Category Archives: The human behind the artist (Interviews with artists living in Florence)

I am a story hunter. I believe people are forged out of the million stories which they experience and yet they only share a mere few of them outside of their soul, their mind, their inner self. Other people’s stories are precious and there is a great privilege to have someone grant you their most important memories and let you build a small part of history with glimpses of them.

I have embarked myself onto this quest, seeking the stories within the artist, their struggles and their emotions, trying to reveal their human nature which is usually concealed by their alien looking outside shell.

The stones that build the city of Florence are stained with the fears and hopes of all the artists that trusted to pass its gates. Florence is not a city anymore, but an artistic cliché, a place where artists aren’t necessarily born, but drawn to. Three years ago I was nothing more than a lost writer, who walked the streets of this city seeking for anything that could have satisfied my need to create. On a wintry evening, I found myself into a small studio space, surrounded by dozens of artists all craving for that same thing. Uncertain of my identity and place among them, holding a ten month old baby in my arms, I shook the hand of a painter who was about to change my life. Her story was my own and as she looked into my eyes as if into a mirror, she handed me the key to finding myself again.

The human behind the artist was born while driving back home, smiling and thinking what a beautiful thing passion is, but most of all, craving to find the hidden stories of the English speaking artists who pace Florence every day, searching for inspiration, contributing to this city’s wonders.

The pages of this book, will allow you to experience the behind the scenes lives of artists living in Florence. You will read about their inner fears, their struggle to create beauty and novelty into a world that often rejects most contemporary forms of art and that still clings onto the Renaissance period. These amazing emerging or accomplished artists chose to enrich Florence by expressing themselves in this city and I as a journalist and story hunter am here to present you the human behind their alien looking like artist side.

Florence, a city like no other..., The human behind the artist (Interviews with artists living in Florence)

The Human Behind The Artist… final touches

Last week I turned on the recorder one last time for The Human Behind The Artist  project. All throughout the interview I was overwhelmed by mixed feelings and as I turned the recorder off I knew that the project is complete, that this was the final interview; I could almost hear a whisper telling me that it felt ready to be released into the world.

For those of you who don’t know, The Human Behind The Artist is my brainchild that I came up with in October 2013. I will never forget that day. Dragged to an event by my husband, I found myself standing in a room filled with artists, holding my ten month old baby, feeling lost and confused, when a painter, walked up to me. Her words changed my life and hours later, while driving home, the title of the project was settling onto my thoughts.

Two months later I recorded my first interview with a brilliant playwright, living in Florence at the time. I remember shaking and breathing in her every word, afraid not to miss a sentence, a frown, a smile. Her story only made me crave for more, to wonder about the mystery artists seemed to be surrounded by. She became one of my dearest friends.

Since then I interviewed over twenty artists, poking their thoughts, digging deep into their souls, seeking for the story within the artist,  trying to reveal their human nature, usually concealed by their alien looking outside shell. I had the privilege to meet, connect and listen to people from all walks of life. I had the honor to become friends with people I only dreamt of existing in real life.  I found a harsh, yet loving mentor in the bunch and I learnt that the word professional is not just a word. This project means more to me than I could ever express in words.

This final interview was special, not only because of the wonderful people in front of me, sharing their stories and memories, but also because the playwright, now my friend, was a table away from us looking at me while I was working. That’s when I knew the project is finally complete. I felt as if the beginning page was looking at the ending one, nodding, approving and smiling at what I have accomplished in between.

The Human Behind The Artists still has a long way in front of it, but a few months from now will fly away to be revised and turned upside down by other people, other hands, other minds.  As the final touches are put in place a hint of melancholy caresses my memories, and I remember every artist I interviewed, the locations, their stories, their enthusiasm. Thus, I would like to thank all the wonderful humans who made this project possible. Thank you for sharing your stories, memories, struggles and fears. Thank you for allowing me to share them with the world. Thank you for your trust and most of all thank you for following your dreams and for trying to make the world look more beautiful through your art.

Last but certainly not the least, The Human Behind The Artist is dedicated to Laura Thompson. Thank you! This project would have never existed without you and your words.

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Amy Sarno – first recorded interview

Brendan Kiely, Jessie Chaffee – last recorded interview

The human behind the artist (Interviews with artists living in Florence)

About life as an adventure, fatherhood and fine art photography with Mark Abouzeid

Mark Abouzeid is a remarkable storyteller. Ever since we had our first conversation in Piazza Santo Spirito, he never ceased to captivate my attention with his fascinating stories about life, travelling and fatherhood. Mark is not your regular artist, in fact he doesn’t fit any category really well, but his work is amazing and speaks for itself. He is truely a source of inspiration and I hope his interview for The human behind the artist will inspire you too.

312204_10150345938131969_1888896824_nAs a fine art photographer, Abouzeid applies the same empathic, provoking eye to MidEast Peace (My Enemy My Brother, 2002), Blues Musicians (A Year of Blues, 2010), Bedouin Tribes (Being Bedouin, 2008 – 2010),  Renaissance portraits reinterpreted (The New New World, 2012), Italian Racism & Integration (Non Sono Clandestino, 2012) Fashion & Performance Culture (Liquid Silk, 2013), the North South Cultural Divide (Slave Mind, 2013) and War (History Repeats).

Abouzeid’s fine art collections have been or are currently exhibited in numerous museums including Palazzo Vecchio, Accademia della Crusca, Museu de Valencia d’Etnologia, Pitti Uomo, Bedouin Heritage Foundation and Museu Maritima, Barcelona.  For his work and humanitarian initiatives, Mark has received important recognition including that of the Italian National Association of Professional Photographers in 2008 and an Award for Peace by the Region of Puglia for the exhibit “My Enemy My Brother”.

Me: Who is Mark Abouzeid?

Mark A.: I am a fine art photographer, but also a living heritage, visual documentarian. I am the father of two children, Lucia and Allegra, probably the most important thing to me, and I am an idealist, a humanitarian.

Me: Where are you from?

Mark A. : I was born in New Jersey, I left when I was ten months old; born to a Lebanese father and an American-Irish mother, moved to Europe, grew up there and I have been traveling ever since.

Me: What was it like growing up while constantly moving?

Mark A.: When I was a child it was really hard, I didn’t like it. I loved the new worlds it brought me to and the people I met, but it meant regularly leaving, never getting to say goodbye.  I had trouble fitting in everywhere.

I grew up privileged. My father was a very powerful and political individual, an international business man and everywhere we went, people expected us. My father actually convinced me that they would kick me off a plane if I didn’t wear a jacket and a tie, so I wore a jacket and tie every day of my life until I was thirteen years old.

We moved to Milan when I was 5 and they were the happiest days of my childhood. My parents weren’t around most of the time: we had a cook and a driver. I was this small, fat kid that spoke Italian and the cook loved me: on some weekends she would take me home with her. I became a part of a Napolitan family, and for those five years, my world was wonderful. Then one day, while at summer camp in Switzerland, I got a telegram saying: “We don’t live in Italy anymore, we live here (USA) and someone is going to come and pick you up.” So, I never got to say goodbye.

That is that part of my childhood that I hated: no goodbyes, no going back. Obviously there was a lot of it I loved because that’s what I still do; I never stop and that experience made me able to do what I do today.

abouzeid_interview_001Me: Have you always known you were an artist?

Mark A.: No, in fact I don’t consider myself one, now. I have always taken use of art to covey messages and to change the things I see that I don’t like, that are wrong. I was an economist for a while and thought to redress inefficiencies in the system, to make the world a better place.

I was an Internet technologist for ten years, and thought I could make the web a better, more beautiful resource. I had to learn design in order to do that, so I studied design on my own and integrated that into it all my work. When I became a photojournalist and started using this same visual sense, I found myself surrounded, especially here in Italy, by photographic artists and their work that to me was little more than visual masturbation.

So, from the outset of this career I stayed away from the word artist, in fact it kept me from doing fine art photography for a long time. I have always considered myself a photorealist…which in those early days meant what I now call movable scanning. It wasn’t until an initiative on racism and integration that I realized the only way I was going to be able to reach Florence was to speak in their language. So, I started with their art, since I knew that would trigger them and capture their attention.

This collection was the first time in my career that I created something that was not there prior. I knew what I had in mind and I knew it would be photo realistic, because that’s the only way I can shoot. However, in order to shoot the scene, I first I had to create costumes, scenes, backdrops, everything. After this success, I started experimenting, using art as a message. Now, I can actually say I am a fine art photographer in one aspect of my work, but it always starts with a message and then fine is used to affect the provocation. I don’t just go out and create art.

Me: Take me back on the path that led you to Florence.

Mark A.: When I got married and moved to Hong Kong, I was an investment banker. I had an exciting rich life but it almost killed me. I used to use alcohol, drugs and power to satisfy something that was missing.

Me: What was missing?

Mark A.: I think the only thing that was really missing is I knew that what I was doing was wrong. I kept trying to say I was helping but my soul knew that was a lie. So, the only way to deal with it was to quiet my soul with drugs, alcohol and money.

One day, I had to fire 2000 employees in person and saw for the first time in their eyes just how wrong I was. It destroyed me, crippled me. Shortly after, my first daughter was born. Despite being drunk when we got to the hospital, eighteen hours later I was completely sober, sitting in a chair behind a screen with this little bundle in my arms and felt emotions I had never experienced. In that moment, I realized that this is what counted in life; nothing else mattered as much.

I collapsed, lost my business and my wife got pregnant with our second child. By the seventh month, we had to choose between staying in Hong Kong for another two years and leaving. In three weeks, we sold everything, paid off our debts, and left. My family offered us a place to stay in Florida where I recovered and rediscovered my spirituality and myself. I got involved in the Internet in 1994 and realized I could live anywhere. We considered moving to San Francisco, Seattle, Santa Fe, until my wife asked why, if we could go six hours to the West, we couldn’t move six hours the other way and move to Italy. I had been there as a boy and she had studied there, so why not?

Me: How old were your daughters then?

Mark A.: One was eighteen months and the other was three years old. We first moved North of Italy, but eventually we settled in Tuscany in a tiny little village of two hundred people. We stayed there for ten years, Castelmuzio. That is where I became a photographer, where my wife left me, where I became a single father of two children.

By the time they had to go to high school I thought they needed an intermediary place before going into the real world and Florence was it.

Me: How did you become a photographer?

Mark A.: I became a photographer because we owned properties in Tuscany.  At the time, my wife was a painter but wasn’t painting and I wanted her to be more active. So I built her a website called In Tuscany, the first Tuscan rental agency, to manage the two or three properties we owned.  It wasn’t long before the business grew and my wife started finding more villas. Suddenly we need lots of good photos and what the owners supplied were, generally, crap.

I had never taken pictures in my life; I didn’t like film photography. So, I bought one of the first digital cameras ever made to take pictures of the houses for the website. Soon, we realized we needed ambience photos as well. A friend, who was a balloonist, asked me if I want to go up with him and take pictures. I was flying over Tuscany taking pictures with my balloonist friend and putting them up on the website.

At that time the New York Times was doing an article on renting villas in Tuscany, found our website, and asked if they could use some of our pictures. The Washington Post was doing a following piece and Arizona Republic wanted a cover. I was still just an amateur who was not paid, just glad to have my photos published.

This went on for years. I started traveling on my dime and would sell what I could from the photos, but still nothing too serious. When I got divorced, my wife and her lawyers decided that the best punishment they could exact was to leave me without any businesses. They made me sell everything, including the properties, websites, and land. I found myself having nothing but capital in the bank and two girls I had to raise. So, I decided to give photography a try. Fifteen years later I am still trying to see if it will work. hahaha

mark_alternate_photoMe: Do you have any regrets or things you wish you would have done differently?

Mark A.: I don’t believe in regretting things in life, I take responsibility for everything I do and everything is a decision. Sometimes I may face two horrible options, but I choose one and never question that decision.  If I consciously make a decision in the moment based on all the information I have in front of me, I have done the best one can. If that information changes in the future and I don’t make a change, then I should have a regret, but I shouldn’t regret my first decision because it was based on my best insight at the time.

Also, I love what I am doing, I love my family and where I am; this is the road it took, no other way to get here from there. I would never recommend to anybody to follow my path, not even to my daughters; I have probably lived one of the most traumatic and dynamic lives of any human being I know, but that’s what it took to get me here. I love the life I have lived, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. I think the childhood that I had, the father that I had, and some of the things I had to suffer as a child made me strong enough to survive this life and be a happy person, but I don’t think most people would.  I think many would have been crushed.

Me: Let’s go back in time for a minute. What is the strongest memory from your childhood?

Mark A.: I think there are two, one of which is not my own memory, but has been recounted to me. It kind of demonstrates my world as a kid and my role in the family. When we first moved to Belgium we had a house with a small pond outside. I was around two years old. We had just moved in and my mother was talking to three or four women in our living room who had came to welcome her.

My sister goes running up to my mother and tries to get her attention, but my mother says: “Don’t interrupt, wait until the conversation has a pause.”, so my sister waits. After about thirty a minute my mother turns to her and asks what she wanted to say. My sister asks: “Can babies swim?” and when the answer came back negative she continued: “Then Mark is drowning!”

My first memory ever is of being three years old, sitting on the swing in the garden and waiting for my turn to be punished. In my family, punishment was corporal, meaning ritualized beating.

Me: What were you supposed to be punished for?

Mark A.: I have no idea. My father had this rule that if one of us did wrong, we all did wrong, and I am pretty sure that at three years old it wasn’t my fault. At 3, I did know the ritual already and I was going waiting my turn; no matter how long it took, I would wait to be called when it was time. I remember sitting on that swing for an hour and a half thinking that my brother was being killed.

What had, in fact, happened was that after about two strokes the riding crop broke on my brother’s ass. My father felt so bad that he took everybody out for ice cream, but they forgot about me. So, my first memory was of absolute terror and that didn’t stop until I was thirteen years old when I ended up in the emergency room for something else I had done wrong.

2012-11-28-18-20-26Me: You travel a lot. Do you see the world differently through your lenses?

Mark A.: No, it’s the opposite. I see the world differently because I have traveled my whole life, because I empathize with every culture. It helps me fit in and become like them in some small way. The lens only allows me to share that experience with other people and, hopefully, help them see that other people are just like them, not other species.

Me: Did you plan your next trip?

Mark A.: Yes, I am working on a documentary in Beirut: I need to go there for a month and probably will travel around the world for another month, conducting interviews on the recent cultural history of Beirut. You talk to anybody about Lebanon and all they ever reply is “pity about the war” or “it was great in the sixties”. The Lebanese have given us Nobel Prize laureates, actors, musicians, fashion designers, and more. You don’t get that from a bunch of parties and a little bit of war.

I am Lebanese; I wasn’t brought up Lebanese, but I am beginning to understand just how Lebanese I am. My father died last year in November and before he died, I interviewed about my own family’s history, something he had never spoken of before. That started a personal discovery. I went to Beirut and for the first time in my life I found people that have similar values to me, a sense of humor like mine, a way of looking at life like I do.

Lebanese say: “Life happens between wars.” They don’t focus on the war; it’s just a date on the timeline. They find a way to rise above everything that happens in life, to make life fun, to make it better. They expect life to be hard, but that’s just a part of life. But, you have to go find the fun, you have to create the joy, that’s what makes life worthwhile and I was amazed to find how Lebanese I was.

I’ve always considered myself international, with no roots and no specific culture. That’s why I want to do this documentary: it’s my own personal exploration and it’s for people around the world. Everyone thinks that Lebanon is an Arabic country and it’s not in any way. We aren’t Arabs; we were there before the Arabs. As did our ancestors we travel around the world, not on boats but on airplanes, we do business, we fit in anywhere, and we never lose our culture. We don’t need a piece of land to be Lebanese.

With everything that’s going on in this world, more people need that message. They are so afraid of losing their culture that they don’t realize that they’re actually throwing it away: they’ve stopped telling their kids the stories or who they are and where they come from.

Me: If you were in a Kevin Carter situation what would you have done?

Mark A.: I wouldn’t have taken the shot. I don’t shoot that. When I say I am an idealist it’s for that reason. I do not take pictures of suffering because we’ve got enough of that; we don’t need to be reminded of suffering, we need to be reminded of joy and anything that makes that possible. I do not shoot war; I do not shoot anything related to it. The humanitarian efforts of war validate war.

Me: So you don’t think he was supposed to be granted the Pulitzer Prize?

Mark A.: No, I didn’t say that. I believe there is a need for that also, but I believe that too many photographers take that road simply because it’s easier. To make you cry is a piece of cake, but to make you laugh is not so easy. I always choose the harder road.

I don’t judge anybody ever, probably because I am so egocentric that I don’t concentrate on what other people are doing or why. They don’t have my past; they don’t have my life. I choose what I do; I know it’s extreme. I know I’d be richer if I shot conflict, but I’ve suffered violence from the day I was born and I don’t intend to help promote that in any way.

Me: What is your dream project?

Mark A.: I was in Oman and went to see the boatyards in Sur, where they make the old sailing vessels, the Dhow, by hand. I realized that I had a book on my shelves by Alan Villiers, who, at the turn of the century witnessing the end of the age of sail, decided he wanted to sail on every vessel that still existed. He found himself in Sur, signed on to a trading vessel and sailed the entire Coast from Oman to Madagascar and back, stopping to observe and document every culture along the way. After rereading his book, I realized that I had an opportunity to do the same thing, go there, commission a boat, follow the entire building of it by hand and sail his route to document how these same cultures have changed. The Dhow would be equipped with an audiovisual lab to teach Omanis skills in safeguarding their cultural heritage while we follow the African coast. Villiers followed a route from the diary of an old Greek sailor, a unique opportunity to cover the same peoples over centuries of change.

Never going to happen! it would cost several million dollars and the people I pitched the idea to just don’t see the urgency in it. It was fun coming up with the idea and if someone would to do it I would definitely be on board for that. This is my dream project.

Me: So, Florence hasn’t imprisoned you for life?

Mark A.: No, definitely not. I don’t like Florence. Florence to me is one of the greatest examples about everything that’s wrong in our society today. It thinks it’s important, it thinks it’s proud, merely because six hundred years ago it did something, yet, has done nothing with it ever since. I think if Lorenzo De Medici was alive today he would be furious with them, “We spent three centuries putting this together and all you do is look backwards at it?”

I wanted to love Florence; I thought this is the place where somebody could really do something with Art and Culture. Yet, I am the first person to use Renaissance paintings, interpreting them in a modern way to address contemporary issues. Today, there’s a cover page from some stupid women magazine copying my Battiferi, because they couldn’t come up with an original idea. All my work is based on learning from the past to define the present and inspire the future.  Florence is where it all should happen.

It’s not only that they won’t do it, but if you try they will impede you at any cost. It’s like a beautiful woman with an amazing self-esteem issue.

Me: Where can we see your work?

Mark A.: It depends; I have two bodies of work. I have the work I do on Living Heritage which is in certain museums. In 2015, we launch “Blood and Sacrifice” at the Seville Museum, then at Barcelona Museum and, ultimately, part of the permanent archives of the European Museum of the Seas in Marseilles. My Renaissance work is one of the most popular things online and my fine art work is mainly in the hands of collectors. This year is the first time that I have put together a catalog for international galleries; up until now I have never considered myself an artist.

abouzeid_interview_002Me: Do you promote yourself?

Mark A.: I have a very strong personality. People react to me one way or the other; they either love me or they hate me; there is no middle road. Therefore, when I am the person promoting myself, especially for galleries, museums, they usually feel challenged by me and, therefore, take three steps back. When I have somebody else do it for me, by Internet, or by example things go well. When I show what I do, people love it and they want to be part of it.

This year I am trying to professionalize the way I promote myself a bit. I’ve had some fun with the crazy artist thing, now I want to use my past professional skills to be to sell my work in a much more focused way. I have a catalog, an agent and have created my artist resume, an essential tool. In Florence, there is very little I can do that I haven’t already done, including the Palazzo Vecchio, including the Uffizzi. It’s a matter of letting people know in the right way: instead of answering every question they might ask in my materials, sometimes leaving questions to be asked is the best way to start a dialogue. So, right now for the first time in my life I am promoting my art which I never done before.

Me: Do you believe in the starving artist myth?

Mark A.: Yes I do, I am a starving artist and I think it’s necessary. I think it’s a must. Like I said before about Florence, there are a lot of people here that think they are artists, but they live with their families and they have things taken care of for them. They can say things like: “I won’t corrupt myself.” Wake up every morning knowing you need to feed two children no matter what and you don’t even understand the word corruption anymore. If I can go out and take a picture and be paid, I’ll do it and won’t think twice about it. In doing so, I can also do my art. I couldn’t have done the Renaissance series otherwise, or the stuff I am doing now. Often a client asks me to do something and only after I realize that I can use this in my art to greater effect. If I had the choice of waiting tables or shoot someone’s wedding, I would shoot the wedding. At least that way I am still doing something I love: making photos.

Me: So, how did you get to go from being privileged to a starving artist?

Mark A.: Really well, I do it with style because I love life. I am starving artist partially because I spent too much money in the early days financing myself to go around and because I chose to provide my daughters with a life that was not rich, but wasn’t poor either. I thought it was unfair that I would choose this career and that they might have to suffer for it. The apartments we have had in Florence over the past few years, I couldn’t afford.

I learned at a very young age growing up as I did that money doesn’t buy happiness; I don’t recall a single happy family from those days. The only time I feel discomfort about not having money is when an expedition is canceled because I didn’t have the necessary resources. I feel bad not for myself but for the people we could help. I learned a long time ago that life is what you make of it and I love my life, so why would I care if I am starving or not?

I have given the opportunity to the artists I am interviewing to ask a question that they can’t answer for themselves, to another artist of my choosing, involved in this project. I have chosen Laura Thompson‘s question, the painter whom I have interviewed here, for Mark’s interview.

Laura T.: What gets you up in the morning?

Mark A.: Coffee. Jokes aside, I understood a long time ago that if I am not doing this then I am doing something else; that everybody’s life is filled with things you have to do. There’s always more than you can possibly do. So I decided to make the most out of everything I do, even if it’s washing the dishes.

The worst day of my life was the day after I quit drinking. I had a pistol in my mouth the night before, I woke up not knowing anything and I went to work. When I finally collapsed, I gave myself one day on the couch and the next day my body said okay, that’s enough of that, get up and get moving. I don’t know if it’s because of my family’s background or just who I am, but it doesn’t matter what crisis I hit, I get up and go to work.

Me: A word about you as an artist, a word about you as a human.

Mark A.: As an artist it’s truth. Everything I do, whether as an artist or a human being, is to try and help people see the truth about one’s experiences and what the point of all this is, instead of getting caught in all the head games that they create around it. It’s really quite simple: you’re born, you die and in between you pass time. Wouldn’t it make sense to decide how best to pass this time?

As a human my word is father. I realized a while ago that being a father was the purpose of my life and it still is. That’s why I could die tomorrow and be happy in the knowledge that I helped create two great human beings. They made me do things that I wasn’t capable of doing, they made me choose a higher path, that I couldn’t have taken otherwise, because either I was too weak or I just didn’t believe in it. They saved my life. I would have pulled that trigger if it wasn’t for them; they helped me understand that I could not give up seeing them grow without having tried everything. I may do many other things, but the only thing I can very proudly say I have done well is to be a father.

The human behind the artist (Interviews with artists living in Florence)

An interview about the romantic stroll of an artist in Florence with Sara Amrheim

I’ve met Sara about a year ago, when she hosted the first aperitivo of the Creative People in Florence at her studio. She struck me as an amazing, kind woman, with intense blue eyes, friendly to every one around her, trying to create a welcoming environment for other artists to interact with each other. I remember admiring the jewelry made of paintings, as I called them, thinking I have never seen such things before. I have asked her to participate on The human behind the artist because she fit perfectly with the idea of the project and she is a powerful artist with so many things to express.

Sara Amrhein is an American artist currently living and working in Florence Italy. Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles she has been practicing and studying art her entire life. She discovered Florence to be the perfect city for her to develop her work and gather inspiration. The work of Sara Amrhein is an eclectic combination of influences from her travels as well as her two homes. The bright vibrant colors reflect the warmth and sunshine of Los Angeles, while the detail, intricate design and craftsmanship reflect the experience of living in Florence for many years and working alongside the many artists and artisans of the city, both historic and contemporary. The designs cross both cultural and artistic boarders and seeks to create a cohesive body of work though the practice of growing, exploring, and experimenting. Over the years Sara has gained extensive experience in the art world and has shown her work at various exhibitions in Florence, Italy and most recently in Bucharest, Romania at Autor 11, Contemporary jewelry fair as part of Romanian Design Week. She also sells her work on consignment to various boutiques and concept stores in Florence.

Sara attended the Fine Art program at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles California where she graduated with honors and received her BFA.  Since then she has continued her practice through painting, sculpture and art jewelry design. Sara recently opened a studio atelier in the center of Florence where she can be found working every day. In addition, she is also the co – founder and organizer of the Creative People in Florence’ Artists group, which organizes meetings, collaborations, studio visits, and group shows for artists living and working in Florence Italy. 

Me: Tell us a little about yourself.

Sara A.: I am originally from California, United States; I came to Florence almost fifteen years ago to study Art and History, met Luigi, my husband, and have been here ever since. That is the very short version of the story.

Me: What is the strongest memory you have from your childhood?

Sara A.: I used to paint rocks and sell them to my neighbors for 25 cents each. I was this blond, blue eyed little girl who asked them to buy rocks from me. I also remember making gingerbread houses around Christmas time with my mom. She would make hundreds of them for every student in all of our classes and also for all of our friends and family. We had assembly lines of gingerbread houses and our house was always filled with people and used to smell like gingerbread for weeks.1924144_43006254993_6297_n

Me: Can you take me back to the first idea you had? When did it all start?

Sara A.: I think art has always been part of me. I originally started with painting, but making things was always part of my life and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t make something with my hands. My mom was constantly doing it, between the gingerbread houses, she would make birthday cakes, but not the simple, regular birthday cakes, but the pieces of art ones and she used to do it for every child in the neighborhood; so I was a little kid, with a pastry shop in my house, and something was always being made around me. My mom also used to wrap gifts because she was a sales rep for a gift wrapping company and she used to make really amazing packages that you didn’t want to open because they were a gift itself, so there were always stickers, wrapping paper and ribbons available for me to play with. When I became a teenager I started making jewelry, beaded necklaces and anklets and later when I moved away to college in Santa Barbara, I started taking a few art classes. At that point I stayed focused on Art History. For me to practice art then was more of a personal thing than something I wanted to study. After I came to Florence for an Art History program I went back to the States and went to Art School and that was when I started to really focus on paintings. At that point I had a very clear idea that I will become a painter and that I am going to show my work in galleries around the world. That was how I imagined my life to be.

Me: How did painting became jewelry?

Sara A.: My paintings were always big, floral and colorful and there were always mixed media, collages and things being stuck on the paintings. My mother once asked me if I have ever thought of making jewelry, because she has always loved jewelry and had an amazing jewelry collection. From that moment on I started looking at my drawings in a different way and I tried to figure out how to translate a sketch into something you can wear on your body. That’s when I started to play with different materials and tried to understand which material would work to do what I was trying to express. I came to discover different types of clay, until finally I found Fimo or polymer clay, which is my favorite, and I remained faithful to it for six years now.

Me: Why Florence?

Sara A.: My first Europe trip was with two girlfriends I had. We did the whole backpack experience,I loved it and had an amazing time, maybe because it was the first time I left the United States. After that experience through Europe, I went back home to college, I had a few semesters to finish up and I saw an announcement for study abroad in Florence, Italy and since I already loved it here so much as a tourist, I applied for the program and ended up coming here to study.

Me: Many Europeans have this question on their lips. Why do Americans send their children on European trips so often?

Sara A.: I think Americans send their children on trips to Europe mostly to explore their roots. It’s pretty funny actually, because in the United States you are not considered an American and everyone asks you what your origins are. I grew up with a very strong idea that I was half Italian and half German, and that was kind of my identity. The place where I grew up, everyone knew us as the Italian family. My mom being Italian, all the traditions were there; we ate Italian food and did everything else involving the Italian culture. My mom was the first in her family to marry someone who was not Italian; she grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in the Italian neighborhood and all of her family lived in the same building, so it was a very traditional, immigrant situation. Giving all this, my father was an outsider to the rest of her family and everyone was shocked that she chose someone who was not Italian, or not a doctor, which would have been an excuse. When they’ve met my dad was sixteen years old and they got married when he was twenty.

So, I think we grow up with the idea that you are American, but you have some ancestries from somewhere else and you are supposed to be very proud of that. We were always very proud of our Italian roots, that is why, maybe, at some point you go and try to explore them , but when we come here in Europe, we are suddenly just American and no longer Italian, or German, or anything else.

Me: Why did you settle here?

Sara A.: Well, I was at the point where I knew that I didn’t want to stay where I was, meaning in Santa Barbara, and I certainly didn’t want to move back home, in a small suburb from Los Angeles. I have always had this feeling of adventure, and have always wanted to see and experience different things, and here, in Florence, I felt so comfortable and at home. About a month after I came here I’ve met Luigi, we fell in love and that was just another reason for me to come back and stay. I come from a huge family; I am the youngest of four, two brothers and one sister, eleven nieces and nephews, so my family is big and loud and there is always something going on. My husband also comes from a big family; he is the youngest of five. I think one of reasons we are so good together is because we both come from big, crazy, loud Italian families and we are both the youngest in those families.

1069287_10151810635214994_1618264564_nWhen my program here ended I had to go back home. Luigi came to visit me in the States and after I graduated my last semester in December, New Years day I flew back to Florence and we moved in together. We didn’t know at that point if it was going to work out or not for us, and although I tried to be very level headed about my decision, I was also young and very much in love. From there on everything fell into place; I found a good job right away and I was very happy here.

Me: Did you get engaged right away?

Sara A.: We got engaged pretty quickly, in about a year after we moved in. Once, when he was picking me up from the airport, he suggested or us to go get a Pizza. We went to Funiculi at Porta al Prato, we sat down and ordered. All of a sudden he pulls out a box, he puts it on the table and slides it towards me without saying a word. I opened the box, saw the engagement ring and started laughing. He actually didn’t ask me, so I didn’t answer either, but I’ve put the ring on my finger. The table next to us heard me speaking English and asked us what’s good to see around here and I remember replying: “I don’t know, but look what I’ve got!”.

Me: When did you two get married?

Sara A.: It took us five years to get married. I had to go back and forward a lot in order to stay here legally.

Me: How did your family see this situation? Where they supportive?

Sara A.: At first my mom was not happy at all to hear that I am not going to move back home. There was a little bit of resistance because of that and it took a while for my family to realize that this was the right place for me and that I was happy here.

Me: Did you plan a big wedding?

Sara A.: We didn’t plan a big wedding, but I am sure our families wanted a big wedding for us. We never made any plans for that to happen, but for example, when my parents came here for a visit, we went to look at some places and some churches where we were suppose to have our wedding. My family is very traditional and it is a custom that the bride’s parents pay for her wedding. We’ve looked at some places in the US too, but then it just got so complicated, having such big families and bringing them all together in the same place. This way, the big wedding never happened because we’ve decided to elope.

Me: Where did you elope?

Sara A.: We were in California visiting and we decided to get married in Las Vegas. We didn’t tell anyone, and planned ahead on the Internet, because there are websites where you can plan it all. We drove to Las Vegas, a car picked us up from our hotel, went to the City Hall to sign the marriage license, went to the Chapel to say our vows, they snapped four pictures of us with our own camera and took us back to the hotel, saying only “Congratulations! Ciao”.

Me: What were your families reactions?

Sara A.: At first no one figured it out, but after a while my sister did. We were all having dinner at my house and she noticed our wedding rings and then all of a sudden she screamed out the news. I remember this awkward silence falling upon the dinner table for a few seconds, then everyone realized what it was happening and started screaming out of joy and congratulating us. I am sure they were a little disappointed, my father has always wanted to walk me down the aisle, but in the end they all understood this was the best thing for us and they were very happy for us.

Me: Let’s go back to the artist in you. What inspires you?

Sara A.: Everything can inspire me. Weather it is color or fashion, earth or materials, or the people I meet. It depends on who am I with, where am I at, what I am looking at. I try to observe as much as I possibly can and use that to make a piece of jewelry out of it. Even the process of molding a piece of clay can inspire me, because it can become anything I want. Also all the things the Internet can offer, like Pintrest, which is an amazing source of inspiration for me.il_570xN.305335006

Me: What is the story of your studio?

Sara A: Luigi and his brothers used to own a construction company and this was their wear house were everything was kept. They had the business for several years and things were going really well, but when the economy started to go down, one of his brothers decided to move back to Australia with his wife and child and his other brother went back to live in Calabria to be closer to his family. Back then we were living in very small studio apartment that wasn’t enough for us anymore, so because the business was no longer, we took over the lease contract on this place. It was full, packed up to the ceiling with everything you could possibly imagine, so we had to go through every piece we found here and cleaned the place up. And that is how this place became my studio. I’ve always wanted to have a studio, working space and this place was perfect for it; that was also the original intention when we took over the lease.

Me: Do you have any unusual habits before you start working?

Sara A.: I don’t know if they can be considered unusual, but I do have many habits before starting to work. First of all I can’t start doing anything if my house isn’t clean and neat first. Probably the most important thing for me is that my bed has to be made before starting to work or leave my house. I am a very organized person, so everything has to have its own place and be in order, even if my order can be someone else’s mess.

Me: What is the story of your first piece?

Sara A.: I am not sure if that was the first piece I’ve ever made, but I remember making a necklace for my mother when I was nineteen and that she still has it and wears it. Then when I started working with Fimo I used to do little broaches with small flowers on them. I would make the flowers and then attach the broach pin to it._MG_7049re

Me: Do you still have your paintings?

Sara A.: Yes, I still have a lot of my paintings. Most of them are back in California; my dad still keeps them in the garage.

Me: Do you still like them?

Sara A.: No, absolutely not. Maybe there’s one or two but, I actually have tried to convince my father to get rid of them so many times, but he just doesn’t want to give them up. For a long time he used to keep them in his office, at work.

Me: Did you ever want to give up being an artist?

Sara A.: Oh yes, all the time. I sometimes think I should just get a 9am -5pm job, relax and be happy. But would I really be happy? I really doubted. People look at this form of expressing ourselves from the outside and they think how wonderful it must be to be able to do the thing you love, but it’s also a very, very hard thing to do.

Me: So, is art worth it?

Sara A: Yes, absolutely, because I don’t know what else I would do. This is so much a part of me that I wouldn’t know how else to be. I don’t know what else it’s worth it if not art.

Me: Do you consider yourself a complete artist?

Sara A.: This has happened to me recently, in the last six, or seven months. I found myself feeling more comfortable about saying out loud that I am an artist. Before then, when people would ask me what I did for a living, I would avoid a direct answer and although I would always mention my art, I would first name a real job that I did in that moment, like being a nanny, or doing vacation rentals and then I would have said: “Oh and I am also an artist.”

Me: What projects are you involved in right now?

Sara A.: I will be spending two months in the United States from November 19th to January 15th with stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago to participate in shows; The Indie holiday emporium in San Francisco and The One of a Kind Show in Chicago.

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Me: Tell me about Creative People in Florence.

Sara A.: It all started from the idea to get artists to connect and share ideas that could become projects. Also, the original idea was to help each other build our portfolios as artists, because otherwise these things can cost hundreds and hundreds of euros. From there, everything fell into place; we had a few meetings with some members, we did a couple of photo shoots together and Anna Rose came in with the idea of doing the studio visits, going to different studios twice a month and giving artists the opportunity to talk about what they were doing. That was when things really took of. She is amazing with getting people involved in projects and organizing events. After that we came up with the idea of having Creative aperitivos once a month, to just have fun, meet each other and talk about our shared interests, which is still going on. Having a directory on the blog has also been a great help, because it’s allowing other artists to see what other artists are living in Florence, what each of them does and think about how to create projects together. This actually works really well because we hear and see people collaborating to create beautiful things all the time,and we are really happy about that.

Me: Dream project?

Sara A.: A dream project for me would be to work on a set of some sort, either a theater set or a big photo or movie production and I would have to work on the costume designs and being able to do something without worrying if the thing I am making is wearable or not; just create.

Me: Would you ever leave Florence?

Sara A.: I never say never. If an amazing opportunity would come my way and that would mean for me to move to another place, I would take it. Of course it would have to be an amazing opportunity, that would meet my interests, but also the interests of my family, which is my husband. I’ve always been a big risk taker and very adventurous, so you never know.

Me: Do you see little artists running around the studio in the near future?

Sara A: I go back and forward about that and sometimes I think I would love to have children, but I also think about how would I be able to take care of a child and still be doing what I am doing. I think when you have a child in your life, it’s really important to give them all of your attention and they become the priority in your life. So, I don’t know the answer to that question yet, and although both me and Luigi want to have children, we leave it to faith to decide for us._MG_7124re

I have given the opportunity to the artists I am interviewing to ask a question that they can’t answer for themselves, to another artist of my choosing, involved in this project. I have chosen Maria Louise Kobberholm Sveistrup’s questions the painter whom I have interviewed here, for Sara’s interview.

Maria Louise K. S. : What should the ultimate purpose of art be?

Sara A.: For me art is a language, a mean of communication just like any other spoken language and I think the ultimate purpose should be to share a part of yourself with the world, to communicate something to the people around you and as long as your art comes from a genuine place inside of you then that message is going to be communicated to whomever interacts with it, in whatever form it takes. What I am personally trying to say through my art is that there is still hope, happiness and positive energy out there and I try to guide people towards seeing those things.

Me: A word about you as an artist, a word about you as a human.

Sara A.: A word about me as an artist would have to be meticulous. I try to make things as perfect as possible, and although they are made by hand, so they can never be completely perfect, I try do do my absolute best. A word about me as a human would have to be compassionate, because I can get very emotionally involved with things, people and situations and sometimes that’s not in my advantage at all.