“October extinguished itself in a rush of howling winds and driving rain and November arrived, cold as frozen iron, with hard frosts every morning and icy drafts that bit at exposed hands and faces.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
If you live in Austin, Texas, where I am this morning, the past few weeks have been made up of those howling winds and driving rain, flooding, and a water-boil order. This morning, November’s first Sunday, is chilly, but not cold as frozen iron.
Fortunately, the rain and two weeks of boiling water occurred while Laurie and I were on the Fine Art Connoisseur Magazine Italian Art Trip, hosting about 42 guests who accompanied us to see the art treasures of Italy. I’m jet-lagged and a little groggy still, but so invigorated from miles of the best art in the world.
It was truly the trip of a lifetime, and I have to admit the highlight, among many, was one private hour inside the Sistine Chapel just for our group, which is simply unheard of. I may be the only person who’s ever held a Facebook Live broadcast from inside the Sistine Chapel (you can find it on my Facebook page), until I was scolded and shut down by the guard. It was such a wonderful experience to be there with just our small group, without sharing the room with a noisy 5,000 others, shoulder-to-shoulder and unable to see anything.
Tears welled up in my eyes at the overwhelming experience, not only because I was pleased I could make that happen for my guests — a privilege typically offered only to presidents and ambassadors — but because of what the room represented to me.
Here I was in a giant room, where one of the great artists of all time spent several years creating one of the world’s great masterpieces. To know that one man, and a couple of assistants, could accomplish such a feat in just nine years. I am in awe of Michelangelo’s ability as an artist, and the nearly impossible task of filling the ceiling and one end wall of a 12,000-square-foot room, and with such perfection. Keeping in mind that he was a sculptor, not a painter, when the Pope appointed him for the task. And it was not just painting, it required a fresh second layer of plaster and the ability to do fresco painting, a very special and difficult technique. He essentially learned as he did it, which shows what a genius he was. Though legend has him working while lying on his back, Michelangelo did the entire painting standing on scaffolding. Most of the great artists I know today, some of whom are tremendous at figure painting, could not complete a fraction of that room in a lifetime.
Michelangelo’s influence was felt in every city we visited throughout Italy — not only his sculpture, but his exterior and interior designs, such as one of the most amazing staircases I’ve ever seen, still in use today. It was humbling to walk on it, knowing he designed it and walked on the same steps hundreds of years before.
Of course we also had a private time scheduled for Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and we had a private dinner inside an amazing palace filled with the works of history’s best painters to entertain our gazes as we dined.
And we visited the massive home of a prince, who greeted us and told us about his family’s amazing collection of art. We had numerous experiences like this, too many to mention here; it’s something we will cover in an upcoming article.
The biggest surprise for me was a visit in our post-trip to Pompeii, the ruins preserved by volcanic ash at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Having seen photos in National Geographic as a child, I assumed we would see just a room or two, but what we saw was a city, acres and acres of homes, and there are more acres still under ash to be explored for generations to come.
The art found in Pompeii was exquisite, not at all primitive but highly sophisticated, with form, perspective, and shadow, and all of it made possibly 500-600 years before the time of Christ. Yet this was unknown because the city was buried and its art unseen — and “early” art that came hundreds of years later was primitive, flat, and lifeless. It was not until the Renaissance that the techniques of perspective, form, and shadow were reinvented. The Romans were doing it hundreds of years before, but no one was aware because that artwork was underground and undiscovered until 1549, and the art objects were not revealed till 1748.
An estimated 11,000 people in Pompeii died in less than three minutes from the heat of the volcanic eruption five miles away, and then the city was pounded with pumice stones and ash. Just a few short years before, the same city had been destroyed by a major earthquake and then partially rebuilt. Being there was sobering yet enlightening, and seeing the art, now housed in the Naples Museum, was an unexpected pleasure.
We know of life in Pompeii because of the art left behind — the mosaics, the architecture, the sculpture, the glass, the jewelry, and the writings by a witness to the volcano from across the bay. It was art that was archaeological evidence of life. From it, we know how the Pompeiians lived, we know what they worshiped, we know their myths and legends, and we see the faces of their people.
Art left behind not only told the story of Pompeii, it told the story of Rome, of Florence, and of life throughout Italy. For me, this reinforces the importance of what we do for those of us who create art in various forms.
Though I’ve traveled the world, this trip had a profound impact on me. In a way, it put me in my place, taking away my smugness about how good we are at things today as it was so clearly demonstrated that life was rich with experiences, art, and quality of life thousands of years ago. It truly is ashes to ashes, but the art remains to tell future generations about the world.
The stories of life, of wars, of famine, of successes and riches, of political rulers and failures, demonstrate that life is an endless cycle that will go on well past each of us. A reminder that life needs to be lived, and experienced richly, and not a moment wasted. And a reminder that we need to embrace those things that will tell the future world what our world was like. Our writings, our art, our architecture, and our stories — a contribution each of us can offer.
Looking over thousands of years of history, we see the evidence that we are each a brief blip, yet what we choose to do with that blip can have an impact for thousands of years, just as many of the things we saw were carried forward for us all to enjoy today. Those who produced the best stood head and shoulders above others, making a statement that striving to be the best holds great value. Whether it is the works of Bernini, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, or those who created the treasures of Pompeii, art lives on.
One of the guests on the trip said that part of the key to life is “to finish well.” Those who devoted their lives to their craft, striving to be better, finished well, as evidenced by millions of tourists who come to see their works in person.
A trip like this offers a fresh perspective on the world, in a land out of our comfort zone, looking at life today and life in the past. It’s made me rethink my own purpose, my own art, and what each of us might do to leave something behind that could be recovered from the ashes to astonish others.
Comfort may be cozy, but our minds can do more when they encounter discomfort, and examples of brilliance made by mere mortals of the past. Having the world may not be possible, but seeking discomfort in our own world will make us all stronger, better, and maybe a tad bit more interesting.
How can you get out of your comfort zone? It may be as simple as a visit to a gallery or an art exhibition or a museum you’ve not visited before, or learning a language, or finding a book outside what you’d normally read. While most seek comfort and security, it’s the discomfort that fosters growth and an invigorating life.
PS: Thank you for a much-needed break. I asked my team to deliver some past writings during my absence so I could take time away, disconnected from the news, from social media, and from e-mail and work. Disconnecting was a gift. No election news, no Facebook rants, no stress of work, just a week of living in a fantasy world of art, history, and amazing beauty.
The week before Italy I left my comfort zone and painted in the snow in the Banff and Lake Louise area of Canada, and hosted 74 painters who did the same. We had a blast. Most of us had never painted in the snow — we hadn’t planned to, but we ran into a 100-year early storm. It made it better, made it more fun, brought us all closer, and took us out of our comfort zone. I feared snow, and now I am a snow painter, as are all who came with me. You can see the story here.
Tomorrow I venture out to Miami to host our Figurative Art Convention & Expo. We have a few hundred people coming, and it’s going to be amazing to see the world’s top figurative and portrait artists teaching in one place. Perhaps you’ll attend, to get out of your comfort zone. Then the following week, we have our big annual Radio Forecast conference at the Harvard Club in New York.
Let me leave you with this. I cannot remember when our world has ever been more polarized. I’ve never seen friends have such division over political discourse.
I never talk politics. My views are my own and not ever shared with anyone. I keep more friends that way. And I’m careful not to judge others because they have a different view than mine.
You have the privilege of voting, and it’s something we should all honor with our presence. I’d like to believe that every vote matters, and I’d like to encourage you to vote.