mentioned anything about the town being worth note. I figured that was because in context, in this country that I’d never stepped foot in before, completely abandoned old villages were par for the course. Indeed, I even felt a little silly when I kept asking to pull aside and peek through a crack in a wall or take a photo.

Once home, I think my research into the town started because of the lettering in some of the photos above. I thought I might put together a collection of hand painted text from other countries, or repaint one of these phrases myself, and that I should know what they said. As soon as I googled the phrase above, “Senza Cozzar Dirocco”, I started finding some pretty remarkable stuff.

Turns out Vizzola T. was the original site of the home and factory of the famous aircraft innovator and manufacturer, Caproni. The now-empty town we were passing through once housed the aircraft factory’s employees… the tumbledown farms provided their food in an unprecedented model of agricultural efficiency. Even the strange, low canal we’d ridden along with the source for a now-closed hydroelectric plant. The empty fields had seen test flights, bombings in World War II,  a school of aviation from which flew the first female Italian pilot. Some of the most famous planes in the world were made here, in what was once one of the area’s most profitable industries.

(Senza Cozzar Dirocco was the motto for the Caproni family and company BTW, given them by the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. The internet at first tried to tell me that it translates to the rather inelegant “Without touching the ground they destroy their targets”, but I’ve since found that most translations agree on “Without Clashing, I Demolish”. You know. Like a bomber plane. From the sky, without taking a hand to a hand.)

Suffice it to say I’ve worn out my pitiful Italian on aviation history websites, and bought a few great books. I won’t write at length about the Caproni family or aircraft manufacturing history, because I have such a scant grasp on what I’d be talking about that it would read like a 5th grader’s plagiarism of the World Book, and because if you are interested you will look into it yourself. What I suppose I’m writing about instead is the simple and universal experience of stumbling upon a place thick with palpable history, and the disparate ways that different people – and different countries – react to those places.

The strangest thing to me, as an American, is the way the whole area has been allowed simply to be. The way, decades and decades past Caproni’s move and eventual dissolution, buildings just crumble and barns stand open, vine bound, bent on obliteration. There are no plaques, no pretenses at preservation (admittedly there is a restored villa and an aviation museum in a nearby town, but I didn’t see it). There’s also no graffiti, no vandalism, no sign of squatters in the vacant blocks, just… vacancy. There was no reappropriation of factory dorms for luxury condos. It’s fantastic for someone like me who likes to (wrongly, borderline-insanely) imagine that they’re the only one to have stumbled upon a place.  There was nothing to stop me taking home the stones of a historic barn, or breaking my neck within the skeleton of a leaning water tower.

I have spent my entire life working out this preoccupation with historic and haunted spaces – wavering between a preservationist’s instinct to save, and a more visceral, naturalist instinct that they should be allowed to pass and decay and leave only psychic marks on the landscape – and I understand that it’s not at all a unique pursuit. I’m drawn like anyone to storied but obsolete industrial landscapes, empty houses with things still in their closets, bottles and metals buried in river silt. I think this all started when, on a poke through the woods near my house at about age 6, I stumbled upon an old foundation nowhere near any road and I was struck permanently dumb by sudden thoughts of the Once-Was and the Had-Been and all Gone-Befores. I’ve tried awfully hard to create stories from the depths of any number of forests and basements, and have been profoundly unsure what to make with these stories, or what constructive thing could be done with my interest in them.

Like a lot of the people I know, I’ve studied urban planning, geography and psychogeography, worked for preservationists and in repurposed mills. I’ve petitioned to save historic properties at times, and at other times wished parts of my own city could be allowed to sink down into the rising, Lovecraftian port waters, unmolested and unmarked. I’ve investigated any number of careers that might be even vaguely connected to a passion for the inexplicable spirit of places, I’ve worked with geocoding and survey-taking, and of course I’ve traveled and documented, but still I don’t hold a full-time job in any of these fields.

What do I do with my preoccupation instead? I “drive” the Google street view car around on my laptop at night, and by day I paint things.
Someday perhaps I’ll do more. But for now, here…

Two paintings inspired by Vizzola Ticino. These feature large mountain goats (stambecco) that are common in the region –  I did not see any – and that also happen to be the animal on the Caproni family crest.

Within each painting are some of the towns ghostly structures, some movement, some light from different times, and some scraps of the motto: Senza Cozzar Dirocco.
Maybe these paintings are about conflict, about clashing, about demolition and preservation, or just about a place.
I’m certainly not going to be the one to decide.


Regarding the wooden thing on the couch.

18 Feb

My mother’s side of the family is the type that has a motto. A seal, a crest, a family tree in calligraphy, dry and oft-folded, a clear and famous lineage. She comes from Plymouth, straight from Mayflower stock, a direct descendant of Governor Bradford himself. I’m enough Pilgrim myself that it’s only a mildly obnoxious stretch, I’ve decided, to say that Sarah Vowell has written a book about me.

My mother’s family motto is Frangas Non Flectes; latin for Break, Don’t Bend. From as early in my life as I can remember– no doubt this was my introduction to the very concept  of a “motto”, perhaps even of “latin”– my father laughingly railed against the dreadful advice this motto offered. (My father’s family might have a motto itself, if anyone could trace them more than a generation or two into Irish obscurity, but I’d have to guess it would be “Leave Me Alone, I Am Going Into The Woods To Look At Stuff”).

“Imagine a tree,” he’d say by way of dramatic illumination, “that follows this motto. A little breeze comes up and what does it do? Oh, it breaks in two! Because it can’t bend!”

My mom would counter that he was missing the point, failing to understand the virtue of standing strong in one’s convictions and refusing to compromise. Probably my father would follow that with some colorful comments about uptight Calvinists. It was all good natured. The kind of heated, hilarious debate anyone would be lucky to grow up amidst. After all, family mottos; who actually has those? It never, you know, came to blows.

It did, however, come to carving.

When I was really young my father carved this amazing, heavy eagle sign, emblazoned by his proposed revision of the family motto. The weather’s taken the lettering off to a large degree, but if you could read the banner here you’d see writ boldly: Flectes Non Frangas.

Bend. Don’t Break. Indeed.

I bring this up not only to raise issues of Yankee intransigence and the joys of mixing lapsed Catholics and protestants in one small kitchen. And really, my mom’s motto is not as bad as it could be. I did some genealogical research and was delighted to find that other families have mottos like “Wars! Dreadful Wars!” and “When Plucked We Emit a Scent” (granted the latter was for the Rose family, but still). I bring it up also because I’ve realized that some people don’t know that I come from artist parents, and specifically from a father who carved and painted birds.

Me = fallen apple. Close to tree.

This eagle is not very representative of my dad’s work. My dad was meticulous to an uncanny degree, steady handed and empathic to wood in a way I may never fully understand. He worked with the most delicate of chisels and knives, fine-tipped Dremmel tools, thick reading glasses. The majority of his work involved individually carved feathers, beaks as fine as seashell, realistic claws curved brightly from believably-fleshed toes. This piece is comparatively chunky, simplistic, rustic. So when my mom generously lifted the eagle down from its roost on her shingles and passed in on to me recently, I thought to ask her what inspired him to make a piece in this particular style.

She pointed me towards John Bellamy. Or, as he seems generally and officially known: John Bellamy, Carver of Eagles.

Bellamy is an artist, who naturally never considered himself as such, who lived and worked in Maine and throughout New England in the late nineteenth century. In addition to making furniture and clocks and mysterious and esoteric Masonic whatnots, he’s most famous for creating these carvings for ships stems. Eagles grasping banners, always emblazoned with adages like “Don’t Give Up The Ship”.

While I think of this iconic eagle-clutching-dramatic-declaration image as something that’s just been around since the world’s inception, it seems that Bellamy was really the guy who established the tradition. He’s even quoted as saying: “There is one thing I can say as to this work of mine. It is original with me and never known or heard of until I produced it.” A great and ballsy quote, really, and something I’d like to be able to say someday about my own work.

It’s safe to say that my dad was using Bellamy’s work as the model for this eagle of his. And Bellamy seems a fittingly eccentric and incorrigible character for my dad (who once carved a collection of realistic, severed heads and mounted them on poles along his property line when a new house was built a bit too close) to feel kinship with.

Needless to say, it’s a great honor for me to have inherited this eagle. It’s seen better days, having hung happily out in the elements for decades, and though I like the way the weather’s aged and altered it, I plan to restore it a bit. Jay and I will be combining forces– his knowledge of repair and preservation and my hand lettering and feathering skills– to repaint the motto and fill some cracks, stop the rot that’s bitten into a few spots and bring back the brightness of feathers and eye.

It’ll be a great multi-generational collaboration, and a great coming together of all sides of my family; my pilgrim mom, my yankee dad, and my Italian husband-to-be.

I hope that Flectes non Frangas, a motto re-appropriated and adjusted and modernized, will hang well in our less-than-traditional home. An overseeing, inspiring mascot to all or our flexible, unbreakable undertakings.

Stendhal Syndrome

12 Jun

I just got back from the AIGA Leadership Retreat in Portland Oregon. That is, I got back several days ago but am still waiting for my checked brain to come around the carousel. Do not board several planes and elevators with a head cold unless you want permanently alter the function of said head.

I am a fairly new member on the board of AIGA – which is The Professional Association for Design, not the American Institute of Graphic Artists (because acronyms are no longer acronyms, unless they’re self-recursive acronyms which are some of my favorite things on this vexing planet). Being thrown into a three day experience with 250 smart, competent, outgoing, eloquent and markedly more experienced board members was overwhelming for sure. The combined stimuli of these great people, the plethora of AIGA programs I was introduced to and my first-ever exploration of Portland was enough to inspire a sort of paralysis. Too much awesome to choose from.

Lest I overdo this entry, become a premature AIGA evangelist, or reveal too much about what happened at The Silverado on Thursday night, here’s a simple list of links to things I’ve just become aware of and think you ought be aware of too.

Some inspiring AIGA programs:

Youth Design, born in Boston and spread to Denver and Providence

Compostmodern: the intersection of sustainability and design


And more sustainability and design from AIGA HQ

The history of graphic design in New Orleans

…And the new book Signs of New Orleans


Some things about Portland:

There is this sign.

There is an establishment called the Doug Fir, complete with a mounted moose head made of glass, cruelty-free and sparkly, in which I had a lovely conversation with musician and Schwa co-minister Tom Filepp and apparently just missed meeting a local bicycle building hero. Bah.


There is a Dinerant—presumably the marriage of a diner and a restaurant, which are already pretty similar but whatever—where one can enjoy an amazing salad in the cool embrace of a really well designed venue.


There is a great establishment called P’ear that does art and advocacy work with homeless youth, and that graciously opened its gallery for us to gather and party in.

There are too many donuts, to my mind.

Also I sent 742 text messages in the time I was in PDX. I’m at a loss to explain this complete seizure of textitude, other than to say that the level of input I was receiving on my trip had to find release in a proportionate amount of output. I hope that this output instinct can be translated into a similarly productive season of design, art and work.

I also hope that my text plan is really unlimited.