Artist Michelle Gagliano Paints Dante's "Inferno"

Michelle Gagliano is a painter who lives in Scottsville, Virginia. She co-owns FOCUS Contemporary Art and is the Artistic Director for the Scottsville Center for Arts and Nature. FOCUS and SCAN will host Ms Gagliano and Virginia's Poet Laureate Ron Smith in a reading and discussion of Dante's poetry and her paintings. Mr. Smith will also read his poetry. "Dante's Inferno: Where Art and Poetry Collide" will take place at Victory Hall Theater at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, 2016. 401 Valley Street, Scottsville, Virginia. Caromont Farm will sponsor the event.

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"The Philosophers," by Michelle Gagliano

Why "The Inferno" paintings?

It was not any pre-planned or conceptual idea at the time. At one of my openings, someone asked me what my next project would be about. Well, "The Divine Comedy" popped in my head, so I blurted out, "Dante!" without knowing anything about his work.

As soon as I got back into the studio, I started to research, read, sketch, paint...total immersion.

How long did this project take? It seems like a labor of love, certainly. Will you please explain what you did and how you did it?

It took about a year. I actually started the project on a Maundy Thursday, and finished on Easter Sunday the next year. (Very geeky, I know.) I created one painting for every Canto in "The Inferno."

I began the project by doing very large, serious pieces. Some were successful, but it did not feel in sync with the poem. I then switched to small mixed media paintings. This minimal size created an intimate interaction, giving it a book-like dialog with the paintings.

I utilized images from magazines from the 30's and 40's. This added a contemporary feel to the work, just as Dante wrote in Italian instead of Latin. This added the provocative feel to the work I wanted--Dante was provocative in his writings, and I wanted to provoke people's emotions with my paintings.

I started by painting the backgrounds. A few are literal to the passage, but I also incorporated images of blocked arteries, relating to our inner journey within the poem. I spent a lot of time and money searching for and buying the magazines for the proper images to correspond with the Cantos.

You once said, "I hate the idea of the 'starving artist.'" I love that spirit. How do you inspire people to create art and make a living doing it?

You remembered that, Stuart!

Yes, I'm fierce in defending the role of artist. I think that as artists we are entrepreneurs, and because of that, we have a great advantage in problem solving by extraordinary, creative ways. We are trained to do that.

But, we have to treat ourselves and our art accordingly. Not in an arrogant sense, but just by being practical. I learned about the business of art by doing, reading, and asking a lot of questions...and being told "no" a lot.

If you believe in the "the starving artist" myth, that sets you up for failure. I firmly believe that professional artists should be the ones to teach and mentor the next generation of professionals, the tried and true atelier approach.

You travel extensively, and your art is featured in galleries around the country and internationally. Please discuss how travel informs your art. And please tell me about Scottsville, where you currently live. I think Scottsville is poised for some great artistic ventures, don't you?

I enjoy traveling for my work and am honored to work with such wonderfully great people in the galleries. Meeting collectors is always a pleasure. It brings a lot of creative energy back to the studio. I have a studio in Scottsville, VA. It's a small town in central Virginia with a big heart. An amazing number of creative people live in the area. The consortium of professional musicians, writers, and artists is staggering.

I see a great correlation between the creative process in art, music, poetry, and cooking...obviously, poetry can inspire you to paint--where else do you find inspiration?

Not to sound too simplistic, but everything inspires, and there are no boundaries to creativity. I admire that the Native Americans have no word for "art" in their language, they think it is simply something that you do every day, like breathing. That inspires.

I also think it's cool that the Lakota Sioux have no word for "maybe." It's either "yes," or "no." Do you work in other media?

Yes, I experiment a lot in my studio. Nothing is held back. I am relentless in experimenting with all materials available. Lately, I have been collaborating with a textile designer, and getting some pretty cool results.

Do you like to cook? I have a fascination with the artistry of food. People are doing some fantastic, creative experiments with food these days. I get inspired to create, and I feel overwhelmingly cared for when I eat a beautiful meal.

Stuart, that's a beautiful statement about food. Food is love. I really enjoy cooking for family and friends. It's a lot like painting to me: with colors, textures, layers, what pairs with what, etc...

My parents had a small farm, so early on, the imprint of fresh food was on my palette. As a result, I keep that going and support as many local farms as I can. There is nothing better at the end of a long, messy, studio day than to have a fantastic meal, made with local ingredients, shared with family and friends.

I embrace the traditions of food as well. Every Friday my mother would bake for the week--she is a wonderful baker: homemade breads, rolls, pies, cookies. It was a time, long ago, when carbs were good.

Carbs are still good.

That was heaven in the kitchen...what a gift. My father, every Sunday, would get up early to prepare the Sunday dinner, he would make his own pasta, sauce, meatballs, he even would make his own sausage. It was all so artisinal, but in those days it was because the "food in the grocery store was garbage." His words! He was passionate about eating good food. It was always a big traditional Italian meal from his childhood. In honor of Dad, I now do the same.

Plutarch said, "Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks." I thought this was an appropriate quotation to ask about, since we are bringing in Ron Smith, the Poet Laureate of Virginia, to do a reading in conjunction with your exhibit. What are your thoughts on art and poetry, hell, Dante, and the Seven Deadly Sins?

I will defer to Ron Smith's erudite review of the Seven Deadly Sins from your interview with him!

Dante's brilliance shines by using the art of poetry to navigate all those metaphors from the medieval era. It is such an intensely visual poem that artists will always be drawn to his work. I just read Jeremy Scott's quotation, "The best medicine for hysterical times is historical content." That is why Dante will always be relevant.

Whether it be the "painting as silent poetry" or the "poetry is painting that speaks," it is in that transportation to the other state of mind, the indescribable moment when one becomes breathless, to me, that is the crucial element in experiencing artwork.

How can I do better than Plutarch? Life is poetry.

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"The Suicide Tree," by Michelle Gagliano