I wrote the essay in Lucy MacGillis’s catalogue Paintings From Italy, 2003-2022, produced by the Hoadley Gallery, where Lucy shows her work each summer.
Lucy at Dottie’s in Pittsfield.
The artist’s house is situated on a long hill near an impossibly steep country road in Umbria. Through her paintings Lucy MacGillis invites us to see the light as it moves through her surroundings: the terrace, the olive trees, and the valley below. Sometimes her explorations of light and color and rhythm bring her to Naples or Procida or Sicily.
Over the years, her paintings have become a part of our own memory. We are fortunate for that, and to feel the light and warmth and even the devastation of living, as it happens in a beautiful place.
During late winter, the sunlight shoots into the studio window at about the time Lucy walks into the room to work. Her son, Vito, is off to school, and as she enters the day stretches ahead almost as the valley below seems to do. The Media Valle del Tevere is vast, with known, if vague, edges. There will be an end to this day too, but for now, it is full of possibility.
She may start by making paint. At that time of year when the sun fills the studio at 7:30 in the morning, the lemon trees blossom and bear fruit. After deep winter’s darker hues, the color enlivens the senses. She will grind a pure Naples yellow pigment with mortar and pestle, transfer it to a glass palette and grind it with walnut oil. The more she mixes, the better the texture of the paste. Then, using a knife, she will apply her paint to a canvas, remove most of it, and do it again.
Over the years that Lucy has lived and worked – the two are one –in Umbria, and shown her paintings here at Hoadley Gallery, we have seen her new ideas and breakthroughs. For those of us who are not painters, the evidence of her life’s vicissitudes is often color. As summer comes each year, and her paintings arrive here, we sense the events she experienced and her reactions to them, and we see her persistent explorations of color and rhythm.
When she started showing her work here, Umbria and its earth tone palette were hers.
Lucy arrived in Umbria for the first time while still a student, to take a summer painting program at the International Center for the Arts in Monte Castello di Vibio, south of Perugia. It is not too far from where she lives now. The big landscape there was a challenge, as it had been for artists before her. “To get the Tiber to lie down flat and stay there” seemed impossible, she recently told a group of artists. A close study of the work of Giorgio Morandi was a “game changer,” she said. “You can just get a couple of colors right and lay them next to each other. “
She worked on color harmony, balancing warm and cool colors. “I fell in love with paint here.” Back in 2009, John Lees, one of her teachers in Monte Castello di Vibio, called her work musical. Now, he adds that Lucy has been painting since she was a little girl. He remembers a photo of her at a table painting. She was always doing, he said. And that is the key: “Do something, do something,” he said, as if still teaching.
Lucy remembers the teachers there slowing her down. They believed in her and perhaps there is nothing more compelling for a young artist than that. After graduating, she went back and decided to stay until she ran out of money. She sold a few paintings. A stray kitten appeared.
She adopted the cat. She found a community of artists, and so, she started making her life in Umbria. One year, her son Vito was born. While in labor in the hospital, she focused on a poster of Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto, the pregnant Madonna, hanging on the wall, and now remembers the azurite blue, a copper based natural pigment. She muses about how gradually one becomes “bound to a place.”
A lover of language, Lucy learned the local dialect as well as the Italian language. The first time I met her, she asked me if I knew the word for bat in Italian. Oddly enough, I did: Pipistrello. She wanted to live inside a language like that, she said. The names she gives her paintings seem significant, personal. Take, for example, a type of lemon called Femminiello, which grows in the Amalfi region, near Naples. In naming the painting of one of those lemons – Lo Sfusato Femminiello –she shares the sensuality she feels is inherent in that part of Italy.
Stephanie Hoadley knew Lucy when she was a student and saw “integrity in every stroke.” She and her husband Tom were struck by the way she lived, which seemed unusual for a young woman: She surrounded herself with “real things.” They loved the materiality of her life and her paintings. They invited her to show her work.
At the time, Lucy says, “I was figuring out what to paint and using whatever I had. Then, I just started to realize how so much of the paint I was using, the earth colors I liked, were really inherent in this part of the world. So many iron ores and the terra verde that are actually found in Italy in the ground.”
She bought an abandoned stone farmhouse and began to fix it up. She painted all the walls to be parts of paintings, using earth tones and lime. Each year, we see those walls in her work. They are there, with the white pitcher and the cut figs, a chair, the edge of a kitchen table with the shadow of a window frame on the floor, a plate with two blood oranges. Even the landscape of the valley below as seen from the studio has those walls in it.
And so, after settling into the stone farmhouse with olive trees on its land, the table was set: People started to arrive in her paintings. Vito was an early model. One photo shows him as a smiling toddler, sitting in an olive crate while his mother works. When she met Piero, her partner, he became a reliable model, too.
Experiments with color
In 2009, she spent time on the Amalfi Coast. “I went down there with my earth palettes, and looked out at the sea from Villa Rufolo, and realized I had to go home to get other colors, my verde smeralda., all these beautiful blues I had not been using. Those colors arrived that year at the Hoadley Gallery, in the sky and sea.
All the while, Lucy was becoming an Italian painter. John Lees stresses the distinction. “Most painters go to Italy to paint and come back. Lucy actually became an Italian painter. The first thing is not Italy,” he said. “It’s how she paints.”
Grinding, mixing, adding alabaster dust, applying the paint, scraping it off, putting down large planes of color. Sometimes she paints over old paintings. That’s one way to get rid of the ones she doesn’t like, but once in a while, a bit of the old one comes through, an unintentional palimpsest. Painting well, she says: “There is no feeling like it, a deep calm, and a feeling of great relief.”
Meanwhile, she experiments with new colors and ideas in new places, like Sicily, where she paints and teaches, and Procida, an island off the coast of Naples. The saturating light of the southern sun absorbed by the walls, the blue of the sea, multicolored houses for fishermen to spot from out at sea. It is a challenge is to paint something like this without creating a postcard picture. Eventually, Lucy felt less concerned about describing what she saw; instead she tries to think about the planes and the color interactions.
Over time, colors in her palette have come to include Pozzuoli Red, Herculaneum Blue, Yellow Ochre, Naples Yellow, Nocozzia Green, Woad Blue (guado), Ultramarine, Kings Blue, Roman Black Earth, Titanium White.
Then, in 2016, three earthquakes shook the earth under their home. One destroyed a nearby town, Amatrice. One night, during that earthquake, they slept in their car. She could not use the blues and Umbrian earth colors. “It was too scary.”
If you walked into the gallery the following summer and spotted a large gray scale painting on the furthest wall, you saw it. You may not have known it, but you felt the effect of that earthquake. “I was using this Black Roman Earth that I loved, and I just knocked the palette down back. Those are the grayscale paintings. I used a full palette and mixed all those colors into gray.”
On the wall, the painting felt larger than life. The person who bought it saw it as a winterlike scene but knew it was not snow. There were vague hints of blue, which attracted him more. He knew the landscape would have had more obvious color, and so the painting intrigued him. Then, he read the description and learned it was Lucy’s reaction to the earthquake. That knowledge added a layer of meaning. She had captured the mood of such an uncertain moment.
Every year, the seasons bring different kinds of work on the olive trees. Lucy’s father, Don, came to visit twice each year to help with the trees. In the spring, there was pruning, and in the fall, he helped with the harvest. It was a great joy to him, to work with her trees in that way. Lucy makes her own oil from those olives. One late November, I had the good fortune to sit at her kitchen table and taste it, and to walk to the other room and see the view from that studio.
The house, the land, the trees, the studio, and the kitchen with its hearth have become an oasis during difficult times.
The pandemic brought an extremely strict lockdown. For a time, their movement was limited to the house and a hill above it. Lucy was asked to teach an online painting class. She teaches in Europe and in the U.S., but she was reluctant to teach online. Urged on by artist friends, she decided to teach transcription, an activity they did together. They would look at a masterpiece, and draw from it, not copying, but trying to take apart the painting and “figure out what’s so great about it and how it works, the secret behind these paintings. I know these Renaissance painters I have been teaching, but it’s another thing to teach them.”
Also, during the pandemic, a tragedy. Lucy lost her father, who died after a long fall during treacherous conditions while hiking.
At first, she could not paint at all. Then she started to draw with charcoal. “Charcoal doesn’t expect much.” She went out to the trees. “I have this association with him and the olive trees. And it felt just right. “
Around that time, while helping a neighbor get his jeep out of the mud, talking about how dangerous the mud is there, someone said to her, e anche la discesa, and also the descent: beautiful hills but then precipitous drops in terrain. “It stuck with me. I found this particular olive tree that I loved; it’s high up on a hill above our house here. To come down to us is a descent. It just felt right.”
An aching need to paint but unable to, eased by charcoal, and then a word casually used by a neighbor.
“Lucy is in the range of people who don’t quit – and that is the big one,” Lees said. “She follows her own way.” She finds a way back, even when it seems impossible.
As pandemic restrictions loosen, Lucy can revisit the Renaissance and Novecento artists all around her, and go to shows. She also is finding inspiration in post war Italian neorealist films, for their composition (and she relates to a few characters), and in the fashion house Dolce and Gabbana, whose recent designs were inspired by the wildly colorful Sicilian market carts.
As spring arrives again, as it reliably does, regardless of our grief or joy, the blood oranges appear at the market. They may be sliced or lie whole on a plate whose color is an indescribably creamy blue; two oranges seem to lean against each other.
At the end of the day, the golden hour arrives on that hillside overlooking the valley. It is a time before sunset “when the light gets really low, and everything seems so golden.” If you have not been there, you may see it and even feel it in one of her paintings. It might be mixed in with your memory of other dusks. It might be a warm evening, una serata calda.
If you have been fortunate enough to come to her show each year, you have seen the colors lie down next to each other as the edges of representation spill into abstraction. You may approach the painting to see what she has done over the past year. You may notice where she has been, maybe Procida, or Sicily; or perhaps she stayed close by, on that Umbrian hillside. We know she has worked and tried new ideas, and our recognition of this brings us close, even intimate. Always anticipating, and usually surprised.
If you have arrived at the end of this long piece, you will want to see her work. Here is a link to Lucy’s site: