PAINTED STORIES – THE PREMISE
Several months ago Diane Taylor of the Writers of Southern Nevada invited me to take part in the organization’s multimedia event, “Painted Stories – Duel in the Library,” co-sponsored by the Las Vegas-Clark County public library system. The gathering was to feature two writers, reading aloud from their books, and two artists, putting to canvas their impressions of the selected passages. After each reading, there would be time for questions, comments and discussion.
As the event was to take place at the height of summer, a period in which high temperatures are never less than 100 and on many days easily pass 110, the theme of the program was “Endless Summer.” For those unaccustomed to the Fahrenheit scale, that’s hot, very hot, even if it is the “dry heat” of the Mojave Desert.
I wasn’t familiar with the other participants. From their websites, the two visual artists appeared to be quite different, working in varying mediums and contrasting styles. Gabbie Hirsch was more representational, while Dale Sprague’s work had a more abstract, somewhat organic quality. Deborah Coonts, the other writer, would be reading from Crushed, “a novel of wine and love,” the first in a series set in Napa Valley. I was slated to read from my non-fiction book Calabria: The Other Italy about the fascinating region in the toe of the Italian boot.
As per the theme of the event, I selected a section from my book that had to do with summer. Although it can be quite warm and even hot in Southern Italy, summer doesn’t have Las Vegas’ oppressive heat that can seem endless, dry as it may be. Rather, Italians look forward to summertime with great anticipation. It’s a period for recreation, family and friends, often spent at the beach, sometimes in the mountains or traveling, and such a season can never be long enough.
One summer during my time in Calabria, I visited Terme Luigiane or Luigiane Spa, located in the little town of Acquappesa overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea on the northwestern coast of the region. I wrote about the experience in the Section “Guardia Piemontese, Terme Luigiane and Diamante” in Chapter 16 of my book. From the spa, I took excursions to Guardia Piemontese, the larger, better-known village sitting on the hilltop above the spa, and Diamante, a substantial-sized community known for the peperoncino further up the coast.
TERME LUIGIANE, GUARDIA PIEMONTESE OR DIAMANTE?
What would pique the interest of the audience and the artists? What would be the prevailing image of the day? I’ve often been surprised by what other people find the most compelling or on what they focus. Living through the experiences and then writing them down, I am naturally much closer to my personal vision, but what would others see and how would they visually render my words from their own perspectives? I would see.
Arriving at Terme Luigiane on a train with broken air-conditioning would highlight the event’s theme nicely. The spa itself, however, was a bit cooler, set a little higher up a hill amidst lush greenery. Would the artists’ attentions be drawn to the outdoor thermal pools with their warm, greenish water by which the spa’s patrons lounged in their free time?
Or would the treatments themselves capture their imaginations? Patients lined up at cubicles and sitting in small chambers inhaling sulfurous gas through nose, mouth and pores. Or electrodes hooked up to Soviet era-looking machines attached to various parts of bodies. Or mud treatments in private rooms with beds, bathtubs and white-jacketed attendants.
Interactions with other patients or medical personnel could be a point of focus. A meal in the restaurant, evening dancing, an afternoon at the beach or one of the excursions… I would have to wait and see.
With less than a half hour’s reading time, the artists would have to be fast workers. Mercifully, they were given the passages to be read before the event so they had a bit of time to formulate a rough plan. No pressure.
The event was held in the library’s multipurpose Jewel Box Theater, a good-sized space that had an experimental feel as well as a pleasant intimacy. The speaker’s lectern was situated in the center with the two easels on either side. The canvases faced outward, giving the audience an excellent view of the artists at work.
After introductions and a brief preface to the selected passage, I began my reading. The audience was attentive and chuckled in the right moments. I, of course, was busy and wasn’t able to follow the works in progress. However, as I read, I could see the artists’ physical gestures out of the corner of my eyes. There was the occasional swooshing as a large swath of paint was being applied to the canvas, and I was also aware of a vigorous, periodic brush rinsing to one side.
Gabbie Hirsch worked in acrylics that day, and Dale Sprague in oil. As I had anticipated, Gabbie’s painting was more representational and Dale’s more abstract. So what images did the two artists take from my words? What were their painted stories?
Gabbie’s conception was all-inclusive, creating a background setting upon which she highlighted the specific story with foreground detail. She illustrated a summer beach scene on an Italian shoreline. To me, it closely resembled the Calabrian seaside resort of Tropea, also on the Tyrrhenian Sea but a little further down the coast. I was approaching in a sleeveless, summer dress, suitcase in one hand and the large terrycloth bathrobe from the spa over the other arm. In the corner was one of the clinic’s doctors I had referred to a couple of times. Gabbie said his image had jumped out of the text for her. In his hand was a tube from which billowed the spa’s renowned sulfurous gas.
Dale was struck by that gas and by the viscosity of the mud and the greenish water in the spa’s mineral pools. He placed a large, round pool with avocado-colored water gleaming in the heat of the summer sun at the center of his painting. Impressionistic images of beach umbrellas peeked out just behind. The thickly wooded hills of Acquappesa served as the backdrop, and just above, the cloudy sky was saturated with the humidity of Calabria’s lush environs. In fact, the spa’s strong sulfur permeated the air, the ground and the skin of all things, both living and non, that entered its realm. Dale wanted to render this primordial ooze.
Deborah Coonts’ novel tells a modern story of Napa Valley, a tale intertwined with the vines brought to California by the protagonists’ Italian ancestors. Both artists painted vineyards amidst the undulating hills of that famous valley.
PAINTED STORIES – THE CONCLUSION
The capacity audience in attendance was intrigued. Everyone agreed that the multimedia approach resulted in both an edifying and an entertaining experience. I was flattered to the extent the artists themselves had taken a personal interest in my work. They wanted to learn more.
Calabria was not familiar territory. Many had visited Italy and a few had even passed through Calabria on the way to Sicily, but hadn’t thought much, if anything, about this Southern Italian region. While a number of the questions focused on the spa and the health care in Italy, the question that remains with me as I reflect on the event is the one asked by Eric James Miller, President of the Writers of Southern Nevada. Paraphrased, “Of your entire experience in Calabria, what was the one thing that surprised you the most?” And I thought, “One thing?” That’s just it, there were countless things. Of a region often ignored and at times even disparaged, I couldn’t believe how much I had found – from the history and art, to the incredible nature and most importantly up to the present day with the countless vibrant people I have met. I could have entitled my book, Calabria: Who Knew?
Read more about Terme Luigiane, my time at the spa and life in this fascinating southern Italian region in Calabria: The Other Italy, a nonfiction, award-winning book that explores daily life, culture, history, the arts, food, society and tourism of Calabria, Italy.
Interested in another spa experience? Check out the mud treatment in the blogpost Lamezia Terme and the Terme Caronte.