The world is tentacled. Take a trio of disparate inspirations that helped me wait out the quarantine as I sheltered in place. Besides my wife and children, and painting and writing, three seemingly unrelated gifts—the genius of a singer, the bravery of an eight-armed mollusk, and a stunning ton of un-stunning wall tiles—mingled in my imagination.
The first of those gifts is an Italian church named Madonna dei Bagni. This humble sanctuary houses 700+ folk art maiolica tiles or plaques that grid the interior. None struck me as all that memorable, but viewing these tiles en masse is a mini miracle!
The art school where I taught overseas for more than ten summers is located near that small, oddball, sacred structure where the painted terracotta stories hang. So I have vivid memories of some and digital images of others, and this year I found myself repeatedly going through them. Individually, the tiles portray downbeat subjects like illness, drownings, and firing squads. Collectively, their shapes and colors create upbeat patterns. Whether I visit the church directly or in my thoughts, they exhilarate me, despite the sad subject matter. Art can do that.
Madonna dei Bagni, Exterior; Madonna dei Bagni, Interior
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I’m not religious. I dislike dogma. And I don’t pray much. But I like places of prayer and meditation in city and forest settings, even in octopus-laden kelp beds. Special celebrations occur within these sanctuaries.
The second gift that’s lifted me up during this season of isolation also occurs in a church. This one was not painted, but sung. Aretha Franklin’s remarkable 1972 Amazing Grace concert took place at an unremarkable Watts, L.A. Baptist house of worship—a mom & pop-scale movie theater before it got religion. The already world famous 29-year-old could’ve blown the dome off an Olympic stadium. But the Queen of Soul, who Rolling Stone Magazine named in 2019 “the number one singer of all time,” wanted the roof-sustaining hallelujahs of her modest roots. Sometimes smaller is better.
Although the concert resulted in the production of history’s top-selling gospel album, due to problems syncing the visual and audio parts, as well as legal issues, the world had to wait until her death in 2018 to see the resurrected concert film.
Sometimes we wait on the unhurried pacing of her songs. In its elegant precision, one critic compared Aretha’s first No. 1 single, Respect, to a Ming vase. In another hit, she and her choir sing: “You can cast the first stone, you can break my bones. But you’re never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, never, nevernevernevernevernevernever gonna break my faith.” We savor each of her relentless nevers as we wait. Like this past year, how we wait tells our story.
In Madonna dei Bagni, waiting plays a central role. Its one-stop-shop painting installation of ancient and contemporary calamities is still in progress—since 1657! It is located in Italy near the village of Deruta, a center for ceramics since the 1300s.
A terracotta hanging in Bagni illustrates part of the church’s origin story. It involves a man praying in the woods to the Virgin Mary for his bedridden, dying wife. Returning home shortly thereafter, he found her busy at work—cured. Word spread. A tile was designed. A church was built. More calamities. More prayers. More tiles. The rest is history, literally.
Church of Madonna dei Bagni, Terracotta tile, 1657
With all its tragedies, I see Bagni as a symbol of 2020-21. For almost five centuries, individuals have been commissioning Deruta craftspeople to create painted maiolicas thanking the Virgin Mary for responding to their prayers for healing from hugger-muggers of tragedies and trials, like floods, fires, mob attacks, COVID cases, bull bites, and car and motorcycle crashes.
Madonna dei Bagni. The slightly cockeyed PGR sign hints at the bull attack, while the maiden suggests little more than a reluctant partner being disarmingly coaxed onto a dance floor.
Some scenes look as grim as blood; others look slapstick wacky. Each cliffhanging illustration is like a still from a film or graphic novel. Decorating almost every tile are the letters PGR (Per Grazia Ricevuta—For Grace Received). Mary, with a fidgety baby Jesus on her lap, is a logo. These attributes help unify the widely diverse tragic themes, as do the panels’ funky drawing style, standardized dimensions, spacings, hand-painted frames, and mostly blue and yellow color schemes (like Vermeer’s).
None of the terracotta panels reach the exalted heights of the selections in Aretha’s concerts. However, Bagni’s mostly anonymous terracotta stories are spectacular when viewed as a rhythm of rectangular, painted-framed brushstrokes that grid the walls.
Works of art often build on this against thats. Look again at the at-once silly, charming, and beastly tile of the biting bull. In Madonna dei Bagni, we’re immersed in a hum of dread. Though, together, the artworks break into a pleasing song. There are no soloists here. It’s all choir.
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Ironically, during the deadliest year in American history, connections were heightened. As the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said: “We will not end the pandemic anywhere until we end the pandemic everywhere.” For better (unity) or worse (contagion), we all breathe the same air. But in this bitterly divided nation of ours, don’t hold your breath waiting for cosmic kinship.
If you want a taste of that, watch the 2021 Academy Award winning documentary, My Octopus Teacher, the third gift that kept me afloat during this period of quarantine. It’s a love story. Sort of. With danger.
With painterly cinematography by Roger Horrocks, two creatures—a man and a subterranean beast—discover each other in the glorious sunlight that filters through a deep-sea swamp. The underwater setting, silent as an empty church, is chockfull of creatures that sometimes out-Disney his cartooniest, goofiest-looking creations. And there are sharks.
Kelp forest scene from My Octopus Teacher
This very human, tentacled story celebrates the relationship between the film’s producer, narrator, and co-star, Craig Foster, and a liquid-y, untamed, unnamed (because it’s not a pet) invertebrate. Before Foster and friend met, the man described himself as feeling emotionally “disconnected.” Afterwards, not so much.
Octopuses are antisocial. Here, our antisocial “other,” a suctioned, South African cephalopod seems to wait for connection with another other: a Homo Sapien. Ultimately, the anatomically spineless octopus reaches bravely across an aisle, which vertebrate—but spineless—creatures (like most Congressional Republicans) almost nevernevernever do. Turns out that this octopus teacher has much to teach.
For me, a virtual, courageous diva, a diver, and a maiolica-filled den helped right this wrong year. The next time I look at my Bagni photo of a biting bull, I might imagine a kelp forest growing inside a blue and yellow Ming vase borne by a Vermeer maiden. Or perhaps when I next visit the painted ceramic bull in person (can’t wait!), I’ll hear the voice of “the greatest singer of all time.” These artists’ works about connection have become connected in my mind, sprouting strange tendrils of interwoven meaning. They have kept me tied to why I love and make art. They’ve lured this non-believer from his isolated studio and taken him to church.
Barry Nemett, Stone Passages: France to Italy, 10 feet x 20 feet, pencil on paper (with wooden frame by Stuart Abarbanel)
Barry Nemett working on Stone Passages: France to Italy at Stevenson College
Barry Nemett, who has taught full-time at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) since 1971, has exhibited his artwork throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Since receiving his MFA degree from Yale University and receiving a Fulbright/ITT International Travel Fellowship to Spain, he has lectured worldwide, curated numerous traveling exhibitions, and has been a recipient of resident artist grants in the United States, Italy, France, Scotland, Ireland, Africa, and Japan.