AMY J. BARRY, Special to the Day
Most of the artists in Italian Visions/Visioni Italiane, a new exhibition opening at Hygienic Art in New London are not Italian or even Italian American. But what they all share is their love of the Mediterranean country-its physical beauty, its history and its art-all of which has profoundly influenced their own work.
The show features diverse paintings by seven American artists: Martha Wakeman, Alan Feltus, Alexander Shundi, Lani Irwin, Marlene McLoughlin, Timothy McDowell and Nelson H. White. All have either lived in Italy, currently reside there, or travel regularly between continents.
Wakeman, a pastel artist and New London resident who lived in Florence for 10 years, conceived the idea of the show with Hygienic Art's president Vinnie Scarano.
Scarano had been photographing Wakeman's work for years and the two talked frequently about their shared love of Italy. Over the past year and a half they collaborated on bringing these artists together in one show at the Hygienic.
Wakeman knew or knew of the other artists, having either met them here or abroad. She and her husband Robert Proctor, professor of Italian at Connecticut College, return to Perugia, Italy, every year to teach in the summer session at the Umbra Institute. She also leads art and study retreats in Italy and has exhibited in Florence, Milan and New York.
"Everyone has very distinct and imaginative styles and use (a variety of) mediums. I think that's what makes it very interesting," Wakeman says of the exhibiting artists' paintings. "You can see how Italy has woven its way into all of our lives."
Evident in all the artwork is "the past, the layers, the magic of what you see in these cities with the old and new juxtapositions," she says. "Sometimes in Rome it's like stepping into a Fellini film-you see such a variety of visual things (like) strolling musicians and shops coming alive with color."
Although Wakeman says she loves her life here in New London and is inspired by the light and color and living by the sea, the Italian landscape with its "extraordinary light" continues to be a strong source of inspiration in her work.
Alexander Shundi, the only Italian-born artist in the show, was born in Coreggio. He studied in Milan, received a BFA and MFA from Yale University, and now lives in New York City. He says of his oil paintings: "I want to arrange a visual poem that is full of sensations and intertwined forms that cause the surface to boil with mystery."
Shundi's painting "Dinamica d'un Battesimo," on the show postcard, has a powerful backstory. It depicts the Battistero in Parma where he was baptized (in 1944, during World War II), which was bombed later that very same day, causing the angel to literally fall off the clock tower across the street.
Tim McDowell has an eclectic history. Half Italian, born in Texas, from a young age he visited his family's 17th-century farm in Italy. He now lives in Noank and is a professor of art at Connecticut College. He continues to travel often to Italy. His encaustic paintings (using heated beeswax to which colored pigments are added) are in many private and public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Sante Fe Museum of Art.
"For me, Italy is a sensual, particularly visual overload of stimuli," McDowell says. "I love it, I enjoy its chronology of layers, and how the contemporary and ancient all coexist. As an artist, I can not help but be in awe of what has transpired there — the overall elevation of artistic expression."
Nelson H. White was born in New London in 1932. He divides his time between Waterford and Florence-where he spent many years studying and painting. His museum collections include the Wadsworth Atheneum, New Britain Museum of Art, Florence Griswold Museum and Lyman Allyn Museum.
White draws his inspiration from nature and acknowledges the influence of the art of both his father, Nelson C. White and his grandfather, Henry C. White-an early member of the Lyme Art Colony-"continuing," he says, "the tradition of a love of the gentler side of nature."
Alan Feltus grew up in New York City and Lani Irwin grew up in Baltimore, Md. The married couple has lived in the Italian countryside outside of Assisi since 1987. Both oil painters, they exhibit in New York, throughout the country, and abroad.
After attending graduate school at Yale, Feltus was awarded a Rome Prize Fellowship and spent two years at the American Academy in Rome, where he says he became interested in the many wonderful Italian painters working mainly between the wars, few of whom were known to American artists.
"Felice Casorati, Fausto Pirandello, and a few others then joined the many Medieval and Renaissance painters whose work had influenced my own painting," Feltus says.
Irwin also has found that the painters whose work has been of greatest importance to her throughout her career are Italian.
Irwin describes Italy as "a metaphysical dream house" and says most important in her own work is "the intuitive search for an inner narrative — more akin to the dream world, often non-sequential and subjective, the associations being different for each person."
Marlene McLoughlin grew up in New York and California and is a well-known illustrator, residing in Rome since 1995-after having gone there to do "Road to Rome" for Chronicle Books and "finding it impossible to leave."
McLoughlin has illustrated more than 25 books that are published internationally. Her watercolors in this exhibit are part of a series of illustrations for a book about a day in the life of a dog in Rome.
In addition, there are two paintings on view by Daniel Graves and Romiro Sanchez, both on the faculty of the Florence Academy of Art, and a pastel of the Grand Canal in Venice by Mary R. Williams, a teaching assistant at Smith College.