Maureen Hyde on life as an artist in Florence
Originally from California, Maureen Hyde is a painter who has been living and teaching in Florence for over 20 years, and we are delighted that Maureen will be running two painting courses at Art Escape Italy in August and September of 2016. I recently visited Maureen's studio to interview her about life as a painter in Florence. It was also a good opportunity to have look around her work space. The studio has a wonderful feel to it, with paintings all over the walls - still-lifes, figures, landscapes. Some finished and framed, some works in progress - it's a mini gallery of paintings.
Tsiana: Thank you for meeting me today Maureen! Can you tell me a bit about your career before you moved to Florence?
Maureen: Before I moved to Florence I spent most of my artistic time illustrating books. I worked on a number of picture books and also covers for historical novels, classics and Newbery Award books.
Tsiana: How did you get into illustration?
Maureen: After graduating from UCLA with a Masters in Fine Arts, I realised that I was a drawn a lot more to some of the 19th Century art that I saw in the old Tate - like John Waterhouse and some of the pre-Raphaelites. A lot of that work was inspired by literature and poetry and I actually minored in literature at University - I've always loved books. So it seemed to me at that point that I had hit a wall with the whole idea of contemporary work. I felt very challenged by what I saw from the old 19th Century painters and their work with literature and I wanted to take up this challenge.
Tsiana: Do you use a lot of literature as inspiration for your paintings then?
Maureen: It's there, it's always there, especially if you read a lot. Books, even movies, poems, songs; they're all feeding into your expressive process.
Tsiana: How did you come to move to Florence?
Maureen: At a point in the early 90's, children's book illustration was going through a difficult time in the US, in that there was a huge amount of pressure from the fundamentalists to eradicate things that were imaginative. The whole world of magic and the idea of why it would be fun to create a book in the first place was steadily vanishing. The New York publishers were getting very reluctant to publish these types of books. This, coupled with the fact that kids were, as a result, getting bored with books and turning to comic books really led to a shrinking market. Also, video games and computers had just arrived on the scene, so people were not buying books like they used to... it was becoming less and less of a lucrative profession. I was approached quite a few times to either work for a comic book company (where the deadlines were atrocious) or to design characters for video games, but I did not feel like this was my generation.
Tsiana: That clearly wasn't the direction you were hoping to move in...
Maureen: Exactly. So later on I was invited to do a book signing for a children’s book I illustrated called ‘Shh! The Whale is Smiling’ and I decided at that point to take a look at some galleries nearby which were featuring more representational, classical work because my illustrative work had been moving in that direction. Most of the work on show was honestly pretty terrible...but I did stumble across one gallery where there was a painting on the wall poetically named 'The Book Binder'. It was beautifully painted, and I was looking at this painting thinking it doesn't quite seem like a modern painting, but it’s not really an old painting either. So I asked the gallery about it and it turned out that it was a painting by Daniel Graves (Director of the Florence Academy of Art). I asked “Is he alive?” and she said “Yes and he runs a school in Florence”.
It was interesting for me that this painting was called 'The Book Binder' as, on the back wall of the gallery, there was a painting by Millet called 'Sowing Seeds', which made the whole situation even more poetic. So time passed and my husband suggested that I take a few months off and check out this art school. So I thought, ok I'll make the transition into Fine Art... I went to Florence Academy of Art intending to stay for one trimester...right! I did that one trimester, then returned and went back to my life in the States where I lived on a farm in the hills... raising goats and chickens, riding horses, that sort of thing. But then fate decided to move everything around, and a few years later there was only one way forward and that was to go back to Florence and resume my training at the Academy. And here I am 20 years later!
Tsiana: How long did you end up training at the Academy?
Maureen: Well, I started teaching fairly early on because I had already had an artistic career and had taught myself how to construct the figure - a lot of anatomy, perspective etc. so I actually started teaching at the end of the second year I was there, continuing to study at the same time.
Tsiana: Why do you think it is that everyone gets sucked in by Florence?
Maureen: Well clearly this city has a strange magnetic force (laughing). I don’t know really. It's very strange... the culture is very sympathetic to working in the Arts. I think the Florentine's themselves feel like trying to paint traditionally is a bit redundant nowadays considering the amazing past they have to look at here. But if you are considering learning this kind of discipline, it really does help to take a stroll through a museum whenever you can and think 'how did this artist resolve these problems?' The environment here is just drenched with incredibly fine examples of what people can achieve artistically. There's just no end to it. It's a beautiful city; the architecture, the sculpture, the paintings, the details and there's at least a framing shop per block! All the amenities are here. There are a lot of models to draw from. It's an accepted cultural thing, you feel good about it. If you think back to the time before modernism came in... the amount of employment for artisans in the city must have been incredible. Practically everybody was an artisan. So all of these factors still attract people who are artists and artisans, and in that sense the scene is still moving on. It's the ideal city for an artist in terms of resources, but it must be said that there's just no market here. However, there is an amazing community of world class talent here, and as an artist living in Florence you have other people to exchange ideas with. There's a synergy here.
Tsiana: I agree, there is definitely a great community of artists here, and it seems to me that the community is much more supporting than competitive?
Maureen: Read Giorgio Vasari's the lives of artists - it’s an interesting read and addresses this issue...artist communities can often become a beehive of jealousy! It's certainly not extreme like that here, but it does of course exists, however, as you say it’s not overt. There's much more of a community feel here.
Tsiana: Could you tell me about some painting projects you are working on at the moment?
Maureen: I usually have several projects going on at once. Right now I'm doing the second half of a still life project. I'm working on 2 still lifes together, as a concept. One is evoking ideas of Earth and Fire and now I'm painting one for Water and Air. I'm using some masks made by a mask-maker in Florence, Agostino Dessi - he is a master at his trade. I've been getting inspiration from some of his masks and incorporating them in my paintings.
I'm also finishing up a figurative painting at the moment... I don't like to start another figure painting until I feel that the problems in the last one have been truly resolved. I have also been working on a series of paintings representing Autumn, Winter and Spring, I still have Summer to do. So I'm trying to get the wind in my sail to start that!
Tsiana: Perhaps you will be inspired to start after staying at our Retreat!
Maureen: Yes! Well I have the idea for this painting already actually, I just need to find the right model for it. The theme of these paintings is that they are representing the 4 seasons in a woman's life, as well as representing the actual Seasons. So Spring is about starting a new life, Summer would be reaching maturity, for Autumn I have a woman throwing leaves into a fire, and I've used myself for the Winter painting.
Tsiana: Are you very particular about your models then, do you envision them before finding them?
Maureen: Well, for the Winter painting I was handy, although reluctant. I'm not one of those people who is terribly organised at the beginning of a project, I don't tend to have a fixed idea of what I want in my head... it sort of grows as the project progresses. I don't make concrete decisions at the beginning. Even with setting up this still life I am working on - I've blocked things in now, but I will still probably add a few objects, take out a few, and see if the rhythm of the painting can be improved.
Tsiana: Do you have any paintings where the choice of the model was really dictated by the story in your head?
Maureen: Actually, yes, I have a painting called 'Il Croupier'. This painting started out as a dream. I dreamt that I went up to the rooftop of a building and there was a man sitting up there on a table and I thought to myself “that's the dealer”, and then I had this dream again. So I thought well I better paint this. But I had to find the right model, which was tricky. Sometimes you get on to an idea and it's strange - you start really pushing in a certain direction and I found this when I used to illustrate books too. Information would just start coming and would manifest itself... it's sort of magical. In looking for the model, I went through all of the school's lists, but still couldn't find the right one. And then this young man called Giuseppe walked into the office and was looking for portrait modelling, as he was a student and needed more money, and I thought to myself - that's him! So I grabbed him. I set him up in my studio and explained to him what I wanted to paint. It was his first long modelling project and it was very difficult for him to sit and not fall asleep...which is exactly what I would do if I was a model. It's really hard to sit. So I tried to engage him in conversation, it was a bit of a trial, but, even though he didn't have a lot of experience, he definitely was the right person for 'Il Croupier'.
I set him up with a white backdrop behind him, but I knew that he had to be on a rooftop. The city behind him in the painting is actually Rome, and the sky was painted from my apartment; it's a lot of fun to do cloud studies up there. One thing I learnt from being an illustrator is how to put a picture together...different sketches, different props, then put it all together so that it's convincing as a cohesive image. Of course I use a bit of poetic license for this.
Tsiana: Do you have in mind what sort of card he's about to deal in the painting?
Maureen: That's a mystery. He's the dealer and he's handing you a card in life. When you are dealt a card there's nothing you can do but to take it. The card could be a good card, a bad card or a very challenging one. The expression that I wanted on his face is that he's eternally dealing out cards, which is really a boring job - the repetition and etc. - but, on the other hand, he knows that the card he deals will hugely affect the recipient's life. So his expression is showing a bit of empathy, as well as a bit of boredom, and that's really what I was going after.