American Journey

Marco Sassone is currently writing his memoir entitled American Journey now represented in Toronto by Michael Levine of Westwood Creative Artists.

American Journey is the vivid, transformational life story of the internationally acclaimed American–Italian painter, Marco Sassone, who came to California in search of artistic freedom and success, and whose path led him through both hope and despair to the threshold of true self–fulfillment: a deeper understanding of himself and his mission as an artist.

The life he has lived and the people he has known make the memoir of this remarkable artist such a wonderful, revealing canvas. Dining with Sofia Loren, conversing with Luciano Pavarotti, and joking with Tina Turner at his own Beverly Hills opening, are all part of his California days during the ’70s; as well as his close friendship with Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley who often travelled to attend his art openings.

But what makes this memoir extraordinary is Sassone’s vivid recollection of his real life stories. His childhood in post war torn Florence in the ’50s; his beginning as an artist in the glorious studio of his teacher overlooking Giotto’s bell tower; his frightening experience of survival during the 1966 Great Flood of Florence, when water and mud reached a height of 18 feet in the historic centre, and his participation in the rebirth of Florence which would deb for the young artist the most beautiful moment of that unforgettable event; and his first drawing of “Willie” in the late ’80s that lead Sassone straight to the streets of San Francisco to meet the homeless, and to begin an extensive and personal research that resulted in a series of large canvasses and charcoal portraits comprising a four–year body of work culminating in his groundbreaking exhibition “Home on the Streets.”

Sassone’s rare description of the creative process, his intimate reflections on love, and his candid discourse on painting make this lyrical memoir an inspiring, sometimes painful and courageous examination of a life in art.

The following are sample excerpts from his memoir in progress regarding artworks produced from 1968 to present — in essence the artist’s recollection of the act of painting, in his own words.

Aftermath, 1968, oil on canvas, 71 x 71 inches

“But in the midst of all those colourful interpretations of sun, sea and sails, the vision of Florence surprised me, re-emerging with the force of the Arno River when it swelled above its embankments…
Incredibly, I started painting a dark series of watercolours and oils right there in the sunshine in Southern California, including a piece which I titled “Aftermath,” a six-foot square canvas embracing all the heartache of the great flood of Florence. “What are these?” friends would ask. I never really felt like pursuing the subject and, more often than not, my replies were brief and evasive. One day, Phyllis Barton came by the studio for a visit. She was an art historian working for the Santa Ana Register. I had met her one Sunday at a Marina Pacifica show where she had purchased a colourful painting of bathers in the water full of reflections. When she saw the current series of work she was startled and felt an urgent need to talk about it. “’Aftermath’ is a masterpiece!” she exclaimed, and continued, “I am going to publish this piece in the November issue… I want to time it with the three-year anniversary of the flood of Florence on November 4.

The feature article was impressive: “County Artist Relives Florence Disaster” was the headline. The text also announced that all of the pictures in the series were going to be exhibited in a commemorative exhibition at Aquarium Fine Arts in Sana Ana two weeks later. What a shock for my patrons accustomed to seeing my sunny landscapes. This would not be my last time to shock them.”

San Francisco Terrace, 1982, oil on canvas, 44 x 54 inches

“Working in oil with a dark crimson red, in the middle of a canvas, I began to sketch out the numerous shapes of buildings and other, smaller constructions where they merged with the water below. It suggested the outline of a body of land from a distance protruding from the right side, under a sky I was planning to paint in various tones of dark and light blue. On the left side of the canvas, large tree branches sketched in black began to take shape, going from the bottom to three quarters of the way up the canvas against the blues of the sky. The foreground had no definite definition other than the outlines of a few large structures. Then I found myself going back to the middle of the canvas, applying a frenzy of small strokes to evoke some of the chaos seen through the branches of the tree; and on to the right side, where with a few strokes I outlined the church of Saints Peter and Paul coming into view from Washington Square. I paused for a moment and stepped back to see what I had done so far. I liked the dramatic balance of the scene. Not wanting to lose the gestural sketch marks currently present on the surface, I was not sure how to hold the work together as a whole but I had been here before and I proceeded to attack the surface energetically, working from left to right. The tree trunk and branches began to take clearer shape in dark tones of muted greens and rusty reds. Some of the strokes I had previously made on the very left appeared almost black, breaking through the tree at intervals and allowing a glimpse of the housing structures, now painted in a deep golden variation of ochre and mustard-orange. On the right, the church appeared in shades of muted blue-gray tones, all the way up to the spires.
I took a break. Was the work okay? Gazing at the surface of the picture I was still not able to answer the question one way or the other. As I continued examining the canvas from different angles, paint dripping all over, I arrived at a decisive moment. I came back to the scene and instinctively started sketching in black paint in the foreground, over the previous outline, a concrete stone terrace with columns from which to see through to the mass of landscape below. The creative process eradicates shallow assumptions in favour of deeper truths. But this time the act of painting was yielding an unexpected outcome. The terrace railing was solid, anchoring the composition from side to side. I was applying the brush strokes in rapid succession, in a multitude of tones of deep ultramarine gray-blue, with slightly lighter highlights on the left of each column to suggest the roundness of their spiral stone elements. I dropped everything I was holding onto the work table and stood there for a few moments, utterly exhausted. Then I began cleaning brushes and reconditioning paint in the open jars. I always enjoy this part of the process, in the course of which I am constantly gazing at the work on the easel, often nervously taking mental notes for the following painting session. At this stage, there is no way you can resolve the picture or settle any of your unsettled feelings. There comes a moment in the creation of a painting when the work is what it is, whether or not you are ready to live with it; it would be dishonest to force it to be anything other than what it is.

The following day the unfinished blue terrace, as I had begun to call it, was anxiously awaiting me. The smell of fresh paint pervaded the studio. I felt that I was actually breathing through the canvas, as the activity around the easel began again, slowly, quietly, touching and selecting brushes, opening tubes and cans, moving them around on the table and mixing paint without even looking into the bowls. A few moments later I found myself approaching the canvas, touching up certain parts already painted, as if to re-establish the rhythm of the previous day. And pretty soon the strokes seemed to pick up their own pace as I applied numerous shades of blue in the water to create the right tone in juxtaposition with the hot colouration of the residential construction merging with the bay. I could hear the music playing in the studio for the first time now as I moved back and forth to the canvas with a sheaf of brushes in my hand, dipping into jars of paint and linseed oil to keep the right consistency; moving and sweeping in and gazing at the painting’s surface, to catch the moment, to catch that elusive spot where I could drop in the exactly right tone and highlight to make the canvas sing. Continuing this dance lead me back into the furthermost part of the painting, the background–in this case, the large overhanging sky. The background, for me, is always the last area to be painted, the area that makes it or breaks it. But no fear now. The rhythm was pressing, the urgency unstoppable. The large, flat brushes swept across the upper part of the canvas, close-up now, with a mixture of grey Prussian blue, grey Cobalt–and grey Ultramarine to register the darkest hue, from which to descend gradually, chromatically through the sky with hundreds of strokes and subtle shapes. Lighter tints of light grey-greens and pale Cerulean, all were applied with additional rapid brush strokes, adding dimension to the stretch of sky that now pushed further and further back into the distance. The horizon was now defined in light lavender and blue-violets merging with the water, partly visible through the branches on the left side of the canvas.

Once finished with the canvas, I titled it San Francisco Terrace. I recall it as a solid painting, rich with expressive colouration and emotional tone.”

San Francisco Marina Dusk, 1984, oil on canvas, 50 x 62 inches

“In contrast with the cool coloration of earlier work, I remember the excitement I felt when I approached the canvas that would become San Francisco Marina Dusk. I had a creative conception of what I wanted to paint. As with the preceding paintings, I chose a view from above to create a new impression of spatial breadth—this time, however, suffused with warm light. The surface was already prepared with various washes of pale yellow-ochre, over which I had sketched the outlines of numerous trees and foliage occupying the right foreground. Merging with the housing at the centre, the sketch moved slowly to the left, suggesting smaller housing structures that vanished towards the water’s edge. The thin outline of the Golden Gate Bridge occupied the space just over the middle of the canvas, above which, in a sparse evocation, appeared the overhanging sky. Built to move on wheels, my large palette was prepared with jars and cans of my selected colors, already mixed and customised for what I had in mind. There was a predominance of warm colours, ranging from pale Naples yellow to peach and light orange tones, a variation of rust reds with a few sap-greens and gray-blues. I took a breath. I calmed myself down and approached the easel. Tentatively at first, I touched the canvas with a brush loaded with some dark Alizarin red, working right smack in the middle of the surface, delineating a few small houses and some larger ones adjacent to them. Next, I began applying flat strokes of paint that suggested the small housing complex and the larger structures to the left. I was soon inside the painting, getting into the rhythm. My brush strokes retreated from the center of the canvas down towards the foreground. Unconsciously, I had picked up larger brushes, and the trees began to take shape in a variation of greens and rust reds to the right. As the colors hit the mark, my confidence grew. I could feel the beginnings of a silent thrill. Back and forth, the pace picked up in an intense dance as a whole scale of chromatic effects took hold of the piece and suffused the foreground. Hours passed like moments, with only quick breaks, for the next three days. Two blue houses in the middle were filled in before I tackled the bridge structure, moving from left to right. Then came the light tones of the water under the bridge, with its multiple subtle highlights. Addressing the sky, now, the pace of the brush strokes accelerated, working down from the top with hundreds of subtly different shades on the blue spectrum that nonetheless maintained the warm coloration of the canvas as a whole; then gently descending into a pale glow of coloured light that mirrored the broken hues of the water…

A few days later I sneaked up on the canvas in amazement, gazing at it with the veneration of a lover who steals a look at the beloved while she sleeps.”

Untitled, 1990, oil on canvas, 72 x 81 inches

“An article in the Chronicle in late December headlined: “110 homeless died on San Francisco streets in 1989,” while an earlier article, also in the Chronicle was titled: “Plans to end homelessness” which proved later to be a total delusion in more ways than one. My own pictorial research was mounting, too. In 1990, I made hundreds of drawings and several paintings, including a canvas, Untitled, measuring 72 x 81 inches, that captured a universal image of homelessness: a desolate figure sitting on a bench at night under the cold street lights, with the dome of the City Hall looming up behind. The palette was reduced to various tones of charcoal grey and brown melting in with yellow-white highlights. As I completed this painting, one of the earliest in this series, I stood for a long while in front of it, to get a sense of its overall effect and its meaning to me personally, and I decided to write in the left lower corner the names of cities in the US with their corresponding homeless population. The numbers were staggering: 80,000 for New York, 55,000 for L.A., scaling down to 10,000 for San Francisco. While the inscription added meaning to the narrative aspect of the canvas, it also provided extra substance to the painting itself.”

Man with Blue Eyes, 1994, charcoal on paper, 29 x 20 inches

“One late morning filled with crisp sunlight, as I was walking past the YMCA building South of Market, I noticed from a distance the figure of a man sitting on the edge of a circular fountain. This area had just been renovated and was generally not populated by street people at all, but this person happened to be there, alone, staring into space. I walked towards him. His appearance was gentle, his looks extraordinary. I had no idea, at the time, how this encounter would affect my life and inspire my work for years to come. I said “Hi,” but there was no reply. When I asked if I could do a sketch and handed him money, he quietly took the ten dollar bill, but still sat in silence. He made not the slightest move as I began to draw. His dirty blonde hair was a total mess, spewing out in all directions, with a bun rolled up at his left temple. The wrinkles on his forehead were deep ridges, and a huge, unkempt, reddish-brown beard merged with the moustache that covered his mouth. His blue-gray clothes were shredded, his hands filthy with encrusted black spots of dirt. His eyes were clear blue, though, and he began to talk in spurts as I worked. He said he had been employed in a high-rise building as a secretary–pointing up to the Cypress Leasing Corporation on his left–and then assured me that the revolution would be over soon. I asked his name. He could not remember. This sort of total amnesia was quite common among the homeless I had encountered through the years, and as a result, many of the drawings I had made remained untitled. This time it was different. The title came to me spontaneously: The Man with Blue Eyes.”

Man with Blue Eyes, 2000, pastel on paper, 30 x 22 inches

“There was one face I could never forget, a face that haunted me, a face with no name: the man with blue eyes. I started making sketches in charcoal again, and later dove into painting in oil, trying to capture this man in full colour with brush strokes and restless dabs, trying to render the thickness of the skin upon which time had weighed so heavily. The first portrait I completed was particularly significant to me. Man with Blue Eyes managed to capture the unquenchable charge of pride that stimulated his gaze. Pride in both his misery and his defeat, like distant suffering that was no longer painful but contained only the memory of pain. I felt that I had caught on to some vital visual truth in his stare into space, his wrinkled face, his glassy blue eyes seized in a moment between reflection and surrender. The point here is not necessarily that I had penetrated the character of this man, rather that I had seen everything evenly, transmitting the creative detachment between my gaze and his lack of response. I wanted everything to be there, down to the shadow cast on his face by the dishevelled tangles of hair around his ears, the creases above his eyes and his scruffy beard: a silent intensity.”

Venezia 75, 2002, oil on canvas, 50.5 x 50.5 inches

“This time, returning to the subject after a break of two years, I noticed a new element that had begun to permeate my work, a monochromatic tonality that first appeared in Venezia 75, a canvas I was just then completing. When I laid down the brushes I felt exhausted—exhausted by the total surrender to the process and the drive to bring the painting to completion, surrender to a subject that unleashed a vitality all its own, even as it perfectly reflected the internal agitation that I felt. There was a sense of mystery in this square canvas. The innumerable deep shades of blue seemed to evanesce and spread out in the air, allowing the material form to be swallowed up in a kind of soundless chaos.”

San Remigio, 2003, oil on canvas, 62 x 50 inches

“It was already the middle of June. The air was warm in the studio, with skylights wide open throughout. Upon the completion of Santa Croce I found myself moving on immediately to the next piece, a similar church interior as to subject and theme, yet dissimilar in composition and tonality. Here, the main altar was positioned on the right side of the image, balanced out by a tall, slender column on the left, reaching from top to bottom. The canvas was also wider. The viewer’s eye was invited to enter into the composition with ease, absorbed into a pervasive, spatial light that was reflected throughout. The shape of interior objects was evanescent, as before, but flooded this time in a gray-pearl-blue-green tonality that was reflected below in the muddy water on the floor. The title was San Remigio, the name of a small church I had first visited in November, 1966, and whose impression stayed with me throughout my career. “

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