City walls inspire artist

Climb to the top of a hill in Tuscany and look down upon a vast quilt-like pastoral landscape of vineyards, farmland and the remnants of ancient civilizations.

“It’s just so quiet and so nice. I could see myself painting over there, almost have a chicken and a goat and be happy and never have to go anywhere,” laughed painter Karen Banker. Along with photographer Rick Martin and his wife, author Sharron Martin, she toured the Tuscan countryside for several weeks, documenting their journey — Banker with canvas and Martin with camera.

The two will debut the images of their travels at Sacred Heart Cultural Center on Sept. 6.

Martin said that the work he brought back was different than his usual imagery.

“I’m ordinarily a landscape photographer and a nature photographer, which is what I enjoy most and what I’ve shown in the past,” he explained. But the architecture and villages in the area entranced them all: stucco cottages with wood-lined entrances accented by brightly painted doors and narrow stone streets lined with benches and cafe tables.

“We visited primarily the walled hill towns with the very narrow streets and balconies with flowers hanging over — actually laundry hanging over, too, on the streets,” Banker explained.

Martin went from snapping landscapes to zooming in on architectural details, but Banker went the other way. She’s normally the one who focuses on the arch of a doorway or the angle of a staircase.

“I don’t generally do panoramic landscapes, so I want to try and capture some of that because you can see miles of stucco houses and red roofs all over,” she said.

The juxtaposition of modernity and antiquity was unexpected. But follow a fence line in the Italian countryside and you may find it turns into a crumbling wall barely tall enough to hold in the cows. That’s because thousands of years before Italy existed, as we know it, the land was in the possession of Etruscans and Romans. They built a vast infrastructure — roads, mining operations and irrigation, for example — and developed complex societies with distinctive artwork.

Thus, Tuscany is blessed both by the brilliance of nature and that of man. The rolling countryside was sculpted first by wind and water — it’s two-thirds hills, one-quarter mountain and the Arno River cuts through the rest. Then, centuries of human habitation added detail to the lay of the land.

“I photograph things that I have some sort of emotional attachment to — that strike me as being beautiful or otherwise impresses me,” Martin said. And in Italy, historic structures are preserved as much as possible.

“The government and others have good sensibilities about the past. It’s very difficult to get a building permit,” Martin said. “If you’re going to get a building permit, it’s a lot easier to find an old ruin and restore it. You can get a lot of support from different programs.”

The villa in which they stayed had been fully restored, but it was originally built about 500 years ago. The stones they walked in the narrow streets were the same rocks Michaelangelo trod. History in this part of the world isn’t just a subject studied in books. It is a part of the most mundane aspect of daily life. For example, farmers may use those existing ancient walls to their advantage, building onto them as property lines.

“Rick and I both were just fascinated with those walls,” Banker said.

And Italians find other ways to incorporate history. As in the case of the villa in which the artists stayed, a builder might use a 2,000-year-old Etruscan foundation stone as the support for a wall.

The vast story of human development in this part of the European continent, so well-documented from Herodotus to the BBC, is something of an exotic riddle to many Americans traveling abroad. But not to Banker.

“It’s strange because as soon as I went over there, I got to where we were staying and I felt like I was home. I felt so comfortable,” she said. “I’m hoping all of that translates in the paintings, just how at ease I felt.”

And Martin hopes that his photography captures the spirit of Tuscany through the architecture of the area, which is so integral to its character and charm.

As enchanted as they were, Banker said she wouldn’t be cutting ties and crossing the ocean for good. The group rented cars — Martin said that drivers there get a bad rap — and stayed just outside of Florence the whole time. They avoided Italy’s notoriously chaotic train system. The transportation system alone is enough to scratch any itch to move there, Banker said.

“I would do it if I didn’t have to go anywhere,” she laughed.

And to visit again, she said, she merely picks up a brush.

“Le Facciate della Tuscana” Opening Reception
w/ special guest, author Sharron Martin
Sacred Heart Cultural Center
Thursday, Sept. 6
5:30-7:30 p.m.


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