From Vitruvius Book VII, Chapter 13
1. I shall now speak of purple, which, above all other colours, has a delightful effect, not less from its rarity than from its excellence. It is procured from the marine shell which yields the scarlet dye, and possesses qualities not less extraordinary than those of any of the body whatever. It does not in all places where it is found possess the same quality of colour; but varies in that respect according to the sun’s course.
2. Thus, that which is obtained in Pontus and in Galatia, from the nearness of those countries to the north, is brown; in those between the south and the west, it is pale; that which is found in the equinoctial regions, east and west, is of a violet hue; lastly, that which comes from southern countries possesses a red quality: the red sort is also found in the island of Rhodes, and other places near the equator.
3. After the shells are gathered they are broken into small pieces with iron bars; from the blows of which, the purple dye oozes out like tears, and is drained into mortars and ground. It is called ostrum, because extracted from marine shells. Inasmuch as this colour, from its saltness, soon dries, it is prepared for use with honey.
At St. Peter’s Basilica
“The excavations revealed the remains of shrines of different periods at different levels, from Clement VIII (1594) to Callixtus II (1123) and Gregory I (590-604), built over an aedicula containing fragments of bones that were folded in a tissue with gold decorations, tinted with the precious murex purple. Although it could not be determined with certainty that the bones were those of Peter, the rare vestments suggested a burial of great importance.”
Murex purple, also known as Tyrian purple
“Tyrian purple (Greek, πορφύρα, porphyra, Latin: purpura), also known as royal purple, imperial purple or imperial dye, is a purple-red natural dye, which is extracted from sea snails, and which was first produced by the ancient Phoenicians. This dye was greatly prized in antiquity because it did not fade, rather it became brighter and more intense with weathering and sunlight.”
Near here, this plastic stuff is caught, exposed and struggling between here and there, in the center of a place that so carefully considers time.
I measured the floor panels using my shoes. These new studies are one-sixth actual size.
All of it feels like a study. Of what, I’m not yet sure.
Before crossing the river this morning I visited Santa Maria in Trastevere. The large-scale, graphic circle/square pattern in black and white marble is all over Rome, most notably on the floor of the Pantheon. There it was again at Santa Maria.
At Poggi I picked up some big, chunky oil pastel crayons in black. The circle was just a gut instinct to mark the paper. To inscribe what I saw at Santa Maria. To mark my spot, my place here right now.
The fat oil crayons are a joy to use. My first time. I can scratch into the thick surface and “etch” it. I’ll definitely do more with this.
This morning I made my way down the hill and crossed the river at Ponte Garibaldi. I looked down and tried to capture the color of the Tiber rushing by in my mind and on camera, and realized at that moment that I had to begin work today, immediately. That my challenge to myself for this residency is to produce work every day. And by work I mean new work, every day.
One idea that I’ve been looking forward to before arriving is “slow design” (because in my business the speed of design/production has become ridiculous, insane). So perhaps this morning’s mission challenges this, because it asks for quick thinking and response. But honestly, after thinking, writing and analyzing this sabbatical for six months, I find myself craving the act of “making.” It’s sudden: I came face-to-face with it when I walked into the studio yesterday. A physical feeling. I really need to use my hands. And make work that goes outside my comfort zone (no more little books, for now).
So I discovered Poggi (fantastic) and grabbed some supplies and without thinking too hard ran back to my studio. I’ve got 34 more days at the Academy and I want to fill it with work that responds to Rome. No big concept beyond that. Just look, see, absorb and make.
I made two quick things this afternoon. First (above), a painting.
Less than 24 hours. In total awe of this place. It’s 8am and the sun is just coming up behind me over Rome and starting to flood the apartment. I’m starting to believe I could just stay in here the entire time looking at how the light moves around the city.
They’ve given me the Russell Cowles studio, #253. I just looked him up and he was an American painter in Italy from 1915–20. Spent 1920 at the Academy as a Rome Prize Fellow. Died in 1979. I’d like to think that he actually used my studio, but who knows.
The studio is huge and empty, except for some perfectly basic furniture. A weird hallway runs behind one of the walls, within my space. A giant window. I fell asleep on the couch before dinner last night. I haven’t even seen it in daylight yet.
Dinner was like the furniture. Simple but absolutely perfect. Risotto with beef. Stewed rabbit and onions. Cauliflower. Everything served family-style on giant platters. After, walked from the main building up the street to the gate of Villa Aurelia. My apartment is the top floor of the Villino, next to the Villa. Cats in the street.
So much more I’d like to jot down, but it’s time to get up and walk down the hill. Start moving through the city.
Talking about my upcoming trip with friends (or strangers) I’m frequently asked if I’m prepared, what am I doing to prepare, etc. In terms of the actual work, I don’t feel very prepared at all. All I know is that I’m going with open eyes, mind and heart. I’ll interact with the place when I arrive and I have faith that something will come of it.
But in the past few months I’ve been doing a lot of reading and I would say that this is an important kind of preparation. Perhaps the best kind. Several of the books and essays have come to me fortuitously, the result of chance meetings or introductions. I’m learning to pay close attention to what appears to be the random stuff — things I encounter that don’t quite fit into my normal scope. This in itself is a great way to prepare for travel.
So here are some choice pieces that have influenced my thinking about the trip. They’re not all directly related (to each other or to what I’m doing right now) but if it’s on this list it’s because something about it feels like it’s working on me. Letting a story, an idea or even just a word resonate for awhile can be enough stimulation.
- A good friend insisted that I read Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. “A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made … The very air closes behind you like water.”
- From this post on Liz Danzico’s always-inspiring Bobulate I learned of the adjacent possible: “The spaces we occupy, the tools we use, and the ideas in our consciousness cast this ‘shadow future’ over us each minute of the day.”
- From the guy sitting next to me at City Bakery on December 4 I learned of the fantastic Greek word “eudaimonia.” It’s at the end of the first chapter of Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, the book he was reading, which I am now reading.
- At 192 Books I picked up Edmund White’s NYC memoir City Boy and I’ve been thinking ever since about how we write our own stories.
- In City Boy White writes of his life-long friendship with poet James Merrill. I picked up Selected Poems and then Familiar Spirits. “Merrill eventually described his poems as ‘chronicles of love and loss,’ and that term aptly stresses his sense of a life lived and understood over time, and links his two recurrent themes. From his college days on, Merrill’s favorite writer had been Proust, for whom the only true paradise was a lost paradise. Love, for both writers, is not fully itself until it is lost, until it becomes memory, becomes art.”
- I haven’t read An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec yet, but the concept of focused and deliberate observation is core for me: “My intention in the pages that follow was to describe…that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens.” The book is described as an artifact of the street.
- A tweet pointed me to this inspiring essay (a speech given at West Point, actually) on solitude and leadership by William Deresiewicz. “So solitude can mean introspection, it can mean the concentration of focused work, and it can mean sustained reading. All of these help you to know yourself better. But there’s one more thing I’m going to include as a form of solitude, and it will seem counterintuitive: friendship.” This also looks good: “The End of Solitude.”
- Steven Heller kindly introduced me to artist Wendy Richmond, whose residency at the American Academy in Rome will overlap with mine. We met recently and thankfully, she instilled on me the importance of cherishing the time and space of the artist’s residency. Her book Art Without Compromise* is an important read for anyone cultivating the state of not knowing.
- Next up: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, mentioned by Wendy in an email. Here’s the TEDTalk where he speaks about flow and ecstasy, or “standing outside oneself.” Very much worth watching.
Earlier this year I went to Italy and produced these four little books — creative work that was a natural extension of who I am but different from anything I had ever done at Soulellis Studio. I had set an intuitive design process in motion as a way to explore a place (Venice), and used that process to generate poetic, meaningful work. The result was something completely self-directed and valuable and genuine (to the place, to myself). The intensity was a surprise and a return to something I hadn’t felt in a very long time.
Back home in NYC, I ran into Louise Fili on the street. “Louise, I miss Italy. I want to do more work like that” was all I said, and she immediately urged me to go back (which sounded crazy at the time). She suggested I take a look at the American Academy in Rome, and within a few days I was applying for a residency. Two months later I heard that I had been accepted into their Visiting Artists and Scholars program — a luxurious opportunity to sweep aside some time and space and marinate in an ancient place, with an incredible community of creative thinkers.
So on December 31, 2010 I’m closing Soulellis Studio and, with few exceptions, saying goodbye to a good number of clients and many active, successful projects.
Have I mentioned fear yet?
So here’s the manifesto part: I’m leaving the office to get to work. My goal is to return to NYC next summer with a body of new, non-client work. I don’t know what the work is yet and I won’t know what it means until I return. It’s kind of important that I don’t try to figure that out now, but let it unfold in real time. Call it a sabbatical. My only plan is to be present in the world by looking and listening and being open to new situations and people. And to myself. I need to be more comfortable with uncertainty. I need to get back to curiosity. I need to get back to slow design. I need to ask questions like: who am I as a designer, without clients? What do I believe in? Do I have a design philosophy? Do I need one?
These are scary questions for me, but I’m giving them a try. Trying to acknowledge fear and replace it with openness.
And with openness comes my instinct to share the journey. I no longer have a physical office (we moved out of 17th Street in early November) but you can still find my words here and images here. More than ever I want to use Soulellis.com as a home for new ideas and discourse. I’ll document as much as possible and encourage you to use the newly implemented comments for feedback. I very much want the conversation, so please stay in touch in the coming months.