The Adaptation of Italy

On my first full day in Palermo (now ten days ago) I stood at the edge of a huge farmers’ market, staring up at one of the buildings along the market’s labyrinth of alleys. For those of you who know me, it’s a familiar state to see me in… looking up the lines of a building, trying to figure it out.



“Quattrocento” said a voice next to me. “Is quattrocento building.” The veggie purveyor was trying to explain it to me, in one of those delightful moments of people with little common language hacking through the need to connect. Quattrocento in art means 1400 to 1499, so this building has been there 600 years or so.

Six hundred years. Oh, the changes this building has seen. How many families have lived in it? How many zucchini have been sold at its doorstep?

How many times has the latest technology been added to it? I identified electricity and television cables, and pipes for water. No doubt the cell tower is close by and the satellite dish is on the back. Wooden doors have been replaced, iron balconies have been updated. And yet… six hundred years. There was no need to tear it down, just a need to make it work for NOW, whenever that NOW happened to be.

And making it work here doesn’t demand a beautiful solution, although they exist, just a functional one. Don’t need that window anymore? Fill it in. Need a new one in a different place? Cut the hole for it. The pediment no longer protects a door? No matter… leave it be, it’s not hurting anything.

I think the story here is that Italy adapts, but only as much as it needs to. We don’t change Italy much, but Italy can change us, especially if we let it.

Every hill town I’ve been in this week is full of roads that will barely hold a car. So guess what? The cars here are small, no bigger than they need to be to navigate their roads, yet fast enough for their modern motorways. Yes, we drove down the one below, and barely squeaked through.


Better yet, if you don’t need a car, you can zip around pretty much anything on a motorbike, and yep, those are small too. They’re not 1000cc rockets, but nimble Vespas that can be ridden in a skirt and heels if needed.


Stores are small too; they carry what you need for a few days, and not much more because, let’s be honest here, who would want to carry that home? Some of the stores were so small the space was filled and the owner sat outside on a chair.

As a visitor, all this feels so very quaint. After the opulence of my American life, I would imagine these small confines might wear on me after a while though, and make me long for the luxury of the hot food section of my local Whole Foods.

Yet I can’t help but ponder if I ought to be looking at the philosophies that drive the Italian hill town life. People greet each other with unselfconscious affection; our guide and her sweet toddler were stopped endlessly as we walked the local streets for a quick kiss-to-the-cheeks and a few rapid fire words of catching up on the news. Every meal was an opportunity to slow down and really savor the food; there is very little take-out here, and even less eating on the go. Dinner is a drawn-out affair of wine and pasta and conversation and coffee and cannoli or gelato, with no hovering waiter to rush you off the table; if the restaurant is full, it’s full, and you go elsewhere.

What would my life look like if I ate more slowly with friends? Or at least not over the sink?! What would it look like if I hugged my friends with wild abandon when I see them, not giving a damn about how that looks to the strangers around us? What would our world look like with smaller cars, and a few streets that weren’t wide enough for the big ones?

Yes, the inconvenience might slow us down. But I think that might not be a bad thing.



The Museum of Tiles

It was a minor note in the guidebook… a tight paragraph that almost tried to talk you out of it: Museo Della Maioliche, Stanze al Genio. By appointment. (Not true, just limited hours). If you like tiles, make a beeline here. A private collection in a private palazzo.

As a quilt maker and designer, all I could imagine was PATTERN. So we braved the gauntlet, which started with trying to find the door.


We were greeted by Claudio, a passionate and knowledgeable guide, who gave us a special tour in English (we came at the time of the Italian tour, unknowingly) and spent an hour marveling at rooms of walls COVERED in tiles.


All local to Sicily and Naples, spanning from the 15th to 20th centuries, all handmade ceramic floor tiles. They are as thick as hearty slices of country bread, and stunning in the breadth of the artistry, and depth of the collection.

The owner started collecting when he was 10. How many of us, at 10, discover a passion that endures to the point of THIS?

As always, I’m humbled by the privilege of seeing things that have persisted through the vortex of time, fashion, war, and pure luck. A 10 year old thought a tile from the 1600s was cool, and now my soul gets to connect with the skill of an artist from long ago. It makes me see my place in this important lineage of people who make beautiful things for the joy of others. And a hat tip to my late drawing and painting teacher Frank Sardisco, who used to tell us that being an artist was a great privilege because we are the people that make the world beautiful enough to live in. Collections like this really inspire me to live up to the responsibility I feel comes paired with that privilege.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with a few pix of the tiles. And a challenge to note how many of these design ideas we still use today, especially in quilting. No, new quilter… you are not the first person to sew two squares together like that: you’re part of the lineage 😉



Bar Valentina

While jet lag can be a cruel traveling companion, she occasionally turns up some gold.

Despite a two day endurance test of travel to get here, we woke up early on our first morning, and set off to find an open cafe.


I am in Sicily with friends, in Isola Della Femmine, a working fishing town just north of Palermo. This cafe is on the waterfront, and does a brisk business with the locals.

It works like this: you start at the pastry end. Grab a napkin and a pastry of your choice (honor system) and munch on it as you approach the bar.

63896694-1DFB-434A-8A1E-A673037F8EF6Then order your drink at the bar. Shot after shot of espresso coming forth for the morning workers. Greet your friends. Loudly. Gesticulating. Laughing. (No way was I going to turn a camera on them!)



Toss a couple of euros at the server (more honor system) and make room for the next person.

If you’re a tourist, you take up residence on a bright plastic chair outside to watch the world go by. The subtle rhythms of the neighborhood make themselves evident, the locals getting on with it, we tourists sticking out with our weird clothing and huge camera packs.


You take pity on a pudgy pidgeon and toss him your pastry crumbs. He’s local too, and knows how to work it.


It’s not much to look at, but it seems to be an important hub for the community.


The food is great. The coffee is strong. And they are kindly patient with me as I hack my way through asking for a cup of tea in halting, rusty Italian.

Smiles are an incredible common language.


Art is Back on the Road – 2018 edition

Lucky me, I get to go a-traveling again.

I’m looking forward to thinking a lot about my next cup of gelato, and a lot less about the day-to-day stuff that fills my studio.

I’m looking forward to experiencing new art. Perhaps sketching it. Perhaps photographing it. Perhaps just sitting in the thrall of it.

The last time I traveled, I learned to capture my experience in an illustrated travel journal, and it was a wonderful way to practice looking at things differently.


I pared down my traveling water color kit for this trip (see the prior version here). One thing I learned last time is that if the kit isn’t heavy, I’m more likely to carry it with me!


I’ll also be posting on Instagram if you want to follow me there.

I’m looking forward to writing some stories!



Santa Maria Del Mar

After a steady diet of Gaudi, it was such sweet respite to find this church. Yes, I found another gothic church to sit in – it’s an excellent place to rest weary feet and souls. There are plenty of cafe chairs to occupy in Barcelona, but they require the purchase of a drink or some tapas, and city benches are sparse. So church it is!

As you can no doubt tell, I love to see gothic arches. There is something about the rhythm of them that just makes me happy. And this church, Saint Mary of the Ocean, is a fine example of 14thC Catalan Gothic. Its architecture has a lot of harmony because it was built in 60 short years. Eight euros got me a lovely guided tour, and a chance to climb one of the towers. I was able to walk along the rooftops, feet away from all the pretty windows. What a thrill!

A side aisle:image

The nave and rose window from the choir behind the altar:image

Over the altar:


Some stained glass, up close:

image image image

Main view of the nave:image

One of the reasons the nave is so simply adorned is that during the Spanish Civil War, the church was one of many set on fire. All of the wooden ornamentation inside burned, and some of the windows melted. The wood has never been restored, alowing the clean lines of the Catalan Gothic to be seen.


The windows, from the roof!

image image

A more recent bell tower:

image image image

The facade – it’s on a tiny square, so hard to fit into a camera frame!image

This church was built for the sailors and merchants of the area, and the stones were carried from Montjuic, nearby, by the port stevedores. I think this might be my favorite in Barcelona.

Park Guell, part two – the mosaics

The top of the park is a great plaza, which was designed by Gaudi and Guell for community gathering. The entire area was supposed to be a planned community for the upper classes, but was unsuccessful at the time as the movers and shakers wanted to be downtown, where the moving and shaking was going on. A hundred years later, the area has become one of richer housing – yet another example of Gaudi being a bit ahead of his time.

Around the plaza is a massive, undulating bench, covered in mosaic. COVERED. Gaudi used the same teams of artisans for his projects, so some of these motifs appear in his other buildings. The bench isn’t just decoration, either. It was carefully designed to channel rain runoff, and curves to your back in an ergonomic way.

Here are some of the areas of tile work I found interesting and inspiring. I can’t imagine the amount of raw materials needed on hand to play like this… I assume the tilers had access to the cast offs from every tilemaker in the district!

image image

Back curve and runoff channel:


I liked the positive/negative space play in this section:

image image

A rare 3D element:


This is the BACK of the seats:

image image image image image

A rare animal head in the designs:

image image

A lot of han-shaped elements: (modeled by Dione, a fab British gal I met on a walking tour!)image image image image

In some places it looked like full tiles were just flattened into curves to fit the shape:

image image

Lots of motifs we’ve used in quilting:

image image image image image image

Many different shades of white and cream and pale tones of blues and pinks on the columns:image

Gaudi’s Park Guell

I braved two Gaudi sites yesterday, and it will take more than a couple of posts to share all the pictures. To be in Barcelona is to be surrounded by Gaudi, it seems – if not the buildings, then the souveneirs, all done in his style. I feel sorry for anyone who was trying to work during the same period, or since, for that matter, as they will always be eclipsed by the fanciful shapes that Gaudi created.


His style is incredibly unique, to the point that anything that has a bit of curve in it will probably always be considered some type of derivation. The only architect I can think of (with my sadly limited knowledge) who has played with curves in a way that feels fresh is Frank Gehry. And I would have to say with both of these men, having seen one building full of their moves sort of numbs your sense of awe to seeing more of it. I say this knowing that, while in Barcelona it would be nuts to miss seeing the inside of the Sagrada Familia, yet not quite up to the task after the thorough dousing of Gaudi yesterday!

I think what makes any art truly brave is a total commitment to the concept, dectractors be damned. And Gaudi managed this in spades. He loved his curves, his religious symbology, his fanciful shapes, and his mosaic surfaces. He was a huge student of nature, using those lessons to inform the structures of his buildings. He paid attention to the precious commodities of light and space, and interiors were just as important as exteriors.

He was very, very fortunate to have a patron in Guell, who paid for Gaudi to play. While I might be a bit oversaturated in it all today, I can honestly say I’m so grateful that a committee didn’t get the chance to dilute his visions. Those buildings rarely stand the test of time well enough to create a tourism industry.

Here are a few shots from Park Guell – just the major structures and such. I’ll cover some details of the mosaic work in the next post.


Look at the interplay between the trees and the structure (and the umbrellas!):image image image

The outer ring of columns lean in:

image image

I love how the nails are delineated in mosaic:

image image

Fanciful, like gingerbread houses!

image image image

Heart shaped window whimsy:

image image