Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Christine Garvey: Mindful engagement through drawing in Florence

When you look at Christine Garvey’s large abstract paintings, you probably wouldn’t say that she’s been strongly influenced by the experience of drawing in Florence. In its pop colours and painterly expressions, her work is highly contemporary. But underlying it is an exploration of body and technology that has been influenced by two historic scientific collections in Florence – La Specola and Museo Galileo – which she came to know through drawing. I met up with the Fulbright Scholar to talk about her work and about a drawing class she’s holding in Florence later this year.

Christine Garvey | Photo Beatrice Mancini

Christine Garvey | Photo Beatrice Mancini

New-York born Garvey came to Florence, like many of us, as a student about 10 years ago, and at the time was really attracted to La Specola, with its collection of wax anatomies in particular, and the Galileo Museum, which houses historic scientific instruments. At the time, she didn’t realize exactly what it was that attracted her to items in these museums, which she carefully recorded through drawing. During her MFA at Concordia University in Montreal, she honed her artistic and intellectual skills and started to explore more deeply how these collections were connected, both historically, and to her personally.

This is my favourite painting by Christine

This is my favourite painting by Christine

Both La Specola and the Galileo Museum represent a moment in the late 17th and 18th centuries, culminating in the Enlightenment, where scientists obsessively collected, studied, and ordered the natural world in an effort to surface new ideas. New tools and technologies combined with teaching and representation, helped gather knowledge to later be shared with the greater public. In Florence, this trend was already rampant, at least amongst nobles in the late 16th century, when the Medici court spent rather a lot of time collecting curiosities and playing at alchemy. The objects that the Medici collected are the nuclei of both museums that attracted Garvey.

Christine Garvey | Photo Beatrice Mancini

Christine Garvey | Photo Beatrice Mancini

Garvey’s works start from drawing the body, exploring its forms and regularities as well as irregularities. This expanded into a study of the representation of disease and anomaly. Like a modern-day Ulisse Aldrovandi – the 16th-century Bolognese who amassed one of the most important cabinets of curiosities of the early modern age – she collects digital images of these things, which she manipulates, prints out, collages, and re-orders in her large paintings.

I’m attracted to the works initially by their pleasing colours, which the artist explains are bright, pop colours because she is working in 2016, when we’re quickly seduced by what we see on a small, high resolution screen. But the works are designed to have staying power, to make us look for longer than a few seconds. This is done through layers of paint that belie hours of work, and that somehow frame the collaged elements and draw our eyes to them. Garvey calls each work a “body”: for her, it’s a recomposition of a body, perhaps of a self, that is cathartic to make and hopefully just as much so to view.

Learning drawing in Florence

Garvey was lucky to have a mentor who brought students from Concordia to Florence and other locations in Italy every year. Now she wants to pass this experience on to other students of art. Every April, and now also in November 2016, she offers a week-long course to a small group, at any level. Students reside in Santo Spirito and spend three hours a day drawing in Florence. The course includes guided museum tours, visits to Tuscan farms and wineries (with drawing of course), but it’s also a very personal week with a bit of a bohemian feel that you can only get from being with a real working artist in Florence: there are studio visits and home-cooked meals with fellow artists and designers.

Students gather around Christine during a drawing lesson

Students gather around Christine during a drawing lesson

While students may be sketching piazzas or looking down at the city from the hills of Fiesole, the end goal isn’t (necessarily) the pleasing representation of nature or of what we see. From what I gather, Garvey has the ability to make you go deeper in your art. She says that drawing “is a research language, a way to access the questions behind things and to mindfully engage with them.”

Drawing in Florence student Patricia Kehler's sketchbook

Drawing in Florence student Patricia Kehler’s sketchbook

Previous students speak of the experience as one of “travel and learning” that is enriched through drawing. I think of the travelers of the Enlightenment and how their slow approach to places and their collection of objects was often enhanced by drawing; these drawings were part of a process that they brought home, and from which they developed theories and books. In the era of Instagram and instantaneous pleasures, this form of art and travel, or travel through art, may provide a truly memorable experience.


Next Italy drawing course dates:

November 12-19 2016
April 2017


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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.