The following blog post was written for and published by pleinairmississippi.blogspot.com in August, 2018. As we are coming up on another Visual Exploration trip to Italy this summer I wanted to re-post it on my site.
Recently, I was sketching on one of the overlooks at the medieval Italian town of San Gimignano. As I was translating the vastness of the scene with pen and ink I began to notice a universal language coming from the diverse group of passers by.
People walked the incline of cobble street that’s only about eight feet wide, with arches overhead and architecture on either side exposing hundreds of years of history, and came to a sudden opening in the buildings which exposes one of the most stunning vistas Tuscany has to offer. It is a stunning patchwork quilt of the iconic elements of the area; vineyards, olive groves, Italian Cypress, and ancient buildings with terracotta rooftops. The response to this view was usually not “wow” or “ooh” or “aah”, but a noise that started with an “m” sound and ended with a short burst of air through the nose. It’s the same noise made when you’re hit in the stomach. So I’m calling this universal language the gut punch of beauty.
My wife, Jessie and I have had the pleasure of leading people on trips to Tuscany for the past six years based at the private estate of Tenuta di Spannocchia. The primary focus of these trips is to have a meaningful and memorable experience with the people, places, environment, and cuisine of Tuscany and to do that through the art making processes of drawing and painting. We call these Visual Explorations.
While not everyone on our trips consider themselves “artists”, we encourage them to use a pencil, pen or paint to really see their surroundings. When you sit in a spot for 30 minutes to 2 hours recording your observations you have a far deeper experience with the place than quickly walking by and snapping a few photos. (side note - Serious photographers incorporate the same slow, thoughtful and measured response to a scene as a person drawing or painting. ) But whether or not you get a “good” drawing from the experience is not the main point. It does feel good to achieve that, but the main point is the experience.
So it was on our most recent Visual Explorations trip where I observed this universal language in San Gimignano. I have specific memories when I’ve had a gut punch response to things. The Sistine Chapel at The Vatican is one, and John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Lady Agnew in Scotland is another. I remember these vividly because the gut punch of beauty leaves a scar.
As artists we can only hope to one day create something which causes this reaction from someone. But in the meantime we show off the scars left from these experiences by doing a drawing, organizing a painting, writing a story, or composing music. We keep swinging and one day we may just land a solid hit.