“Art washes away the dust of everyday life” – Picasso
Not only do I travel to experience the undiscovered beauty which lies beyond my doorstep, but also to gain a greater understanding of the culture, the landscape and the history that resides in these new found lands. But, above all, it is the people who truly fascinate me the most. As human beings we have the ability to destroy our fellow man, incite famine and raze cities to the ground, however, it is with these very same hands that we can create utterly captivating and thought provoking beauty. When we can generate works of art in harmony with Mother Nature, true artistry begins to flourish. Nowhere is this unity between nature and humankind more apparent than the Mediterranean island of Sicily. It is a region which has been conquered and occupied for thousands of years and has integrated aspects of each invading society in order to create a truly unique culture.
This influence of invading civilisations and their legacy of ancient monuments, together with vast stretches of untouched coastline and an abundance of fresh local produce has produced a culture defiantly and uniquely Sicilian. The result is a melting pot for artistic curiosity and creative necessity. Sicily successfully combines age-old traditions with contemporary influences to produce a distinctive Sicilian ethos and it is this voice that appeals to artists both young and old and to those who come from far and wide.
Throughout my travels to this incredible region I have met many talented artists and creatives who are greatly inspired by their homeland and who, in turn, have provoked something fresh and personal in my own ceramic practice. I would like to end 2019, a year that has been most generous to me, by sharing with you just a handful of some of the people who I’ve met along the way.
Winding my way through the back streets of the Kalsa district, the ancient Arab Quarter of Palermo, to view one of my favourite paintings L’Annunciata by Sicilian artist Antonello Da Messina, I was very fortunate to stumble across the tiny studio and storefront of watercolour artist Loredana Lo Verde. Loredana evokes images of old European folklore throughout her work in order to create her colourful and richly decorated paintings. As a ceramicist I am always in awe of the innovative ways in which other artists manage to turn what could be considered an ordinary space into something not only practical but beautiful. In Loredana’s case, her studio becomes a folkloric fairy tale. Of course I couldn’t resist buying some of Loredana’s whimsical creations to bring back home to Australia with me, and my already bulging suitcase was very grateful to be stuffed with something other than Sicilian ceramics and bottles of wine!
When meandering through the streets of Sicily’s many fascinating towns it is easy to miss interesting details which lend each place their individuality. This is especially true of the fishing town of Sciacca. Located on the south west coast of the island, Sciacca is famous for its richly decorated ceramics which can be seen and admired as you wander its many colourful streets. However, you simply could not miss the vibrant yet tiny studio and storefront of ceramic artist Giovanni Fisco. From the bright, cubist style wall plaques that hang outside his shop to the weather worn door with its ceramic blue-eyed face staring back at you, Giovanni’s shop beckons you inside. And once inside you won’t be disappointed. Everything that captured your attention from the outside is multiplied tenfold inside this tiny yet heaving space. Working on his current exhibition when we visited, Giovanni kindly took the time to chat and show us some of his latest creations. I was gifted a beautiful blue and white figurative plate which I had intended to buy despite it having a small chip on the rim. Even after much protest he still wouldn’t allow me to pay. This is one of the things I love about Italian terracotta pottery; those well-worn marks that show the years of love and use.
The first thing you notice when you enter the eclectic shop of Santo D’Aleo is the man himself. Despite the fact that his interior design shop is brimming with richly decorated ceramics and plush furnishings, there is nothing that could possibly draw your eye away from Santo’s bright shock of white hair and perfectly poised caramel coloured glasses. At 5 feet tall he commands attention as only a Sicilian man can; full of life and vivacity. You can see the joy of life in Santo’s bespectacled eyes from the moment you enter his vicinity. Within moments of our meeting he was regaling Ciro and I with stories of his life as an actor, and the obvious passion and enthusiasm he felt for his well-honed craft was infectious. By some twist of fate, Ciro realised he had witnessed, only weeks earlier, the filming of a commercial in Castelmola where Santo was dancing in the piazza with a beautiful young Sicilian woman. Ciro was so mesmerised by the scene that he had stopped and filmed the entire dance on his phone. Hilarity ensued as we huddled around Ciro’s phone to all watch the video together. By the time we left D’Aleo, Santo’s namesake shop, we were laughing and joking with him and his lovely wife and hugs and kisses followed. Moments like this are what drives my love and curiosity for travel; meeting new friends who add a little wonder to life’s journey.
Originally hailing from the UK, Elizabeth Atkinson studied fine arts in Barcelona before falling in love with Sicily and her current hometown of Ortigia, the ancient city of Syracuse. Elizabeth’s shop, located in the old Jewish Quarter, is nestled on one of the main arteries leading away from the heart of Ortigia. You could be forgiven for passing by this hidden treasure in a street filled with gorgeous wares and ancient crumbling buildings to readily distract the eye. However, once Elizabeth’s striking jewel toned silk scarves begin to dance in the warm Sicilian breeze blowing in from North Africa, it’s not long before you find yourself immersed inside a shop draped in exotic trinkets from Morocco and laden with limited edition prints by other talented local artists. Elizabeth’s silk creations evoke memories of my childhood growing up on the Sunshine Coast along the eastern side of Australia in the 1980’s when painting with wax resist gained popularity for its ability to express vivid colours and stylised patterns on delicate silk fabrics. Instead of tropical birds, summer fruits and beach scenes, Elizabeth conjures images from her adoptive home such as pomegranates, ancient monuments and the intense colours of the Sicilian seasons. I couldn’t resist coming home with two very beautiful limited edition prints by British born watercolour artist Kate Spencer. Kate, a good friend of Elizabeth’s, made her way to Sicily via the Caribbean and now calls the Mediterranean island home. Next time I visit Syracuse I look forward to seeing Elizabeth again and choosing one of her elegant scarves to hang on my wall to be admired daily. To enter Drawn on Silk is to be transported back in time in the best possible way.
In operation since the middle of the eighteenth century, the Caravella pottery factory is a family owned and operated artisanal studio perched on the edge of one of the winding roads leading up to the hilltop town of Burgio. Once an important Arabic town during the reign of the Moors, Burgio is famously known for it’s rustic yet elegant ceramic tradition and the hand manufacturing of church bells. When we visited the picturesque town, it was a sweltering hot and humid Summer’s day smack bang in the middle of the lunch hour. Burgio isn’t what you’d call a typical tourist town and there wasn’t a single tourist to be found amongst the well-worn streets on this steamy July afternoon. As we hugged the shadowed side of the street to seek out a little respite in the form of an authentic Sicilian lunch, we stumbled across the closed studio of Caravella. Ciro, always quick to find a solution, called the family who came down from around the corner and proceeded to open the shop for us. Not only did Paolo, son and one of only a handful of next generation potters, welcome us with warmth and enthusiasm, he also treated us to a personal tour of the factory, even letting me peek inside the old wood fire spiral kiln which is no longer in use due to council regulations. As you can imagine, as a fellow potter, I came away with a handful of much-loved treasures and at least a thousand photos to remind me of the generosity and kindness of the Caravella family.
On an island overflowing with beautiful artisan made ceramics I can still become completely giddy when I stumble across a studio brimming with locally made pottery. Italy is famous the world over for its intricately decorated, and beautifully made traditional ceramics. It seems the further down south you traverse the more playful and richly emblazoned the motifs become. However, when you take the leap over the straits of Messina to land in Sicily you will find yourself immersed in a ceramic tradition that is unsurpassed in its beauty and richness of colour. Each new town visited has its own unique interpretation of a ceramic culture that has been thriving for thousands of years.
Earlier this year, as I explored the many winding alleyways of the fishing port town of Mazara del Vallo, I was struck by the hand painted ceramic plaques and mosaics which adorn the outside walls of the straw-coloured houses. Within that rabbit warren of people’s homes and local restaurants I stumbled across (as so often happens in Sicilian towns) a shop which proudly stood out from the rest. Overflowing with brightly coloured ceramics in stylised patterns Hajto seamlessly blends the traditional Sicilian techniques with a contemporary approach that owes its vibrant energy to the collective of artists who create these unique pieces. As you make your way around this abundant space it’s easy to be swept up in the desire to bring as many beautiful pieces home with you as possible. And swept up I was!
“A volte mi dimentico di essere vivo” (Sometimes I forget I’m alive) – SC
It is nothing new to be moved by a painting or sculpture from an artist you’ve never met. For thousands of years we have been touched by the melancholy, courage, and joy that an artist can evoke within a work of art. Perhaps it can be this disconnect with the human being behind the work that allows us the freedom to openly, and without prejudice, find our own unique interpretations. I discovered the work of Mazara del Vallo painter Salvino Catania while wandering the Arab Quarter in search of somewhere to try the local North African inspired dish of fish couscous. However, before my stomach could be satisfied by the bounty of the sea, I was pleasantly distracted by the emblazoned walls of colourful graffiti which line the streets of the old district. At first, it wasn’t Salvino’s work itself which captured my attention, but the touching street art tributes by other local artists which can be found scattered throughout the town. Born to a wealthy Mazara family Salvino chose to study art, first in Palermo, then followed by time spent in Florence and Rome. He lived a life dedicated to his art and more than seven thousand of his works can be found displayed proudly throughout the town’s shops and cafes. Suffering from a tormented mind and long periods spent in a psychiatric ward the prolific painter sadly passed away in 2013 after a life spent living in extreme poverty. Salvino’s swirling paintings, inspired by the love he so clearly felt for his homeland, can be enjoyed and celebrated by the townspeople of Mazara del Vallo and those of us lucky enough to visit this special place.
Seeking Sicily Tours was born out of a desire to share with you a place which has given new meaning to my life and which never fails to teach me that there is always something wonderful to be gained from the influence of others. Sicily is overflowing with talented artists and makers and I’m looking forward to catching up with familiar faces and meeting new friends with our lovely guests during our Spring and Autumn tours in 2020.