Swept up by the usual rush that the town – for some strange reason – imposes on you, I carried on walking. Yet my mind kept wandering back to what I had seen a moment earlier. Since I had some time before my next appointment, I decided to go back and see what it was all about.
As soon as I entered the room I found myself wrapped in a rather surreal atmosphere. It was a mixture of a magical tale and a dream – almost like being in 3D aquarium. The objects represented on the long corridor were all fish: fish in shoals, small fish, big fish; in solitary panels and above me, hanging from the ceiling, were still more fish in beautiful, shining colours, of many shapes and forms. They all seemed to be looking at me with sparkling eyes.
It reminded me of an experience I had some years back when I went snorkelling in La Digue, one of the Seychelles Islands. Being an animal lover, the excitement I felt at being immersed in that natural aquarium was unbelievable. The colour and the behaviour of those fish amazed me. Some were totally unaffected by my presence, others were rather curious and playful, to the point of creating a cylindrical-shaped cloud around me. I must admit, even if they weren’t particularly large, it felt quite intimidating, not knowing what kind of fish were circling me.
My instant thought was, thank God I am not in South America, as a shoal of piranhas of that size would have made mincemeat of me in no time. But the white sandy sea floor below and the sunlight filtering through the clear blue water created such a friendly and peaceful scene that I soon overcame my initial anxiety. It was a bizarre feeling to be the centre of their attention so I started to play with them trying to break that shield. I wasn’t able to, as they moved together sideways and faster than me. If I stayed still, they stayed still too. Their coordination was unbelievable. This game went on for a while. Eventually they must have got bored with me and as soon as they had appeared they disappeared as quickly.
The works in the gallery immediately revived that memory of mine. As I walked along the corridor, I felt like I was being followed again by the exhibits. As immersed as I was in this dream, it was quite traumatic to wake up to reality. I realised I was going to be late for my appointment, so I left in a rush.
As always, rushing makes for bad decisions because I left without asking anything about the artist. A few days later, when I went back to find out more, the whole show had gone. What a disappointment! I felt as though I had dreamt the whole thing, and that the romantic fairy tale I had created in my mind had disappeared.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” I told the gallery owner, looking at the empty rooms. “There were many others like you, sir. We’ve sold every single piece,” he replied. “Wow!” I could not contain my surprise. I could not get over the sense of loss at not being able to see it again. It was irrational I know. But my curiosity grew and grew. What was it about this artist that was capable of creating such conflicting emotions in me?
I asked the gallery owner if he had a brochure or something so I could get in touch with the artist. “Anna Paola Cibin? Sounds Italian,” I said, reading her name on the brochure. “She is indeed, sir,” the gallery owner replied, politely. “Ah these Italians! What would we do without them?” I replied, quoting President Obama’s remark at a fund raising dinner organised by the Italian community in Washington.
A magic spell had been cast on me. I needed to find out more about this woman and her work. The Internet helped with some details. There were more exhibitions around the world but one in London was very soon, though. So I sent her an email on her website, not expecting anything in return. Artists are notoriously bad at keeping in contact – at least some of my friends are – too busy chasing rainbows all the time, so I did not expect an answer for quite sometime, if ever. Well, happily, I was wrong. I had a response by the following day. And the good news was, she would be in London the next day for some meetings. I was added to her list.
Anna Paola told me about the technique she uses to produce her effects. Listen to this – she paints on velvet. Yes! All her creation are made on precious, silky velvet she gets from a factory near Lake Como in Italy. She dyes this “canvas” herself in the old fashioned way, using only natural products in the truly old Venetian style. Anna Paola comes from near Venice where she studied at the art institute. She was fascinated with the structure of velvet fabric and she herself developed this amazing technique she applies to all her creations.
“How do you manage to paint on velvet? Because I know the material can’t even hold dust, let alone paint?” That was the very first question I asked her, as I know how difficult it is, and was very intrigued.
“That’s the challenge I had to overcome,” she replied, with the smile of someone who doesn’t want to reveal a secret.
“So?” I asked, even more curious, picturing some kind of new technological gadget – that is usually what we hear about these days. “I developed a tool of my own that lets me do that,” she said, as if it was the most normal thing to do.
“You see, you can print on velvet with a form to create a regular pattern. But that’s not the result I wanted for my work. The same goes for when I dye the velvet. The result is never the same twice, even if I replicate the same formula. I like the sense of unpredictability,” she said to me with a smile. I guess that is what makes her creations unique.
Anna Paola was raised by a father who had a passion for carpentry. She followed him around in his studio, fascinated with his tools and the objects he created with them. Her mother worked as a tailor so Anna Paola was introduced to the world of different fabrics. Velvet was always her favourite, she said, “because it is fluid, it is tender, it is magical and it always plays with the light.”
But love of velvet does not usually drive one to the extreme of creating tools to be able to produce a painting on it. Maybe the answer lies in the fact that Anna Paola was a self-described “stubborn child” and claims she never accepted no for an answer. Everybody told her that velvet could not be worked on, so she created her own tool and succeeded.
Even one of her teachers at the art school told her that he had never seen anything like that. That was the moment, she said, she realised she had to make her own way. Not only has she done that, but she has gone even further, adding another magic touch to her creations. She blends in pieces of Murano glass, carefully designed by her with the help of a Murano master glass maker.
“Now I realise why the fish seemed like they were all looking at me,” I said. She laughed at my comment. I felt so silly not to have realised it, but in that brief moment in the gallery, I did not have the time to look closely at the details. Anna Paola explained she does not want the glass to take over the design. She wants the glass to be an integral part of it – so without knowing, I gave her the best compliment. The fact I did not notice the murrina, a piece of Murano glass she puts into the fish’s eyes, meant that it blended well into the overall piece. So no faux-pas!
Still, it is not that easy to balance the combination of glass on the velvet canvas. And most of all how do you attach the glass to velvet considering that not even dust sticks to it? She replied, smiling, that that was another challenge she had had to overcome. There is no glue in the world that can do that. I pressed her and she reluctantly said, “Well, there weren’t any glues like that until…” And she looked at me shyly, rolling her green eyes as if she were about to confess some misdemeanour. “. . . until I discovered that not far from here there’s a small factory that makes all type of glues. I went there and explained what I needed. Together we came up with some prototypes until the perfect formula was found. Now I have my own perfect glue so I can continue to experiment with my work.” And here we are – another magic trick added.
But how does she find all these people?, I wonder. She explains that a particular area of Italy is awash with extraordinary craftsmen. Anna Paola considers them to be pure artists in their own way, as they are capable of thinking outside the box with their work. It takes one to know one I think, although the more I talk to her the more she sounds like a scientist with all her discoveries. But most scientists are not as luminous as she is, so I guess the words “good fairy” fit better with her personality and her magical work.
Perhaps an artist should be partly a scientist. Well, if that is the case, I do not think many of them actually are these days. In fact, I wonder if some of them are even capable of creating emotions at all. Or is it that we are incapable of seeing a true artist because we are bombarded by fake visuals that constantly tarnish our judgement?
Art has always been a form of communication; now communication has become a form of art, a marketing tool to sell works, whether they are good or bad. The confusion created around works to make them “must-have” things is determined by the capability of the art dealer to place the product in the right gallery.
The dreams that Giotto, Cimabue, Leonardo provided us with have been sources of inspiration for centuries, and they communicated only with the vision of their work. That sort of communication seems to be sparse in this modern, short-sighted society we live in. When you see Anna Paola’s work, it is impossible not to admire the geniality of the work she has achieved with her knowledge, her passion, and the constant search for details that produce a truly unique and outstanding result.
I wonder if there is some kind of a cosmic energy in the area where she lives, a place that managed to produce, over the centuries, artists like Tiziano Vecellio (Titian), Giovan Battista Tiepolo, or Antonio Canova. All of them were born within 40 km of where Anna Paola is based. In fact, Canova learned from another carpenter – his grandfather – how to create sculptures and became the most sought-after sculptor of all time.
Anna Paola laughs at my speculations. She is too well-grounded to take that comparison too seriously. But times have changed in many ways and it is about time a woman enters the firmament of Venice elects. After all, she is just as much a product of that region as the others and she masters and reinvents the teaching of old Venetian traditions, combining them with her modern talent and outlook. Her art, whether it is about fish or any other subject she may choose, is something capable of captivating the soul and sparking off in the viewer all kinds of emotions. All I can say is, see it for yourselves. It is difficult not to fall for the originality of her work. Before you know it, you too will be caught in her magic spell.