*Featured photo: Still Life With Cats 2019 Textile collage and hand embroidery on linen fabric, silk threads, cotton batting; unique 32 x 32 inches (81 x 81 cm). Detail. Copyright Clint Roenisch Gallery
A forty-year-long research has led Paola Paganelli to her most recent installations in which the tension between solids and voids gives voice not only to an inner investigation fueled by the silence that envelops her studio in the Ferrara countryside and that the artist has been pursuing for some time, but also to a plurality of reflections on the relationship between nature and culture, history and myth, to the point of exploring the meaning of antithetical terms such as respect and exploitation and the boundaries that delineate their defining perimeter.
Paganelli is an artist who has – by personal temperament and character – in ‘making’ and ‘experimenting’ the almost exclusive feature of her artistic practice – even at the expense of a regular and continuous exhibition presence. In recent years she has exhibited, among others, with a solo show at the MAGI Museum in Pieve di Cento in 2019. Since 2018 she has set up widespread environmental installations in the Ferrara countryside. In 2022 following her participation in the group exhibition “The Soft Revolution“, organized by ArteMorbida and held as part of the Salone Italia for the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the WTA World Textile Art at the Museo del Tessile in Busto Arsizio, one of her works entered the permanent collection of the Civiche Raccolte d’Arte at Palazzo Marliani Cicogna and was exhibited here on the occasion of the temporary exhibition “Spirito: oro e luce“. Today she lives and works in Bondeno.
Are artists born or made, Paola? And specifically, when, why and how did you start “making art”?
Based solely on my own artistic journey, I can say that one becomes an artist, at least to a large extent. I believe, however, that the environment in which I lived facilitated my approach to art, particularly the presence of an uncle who was an amateur photographer and painter and a grandmother who was a seamstress. As a natural talent, a heritage of many women, I think I simply inherited a certain intelligence of the hands, combined, I hope, with that of the heart.
I was born in a very small country town in the province of Ferrara, in the early post-war period, to a family of humble origins but very active in the field of handicrafts, which, in those days and for those places, represented the highest expression of creativity. I, too, seemed destined to become a seamstress like my grandmother or a hairdresser like my mother, but these women, who were so avant-garde albeit with little culture, directed me instead toward a course of study that, in their opinion, would guarantee me greater economic security. Although I had already shown a flair for the arts, by an absurd twist of fate, I found myself at 19 with a degree in business administration and a clerical position with my municipality.
For several years, art remained just a dream, a blurred possibility in the name of a stable job that stifled that aesthetic and creative need that was very much present in me. Having reached full maturity, this need became more and more pressing, and I therefore decided that the time had come to start ‘making art’, aware that the road would be all uphill, especially since I had no academic preparation, which I then considered indispensable to becoming an artist. Looking at the schooling of many famous artists, I changed my mind over time. Of course I needed to study, to observe, to travel, to visit exhibitions and museums, to get to know other artists, which I did over the years to the best of my possibilities and capacities.
Relying solely on a great will and a strong inner motivation, ‘the little dressmaker’ of the past, the one who had learnt to sew, to mend, to knit, with a certain fear took up a thread and as if in front of an imaginary loom, began to weave her web which, after 40 years, is still unfinished.
Today, it is here in the dark, damp soil of this Po Valley that my works have their roots. I create and conserve them in an old house-studio in the Ferrara countryside, not far from the Po, where peace and silence reign, indispensable to my art.
Your artistic career has developed in the field of sculpture and fibre art, a language that has also led you to experiment with alternative materials to the more traditionally used textile ones. Where did this need for three-dimensionality come from and, above all, how did you come to use threads?
As happens to those who, like me, have approached art as self-taught, I started drawing on sheets and sheets of paper that I then largely destroyed, or creating more or less abstract figures, often with the addition of threads, glues, fabrics mixed with synthetic enamels or acrylics, sometimes on thick cardboard or on canvases, mostly made from old sheets, in the knowledge that I was simply probing my technical and expressive abilities, nothing more. In those years, I am talking about the 1970s, there was a great artistic and cultural ferment in Italy, which mainly affected the big cities, but my own town of Ferrara and I were also somehow influenced by it, despite the fact that I lived in my country town, in almost total isolation.
This work, which lasted many years, gradually revealed my propensity to texturize surfaces, as well as the difficulty of enclosing my imagery in the limited space of a sheet of paper or a canvas. This led to the need to measure myself against three-dimensionality, which gained momentum in the early 1990s, when I finally had a very large studio at my disposal, the one in which I still work, and when, still quite young, I was able to leave my job at the municipality. This was the moment when I realised that perhaps my dream of becoming an artist could really come true. I then created my first sculptures and installations investigating the different expressive and linguistic possibilities of different materials such as cement, fabric, iron, wood, plaster and paper.
Since the early 2000s, my research has focused on fabric and the use of metallic thread. My challenge with this material, so cold and resistant, was to work it as if I had a silk thread in my hands. Therefore, a strong and determined touch was required, but at the same time respectful, non-violent, open to the intrinsic suggestions that came from it, in making aerial sculptures, in transparency, where fullness counted as much as emptiness and stability as much as precariousness.
You create works that involve painstaking slowness and even a certain repetitiveness of gestures to obtain volumes, even large ones, that occupy space in a lightness given by the alternation of empty and full spaces: what is your relationship with time and space?
There is no doubt that my artistic research started directly from the movement of hands busy sewing, ironing, marking, weaving, modelling. Those repetitive ancient gestures of women that give time to thought and let it linger.
Since I have never had any debt or duty towards a client, I have always been able to enjoy the utmost freedom of expression, as well as space and time to weave my plots, write my words in straw or iron wire, in the silence necessary to allow that forgotten language of the origins to emerge. Even today, I still surround myself with objects from the past, memories of my own or of the land, the necessary humus of a work that needs a long time to ferment and germinate. Especially in the lighter and more aerial works, I almost have the impression of narrating the silence concentrated in the intimacy of my daily life. My ‘making’ can also be read as a eulogy of slowness, so necessary to preserve memory, in stark contrast to our age dominated by the demon of speed that quickly forgets or perhaps, even worse, does not aspire to be remembered.
What or who inspires your works? What is the genesis of your works, how do they come into being? And how do they evolve?
Continuous sources of inspiration are both nature and words, poetry in particular. Written words, words that in some works emerge with their full and explicit communicative force, I am thinking of the large inscription ‘No War’ imprinted on a very high gauze sail and which gave the title to one of my most significant exhibitions, while in others the words break up, become tangled or appear in symbols or figures that contain them. Equally influential is what emerges from my inner space made of images, life experiences, feelings, emotionality, the elaboration of texts read and reread over time, as well as attention and silent waiting. Elements that, as they reach consciousness, continue to direct my work.
How have your works changed over time – techniques, materials, meanings? And how important is experimentation in the creative process to you?
In these 40 years of almost uninterrupted work, the continuous experimentation with the various materials I have used, mainly fabric and wire, has been crucial to my artistic growth, allowing me to make sometimes minimal and sometimes more significant changes. Like a wanderer, I follow uncertain and vague paths, in a progressive adaptation and interaction with the poor materials I use. In iron, in particular, I find strength, resistance, permanence; in fabric, lightness, flexibility, fragility.
The artistic process is always an adventure. I pursue a goal without ever knowing what it is, until I have reached it.
In the iron mesh works, from a technical point of view I strive to achieve the effect of transparency before lightness. Transparency in my view means movement of light from the inside to the outside and vice versa, something dynamic that is accompanied by grace and delicacy. Something halfway between material and spiritual, between visible and invisible.
As for meanings, my works do not have explicit political content, nor do they present provocative or radical actions intended to change society. Mine is a more indirect commitment, certainly more subtle, but there is no work that does not reflect my way of looking at things in the world, at the changes, more or less alarming, that we experience on a daily basis, and above all at the interiority and anxieties of the men and women of our time. In these very last few years, I have been focusing more and more on the need for spirituality that seems to me to be slowly surfacing in our society, which has become too materialistic and superficial. I am thinking not only of religious spirituality, but more appropriately of a secular or rather natural spirituality, understood as a personal introspective quest towards awareness, towards respect for nature and for mankind.
What were the greatest difficulties you encountered (and still encounter today) in your career as an artist?
Art is all about communication and therefore needs to be exhibited and have a direct relationship with the public. This is crucial both for creating an artist’s identity and as an enrichment of the collective identity. On the other hand, the artist needs someone to accompany him on his journey, be it a critic who is particularly interested in promoting his work or another important figure who supports him in this task. Well, as I was not so fortunate, I had to do everything myself, as best I could, certainly in a poor and insufficient manner.
That being said, it pains me to admit that because of so many issues related to my personal experience, but above all because I did not want to accept too many compromises, I ended up rarely exhibiting my work. In the early years I felt too unprepared to face the public’s judgement, then when I felt ready, it was extremely difficult for me to find suitable opportunities, both in private galleries and in public spaces, and today even more so than a few years ago. Thus, with regret, I must say that many works, both sculpture and graphics, are still ‘mute’ because they have never been exhibited, I fear they will remain closed in my studio where they were born, for as long as they are allowed to live. As long as possible, I hope.
Make a wish
These days there is a heated discussion on the threats coming from artificial intelligence to the world of art and creativity in general. Personally, I cannot judge at present what the real risks are of a possible cultural stasis due to this new technology. I do, however, express my concern in this regard and my wish that human beings may retain their freedom of artistic expression, which is fundamental for the development of the individual and society.