"Umbria Mystica" and the New Renaissance of Living Art in Italy
by Lori Nozick
The Umbria region has served as a cradle for the birth and diffusion of experimental art language, as a source of new artistic currents, and the chosen place for creating and fabricating artwork: a new Renaissance.
Among some of the artists working here are many established Americans, including Beverly Pepper, Al Held, Nicholas Carone, Sol Le Witt, Cy Twombly, William Bailey, and Bill Jensen. There are also many Italian artists who live in nearby Umbrian cultural towns such as Todi, Spoleto and Gubbio, including Piero Dorazio, Bruno Ceccobelli and Rossella Vasta. Many of these artists say that the primary reason they come to Umbria is for the opportunity to focus on their work without the interruptions of daily life so prevalent in America. At the same time most of them also exhibit their work in galleries, museums and sculpture parks in the region, as well as doing installations in medieval towns, churches, other public spaces, and in my case, a collaborative public installation in the Commune di Corciano’s landmark medieval tower. For instance, there is a gallery in Todi, "Extra Moenia", run by Giuliana Dorazio, that exhibits the work of the internationally-known, American and Italian artists of the region. Joseph Helman recently bought a medieval castle in the region and is creating a new museum there. In Perugia an artists group called Trebisonda has, for the past ten years used an old school building as a gallery and exhibition space. Annually they invite international, as well as local artists, to create installations.
Signor Giuliani Gori, a major Italian patron of contemporary artists, has sponsored one of the most impressive collections of sculpture and installation at his family estate in Celle, an hour and a half north of here. The collection features works by many established artists who are invited to stay and work on-site, including, among others, Robert Morris, Beverly Pepper, Richard Serra, Magdalena Abakanowicz and many others. The collection is often featured in exhibtions highlighting the rich artistic traditions of the region.
For me personally, this experience fulfills a critical component of what one searches for in choosing to be an artist, despite the pressures of a highly technological and commercial (art) world. I’ve learned more about myself, art history and the interconnectedness of time, culture and the place of art in daily life than I did in all my years as an art student and working artist in New York. The artists who choose to live and work in Umbria’s countryside (where everywhere one walks one stumbles across Etruscan walls and sculpture, Roman architectural ruins, Medieval and Renaissance painting, frescoes, and sculpture) represent the fact of a rebirth and continuity of why we make art in the first place.
While the Etruscans made art here nearly 3,000 years ago, Umbria began to be an axis of contemporary artistic activity beginning in the 1950’s, when artists such as Beverly Pepper, who was living in Rome, Al Held, who was at the American Academy in Rome, and Nicholas Carone, who was then living in Rome, were drawn to the rural environment of Umbria. Along with a number of other post-expressionist artists coming out of New York were friends who were turned off by the static and increasingly "false" values of the art market of the time. These artists wanted to reconnect to the sources of Western art, to be in touch with the Renaissance, surrounded by nature, to be fed by the sources, and take risks without the pressure of the social life and marketing of what was the avant-garde.
Barbara Rose, a close friend of Beverly Pepper, also bought a house near Todi thirty years ago, and later became a member of the Academia di Belli Arte Pietro Vannucci in Perugia. In the early 1990’s she began teaching at American University in Washington, DC, where she met Kimes. Nicholas Carone, who was on the founding faculty of the New York Studio School, bought property here in the 1970’s and in the late 1980’s established his own School near Todi. Among many others, faculty there have included Bruno Ceccobelli, Roberto Carracialo, Andrew Forge, and Piero Dorazio, who has been called the "dean" of Italian painting.
In 1994 Don Kimes, who had developed the Chautauqua School of Art in the late 1980’s, and was himself a former Program Director at the Studio School, took a sabbatical from American University, and with his family, came to live in Rose’s house for a year. He fell in love with with the Umbrian landscape, and together with Rose, conceived of creating a new program in Italy. Rossella Vasta, a lifelong friend of Beverly Pepper, is a painter who lives and exhibits her work here. Vasta was instrumental in helping Kimes and Rose set in motion the beginnings of this school. Through Vasta’s contacts with the mayor of Corciano, Palmiro Bruscia, and the cultural ambassador of the Commune, Gabrielli Romani (both avid supporters of the arts) Corciano welcomed the program and provided a huge, loft-like building for the school. A unique relationship has developed between the artists, the community, and the school as Corciano has increasingly become a nexus for artists in the region.
Artists who were friends began coming as visiting artists and have included Glenn Goldberg, Fred Eversley, Carole Robb, Margaret Grimes, Barbara Schwartz, Gregory Amenoff, John Walker, Luis Silva and Alan Feltus, to name a few. The program regularly schedules visits to Siena, Assisi, the Burri Museum in Citta di Castello, the Gori Collection, and the Niki De Saint Phalle Tarot Sculpture Garden. At the end of the semester there is a week long trip to Naples, Pompeii, and Sicily (where we visit the "Fiumara d’Arte" sculpture park, founded by Antonio Presti, a patron of the arts who also has a hotel "Atelier Sul Mare", where artists have designed individual rooms as installations).
The American University program in Corciano is the only two-year MFA program in Italy. Not only are the students living with art history in a way that is impossible in America, as well as working every day in their studios, they also become ambassadors representing the importance of communication, public activity, and the responsibility of what this life choice entails. The program serves as more than an art school, but also as a locus which connects students to artists, to the world of art, and to a context for their art. They return to the United States with altered perceptions about what can be achieved with expanded boundaries. They have worked with important contemporary artists, but have also stood before Caravaggio and Pierro Della Francesca with a genuine awareness of the context of the art, as opposed to the static viewing of a slide.
Don Kimes, the director of the school, feels that especially "In the age of information, making art requires a greater leap of faith than it did for Pierro or Giotto. There isn’t any immortality, but we want it anyway, and Italy is a great place to think about space, immortality, and the passage of time. You cannot pick up a stone that hasn’t hasn’t already been touched by a dozen human hands."