December 18, 2015

Event at the Sangalli Institute

The other night we attended an event at the Sangalli Institute in Piazza San Firenze, one of the oldest squares in Firenze. Beneath our feet though no longer visible, once stood the Roman Amphitheatre and Temple of Isis, among other things.

The event was to mark the first anniversary of the Sangalli Institute, whose mandate it is to promote interfaith dialogue, and included brief talks by spiritual leaders of the three monotheistic religions, an interfaith dinner, and presentations by research grant recipients, including our own spirited and hardworking Aitana Guia, fellow extraordinaire at the Robert Schuman Centre, European University Institute.

With a few of my paintings placed strategically around the venue, I played the opportunist and wallflower, hanging off to the sides and taking it all in.

This shot made it into the Corriere Fiorentino. Get out the magnifying glass and you may be able to see one of my paintings on the wall behind everyone.

At one point, I looked up at the frescoed ceiling and spotted this detail, which got my mind racing about the artist, the chemicals that were in their system and the air they were breathing at that time.

This detail was even trippier.

I don't know how old the fresco is but old enough it was professionally restored.

At the end of the evening someone complimented me on my paintings but said Tuscany was a hard sell for contemporary art. Who would figure from this ceiling.

The proud paintings will remain up for one more event, the Premio Boccaccio, a literary prize that was awarded last year to the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa.

December 15, 2015

Together No. 2 and No. 3

Here are two more smaller pieces on the theme of urban convergence and the reclamation of public space.

They're painted with a restricted palette of white, black, and the artificial cyan, magenta, and yellow, or CMYK, the colours used in the modern printing process. They give the work to me an almost pop feel, though I'm holding on to the painterly quality.

These with a few others will be hanging for a few weeks at the Istituto Sangalli in Florence, Italy.

Insieme (No. 2)
20" x 15" (51cm x 38cm)
Acryclic on panel

Insieme (No. 3)
16" x 20" (40cm x 51cm)
Acryclic on panel

December 9, 2015

The Quiet Story

"The Quiet Story"
Acrylic mixed media on panel
48" x 35" (122cm x 89cm)

The inspiration for this painting comes from the 60 million humans - almost twice the population of Canada - that have been forced out of their homes because of conflict or persecution.

Over half are children under 18.

The vast majority (nine out of ten) aren't in Europe or North America as the media or fear-mongers might have us believe, but in neighbouring countries, also unstable nations and some of the world's poorest.

Many languish in camps, such as Dadaab in Kenya, Al Zaatari in Jordan, or closer to home for me right now, the "jungle" in Calais, France, which was cruelly, quietly "set on fire" hours after the attack on Paris in November. Sadly, the Calais region recently voted overwhelmingly for the far-right Front National in regional elections.

I painted the painting listening to the Bersarin Quartett's III album, music that cranks the "film score quality" to the max without, I think, tipping over into kitsch.

Have a listen to "Bedingungslos" or "Ist es das, was Du willst" and tell me whether the pairing of the music and the painting - not to mention the scary facts on the ground - makes the same impact on you as it did me.

December 5, 2015

Together (No. 1)

"Together (No. 1)"
Acrylic on panel
20" x 30"

"L'Italia è lunga, bella, strana. Certo non siamo il Canada, natura pura e ripetitiva. Da noi è paesaggio antropizzato, lavorato dall’uomo in due millenni di storia."

My rough translation: Italy is long, beautiful, mysterious. Obviously the peninsula is not Canada with its pure and repetitive wilderness. Our landscape is anthropicized, that is transformed by men over two millennia of work.

That comes from a recent issue of L'Espresso magazine in an essay on how Italy's remaining agricultural and historic lands are being "eaten" by concrete and development. It's annoying in the way the author generalizes Canada with the old cliche but there's a grain of truth to it also.

What's struck me about moving from Ontario to Tuscany is the human activity.

In Italy, outdoors, it's impossible to go a few minutes without seeing someone. You're squeezed together on the narrow streets, rub shoulders on the bus and even if you drive, you have a lot more traffic to contend with, people rolling down their windows and shouting, people to negotiate with as you park. Go to a cafe, cinema, supermarket, school, post office, restaurant, or government building and there are always people, lots of them, of all sorts.

Even if you hole yourself indoors you hear human voices through the walls, or someone comes around asking for something, or a repairman sniffs around the windows. And they're actually flesh-and-blood humans, not representations of them on a screen. They're impossible to escape.

For a Canadian used to a lot of space and solitude it can be jarring, like being plucked off a lake and dropped into a classroom. But the way to survive it with some kind of grace is to roll with it, indulge in it even, be civil, shrug it off, and laugh - as Italians generally do.

This latest painting, the first of a new series I hope to launch, is about people being together, about density and mutual reliance rather than self-sufficiency.

November 24, 2015

Calandrino, Bruno, and Buffalmacco

The Mugnone. The narrow, somewhat workaday river wends down from the hills, dips unseen behind our apartment, and dumps into the larger, more vital Arno below, the one the scullers prefer and the tourists sigh at over the Ponte Vecchio.

It's my third time painting Florence's "second river," every time from a different spot, focusing on a different sense of it.

Roughly running alongside the Mugnone for at least part of the way is the Via Boccaccio, another favourite. I don't know if there's an historic connection between the street name and humanist poet, but it turns out that three of the most wily characters of Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron enjoyed the Mugnone as much as I do.

Three stooges centuries before the Hollywood versions, Calandrino, Bruno, and Buffalmacco - all of whom Boccaccio based on actual Renaissance painters - apparently ventured into the Mugnone to hunt for, among other things, "heliotropes," which Calandrino believed would render him invisible and the others, both practical jokers, hammed up. You can feel the comedy without reading the book, and this during the height of the Black Plague when a little comedic release may have been the only thing to keep you alive.

In those days I'm sure the homes weren't as stacked and compressed as they are today, but it's still not hard to imagine those characters down there.

Here's the painting:

Calandrino, Bruno e Buffalmacco
48" x 35" (122cm x 89cm)
Mixed media on panel

November 18, 2015

Florentine Wires in Autumn

Here's the latest out of the studio, in fact, the first real work out of my new studio in Florence.

Of all the work I've produced so far in Italy, I think it's the one I'm happiest with, if happy is the right word. Give me your thoughts.

Florentine Wires in Autumn
Mixed media on panel
48" x 35" (122cm x 89cm)

November 9, 2015

Ercole, David, Duomo, ecc.

I'm kind of embarrassed but it had to be done at least once. And I did try to own it.

Here's "Ercole, David, Duomo, ecc." (i.e. Hercules, David, Dome, etc.), on the lists of many o' buckets.

Mixed media on panel
100cm x 81cm

October 30, 2015

New Studio in Florence

So here it is people, my new studio in Florence: spacious, well lit, and designed with a painter in mind. And right in the downtown. Dreamy, dreamy.

It's the former studio of Andrea Gennari, a renowned realist painter and professor at the Florence Accademia di Belle Arti, who sadly passed away a few years ago. I'm still reading about him but he had shown all over the world, alongside the likes of Warhol and just about every important postwar Italian artist. I feel both honoured and of course the pressure of having big shoes to fill.

The view from one end, tidied up and ready to go. Note the amazing skylights.

The view from the other end, with a wash-up area.

I'm only going to be using a third or so of the 250 m2, but here's the rest of the space.

The studio is here, on Via San Zanobi, about a 10 min. walk to the Duomo and City Hall, inside the old city walls.

A street or two over, snapped on my way to the nearest bus stop back home.


Here's the street we've so far become most accustomed to in our brief time in Florence, or at least a short stretch of it that runs downhill from our apartment to the kids' school and the amenities of the Le Cure neighbourhood, closer to downtown Florence.

23.6" x 27.5" (60cm x 70cm)
Mixed media on panel

The Via Faentina is a long winding road which connects Faenza, through the Apennine Mountains and a few dozen towns, to Florence. Compared to other streets, it isn't the sexiest but it is historic. It was the northern pilgrimage route through the mountains into Florence, and so it's dotted with religious shelters and refuges, some going as far back as a thousand years.

The street is irregular and narrow, seemingly untouched by the rationalizing forces of modern city planning, making it a bottleneck for traffic and just barely passable by buses at some points, which all makes for a daily adventure of transporting the kids to school

Because they are so much of the experience, it was important for me to depict the vehicles in the piece, and hopefully bring out some of the action and angst.

October 25, 2015

Piazza della Passera, to be nice about it

Piazza della Passera is a small square on the south side of the Arno River in the Oltrarno, in downtown Florence.

Apparently it's had other more whitewashed names but the "inconvenient" Passera is the one that has stuck.

Passera means sparrow but is also a euphemism for the female genitalia.

According to the wiki entry in Italian, the sparrow version originated in a story about some kids who found a dying sparrow in the square in 1348. They tried to save it but it turned out the bird was infected with the plague that wound up killing almost half of Florence's citizens in those dark days.

The genitalia version, on the other hand, stemmed from the fact that the area was a bit of Red Light district and frequented by johns as high ranking as Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Anyway, who knows which theory is correct. To me in any place or location, whether the subject of art or a spot to live, it's the mystery and pretext for storytelling that should count more.

"Piazza della Passera, to be nice about it"
Mixed media on panel
23.6" x 27.5" (60cm x 70cm)

October 20, 2015

Omaggio al Ponte alle Riffe

"If you spend your life avoiding conflict, you don't develop the skills to navigate it."
- Debbie Irving, author of Waking up White, And Finding Myself In The Story Of Race, in the October 18, 2015 PRI podcast Check Your Privilege

The Mugnone ravine cuts down from the hills behind our apartment and tapers off at the Arno River in the heart Florence. Here's a shot on an overcast day, which I stole from the internet:

I don't get the impression there's much love for the ravine, either among Florentines or tourists: in the photograph those are the butts of homes that front it, you don't find many tourists cracking out their cameras, and I've overheard oodles of comments about the dirty carp or the beaver-like creatures called nutrias in it.

A nutria in action

But of course, that's what I find so appealing.

At one point a bridge called the Ponte alle Riffe crosses it. I take the bridge just about every day. Riffe in Tuscan Italian means "arguments" and supposedly it was given that name, the Bridge of Arguments, because it was a bottleneck for farmers crossing into the city with their wares to sell and because it was especially narrow, leading to a "great theatre of arguments," as one source put it.

I love that, and so in tribute to all the expressers and the opiniated today and throughout time, who speak their minds and can take it when others do the same, who don't care much for politeness (civility may just require impoliteness at times), here's my depiction of the view from the Ponte alle Riffe.

"Omaggio al Ponte alle Riffe"
Mixed media on panel
23.6" x 27.5" (60cm x 70cm)

October 7, 2015

Alla ricerca della vita vernacolare

Well, it's been a long time coming but here's my first in a series of paintings I hope to complete over the course of a year in Italy.

It may not be my strongest work but that's because I was using materials I'm not used to, including an Italian-made weave of canvas that drove me nuts (I know, anal), and because as a total newbie to Florence my visual map of the city is still weak.

In any event, the scene came from our first venture south of the Arno River, into the "Oltrarno" where historically the craftsmen worked and the crowds were harder to manage. We were in search of the Fierucola, a farmer's market that focuses on local, organic produce and small handmade objects.

The translation of the title of the painting is "In search of vernacular life," which is a concept I took from a brochure on the Fierucola and which this fairly banal streetscape of the Oltrarno (for Florentine standards) could just represent.  

"Alla ricerca della vita vernacolare"
Acrylic mixed media on canvas
23.6" x 27.5" (60cm x 70cm)

September 30, 2015

The new studio in Florence, for the time being

It might not be a lot but here's my new studio, provisional I hope, in a corner of our combined kitchen and dining area. Everything was slowly cobbled together from distant stores by way of packed city buses, amid the most hectic September of front-loading for the year I've ever experienced, and so I feel a mixture of pride and relief at having this much up and running.

September 25, 2015

Stones of Florence

I know when you come to Florence you're supposed to talk about the food and architecture, chianti and Michelangelo, but being the weirdo that I am I'm more interested in the goings-on behind the stage than the performance itself.

I read a classic travelogue on Florence recently, Mary McCarthy's The Stones of Florence, written in 1959. She writes, Florence "is not a shrine of the past, and it rebuffs all attempts to make it into one, just as it rebuffs tourists. Tourism, in a certain sense, is an accidental by-product of the city - at once profitable and a nuisance, adding to the noise and congestion, raising prices for the population. Florence is a working city, a market centre, and railway junction...There is no city in Italy that treats its tourists so summarily, that caters so little to their comfort."

So in that vein, here are a few shots I snapped of a public underground gallery I stumbled upon in a kinda far-flung neighbourhood called Le Cure, no tourists in sight. Legend has it a man lives permanently in this maze of pedestrian tunnels that cut beneath a junction of highway and railway lines, but I couldn't seem to find him.

Apparently here's where you find the best graffiti in town. That's what brought me out here.

Locals taking in the free show, drooling just a bit. My reaction was the same.

Can you spot the accordionist? A feast for the eyes and ears!

Sure, why not talk about the next game of euchre and who's responsible for the biscuits down here.

July 28, 2015


Here's another on the theme of natural and artificial landscape mixing it up in tucked-away spots, in this case the underside of an overpass where fishermen come to fish, kids come to smoke pot, and vehicles roar past overhead.

I jog through here often and am always taken by the juxtaposition of elements. To the left is the Eramosa River, homeland to the Attawandaron or Neutral Nation (neutral because they stayed out of the fighting between the French/Huron and British/Iroquois), as well as a decommissioned "bowstring" bridge. To the right is the overpass support and a constantly shifting canvas of graffiti. All over, meanwhile, assert shrubs and weeds and bony trees.

Curious about the decommissioned bridge, I did some research and learned it was constructed by the Italian immigrant Charles Mattaini in 1916, the year the Parliament buildings in Ottawa were burnt down and the Battle of the Somme took place.

According to Mattaini's granddaughter, the writer Pat Mestern, Mattaini learned how to work with concrete and dynamite in the Italian army and, later, on tunnel projects in the Alps. In Canada when he arrived, he tried his hand at statuary for a while but then turned to the more lucrative profession of bridge-making, but with an artistic twist that did not always go over well with the overwhelmingly Presbyterian and Anglican settlers of the area in the grips of the Temperance Movement.

Though few of these Roman aqueduct- and viaduct-inspired bridges remain today, hundreds were built across Ontario from 1915 to 1930.

This is a tribute to those unsigned flashes of history, rippling and echoing, in my backyard.

15.5" x 48"
Acrylic mixed media on birch panel

July 16, 2015

"Touchstone": Better or Worse?

It's dangerous for me to get work I haven't seen in a while back from a gallery, because I tend to want to touch it up and breathe new life into it.  If you've bought work from me and I happen to get near that work again, careful I'm not carrying brushes.

The problem is a painting, like a work of music, is a fine balancing act, a bunch of relationships that come together and somehow click.  Change the colour here or add an object there and suddenly everything has shifted and transformed, and the original now looks unbalanced or cluttered or just amateurish.

Here's a piece I got back recently and simply couldn't resist adding a single new stroke to, and then another, until I was fully pulled into the spiral of seeking a new harmony and messing everything up. 

I don't know if I've hit on that new harmony but here's the latest version anyway. It's busier, yes?  There's probably more movement. And I've been told the foregrounded figure resembles everyone from Johnny Cash to a friend of mine.  But overall, what d'ya say, is the work improved? Is it more interesting? Fresher? Or now just an uncorrectible muck?

The original "Touchstone"
36" x 48"
Acrylic mixed media on birch panel

And the new "Touchstone"

June 17, 2015


The next in my ongoing quest to really open up the eyes and discover moments of life and beauty in the everyday.

Or as Van Gogh explained to his friend and fellow painter Émile Bernard: "If I work on very quietly, the beautiful subjects will come of their own accord; really, above all, the great thing is to gather new vigour in reality, without any preconceived plan or Parisian prejudice..."

36" x 48"
Acrylic mixed media on birch panel

May 7, 2015

Workshop for the Schoolhouse Group of Artists

Thanks to everyone at the Schoolhouse Group of Artists for a fun workshop on a sunny day in a fantastic venue in Lemonville. I wish you all the best with your future artistic creations!

May 4, 2015

Triste e alegre

In spring 2013 I had the opportunity to travel to Porto in northern Portugal. I managed to snap a bunch of shots and convert a combination of a few taken in a market, finally, into the painting here.

But first, if you haven't been to Porto imagine a pile of rumpled blankets with a heavy steel bar thrown over it. Blow this up to the size of a city and you get an idea for the terrain. With layers and layers of tall buildings all seemingly a stone pull away from toppling over and avalanching into the massive Douro River below, on top of all the riverbank port distilleries, it's a bit like living in an Escher drawing.

One place that really captured my attention was the Livraria Lello & Irmão, an intricate 19th-century bookstore in one of my favourite architectural styles, Art Nouveau. An art hero of mine, William Morris, would've loved it.

Interior of Lello & Irmão

In my studio over the door I have scrawled in gold letters "Decus in Labore," roughly "Honour in Beautiful Work." I ripped that off from the Livraria.

Of course there was vinho verde, pasties, and cod, but it was the people that also really grabbed me. You can't sum up an entire place or people in one short visit, but if I had to give my elevator pitch I'd say happy and sad at the same time, Mediterranean and Atlantic rolled into one.

Interestingly, there's a famous book of photography from the 1950s that focuses on Lisbon rather than Porto but concludes the same idea.

Okay already, here's the painting.

"Triste e alegre"
Mixed media on birch panel
18" x 24"

April 4, 2015

The Ward (No. 12)

The Ward (No. 12)
Mixed media on birch panel
36" x 48"

The latest in my ongoing series on "the ward," the gangster neighbourhood in Guelph where I live, with more chicken coops per capita than the countryside, illegal reno capital of Canada, and moonshine and the mafia. It used to be a camaros' paradise when I was a kid but that phase, sadly, has passed.

Old-time Ward Camaro, mangiacake!

Recent comments from folks who have just moved in:

- "I wouldn't live anywhere else in Guelph."
- "Better than Hamilton."
- "Tonnes of chicks."
- "The ground under the old International Malleable Iron Co., IMICO, is now clean."
Yeah, right.

- "Where did the Church of the Universe guys go anyway?"

Reverends Michael Baldasaro and Wally Tucker of the Church of the Universe

March 27, 2015

Bull Thistles and Sulphur Shelves

Bull Thistles and Sulphur Shelves
Mixed media on birch panel
60" x 24"

Bull thistles and sulfur shelves, these

and these

are just some of the wild regulars we spot often on family treks in the bush.

I should say that Mother Nature doesn't seduce me in the ways she seems to do with others.

My daughter on these walks is quick to point out stuff like the eminent destroying angel mushroom, aminita virosa,

which will dissolve your liver just to look at, and forget to join us in appreciating how the light coruscates through brush or the canopy whistles and twitters a symphony. I'm with her.

"What would a wolf do if it was really hungry?" she wants to know.

"Oh, probably chew your arms in half and eat your eyeballs."

After a big long silence, "why?"

"What would you do if you were starving?"

"Go to the grocery store."

Anyway, it's Spring, the snow is melting, and I do soften a bit.

After showing her this latest painting Aitana pointed out that, unconsciously, I've done a nature scene like this every year around this time.

This year's version is a trail we take in a few times a year, as I remember it at its best. It's called Starkey Hill and to be fair you can feed chickadees out of your hands there.

The painting will be on display at Theatre Orangeville for Norman Bray and the Performance of His Life, April 9-26.

March 17, 2015

Folie à deux

With spring on the horizon, the snow melting, and enough sun and warmth I can work both in and out of the studio, mania has been winning out over depression and I've noticed my production has stepped up.

Here's a cool night scene done for the most part in a warm palette.  I'm digging artificial light and the moodiness of night skies these days.  I like the Gothic quality, though without the naturalism and romanticism.  The music more than the architecture you could say.

"Folie à deux"
Acrylic on panel
30" x 40"

March 12, 2015


So here's another one I've been fluffing my feathers over for a bit, not realizing it had already hatched.

More noire than usual?  More surrealist?  Psychedelic?

Strangely, I'm still trying to decipher it.  Which I think we can see as a good thing, exciting even.  Visually it's not an easily verbalizable thesis or argument I want but a new, complex, meaningful emotion, more song or poem than essay or speech.

What I'll say is I was thinking a lot about fatherhood and what makes a good and a bad father while working alongside my daughter and incorporating some of her spectacular geometric drawings into the piece.

I guess the title, corvée, the tax of indentured labour in medieval Europe, isn't entirely accurate now that I've quelled what I should've expected would be indignation from a seven year old who felt, rightly, I was ripping her off by not compensating her for her efforts.  You'll be happy to know that after some hard bargaining up and down we settled on the amount of $5 from the proceeds of any painting I sell with her work in it.

Mixed media on panel
36" x 36"

March 10, 2015


Here's a painting  I did a while ago but never managed to post.  I've been teaching a fair amount these days and have lugged the thing around from place to place to exemplify some of the approaches I take at a larger scale, so it's been picked over and dissected more than usual, probably in healthy, anti-complacency ways for me.

It's hanging at the new Strata Gallery in Elora at the moment, should you be interested in taking it in in the flesh.

36" x 48"
Mixed medium on panel

March 9, 2015

Femina distenta

We get derailed, thrown off course, counterfeited.  And every so often we need grand correctives to bring us back.

In the story of Noah's Ark the people have become evil and cruel, so god sends them a flood in order to start from scratch.

In Marx, the great enemy of being is having.  Money demands more of itself and pushes us out of the picture.  In Ruskin, the machines zap our souls.  And in Freud, civilization in the form of ego and superego divide us from our primordial id.

I'm partial to the Nietzschean view: our real metaphysical destiny lies in art not in morality.

This great storyline about authenticity runs deep, driving religion, politics, health, and art.

So went the casual thinking in my head while I banged, twisted, and welded into form this latest sculpture, just on time for International Women's Day.

"Femina distenta"
11" x 4.5" x 33"
Forged, painted, and welded steel

"Femina distenta" is Latin for overextended woman and refers to the odd limbo-like curvature of the back.  It's an unnatural pose, a more defined and rigid top placed over a swirling, organic bottom.

I think it's my way of saying we're evolving in strange ways, overshooting homo erectus.

February 24, 2015

Sketches of Naked People

A few shots from my sketchpad these days. They involve nudity, so close your eyes if you have to.