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To Rome with love

At the end of June 2016 I got on a plane in London leaving my husband and two school-going children behind, and headed to Rome. I was off to do a two-week figure painting workshop with the artist Hollis Dunlap, and to see the city’s treasure trove of art and architecture.

The Rome Art Workshops initiative was created by artists David Simon and Brian Booth Craig. David is a figurative sculptor based in Los Angeles, and Brian, who creates bronze figurative sculpture, is based in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I had come to hear about it the year before when Hollis, whom I follow on Instagram, posted that he would be teaching in Rome the following summer. I was an enormous fan of his work, and while traveling from London to the USA to paint with him was out of the question, Italy was achievable.

During the two weeks we painted a series of male and female models in this old palazzo in Campo Fiori, which is now the University of Washington. Our studio had enormous wooden windows, and the morning light would stream in, soon accompanied by the summer heat. The sounds and music of the square below, including the soulful tunes of the boozy accordion player and the ensuing arguments with the old woman who would beg him (for the love of god) to vary his repertoire, would filter up.

Next door to us David and Brian taught figurative sculpture, Michael Bergt oversaw an egg tempera painting techniques class across the hall, and upstairs Sean Cheetham instructed Alla Prima portrait painting. In the session before I arrived there had also been artist Alyssa Monks teaching 'transcending the photo reference', and 'painting Rome' taught by Marc Trujillo. Some of America’s finest figurative artists gathered in one place, and more so, teaching in Rome.

From L to R: Instructors Sean Cheetham, David Simon, Michael Bergt and Hollis Dunlap at work

In the afternoons we’d wonder around visiting churches and museums and little places off the beaten track, while the artist instructors would talk to us about what we were seeing. It was an incredible whistle stop art history tour for me. In this way I discovered and fell in love with the work of Bernini, and truly came to appreciate Caravaggio in a way you do when you see those incredible paintings in the city in which they were created. Rome is a magical place with the most extraordinary art and history that springs up on you when you are least expecting it. Where the ancient and classical are still visible and dreamily coexist among the modern. One’s appreciation of the wealth of sights and art that Rome has to offer becomes even more enriching when you are accompanied by people, and in this case artists, who know its treasures and are full of delicious anecdotes. It was an inimitable education.

Brian Booth Craig (L) in front of the Colossus of Constantine at the Capitoline Museum and

Hollis Dunlap (R) discusses Caravaggio at the Villa Borghese

Evenings were spent eating and drinking in various restaurants dotted around Trastevere - sampling dishes, forging friendships, and exchanging ideas. Or watching films at night as part of the Trastevere Film Festival, sat on the floor in the square with a beer amongst the Roman families. Given we were living in local apartments there was the occasional bit of shopping that needed doing and visits to art shops. On the weekends I’d walk around the neighbourhood and buy fruit from market stalls and shop from the street vendors. Meeting new friends for lunch and later dinner. Sometimes we’d go for walks and intentionally get lost in the neighbourhoods - a wonderful thing to do when you have time on your hands. And it was thus that Rome, the real Rome, slowly revealed itself to me.

Out and about in Rome

Those two weeks in Rome were so inspiring and such a gift that I asked David Simon to talk to me about how he and Brian Booth Craig had came up with the idea for this wonderful project. I was also curious about what it takes to run and coordinate it, gathering artists from around the world in Rome each summer. A place where they will teach, learn, exchange ideas and find inspiration.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Rome Art Workshops?

As I recall, the idea began when I was visiting Brian while he was doing a residency in Siena. We got to talking about ways we could organise our lives so that we could get back to Italy regularly and quickly, and we thought of teaching a workshop. Initially the thought was that we could do it in a small town in Tuscany, or perhaps in Siena. Then we took a short trip down to Rome. We stayed in a little Pensione near Piazza Mattei in the Jewish Ghetto. With the overwhelming inspiration all around us and the clearly visible history we immediately realised that we would want to do it in Rome.

Q: What did you imagine/hope to achieve with this? What were the initial objectives?

Initially we thought that if we could get five or six students then we would be able to break even. The first year we had thirteen. It has grown since then, expanded in length into 2 x two week sessions and expanded in breadth to encompass painting and drawing as well as sculpture.

David Simon outside the San Francesco a Ripa - home of Bernini's Blessed Ludovica Albertoni

Q: From conception of the idea to the first workshop how much time passed?

The first workshop took place the year after my visit to Siena. We have just completed our fourth year.

Q: Can you tell me about that very first workshop?

The first workshop was a complete learning experience. We both had a lot of teaching experience, both in ongoing classes as well as workshops. But neither of us had ever set up a workshop before, let alone in another country. We taught a figure sculpture class. It was an interesting experience co-teaching a class, which I had never done before. It took a little bit of time to get to know what would be complementary and not repetitive. We structured the workshop as an immersive seeing and making experience, taking the participants to look at different sculpture every day as well as working in the studio.

Q: How do you choose what art to see and which places people will visit and does this vary from year to year?

There are certain places, like the Borghese Gallery and the Capitoline Museum that we go to each year. We ask our instructors which sites thy would like to visit and we look for special exhibitions like the Mucha show.

From L to R: Lauren Carter-Bridges & Michael Trovela with The Capitoline Wolf; A cast copy of Michelangelo's Pieta at the studio of Felice Calchi; Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes at the Palazzo Barberini; Bernini's Pluto and Persephone at the Villa Borghese

Q: How do you come up with the ratio of studio time versus looking at art time?

We try to balance it as best we can. It doesn't make sense to be in a city like Rome and not expose people to some of the great work that inspires us. At the same time, we want to provide ample time in the studio. We have asked people in our post-workshop surveys about the balance and adjusted it over the years to try to achieve the best balance.

Q: How long does it take to plan/organise each yearly workshop from scratch to when people begin arriving in Rome?

We begin planning fairly soon after the end of the previous year’s workshop. We really get busy with it in October/November and it goes into high gear in April/May

Q: How is the accommodation arranged?

We work with the University of Washington which uses a housing agency for their students and faculty as well as ours.

We obviously begin by dividing the apartments we need between male and female participants. Then we do our best to group people by age group, where they’re from and any other method that we have access to. We also try to take into account specific needs of participants; for example we switched apartments around just before the start of the first workshop this year because one of our returning participants told us that she had injured her leg and we wanted to move her to an apartment closer to the school.

My apartment in Rome

Q: How and where did you publicise this and get the word out initially and how is that different to today?

Initially we just posted it on our Facebook pages. Since then we have had a website built. Primarily people still come to us through social media or directly through the instructors.

Q: How do you choose the artists that will teach?

Sean Cheetham was the first artist that we asked to teach with us. We chose him because we both admired his work, knew that he was familiar teaching in the workshop format and had a fairly large following particularly in Europe. Since then we have pretty much stuck to those criteria, people whose work we like, who have teaching experience and the ability to attract students.

Sean Cheetham's portrait painting class in action

Q: Where do you see this going? And is there anything you’d like to achieve with future workshops that may not yet be in place or that may not yet have been achieved?

I would like to see the program develop to the point where we have a core group of instructors. At this point Brian and I and Sean are teaching each session and we have added instructors around this. I would still like to add visiting instructors but it would be nice to have 3 or 4 core instructors.

Q: Would you consider hiring non American teachers too?

Yes. We have reached out to one, but the timing didn’t work out. I’m sure it will happen soon.

Q: What are some of the difficulties involved in doing a project like this?

There are many challenges including logistics (buying supplies in the US and getting them to Rome or buying in Italy from the US). Housing (the apartments we get are dependent on the number of male/female students we have, which housing option they select, what apartments are available. etc. Dealing with participants different expectations (regarding housing, teaching style) etc.

Q: Would you consider doing this in an additional or different European city, like Amsterdam for example?

Yes. I would love to try the workshops in a city like Paris, although the logistics are difficult - we have all of our equipment and supplies in Rome.

Q: What do you personally get out of the enterprise?

I get to meet great people, see great art, eat great food, and bring my family to some amazing places.

A coffee break during a tour around Rome in the Ristorante Atelier Canova Tadolini - former home of the sculptor Antonio Canova

Q: Do you still teach?

I teach in Los Angeles at my studio and at Santa Monica College as well as occasional stints at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art.

Q: Are the people who attend the workshops predominantly from the USA? Which other countries might they come from?

The majority of participants are from the US, but we have had participants from Asia, Africa, Australia/New Zealand, South America as well as all over Europe. We would love to attract more European participants. This year in the first session we had two doctors who were participating in different workshops. One was from Atlanta and was taking the Figure Sculpture workshop. The other was from LA and was taking Alyssa Monks workshop. As they got into a car at the airport to be taken into the city they realised that they knew each other and had worked on the same team at a hospital in Atlanta. They had no idea that they were both in Rome on the same program!

Q: Do you get repeat people coming to do the course?

Yes, quite a few.

Q: What do you think people gain from the experience of doing the Rome Art Workshops?

I think that people are able to immerse themselves in something that they are passionate about with others who feel the same way that they do in a place that sparks inspiration.

Artist Clarissa James at work

Q: What do you hope people will gain from the experience?

I hope that the instructors can help guide the experience and that students leave Rome with a sense of purpose about their work and a sense that their artistic resources and community have grown.

Postscript: Shortly after returning, I wrote up an interview I did with Hollis Dunlap in Rome - conducted during a somewhat boozy dinner over red wine and delicious Italian food. I think that captures my experience of being a student with the Rome Art Workshops and you can read that here.

But my time there was also a personal journey. While I had spent a few days away from my children and husband, I had never left them for as long as two weeks before. The weird thing is I wasn’t sure I knew how to be alone - outside of my family and role as a parent. While I am an artist I am also a mother, and so much of how I define myself is influenced by that. How would it be to wake up in the morning and only have myself to take care of for the rest of the day? Not to have to worry about packed lunches, the school run and homework. Or concerning myself about getting a decent amount of sleep ahead of dealing with the rigours of demanding little people the next day. To be able to paint minus any interruptions, day and night, without any other obligations. Not having to clean up after others or grocery shop if I didn’t want to. To meet up with people at the spur of the moment, even late at night, without needing to arrange a sitter.

Then there was the matter of having to share an apartment in Rome with complete strangers that I’d only ‘met’ via the Facebook group that was set up. I’m 41 and a bit set in my ways in terms of how I like things and do things, and having my life arranged to accommodate this. The idea was kind of daunting. Also while I’d visited Rome before, I’d stayed in a hotel - I’d never lived there as a resident. Would there be Wifi? Could I buy lactose free milk and wheat free bread? What if my flat mates didn’t clean up after themselves? What if they partied late into the night while I was trying to sleep? All valid, inflexible, middle aged concerns which turned out to be totally redundant. In fact I was the one coming back to the apartment with people I’d had dinner with so we could continue our conversations over wine. The wifi worked just fine, the local store had soya milk, which as it turns out I never used, what with being too busy eating panini and gelato and drinking beer and living life.

The whole experience was so liberating and nourishing. I felt like a student again, but this time with money in my pocket and a lot more common sense. And more so, I kind of found me again - me that is not a mother or a wife or a responsible adult. Just me - there to paint and learn and to explore, and to meet people on my own merit. As Thomas Merton wrote, art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. And what better place to do that in than Rome in the summer?

With thanks to David Simon.

Read more about The Rome Art Workshops here. They are now taking places for this coming summer - June/July 2017.

Below is a short (non commercial) film I made for myself following my time in Rome in the summer of 2016 using film clips, my photos and those of fellow artists.

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