Italy, Russian Art, and Responsibility

April 28, 2017

It’s been nearly impossible to keep to my promise of releasing a blog post at least once a month, mostly due to the sheer intensity of my experience so far, and partly due to the fact that eating Italian cheese cake in a romantic piazza takes priority over sitting at home and writing.



In my last blog post I wrote about the mental and spiritual challenges associated with stepping into the void.  The void of one’s “life dream.”  Here, in this post, I want to take a moment to describe the visceral, on-the-ground reality of taking this step, in Italy, studying classical art.


Since I’ve arrived it’s been a tornado of new experiences to such a degree that my new life here feels like a dream, almost like my life in California never existed.  My suspicion is this is because there are really no commonalities between life in L.A. and life in Italy.  Specifically, now there is an immense amount of walking, biking, 500+ year-old artifacts under every step, very warm human experiences, people from pretty much every country on the globe, and crazy Russian art instructors that insult your work to show you they care.


Yes, maybe I should start there. I am enrolled in a classical Russian academic art program… in Italy!  (Weird I know).  My day starts with a 15-minute bike ride from the south side of the Arno River to a suburb of Florence rife with little old Italian ladies walking their dogs, and never, I mean NEVER picking up their dookie, so watch your step (see image below).  Also these little old ladies use their Italian spider sense to obstruct other pedestrian's attempts to pass. They meander this way and that, in a seemingly random fashion, but it's a ploy.  They are using their cunning Italian old lady super powers to create a blockade!



Back to the Russian art school. Let me introduce This topic with a story:  When I was seven my parents sent me to a summer camp in the Santa Cruz mountains.  One of the main activities at the camp was fencing, and on the last day they held a competition.  I lost, BADLY.  In fact, I was last out of the entire group, 100 or so children.  And, guess what?  The boy who came in first went home crying, and I received an award.


My art academy is nothing like my Santa Cruz summer camp.  Recently the entire first and second year classes were asked to display their drawings from the days previous “quick sketch” session.  Again, I was last, i.e. definitely the worst out of the entire group.  Instead of receiving a medal, like in Santa Cruz, the instructor, after reviewing for all of 15 seconds said in front of the school, “not your day, next!” and handed me back my drawings. 


School of hard knocks right?  Right, and this is why students in Russia can do cast drawings like the one shown below (NOTE:  this is not a tonal drawing but a drawing that shows complete understanding of form). 


(Photo via the


Another example.  A teacher approaches me while I am working on a portrait painting and says, “are you trying to paint!?”  Or, while struggling to start my first large nude figure composition the instructor says, “Alex, what is wrong?  Be a man, be brave!  I can see that you are scared!" Ah yes, the rhetorical question, not really questions but blunt exposures of your weakness. 


Why do I like this style?  One, because I think it is funny.  I mean seriously, these scenes could have been written by Woody Allen: Beautiful stern Russians in starchy clothing barking at you while you paint.  Two, because their abrasive comments are on-point.  Not only are the instructors themselves monstrously talented but their critique is surgical.  Yes their comments are prickly, but they are also true.  Their goal is to sharpen the knives in the artist’s tool box smashing bad habits with the Russian hammer and developing a strong repertoire in composition, tonality, color, line, and connecting all tools… form.  In short, if you want to learn classical art, the Russian method is the most complex, most difficult, and most powerful.  More on this in a future blog post.


What are some other upsides of this trip?  My red steel frame 70’s Italian road bike custom assembled by Lorenzo, the neighborhood bike master.  If you like cycling Tuscany is heaven.  One caution though, road bikes are not so practical on the old cobblestone streets of the city center which serve more as hemorrhoid-inducing, filling-rattling jackhammers than byways.


I've also befriended a number of wonderfully kind interesting locals.  They are teaching me the art of doing nothing, fare niente.  For me this means reducing the urge to manically plan every detail of my free time and instead go with the natural rich flow of each day.  In Italy this flow happens according to unsaid traditions that have lasted the test of time.  In the sphere of relaxing and socializing Italians have it dialed.


Looking now at my own cultural roots I can fairly confidently make the following argument. That in the US there is a constant itch for the young new generation to invent and/or appropriate norms (think hipsters).  That there is a repeating "out with the old in with the new" mentality born out of a common desire to create more rich authentic human connections.  American behavior in the realm of friends and family supports an enormously industrious work force but might leave us frustrated when is comes to deep connection.  Because as Americans we generally discard these "new" cultural trends on a generational basis it seems our collective desire to build rich relationships remains unrequited.  


In closing I would like to emphasize a recent realization: thinking about going on this trip was more difficult than the tangible action of the trip itself.  In other words making this adventure a reality was surprisingly easy! Now that I'm here I can't help asking, why don't more people do something like this?  The barriers are surprisingly low.  


In many ways I think it comes down to understanding the difference between desires that we consciously and unconsciously choose to act on.  Its tough to admit but if one looks closely, most "choices" are really an unconscious acting out on genetic, cultural, and/or familial impulses that we never consciously agreed to: I must have children, I must buy a home, I must look this way, he is "bad", she is "good"...  Etc. Unexamined these unconscious impulses disguise themselves as choices and insodoing shackle our ability to be responsible.  For responsibility truly means, the ability to take action freely and appropriately according to the reality of the situation at hand.  The kicker is the ability to "see" reality.

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