On Friday the thirteenth at four in the morning the Marchutz School assembled at the bottom of the Cours Mirabeau and boarded a bus to Ventimiglia, Italy. It would be the first leg of our annual journey to Venice. Eight days later we filed out of the very same bus and into the nighttime rain back in Aix. It was close to eleven at night, and we were a tired group. Our shoulders sagged under the weight of backpacks, exhausted from traveling. But despite our fatigue and the rare rain, we lingered for a few moments, reluctant to say goodbye. As a school, we had just completed a staggering 300+ paintings in a week. In thinking how to write about our trip, I have decided that the best way to go about illustrating what this trip means is by describing my own experience. I discovered that the trip is deeply personal, and it is different for each student. The phrase I heard over and over on the trip home was, “Something happened in Venice.” Nobody, myself included, seemed to be able to articulate what, exactly, that something was, but it was more than just a series of paintings. There had been a certain type of growth that was contained in the euphoria and the struggles that go along with a marathon of artistic creation.
As long as I’ve been affiliated with the Marchutz School, I have heard about Venice: the legendary trip to the place where students arrive full of plans, are quickly beaten down by the city and its epic majesty, and are reborn as artists, only to be ripped from the canals by the unfortunate timing of the end of the trip. Alan described it in our pre-Venice meeting. “Don’t worry.” He said, “You’re going to freak out when you look over at your roommate’s side of the room and she has fourteen paintings done and you only have one and a half, but don’t worry. Tuesday will come, and she’ll spiral into a deep depression. And you’ll all have plenty of paintings when the week is over. In fact, you’ll make a breakthrough on Thursday or Friday, and it’ll be just in time to leave on Saturday.” So it was this experience for which I was preparing. My plan was to charge through the week. If I hit Tuesday and spiraled into a deep artistic depression, I would just paint my way out of it. I got myself twenty-two surfaces (and two extra sheets of loose canvas, just in case), and loaded up on extra paints and turpentine. I packed my bags Thursday night, and made myself a nifty case to carry my easel in, so it wouldn’t be swinging around out the top of my backpack on the crowded waterbuses.
Waking up a little early to say my last goodbyes to friends stateside before the weeklong Internet communication blackout, I grabbed my bags and we headed to the bus. The bus trip from Aix to Ventimiglia would be the first of a three-part voyage. Once in Ventimiglia we had a little while to hang out before our train to Milan, where we had fifteen minutes to make our train to Venice. During our Ventimiglia layover we got our first taste of what was to become our fuel for the week: Italian coffee. Over a cappuccino, Alan assigned the seats according to who was daring enough to challenge him to a game of Hearts to 100. I took the bait. I had a score to settle with him after he mopped the floor with me and my fellow students back in 2009. I hadn’t exactly been practicing, but I talked a big game. On the way to Milan I was reminded what losing to Alan at hearts feels like. You’ll be neck and neck for a couple of rounds, and then you experience an absolute loss of any control whatsoever. I wasn’t the first to reach 100, but I sure didn’t win. “Wanna play again?” he asked me, grinning. Of course I did. The first round I shot the moon, and for the first time in as long as he cares to remember, Alan lost at hearts. I got lucky, too, because he would have demanded a re-match but we were ten minutes from Milan, and needed to get ready for our dead sprint across the giant station. We made it to our train to Venice, everyone was accounted for, and we settled in to nap and wait for the food cart.
Stepping out of the train station in Venice, the tempo of the trip changed. We were no longer in travel mode; we were on Venice time. On a painting trip like this one, one must find the rhythm most conducive both to productivity and to one’s own sanity, a balance that is not always easy. This often means taking things slow, building in time for rest, and for this reason we paused for about twenty minutes outside the train station to allow people time to get a coffee, take a few photos, or just sit on the stairs and observe the canal sitting unassumingly where one expects to find a street. It was this unselfconscious quality that gave Venice its real character. Beneath all of the tourism, the immigrants selling sunglasses and useless trinkets, the high end clothing stores, there lay a masterpiece of a city made of stone and bricks and water; a city that does not feel the need to defend its canals to those of us more used to asphalt and cobblestone.
We boarded the vaporetto waterbus and headed up the grand canal towards the Academia, where we would establish our home base in the Hotel Bella Arti. The trip offered our first look at our artistic opponent: the overwhelming amount of pattern and detail that covers every lavish building. Palaces rise out of the water, sitting on their own reflections in the milky cool-blue water. The eye is greeted first by the dock poles painted blue or red and white like barbershop poles, “Hey! Look at me!” Then the columns on the windows chime in “Hey! Check us out!” And the moulding, and the brick and stone patterns of the facades, all calling out on their own. And yet all this shouting, like the screams of children at recess, unite and form a kind of music, ordered in its chaos. An ode to the creative power of the human imagination.
Reaching our rooms, we agreed to meet as a class out in front of the hotel in an hour for a tour before a gigantic dinner of pasta and some well-deserved wine after a long day of travel. This gave me just enough time to unpack and prepare the next day’s canvasses before grabbing my first gelato (chocolate, of course) and meeting the group. The tour was fun. Alan and John’s joy at being in the city they had come to annually for decades was rubbing off on anyone (not that we needed any extra excitement). They told stories of back in the day as we walked by their favorite café, over a bridge or two, stopping for maps, and past the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Continuing down towards the Dogana, where ships used to stop and pay taxes on their way into the trade town, we passed the Salute. This cathedral, a tribute to the Virgin would end up being a motif for me. I would begin my days watching the sun rise over it, only to labor over its circles and domes and vibrancy all day. But I didn’t know that yet; for the time being it was simply yet another jaw-dropping building among many. We finished our tour of the neighborhood and ate dinner. Exhausted, I went to bed early that night. I had a sunrise to catch the next morning.
Stay Tuned for Part 2!
O'Neill Cushman, Alumni Fellow