Under the Tuscan Sun

Wesley Hayden
This summer, Michelle René Cobb stood en plein air beneath the broiling Tuscan sun. In the two years it took to schedule her time as artist in residence at Borgo Santo Pietro, she could not have anticipated that Italy would bake its way through the hottest July in 200 years. For twelve hours each day, she worked––especially beside a Giverny-inspired lily pond––honing her craft.

“I felt a strong obligation to use this opportunity to move myself forward as an artist,” Michelle explained. “It was extremely beautiful, but also isolating. I missed having other artists to talk to. Still it was a truly productive experience.”

At the encouragement of a GDS family, Michelle applied for this unique opportunity in competition with dozens of other, mostly European, artists. In month-long residencies, a selected artist (who is put-up in a small apartment in a neighboring town) paints on the grounds of the luxury villa, while also teaching occasional painting classes to guests.

Each morning, Michelle woke early, rode her bike to the villa gardens, and began painting by 8:30 a.m. Although Michelle was the only artist-in-residence, she did have contact with other artists, via old “technology” and new. Once the sun set and Michelle had to call it a day, she spent more hours researching and studying techniques of the old masters. In particular, she read Walter Isaacson’s biography Leonardo da Vinci.

And for the new technology? Michelle shared some dialogue with Georgetown Day School students and alumni about her work in-progress through her posts on Instagram. Upon seeing Michelle’s posts, Savannah Wade ’17 wrote, “I haven’t seen your painting the way I see them now...just wow.”

“It’s amazing when you’re given the gift of time,” Michelle said. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked that hard on my painting. I didn’t know I was capable of working those kind of hours.”

Without the distractions she’s used to as a teacher that can provide an escape from a tricky painting, Michelle found she needed to do more than simply reflect on her practice. “I was able to focus on my growth as an artist, as I do with my students,” she said. “That meant changing the way I approached my work.”

The old phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants,” a favorite of Michelle’s, served as a guide. “It’s important to study the old masters and incorporate their techniques into your work,” she said.

In reading Isaacson’s book on da Vinci, she came to recognize how meticulous observation could fall flat if not for imagination. He wrote: “Skill without imagination is barren. Leonardo knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.” Michelle worked to add more abstractions into her work, exploring aerial perspective––another da Vinci invention in which distant objects appear more abstract and affected by a blue tint––and fractal lighting.

The beautiful landscapes her residency afforded invited challenge and plenty of opportunities to explore those techniques. “A lot of the vegetation was new to me,” she explained. “I spent time exploring the water lilies in particular.” The water lilies, of Monet fame, were nestled beneath a small bridge and received some well-deserved obsessive observation from Michelle. Still her teacher brain remained alert. “I was constantly thinking about how to bring my learning back to my students.”

Working “under the Tuscan sun” meant Michelle took on both the intense heat and the intense colors of her surroundings. Not only was the lavender in bloom, but she was often working on two or three paintings at once because she needed to move as the sun moved. In most positions, she was able to get about three hours of shade. It was critical that she be able to move to the shade without disturbing the perspective of a particular scene.

The final two challenges were on the teaching side of the time at Borgo Santo Pietro: the duration of instruction and the language. “I’m used to teaching on a long-term basis, in which I’ll guide a student’s growth over the course of a year. During my residency, I had to to make the sessions fun and teach them something valuable in just a single two-hour session.” More than half of the lessons Michelle gave were not in English. She was not able to rely upon language or her writings. Instead, she had to rely much more upon demonstration (and an occasional Google Translate lifeline).

Michelle returned to Washington, DC via stops in Florence, Venice, Rome, and Casablanca to see some of the old masters’ works in person. An award-winning master in her own right, Michelle is currently teaching weekend courses in plein air painting through the Smithsonian. Back at Georgetown Day School, students can expect to experience transformative growth in their skills as observers and, thanks to Michelle’s work this summer, a healthy splash of imagination, too.

Learn more about Michelle’s art »

Staff writer Danny Stock tells the stories of teaching, learning, competing, creating, and performing at Georgetown Day School. He is a former GDS second grade teacher and current parent.
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