Marsilio Ficino’s Book of Life

January 30, 2013
Moon – The Red King

Moon – The Red King

Sunday the 17th February I will be running the popular annual workshop “The Sky Within” in the Sanctuary, a mindfulness and meditation centre in Stanhope Street, Dublin 7.

It is a full day painting workshop during which we will be exploring images of Art and Spirit.

Personal paintings and images are like maps that reveal our inner landscapes, our boundaries and sacred sites. In them we carry not just our history but also the spirituality of who we are.

During this programme we will be working on personal imagery, the sacred and secular artworks of different cultures and the importance of the imagination according to the ideas of the Renaissance Florentine’s scholar Marsilio Ficino.

Ficino believed that we should all, in our lifetime, paint a map, a personal one, of our universe. At such he gave very specific directions of how it should be done, what images and colours to use and where to place it once completed.

In his book “The Book of Life” he also takes us trough each of the known planets (of that time) and gives advices on how to live a balanced and fulfilled ife.

“We have an entire sky within us, our fiery strength and heavenly origins: Luna which symbolizes the continuous motion of soul and body, Mars speed and Saturn slowness, the Sun God, Jupiter law, Mercury reason, and Venus Humanity”.

– Marsilio Ficino, letter to Lorenzo The Magnificent.

Below are some beautiful images from Splendor Solis, Alchemical Treatises of Solomon Trismosis, 1532-1535.

Black Sun

Black Sun

Mercury – The White Queen

Mercury – The White Queen

Picture 15

Venus – The Peacock’s Tail

Sun – The Three Headed Dragon

Sun – The Three Headed Dragon




The Art of a Good Saturday

January 21, 2013

Rockforest, The Burren, Co. Clare


It’s 8 o’clock in the morning of any given Saturday in winter, it’s still dark but I have to get up, light the wooden stove and make the art room warm and welcome by 10 am.

The art of a good Saturday requires a very precise routine, discipline and attention to details, a bit like the Japanese tea ceremony except that, instead of kimonos we’ll all be wearing boots and woolen jumpers.

At around 10 o’clock people start to arrive and nobody is in a rush. We are in the country where time has a different meaning. Time for the fog to lift, for the cows to cross the road, time to stop at the lake and admire the view and generally, time to fully wake up before starting to seriously paint (though that doesn’t really happen until after the coffee break).

So the first part of the morning is spent in a dreamy realm where the general mood shifts and changes along with the weather and the light, which is about every five minutes.

This season each person is working on developing a personal theme and solving technical challenges, but always in good spirit and with plenty of support from the group.

When coffee break is announced there are sighs of relief. There will be a new cake to sample (Carmel is in charge of baking the cakes, Margaret when Carmel is away), news need to be exchanged (anything from farming issues to the current financial crisis) and tips on how to do things well around the house (last week was the use of vinegar for cleaning the windows).

My husband John gets to play the host and influences the topics of conversation while brewing more coffee and tea.

After that, on returning to the art room re-energized by caffeine, everybody’s creativity starts to flow and there is no stopping it! In a flurry of activity the production of serious work is unleashed and the last hour passes in a flash. Creative energy is palpable in the air and silence descend over the group.

As people start to leave we remind each others of  the next dates, we check who will be here and who’ll be away and for how long.

By now the fog has lifted, the sun has come and gone, the rain is closing in and another good Saturday was artfully spent.






The Colourists

November 17, 2012

I love drawing but I am at my best when I paint, I can get completely lost in it, a kind of meditative world where there is no space other than for colour.

Many years ago when I started working as a graphic designer my partner in business would take on the drawing of posters and brochures and leave the colouring to me. It was a mutual understanding that needed no directions or discussion.

This love for colour may be the reason why I am so attracted by the work of Chagall. One aspect of Chagall’s work that fascinates me is that he didn’t seem too concerned about the accuracy of drawing contenting himself to representing houses, animals and humans with a simple, almost childish style to concentrate solely on colour. Throughout his very long and fruitful life he has been widely acknowledged as a master colorist.

Backdrop 1 for the ballet Aleko painted by Chagall in 1942.

Backdrop 2 for the ballet Aleko painted by Chagall in 1942.


Backdrop 3 for the ballet Aleko painted by Chagall in 1942.

When my father Tino retired he took up art to fill his time, or so he used to say, but more than likely to fulfill a hidden passion. When I visited he would proudly show me his work, small and delicate child-like images, mainly copied from postcards and books. I would always take one of his picture home with me.

After my mother Gina died, my father came to Ireland to live with us for three months and it was during that time that I realized he was rapidly slipping into senility. Alarmed I watched him endlessly pacing the sitting room and then stop suddenly to count and re-count the change in his pocket seemingly incapable of applying himself to any task of his choice.

I started to invite him to draw again, a plant or an object to copy, which he would happily do, but once finished he would just sit and stare. A wave of panic swept over me as I was trying to relate to this new person. How would he occupy himself during the long hours when I would be out working? I needed a plan.

One day I brought him with me to the weekly children’s workshop and there he sat drawing and painting content surrounded by the children who kept feeding him biscuits while conversing with him. He had no English, they had no Italian but that didn’t seem to matter one bit.

That evening at home I made simple cardboard stencils of geometrical designs and folded a handful of blank sheets to make booklets. The following morning before leaving for work I asked my father if he’d like to draw the covers using the stencils and colour in the designs. I explained that the booklets were meant for the children whom he had met the day before. He agreed and started to work immediately.

When I came home that evening I found that, not only he had filled the covers with drawings but also every single page of every single booklet colouring dozens of drawings! Stunned I complimented him on his beautiful colour combinations and he beamed with joy.

At the end of the three months when Tino went back home the stencils were in his suitcase and when they broke, due to over-usage, I made and posted him new ones, with more pleasing designs of plants, insects and animals. Over the following year this exchange became the silent link that kept us connected until the day he died.

Outside the lines

November 4, 2012

Published in the ‘Mothers and Babies’ supplement, Irish Independent 01/11/12.


Childhood is possibly the most creative time of our life as we are always ready to learn and to have a go at things. With the right environment children instinctively know how to explore, how to experience without worrying about the outcome and working until they are satisfied. How often have you heard them say, “I am done”?

Creativity is play and children are masters at it. Watching young children freely paint, dance and express themselves is a real joy, especially if we can relax enough to trust the process. Too quickly we are tempted to establish limits and rules that, rather than guide and nurture the child’s development can slowly and surely kill off those creative sparks.

For many adults the capacity to play is often lost, we can find it difficult to trust a child’s capacity to work out solutions and to give them the enough space and time. We might know that creativity is play but allowing ourselves to play is hard work. When my daughter Irene was born I took the opportunity to start playing again. Although she is now twenty-two and in college I am still playing away with paint, twirling around the sitting-room and buying beautifully illustrated children’s book.

This is my job, by the way, to paint with children, or with children and their parents, grandparents, teachers. Often adults ask for advice on how to facilitate an art session at home, what is the right age to start, what to do and how to do it? Well, here’s my advice, first, start by clearing a table, provide good art material (of which there is a wide choice nowadays) and sit down with them. Second, in my experience it is really useful to have what I call ‘an entry point’: a story, a piece of music, or simply a walk in the outdoors. Children need very little to get started and once they have there is no stopping them! A story that you have just read or made up together can then appear painted on the page full of new characters. Playing a piece of music can establish a particular mood and suggest a choice of colours and a painting rhythm. A walk in the outdoors provides an endless supply of images. Bring back natural objects you’ve picked together, to draw (if this is what they like to do) or to use as props for the making up a story.

Third, I suggest all you have to do is to relax, join in and be guided by them, there is no need for much talk or direction, in fact it would be best to refrain from interfering too much and just let it happen.

The time spent together during art making can be really magic. The children’s comments can be revealing of their feelings as they enter a dreamy world of which they are the creators and masters. Fourth, I strongly recommend that you take the opportunity and time to observe how they work, what art form they enjoy the most and leave them at it until “they are done”.

Next, gradually introduce different material to work with, for example, clay or plasticine, or wool and sticks to make imaginary creatures. Remember to observe which material they prefer as not all children like to get their hands dirty!

Then, depending on the age, provide diverse craft activities that get them to use hands and brain co-ordination. Anything that involves cutting, gluing, tying knots, folding, threading etc… will help the child to develop those manual skills that are gradually being lost to computer and television time.

Lastly, a few tips on what not to do! Be careful not to close down an enjoyable experience with comments on ‘the right way to do it’ as there is really no right or wrong in art making. If at all possible avoid standard colour-in pages with flowers and animals ready made. Never say ‘stay within the line’, let them draw and paint their own creatures in within whatever lines they set. Creativity is anything but staying within lines or inside boxes. Creative energy is not rigid so really has no patterns or boundaries. It has its own natural flow and it’s unpredictable. Children instinctively know this. That’s its beauty.

After many years working or rather playing creatively with children, I have often observed that children who regularly engage in art activities of any kind quickly develop a confidence that will help them throughout their school years and into adulthood. As parents all that we have to remember is what Picasso once said: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up.”

Can I?

October 11, 2012

The 363 Eyes Monster by Leon age 5

We are meant to create but we are afraid of it, creative energy is in all of us because that is what we are made of. This is how we are when we are born: naturally creative, ready to learn, to have a go at things. The young child explores, looks, experiments.

This is before we start establishing boundaries and rules that, rather than guide and nurture the child’s development, can slowly but surely eventually kill those creative sparks. The young child knows how to explore, how to experience, how to create. Children draw and paint without worrying about the outcome and work on until they are satisfied that they are done.

To watch young children paint is pure joy if you can relax enough and trust both the process and the children themselves.

I remember Aoife, a four year old who after painting her dragon handed me the page because she had finished it. “Where does your dragon live?” I asked. “In a cave” the little girl answered. “Would you like to paint the cave?” I suggested. “No” she said. “What does your dragon eat?” I enquired. “Leaves from a tree” she replied. “Would you like to paint the tree?” “No”. I took her painting and put it on the wall.

The young girl refusal to add a cave or a tree wasn’t due to laziness or a desire to get it done with, she simply had finished a process and for what she was concerned the picture didn’t need anything else and rightly so! She was the creator of her image and therefore in charge of the process. Who was I to suggest that she should continue?

On the other hand Aoife’s sister Rachel, aged 6, called me over to where she was working and asked “Can I paint a flower beside my creature?”.

With that Can I the child was asking my permission to continue her work, she wanted me to dictate what she could or couldn’t paint, in other words she had already handed over her creative freedom to the adult.

Creative energy needs freedom because I believe that it is different than any other type of energies. It’s not harsh or rigid, has no patterns and boundaries. It has a natural flow and it’s un-predictable. That’s its beauty.

Childhood is possibly the most creative time of our life and I believe it is our duty to keep connecting with that pure, pulsating energy that keeps us alive. The need for creative expression, exploration and experience doesn’t die out as we grow up. Sometimes it gets buried beneath other things but it is always there just waiting to be rekindled. It enriches lives, bringing about new learning, sharing and the possibility of healing.

In other words it is pure magic!

Diving In

September 24, 2012

Lake Diaries – Day 2

Ella’s Watercolours

Today we are off to the Eastern shore of lake Como, first stop Lecco where I intend to visit the Stamperia Stampe Antiche in search of old prints with views of the lake. The shop is in the heart of the old city, just behind the piazza. As I enter I warn my cousins that I will be here for at least half an hour, so they decide to join me intrigued by the pleasant look and feel of the place, which is covered by framed prints of all kind.

Signor Donato, a handsome grey-haired, impeccably dressed gentleman, is chuffed when I tell him that I came across his site on the web, of how for a long time I have been looking for particular paintings of the lake and was finally rewarded when on his site I came across the work of Ella Mary Du Cane. (See September 12, 2012 entry). And here they are now the lithographic reproductions of the originals, more numerous that I had thought and not too expensive. After much thinking and shortlisting I choose four which signor Donato lovingly puts in a special folder, each one of them with their own certificate.

In the shop there are other prints by different artists on the same subject, but Ella’s ones are exactly what I was looking for. She has captured the light and the atmosphere perfectly with a skillful and sensitive hand. In her pictures I admire the compositions, the curiosity and wonder of a foreigner eye that immediately recognize simple but arresting beauty. With our precious folders under our arms we say goodbye and return to the car heading north.

Il Punto di Bellagio by Ella Mary Du cane

Forget the camera!

The roads along the lake are very busy, very narrow and full of bends due to the steep mountains that surround it, however the views are simply breathtaking. There is virtually no parking space on either side of the road we are on, so when my cousin Vanda orders her sister Denise to stop “wherever she can” I wonder what that entails. We are coming on view of the village of Varenna and apparently we must take a picture of it from afar.

Denise parks wherever she can and obediently I get out of the car, risk my life crossing the road, choose the right spot and angle and… the camera doesn’t work! The night before I forgot to charge the battery and now, free for once from having to mediate every experience through the lenses, I can relax and just dive in. I nominate Vanda our official photographer since she has her small Canon with her and onward we go.

Varenna is a small, stunningly beautiful village with the typical blend of villas with gardens, modest romanesque churches and ordinary houses that are built, seemingly on top of each other in an apparent chaotic fashion. We walk through the narrow streets free of traffic and with only a few souvenir shops, down to the lake shore and sit on a bench to admire the vista in silence. There is no need for words. Only later my cousins comment on the fact that, although they have been driving by this place hundreds of times, they never suspected that such a place existed.

Varenna – A side street


The First Crossing

Vanda suggests that we take the ferry over to Bellagio and from there back to Como rather then driving back the same way. We think it’s a great idea since the sky is still blue, the weather warm and it is only early afternoon.

During the crossing I stand at the front of the ferry and take in the view, though I cannot make up my mind where to look. I keep turning round to see lovely Varenna float away in the distance and then forward to greet opulent Bellagio with its numerous grand hotels and promenade planted with oleanders and limes. Left and right on either side of the ferry the lake spreads out crowned by mountains that seem to embrace and protect it. The air is clear, everything is crystalline and pure and the sun is reflected in the lake in a myriad of sparkles.

I may sound corny or excessively romantic in this description but who cares? Looking at others’ people faces who, like me keep turning around I catch the same expression of semi-incredulity : is this place real or am I in the middle of a dream? Both I think.

Bellagio to Torno to Como

Unlike Varenna Bellagio is swamped by cars, tourists and souvenir shops. We try unsuccessfully to find a parking space so we decide to drive on until we reach the village of Torno where we stop to do three things in the following order: to visit the church of San Giovanni, to eat an ice cream and to see the piazza.

We manage to see the beautiful church just before they close it. We spend a good amount of time in the piazza and in the Bar Italia where my cousins meet an old colleague of theirs, but we are unable to find the gelateria that was sign posted at the top of the village. It’s only as we drive away that we see the ice cream shop right there on the side of the road with no space for parking.

Torno – The harbor, in an old postcard

Church of San Giovanni – Torno

Torno – The harbor and the piazza 

A Passion for Colour

September 19, 2012

Lake Diaries – Day 1

On Lake Como (1830c.)

Art to Heart’s next spring art week will take place on Lake Como so I am spending a few days in the area researching possible venues, accommodation and to get a feel for the place. In Como’s tourist office I enquire about art material suppliers and I am directed to the Bottega del Colore in Largo Miglio 3 beside Porta Torre.

I enter the small shop which is jam-packed with stuff but my attention is immediately taken by a display of jars containing a wide range of colours that are lining the shelves behind the counter. Two men in their mid-fifties are dealing with the customers and when I ask about acrylics one of them turns to the jars behind his back and introduces their very own brand. The paints, he explains are made for them especially by a small local company, motivated by their desire to supply an excellent product that is: extra-fine with a high concentration of pigment, that provides excellent cover and light stability. The price is really good value, he continues, because they don’t have to pay for advertisements and product positioning, they do it for passion and the love of art!

When I congratulate them for such an undertaking they want to prove their commitment. The second guy, a former art teacher in the Como’s art school, produces from under the counter a folder that contains reproductions of his father’s artwork, mainly religious commissions for churches and murals for local communities. “My father has a real passion for colour” he says “he always mixes his own and always encouraged me to keep up the tradition”.

At this stage I am so moved that I feel like hugging him impressed by such a commitment and I am ready to buy the full range if it wasn’t for the baggage restriction on the return flight. So I buy one jar only to test it back home and promise to return in the spring to stock up for the course.

Outside the shop my two cousins Denise and Vanda have patiently been waiting from me, but they understand that Art needs its own time. They are going to be my companions and guides over the next few days and are open to new experiences. Together we walk over to the funicolar railway that links come to Brunate since 1894. In less than fifteen minutes we are at the top where we can enjoy the breathtaking views over Lake Como and the surrounding mountains.

View from Brunate

The sky is blue and the weather is warm so we sit out on the terrace at the Bar Stazione to enjoy a simple but delicious lunch. The next few days promise to be good too.

Along the lake

A Treasure Which the Earth Keeps to Itself

September 12, 2012

Limonta, Lago di Como

I am off to my native Lake of Como, the middle and most beautiful of northern Italy’s lakes that the poet Wordsworth thought it “a treasure which the earth keeps to itself”. I am going to research a venue for Art to Heart’s next art course in Italy which I am planning for the Spring.

I have been doing a lot of preparatory work and on-line surfing though I know that it will be the on-site research that will determine most of the details. It will be hard work but somebody has to do it!

Amongst other things, I will be visiting the Stamperia Stampe Antiche in Lecco where I hope to find a wide selection of prints with views of the lake. Surfing their website I came across some beautiful watercolours by English artist Ella Mary Du Cane (1874 – 1943).

Ella Mary was the daughter of Sir Charles Du Cane di Braxted Park, Essex. She was born in Tasmania, where her father was Governor and later moved to London where she had a studio in Eaton Place 41. With her sister Florence, Ella Mary travelled extensively to Italy, Spain, Madeira, Japan and Egypt, producing a wide range of watercolours which had a remarkable commercial success.



Cream Cheese With Coffee

September 10, 2012

LADIES IN A CAFÉ by. P. Marussig (1879-1937)

This dessert is served with fresh cream and thin wafer biscuits.

For four people allow 8-10 oz. of cream cheese (ricotta would be best), 4-6 oz. of caster sugar, 4 desserts spoonful of freshly roasted coffee, very finely ground, and 2 oz. of rum. Put the cream cheese through a sieve; add the sugar, the coffee, and the rum, and stir it until it is smooth and thick. Make the cream at least 2 hours before serving, so that the coffee flavour has time to develop. Keep it in the fridge until it is time to serve.


Artists on the Edge of Nowhere

September 1, 2012

Two girls are working together, very intent, very focused. Between them is an open book showing the work of canadian artist Emily Carr (1871 – 1945), the artist who worked on the edge of nowhere. Emily’s work was inspired by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast and her paintings depict their village life and forests of totem poles. The children are drawing their totem animal that will be part of a collective drawing.

As I watch them working it occurs to me that here in the Burren we are also on the edge of nowhere. When we look through the windows there is nothing but wilderness, a sea of rocks and boulders that the light picks out as the clouds travel in the vast sky. Over the week all the children in the group become part of this landscape, both the ones who live here all year round and the ones who have joined in for the art course. They paint and draw it, they run in it (rain or no rain), they eat it (apples and blackberries). During the time that we work together they produce great work with a concentration and playfulness that many adults would envy, entertaining each other with witty jokes and tall tales.

Here on the edge of nowhere we feel very much at the centre of things as creativity is thick in the air. I know I have to refrain myself from interfering and just let things happen, in their own time at their own pace. All in all a week well spent.