The following text is an extract from a 2019 interview with Italian artist Stefania Orrù, conducted by Zoë Atkinson Fiennes, Founder of Three Graces Galleries Limited, — the first online Italian art journal, and online art gallery — originally published on www.threegracesgalleries.com/blog
STEFANIA ORRÙ PART I: Beyond appearances, decoding the nature of our existence
The verb ‘to decode’ is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘to discover the meaning of information given in a secret or complicated way’. Certainly, the nature of our very existence and the meaning of our coming into being in this world, which everyone who is reading this will have experienced, is pregnant with secrets and mystery. Humanity is shrouded by multiple obscuring veils which posit the essence of what we truly are beyond the boundaries drawn by the ritual mechanisms of daily life. In this limited realm of perception within which we spend much of our time, we habitually follow already walked paths, gaze at already seen vistas, think thoughts we have thought and do things we have done a thousand times over. Left unchecked, life can become overwhelmingly automatic, and in this state of a detached ‘going through the motions’, the singularly extraordinary nature of our being humans living on planet earth can be hidden from our view. What if visual art, both the making of it and the looking at it, could jolt us out of the trance of habitual living, and remind us of the exquisite majesty of our existence. What if it also embodied scientific discoveries about what exactly lies beyond the immediate surface of our existence. Beyond the physical appearances of objects — both those seemingly inanimate and those living — including our own bodies. What if it could make the mechanisms operating behind the visual world — invisible to the naked eye — psychologically, emotionally and indeed visually intelligible.
I recently had the good fortune of meeting an artist with profound sensitivity and insight into what makes us us. Stefania Orrù has spent her career voyaging into new and unknown realms of what makes up a human life. She expresses a sincerity and eloquence both in person and through her works of art that have enabled people to feel deeply connected with her and her way of perceiving the world around us and the significance of our place within it. Today I share with you the first part of a short series of exchanges between Stefania Orrù and I in which she unravels not only her own unique artistic process but at the same time peels away the layers of life as we know it, to reveal what lies beyond…
Zoë: in one of our first exchanges, you wrote to me that perception defines almost everything in our lives, and that learning to regain the capacity for intentional perceiving, and refining this capacity, is fundamental to our integrity. You also explained that a painting is like a mirror, whether it represents a face or just a collection of colours… that it is a mirror of what we perceive and of what we are, and — in rare cases — of the underlying mechanisms of what we could be, if enabled to connect with our essential being (Light!).
What is your understanding of the nature of perception?
Stefania: My story as a painter starts with an image of something, a perceiving of something and it was the image of myself: not as a specific personality but just as a human being. What is manifested in painting is not something that enters through the eyes, gets on the hands and then appears on the canvas or wherever. It’s really something that is formed, in someways, from what composes your inner being. When I was younger, at the beginning, it was very simple. What appeared on the canvas was an image of my body and the way I was feeling about being immersed in this — in all that exists — being composed by it. I wasn’t doing this very consciously, I slowly realised what I was doing as I kept on painting. Over time, my subject has become less “physical” and the images that were once reflections of my body became very stylised and began to represent what I could only describe as mechanisms that were turning on the inside.
You mean not how the actual body and the organs function but the energy that binds us together as human beings. Essentially our essence, as alluded to in the phrase ‘a spiritual being having a human experience’ as opposed to ‘a human being having a spiritual experience’. So your work began to explore that mechanism?
Exactly (starting from the psychological level) And that went on for quite a long time. Then I expressed a need to represent my face, not specifically in a self portrait, but working on an image which was not only my face but a kind of bridge, a dialogue between what I think I am and this image slowly appearing on the surface of the painting — and this dialogue made the perception of being something more than what we usually are conscious of more powerful and subtle at the same time. The last passage I made delved further in to a kind of dissolving of the big parts that compose our being: into the perception that everything is made of very small particles and these particles are actually some kind of substance that we swim in. This substance is related to what we see and what we physically feel — because it is actually what we are made of — but it doesn’t necessarily need to be understood in a strictly physical way.
Do you mean that we can touch the surface of something, even our bodies, and think that it’s solid, but that the reality of things is so much more fluid?
Yes. The way we perceive ourselves is extremely bound to very mental processes, we think we are made of two arms, two legs, the body in general and what it contains. But this kind of perception is just an instrument. What we can come to realise is that we are subject to a fundamental connection which energetically binds our body to everything that surrounds us. I think this realisation often happens for an artist, when he or she deals with the perception of light. Recently I relocated to Sicily and when I arrived, I had the feeling that I was surrounded by very strong light mixed up with a lot of darkness: through this mix of things I started to perceive colours a lot more and that created a different state in me. I’m realising that what we really see is like one big code. You obviously don’t see numbers or chemical formulas moving up and down and all around, and it’s not just one language but a very complex system of languages, but essentially it’s really just about being able to open that channel.
I’m not trying to say that we can fly or practice teleportation! (though perhaps we could) But just to realise that life exists on many more levels than it may initially appear to. The level of us being here in this reality, bound in a society, where we have our places and relationships and we eat and we go out and we work, is like a big game and it’s nice and has its significance: something that has value but it’s only one part, it’s not everything. I went through this experience of realisation. At one stage in my painting, I started to have this feeling of being very much in touch with some kind of presence, I can probably call it my essence? I think this came as a result of all the big faces I was painting, technically, and not only, they were very much related to ancient icons. So my paintings in that period were really this kind of bridge from my actual state and the potential there was in me. I would say the connection with God, but I don’t want to specify…it’s a fine line.
An overarching sense of something beyond our comprehension maybe?
I think ‘beyond’ is the right word, when I started to feel this connection I suddenly realised — in a physical, emotional and mental sense — why our being here has such a big meaning. While before it was about either beauty or something more or less pleasant, more intensity or less intensity, it now became about grasping why I am here on a base level. And when I encountered this gift of experiencing this contact, suddenly I felt as though I understood the reason why we are so busy being caught up in this game, not only now but in past epochs projecting out towards the future. I realised what was of the most value, I suddenly thought…oh this makes sense. It’s clear to me now that whatever I go through makes sense because of what I feel, I can’t even say if it’s positive or not but through this mode of perception you can connect with what can be called the ‘essence’. Experiencing that connection really makes all the difference, that’s why it becomes very difficult to talk about. It’s no longer as simple as looking at the issue from the outside and saying “ok there is a chair there and a table, and a pot” but it becomes abundantly clear that we are swimming in this incredible complexity. Applied to what you do in art, for me, if before it was a face, now it’s like the need to paint all the particles of this face and these particles are all either smiling or questioning or doing something, and each one of these luminous dots are like the centre of a universe. So the face disappears, it is no longer important to form a recognisable image.
Because it’s an emotion rather than an analytical exercise or process.
Exactly, you don’t know what it actually is and the emotion is really deep so you can’t even explain it with normal words like ‘sadness’ or ‘joy’. It’s something which can maybe only be explained with sounds: in fact, sometimes when I am in front of the paintings I’m working on in this period I feel sounds, whereas, before there was some kind of dialogue unfolding in my mind, words and sentences would form.
It’s interesting that the whole words and complete sentences that you used to perceive entering your mind as you worked have become sounds, as though their particles have been scattered once more and reduced to their elemental state: and at the same time so have the faces you once painted. Have these two processes happened simultaneously, and as a natural thing?
Yes it’s all very natural, although I have to say that I wasn’t looking for this passage [development]. My last exhibition was based around figurative subjects, it was called ‘Prima Luce’ [First Light] and really it recounted the story of a birth. I felt very strongly about the exhibition. For me it was about calling not upon the moment of my birth because I’m not sure how it unfolded, but the feelings I have that surround it. Essentially, the works were the contrast between darkness and light: the subject was in full light and the rest was in full darkness.
Many things that have come in my life have been connected to what I was about to do, and they inspired me, whether it was meeting someone or focussing on something in particular. All my life it’s been like this, in this particular story which lead up to that exhibition I was very triggered by the moment when a child is born and I began to really think about this moment. It all started because I felt in someways that I was coming to life again after a kind of death. This is obviously all psychological but the period running up to that exhibition was the first moment in my path that I could feel this shift… then, hopefully, you keep on feeling it for the next one hundred and twenty years of your life! (Laughs)
Something had to fall away and dissolve for you to move in to this new space?
I suppose so, but after this coming into life the image completely disappeared. You know I was always there in my paintings for many many years and then I vanished and instead of me now there is everything else — which is me as well! For example I get a lot of inspiration from looking at images of ancient carpets, something I have loved for many years, but I was never able to work directly with up until now. I appreciate how, in a certain way, they mirror nature — an abstract nature where there are still flowers, colours and shapes but it is like a natura sistemata [an arranged nature]. I start by finding a pattern and I discover the underlying structure of this ordered nature and based on this structure I start to add lumps of colours which can be like flowers or leaves for example. These colours create a vibration on the surface, then I can connect these colours using other lines or maybe I make them disappear and then appear again and there is this kind of stratification of levels of visions that are no longer an image or representation that follows the original pattern, but are the intuitive perception of…almost everything, in some ways.
You’re creating something that’s vibrating at so many different levels, it’s not reducible to one thing, but is many things: a reflection of the multitude that is the unfolding of the universe as it is experienced. I’m usually much moved by figurative art and have never really been wildly interested in non-figurative artworks. Even though they’re not strictly figurative in the sense that we’re used to, your new paintings which bridge the physical and the non-visible converted me. I had the feeling when I first saw your paintings two years ago that this duality enables you to speak soul to soul through a physical medium. In communicating soul to soul, what you create is a kind of ongoing narration — something more than an object — more than a representation of a body or a map of a vision of the world around us. The physical object embodies — and as such is a conductor — of life’s distilled essence. Is that why people feel such a strong connection to your work?
It’s a kind of mystery for me that I can’t really explain. But sometimes I think that I basically started to paint not because I wanted to but in a response to some kind of call. And I think that my position towards painting and art in general is not very modern, it’s ancient, akin to people who were commissioned to create either a Madonna, a Saint or represent the stories of the bible in medieval times. That whole area of art is very much what makes me tremble, what gives me that kind of “wow” feeling and it’s always been like that from the beginning. So I think the artistic position I inhabit makes me stand in front of a painting as if it’s not mine. The process doesn’t begin with thoughts like ‘I want to say this’ or ‘I want to do this’, it is a mystery that I experience. This whole thing, it’s like I’m here in front of this thing, I am pushed to do something: let’s see what I’m pushed to do and then I do it. But I cannot say that what comes out comes from me, from my ‘self’ as were saying before. I don’t know where it comes from and I think it’s as if I am an absence, and my absence doesn’t disturb the passage of information.
You’re creating space for it to rush in, you’re not blocking it with your own agenda?
Yes, not trying to fill it in with something that I think is important, because even if it could be of some quality, it would be less than what happens without me getting involved.
What you wrote to me before our meeting was that key is the balance between how a work of art is made and the end aesthetic product. You can have something that is aesthetically very precise but which is completely without soul.
Yeah. When I was working with images — and it’s something that maybe I will do again — I mean I hope I will reach that level where these two things can act like a swing between the seen and the unseen… I think I can regain the power to paint things because it’s a nice thing to do. The dimension of us being humans here on this planet, all together, doing what we have to do it is of some value: if you sit here and you look out the window and see some kind of essential beauty to it and would like to paint it, then why not? However, it is just one perception, unless you have gained a type of perception that allows you to reach the other side even just looking at the window and maybe just painting it exactly like it is. But you asked another question….in the figurative paintings I created I had a few things that acted like reference points. If it was a face I was painting, there were two eyes or the one eye, and the nose and mouth and all my movements were spinning around these things. Whether it was a face or a body, still I was kind of guided as there was this rule — the rule was the image and it made me feel secure in a way. It was like ‘ok, I know how to do this’. But on the other hand, it created a kind of embarrassment because the final image was diminished in respect to the potential that was contained inside the process.
That’s so interesting because we as observers won’t necessarily feel that but you know because you felt that rush of whatever it was…
Probably. When I paint, most of the time I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. If we’re talking about this new way of painting that has emerged recently, which is defined by more abstract considerations, I do start from images but I don’t use them as a centre to go around: the image is more like some kind of door, the opening to start a journey. For example the last painting I made, which was for an exhibition I was going to have, began as a kind of carpet [as mentioned earlier], and became so many things in-between the beginning and the end. I was so triggered by the process, I followed it and at the end the painting was very different from how it was at the beginning. I really couldn’t control it. One week before the exhibition opening I had spent two weeks working on this process of oscillation and I was considering the painting lost, I was saying “ok this painting is not coming out!” I was feeling sorry and tired and I had one painting missing for the exhibition. Two days before the opening I had one last meeting with this painting. At the end it wasn’t what I expected but I did feel that the painting had finally reached what he wanted to reach and so thank God! (Laughs) I thought, if you’re happy, I’m happier than you! Then it became my favourite. It is a slightly maternal approach, sometimes I do feel a little bit like I am a mother trying to set things up and avoid anybody getting hurt!
That doesn’t sound strange, I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in that way but I’m not surprised by it. It’s beautiful.
Yeah. Before this new phase I always felt like there was some kind of embarrassment at the end, whereas now I am free from my paintings once they are done. I really feel, not a distance, but some kind of detachment. The painting is completely itself, if it comes out of course, if it doesn’t come out it’s just not meant to be or maybe it needs more time, years perhaps, turned against the wall to wait. What I’ve noticed is that this process is more natural and less based on the will of the painter, of the artist, the will of the artist is really nothing. The only will you can call as such is the will to do it! (Laughs)
Yes, actually sitting on the seat to write or getting in front of the canvas to paint can be a real challenge. Procrastination stands in the way of creativity for me, so often, or is it fear?
You know what I do, I go in the studio every day really, but every morning before actually entering the room where I paint I say to myself that I have to do many other things (laughs). It’s a sort of a winding path, like before I paint I have to set up the shoes in that way or… it’s never the same, but it’s a sort of domestic path that eventually leads me there.
It’s such a strange phenomenon, it makes no sense to do this but many people struggle with procrastination.
But this is what I was really trying to say before, what we think we are is not what we are and so even like you just said, you can watch yourself, observe yourself and still feel the impulse to ask who is doing what I am doing and who is thinking what she or he should and shouldn’t do and why is this? So I think the more we get rid of the incessant thinking about what we are and the more we actually connect with who we are, what we really are becomes mind-blowing! It’s probably not in humans’ will to decide whether to sit down and put ourselves at the disposal of this mechanism or whatever we want to call it, but then it’s also not about us, or our will to get the connection.
I see it as a kind of grace, if you put yourself in the position where you are gratefully receiving whatever might be received then it may or not arrive, but it’s your job to put yourself in that state. Otherwise, creativity or that connection with the divinity within us or whatever you want to call it, can never arise.
Personally, it makes me feel safe because it allows me to realise that this is not some kind of imaginary thing that I go through, no, it’s real — this is reality. So this connection is real, it’s not a question of philosophy, although philosophy can probably help you to evolve. This connection is obviously something that you become more and more able to feel and to follow with practice and that is a great exercise. People don’t always want to do it because in some ways it takes you away from things which are more pleasant on another level.
One of the only times that something has happened to me in such a way that I feel I can identify with you now — when your talking about the safety you feel in this connection with what lies beneath immediate everyday reality — was during my philosophy degree. As I devoured works by my favourite philosophers I would reach some kind of peak where there would be a complete moment of absolute euphoria in which it was as if I glimpsed everything and understood everything: the realm I entered was beyond the constructs of words or images. This lasted a few moments and then paled away and the cycle would begin again with this feeling of hopelessness, that I would never again understand myself and my place within the world to that level. Philosophy was and now art is too, an antidote to the feelings of discomfort I feel, as though I am habitually inhabiting a world in such a way that I am missing the fundamentals of my very being here. It’s like you were saying earlier, in some ways this reaching for the infinite impedes you from enjoying the “easy life”, relaxing and just getting a drink with your friends! Those other things which we love doing are important but I know that if I just did those I would be denying who I am.
What I’m trying to experiment with now is if domestically speaking, the simple things can be experienced on another level: as you stir the sauce, or hoover the floor! Not to take away the ‘highness’ but to bring the infinite into the everyday. You know, domestic duties are really important because they are simple but they make the difference in your life. They’re not a case of well I can do or not do it — it is important to do it but at the same time you don’t need to make a big fuss about it. I would like to treat art in this way.
Treating simple tasks as opportunities to elevate oneself, and practices which are usually considered to be elevated as simple everyday tasks is an interesting idea. Why can’t they be interchangeable? Part of the reason I think we shy away from domestic duties is because they feel like chores. And conversely, many of us shy away from making or even looking at or getting interested in art because it appears elitist: and many galleries are happy to keep it that way! Your point of view is so refreshing, it allows for more freedom to swing from the mundane to the elevated with ease and without judgement.
When treated as a domestic duty that one can do, is it possible that art can be made in a more direct way? Obviously you have to have access to a great amount of time to spend at home [in the studio]… Practically speaking, it’s easier with something like poetry, you only need a piece of paper and a pencil. While for me making art involves a lot of different types of dust and colours which are very messy and what I do is very physical as well. This physicality is good because it offers me a kind of slowness in which to create. My paintings don’t happen in a flash, the process is really nice but it’s a big effort to do it. In the beginning there is nothing really, it’s just dust put together. But then it hardens and I can start to smooth things over, the process involves a lot of water as well. I would like to think about art in the same way that I think about cooking, making my bed or cleaning the house (allowing that I have a good relationship with these activities or even more that the time I spend at home is all used to experience some kind of intensity). This attitude maybe comes from reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry, a figure who I really love. She is very domestic in the way she treats being a poet. For three years I spent time with her daily. I had one book upstairs and one downstairs because I was always moving in the house and she really was almost like a presence. At the time I was reading a few poems a day, it was really like being elbow to elbow with her. Shoulder to shoulder.
That’s a nice mirroring of how I imagine other people feel about you and your work, it’s possible to feel the presence of a creator in an artwork even if you haven’t met them in person or even watched or read an interview with them. In my experience your presence is there — I mean, you say the work is no longer yours when it’s finished but it must somehow be you. Even if you are the channel, everything that you are must somehow be translated or “bottled” into a kind of essence of you. So even if someone sees your work without meeting you as I did initially, or just like with you and Emily, they connect with this essence even if you’re not present in the room.
I’ve met some people that had a painting of mine or were about to have one and yes there is a very high level of connection there, but my strategy is to believe that I am only the channel and I think it’s good to stay this way: the alternative is quite dangerous!
To be continued…
Text, 2019 © Zoë Atkinson Fiennes and Stefania Orrù
In Part Two of this series of exchanges between Stefania Orrù and I, we will be talking in depth about the practice of making icons, the concept of beauty and the spiritually illuminating properties of light.