In the summer of 2004 I went to Northern Italy with Hubby D, a cousin, and my brother, After visiting our family villages in the Piemonte Region, we headed for the South of France, via the picturesque mountains and stopping roadside to lunch on the soft toma cheese of Piemonte, along with a loaf of crusty bread and a bottle of red wine. We drove a good five hours before reaching our destination: the medieval village of Vence, perched with quiet dignity above the hustle and bustle of the touristy French Riviera.
Our time in Vence was limited but well-spent, indulging ourselves with to-die-for French crepes and croissants washed down with carafes of French wine. While strolling through pedestrian cobblestone streets, we wandered in and out of various shops, eventually opting for the less pricey offerings of street vendors, where I bought a hand-painted bowl from one and a tapestry handbag from another, both brightly colored to reflect the sun-drenched Riviera. All that walking combined with all that looking soon evolved into tired feet and watery eyes. Break time. We settled onto the nearest bench and watched a few games of boules, the Italian version of bocce.
Of course, no trip to Vence would’ve been complete without visiting the museum of Henri Matisse. Other cultural venues, although we visited only a few, honored the many artists and authors of long ago, those who once called Vence their primary home or home away from home.
It was only by chance that June day, D, my brother, and I wandered into an amazing art studio located in Vence’s Old Town. There was no mistaking the owner and artist-in-residence—Brett Neal. Wiry and animated, Brett moved with the grace of an athlete. He wore his hair spiked, ear lobes decorated with unmatched earrings, clothes as funky as his painting and sculptures. Although born and raised in Thailand, he spoke with the British accent reflecting his nationality. A single word would’ve described him as charismatic.
I hadn’t planned on buying any artwork when I entered Brett’s studio, but then a particular piece displayed on the wall caught my eye. And perhaps my ear. Could it have been those two aproned women in the print calling to me, asking me to check them out? They were standing at a kitchen sink, creating a towering sculpture of pots and pans reflecting the images of their surroundings. How appropriate, the title of this work: ‘Everybody Has The Right To Be An Artist’. I bought #120 of 500 prints; my brother bought the next number. With the dollar against the euro so low in 2004, Brett even gave us a discount, a nice gesture I’d never considered requesting.
‘Everybody Has The Right To Be An Artist’ soon found its rightful place, framed and hanging on the brick wall above our kitchen fireplace, forever a reminder of its creator, Brett Neal. Sadly, I recently learned from his brother Boyd that 55-year-old Brett passed away last year, in Asia where he’d returned in 2006 to make his home. Boyd also said that ‘Everybody Has The Right To Be An Artist’ was one of the winning paintings in the Daily Mail’s ‘NOT The Turner Prize’ competition in May 2003, out of 10,000 entries. As Brett explained at the time “This picture pokes fun at the contemporary art scene. I’d seen a museum sculpture of welded and pans on sale for thousands of dollars, so I created a picture of ladies making their own pots and pans sculpture.”
Fortunately, Brett’s amazing art lives on and can be viewed here at the Brett Neal Studio.
‘Everybody Has The Right To Be An Artist’ image courtesy of Boyd Neal.
Some years after visiting Vence, I wrote a piece of short fiction entitled “Youthanasia.” One of the main characters happens to be a rather eccentric artist—wiry and animated, blessed with the grace of an athlete and the talent of viewing life from a different perspective. But that’s where any resemblance to Brett Neal or his amazing art ends.
If you’d like to read more about my fictional artist, I’m pleased to share a brief excerpt describing him and his studio located on an obscure street in Florence, Italy.
“Youthanasia” as told by middle-aged St. Louisan, Lidia Drago …
Tempo Principale the sign read in the gallery window. Simon glanced at his watch again before following me inside. We were greeted by a haphazard array of easels displaying visual renderings, the subjects so lifelike I wanted to run my fingers across their faces. The first, a young mother nursing her sleeping child, brought tears to my eyes. An ageless woman sitting in a lotus position reminded me of the yoga I gave up years before. A hunter kneeling with his gun and dog seemed to mesmerize Simon, as did the muscular athlete suspended in mid-air while kicking a soccer ball.
My shoulder rubbed against Simon’s; I felt his muscle twitch. “Forget the Ponte Vecchio gold,” I said. “These paintings are absolutely incredible.”
He responded with an I-couldn’t-care-less shrug. Then I remembered: we didn’t have a wall on which to hang pictures anymore. Damn the fire that freed us of responsibilities but took away our home. Damn the fire that allowed us the trip of a lifetime but no place to relive our memories. Still, we shouldn’t deny ourselves some vicarious enjoyment. Simon thought otherwise.
“I need some air.” He made a break for the door, stopped when a cough erupted from the maze of artwork.
Between two easels emerged a mop of jet-black hair, followed by a small, wiry man, his skin free of wrinkles and dark eyes probing. He wore a roomy shirt, tight trousers, and ankle-length boots. “Please Signora, Signore. May I show you more?” He bowed from the waist, the shoulder-length mop flopping over his face until it fell back in place when he straightened up. “I am the proprietor, Peppe Valenti.”
“And the artist?” I asked.
“Alas, we are one in the same. Welcome to Tempo Principale.”
He motioned us to follow him. Simon rolled his eyes but didn’t disappoint me. As with the illustrations we’d already seen, each one Peppe showed us told a personal story. I can still picture the returning soldier embracing his wife while two toddlers wait their turn, a septuagenarian blowing out birthday candles to the amusement of her daughter and granddaughter, an older man sitting in a rowboat, beaming as he pulled his catch from the water. I slipped my hand into Simon’s. His felt clammy in the warmth of mine.
Peppe smiled. “As you can see, I have captured my subjects in what they considered their prime. Perhaps the Signore and Signora would sit for me?”
Simon dropped my hand. He stepped back, showed both palms as if warding off an evil spirit. “Thanks for the offer, but we won’t be staying in Florence long enough to pose.”
“Actually, we’re looking for this place.” I showed Peppe the business card.
“A-ah, then fate has brought you to me. The pensione is footsteps away, two floors above my studio.”
“Then you must know Boswell,” Simon said.
“Si, he represents me occasionally.” Peppe waved his hand toward the door. “Please, the stairs are located outside, to the right of the gallery entrance. Just tell my nonna that Peppe sent you.”
“Then you are—”
He swept into another bow. “Si, I am also the landlord.”
End of excerpt.
“Youthanasia” first appeared in the 2006 November/December issue of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and later in the 2010 Spring/Summer issue of Allegory E-zine. It is currently available at various online distributors, as a single story or part of the full-length eBook entitled A Collection of Givers and Takers.