Thursday 19 May 2016

Boared in Orvieto - Posted on Facebook - Painted in Vancouver - Framed in Casperia: THE STORY BEHIND A PORTRAIT

This is a slightly different post than usual as it has to do with a piece of art that I bought during a recent visit to Vancouver. This portrait of my partner and I has its origin in a selfie, one of many we took around midnight during New Year 2016 celebrations in Orvieto... 

...but it ultimately does have a Casperia connection. 

My partner and I were in Orvieto for the last couple of days of 2015, staying at a friend's tower house in the town's lovely medieval quarter. We had cooked and eaten at home, a simple but hearty panful of mezze maniche all'Amatriciana downed with a couple of bottles of good Orvieto Classico white wine. We wanted to see how Italians celebrated New Year's Eve so we decided to take a bottle of prosecco and a couple of plastic glasses up to the piazza in front of Orvieto's Duomo. 

Winter nights in Orvieto can be bone-chillingly damp and cold so we bundled up as best we could and headed out towards the cathedral. Eating, as you can imagine, is a big part of any Italian celebration, and the streets of Orvieto were emptier than we expected, probably because people were still at home, lingering over their Cenone, the traditional "Big Supper" Italians eat at Capodanno... Or maybe everyone was napping after their lentils. 

Anyway, we got to the piazza in front of Orvieto's spectacular gothic cathedral and waited for the crowds to gather. At first, the only other people in the piazza was a small group of teenagers on the cathedral steps and, across the way, a half a dozen camouflaged soldiers armed with machine guns—a regular siting now in front of all major churches and tourist attractions here in Italy since Daesh has threatened the country. 

About 10 minutes to midnight, the piazza began to fill up. It was mostly a young crowd, and we were a little unnerved to find that, though there had been a clear directive banning the use of the traditional fire crackers due to heightened security concerns, not only did a lot of people have fire crackers and fireworks, but some of the more rambunctious were lighting them and tossing them in the direction of the machine gun-toting guards. I have to say that this raised my anxiety level a little. It felt a little like being on an amusement park ride that was more frightening than amusing, and I wanted off. 

But of course we stayed, and nothing happened. Midnight rolled around and all of Orvieto's bells started tolling. There were firecrackers and fireworks going off everywhere. We opened our bottle of prosecco, two Canadians in an Italian raucous crowd, and toasted the new year.   

On our way back to our friend's house in the medieval quarter we took a couple of selfies. We were happy, tired, un po' ubriaco—a little drunk, giddy, and acting more than a little bit goofy, and that shows in the pictures.

A few days later when we were back in Casperia I posted all my Orvieto pictures on Facebook and then I basically forgot about them for a while.

Flash forward to February of 2016...  I started noticing posts on Facebook by a friend of mine, an ex-co-worker from the Gourmet Warehouse, named Jean Smith. I always loved working with Jean. She was a fascinating character... a published author, a singer in a two piece indie rock band that has been around since the 80s called Mecca Normal and, as I found out later, a very accomplished artist.

Jean began posting a series of portraits of women in various head gear called "The Hat Series", offering what I thought to be rather Modiglianiesque painters for $100US plus shipping. 

I was totally blown away by the paintings and by Jean's newly revealed talent.  I of course "liked" these postings and started adding comments to the ones I particularly liked.

This turned into a conversation with Jean on Facebook and at one point I asked her if she ever did commissions. It was truly a hypothetical question. Though I knew she was selling these portraits from among the paintings she had on hand for $100US, I knew that a commissioned portrait would and should cost way more. A commissioned portrait was a luxury that I knew we really couldn't afford at the moment, but it was an idea I thought would be fun to entertain sometime in the future. 

So the next day I opened Facebook and, lo and behold, I found this image posted on my timeline.

I was flabbergasted and at the same time chuffed as hell. If I remember correctly, my reaction to Jean's post was a series of OMG! OMG! OMG!s probably followed by a Wow!

I just couldn't believe it. Jean had gone through my timeline and found one of the goofy selfies that I had taken back in Orvieto on New Year's Eve. Richard and I had stopped under a stuffed boar's head on Via del Duomo near where it intersects Corso Cavour, mugged it up and took a selfie. I really doubt that I would have chosen such a photo myself for a commissioned portrait but, after the fact, I couldn't imagine a more perfect image. 

I actually found the Facebook interchange between Jean and I. Here it is:

A few weeks later I was back in Vancouver. I return for a month every six months to teach ESL to Japanese students. On weekends I operate my "History Walks in Vancouver", a series of walking tours I escort through a number of Vancouver's historic neighbourhoods, mostly in my old neighbourhood, Strathcona, in Vancouver's old East End, but also in Grandview, the West End and Mount Pleasant. Jean and I had arranged to meet on Commercial Drive after I finished a tour of Grandview. We found a bench on the NW corner of Commercial and Second Avenue and sat down an chatted for a while, catching up. Then finally she reached inside her bag and there was the picture.

It was such a thrill to have the piece of art in my hands. Jean told me that when she posted a photo of the painting that someone else had actually wanted to buy it. I thought that was funny but I guess that means that means that the painting stands on its own as a piece of art. For me though, it is very personal. It make me smile every time I look at it. It brings back not only the memories of that crazy, noisy, ubriaco Italian New Year's in Umbria, but also very fond memories of my times working together with Jean. 

It was so exciting to see Jean's portrait art taking off and to know that when she becomes very rich and famous from her artwork that I can point to this picture and say that this was one of her very first commissioned portraits and to be able to tell its story.

Here is a link to Jean Smith's Art website, and you will be able to see a large number of Jean's portraits in this YouTube video. She has a lot of her 11x14 portraits, some with hats, and some without, for sale still. If you are not on Facebook and are interested in purchasing her artwork or discussing commissioning a piece, here is her contact information

By late March I was back in Casperia, just in time to celebrate my 60th birthday. For a number of weeks Jean's portrait of Richard and I and the wild boar rested on the mantle piece. It needed a frame but we didn't know what to do. We knew we could buy ready made frames at the Ikea in Porto di Roma but I didn't really like that idea. We knew there was an art shop that did frames on the main piazza in Poggio Mirteto but we wondered about the expense. More than anything we wanted the frame to be unique, special... something that was worthy of the art.

And then I remembered our friend Massimo Romani. We have known Massimetto, as his friends call him, ever since we started coming to Casperia in 2009. A stonemason, roofer and a general handyman, we hired Massimetto shortly after we moved here to build two stone flower beds outside our front door. One of the biggest things we missed about our house in Vancouver was having a garden, and Massimetto was able to not only build us two beautiful raised beds from stones that Richard and I had collected from the valley floor, but was also able to attach a number of terracotta pots to the wall outside our house. 


As you can see, he did an amazing job and the price he charged us was very reasonable considering the time the job took and the level of craftsmanship involved. Anyway, recently Massimetto has returned to a long time love, that of wood working. Between contracts doing roofing, building stone walls or repairing patios Massimetto has been holed up in his workshop in the family cantina off Via San Rocco working on a number of carpentry and furniture restoration projects as well as having fun building wooden lamp bases out of stumps and even constructing scale model Japanese junks out of scrap wood and toothpicks. Like his stone and masonry work, Massimetto takes immense pride in his woodworking projects. Recently I asked Massimetto to restore and antique wooden tray I bought for 15 euros at the rigattiere or second hand/junk shop in Forano. I wish I had taken a before picture so you could see the difference. The tray, which measures about a metre long and and about 60 centimetres wide was constructed from a single piece of oak and was so dried out, worm eaten and cracked that Richard questioned me buying it. One of the long edges was almost cracked right off, had a piece of wood missing and had been repaired with a metal staple. There was another crack starting on the other side. When I first bought it I thought I would clean it up and revarnish it myself, but I decided I wanted the job well done, and I could think of no one better to look after this project than Massimo. 

Here above you can see the perfectly restored tray. There is no evidence of the earlier damage at all. He even found a piece of matching wood to replace the piece missing near one of the corners. The tray has a place of honour on our dining room table where it is used mostly as a fruit bowl.

So yes, we asked Massimo to look after the framing of Jean's painting. I dropped the portrait off at Massimetto's workshop and after a day or two, this is what I picked up... a beautiful hand made frame that has been burned an amber brown to match some of the colours in the painting. He added a darker stained trim along the edge. The effect is similar to having a frame with a proper mat. He even added a touch of whimsey by adding antique furniture tacks on each corner.  I couldn't have been more delighted.

These two pictures were taken in Massimetto's workshop. The one above shows the painting laid flat on the Romani family summer dining table in the cantina, and the one below, of course, shows Jean Smith's portrait held by the artisan that framed it so beautifully.

Today, Jean's portrait of the two tipsy Canadians based on a selfie taken under a wild boar's head on Via del Duomo in Orvieto after midnight on New Year's Day 2016 hangs proudly over our mantle in our house here in Casperia.  So there you have it, the story behind the portrait.