Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – 5 Questions for Kelly Borsheim, Street Painter in Florence

The best bookstore for visitors to Florence, the Paperback Exchange, just got a fascinating new book. The title tells it all—My Life as a Street Painter in Florence, Italy by Kelly Borsheim—and for any visitor to the Renaissance City it sheds light on a little-known artistic lifestyle, that of the madonnari, those who work with chalk and pastels on three large squares of paving stones between Piazza della Repubblica and the Ponte Vecchio, bringing well-loved paintings to “life” for a mere twenty-four hours.

Kelly and another street artist put the finishing touches on Raphael's Madonna of the Chair
Kelly and  Johnny finish Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair in Florence

Kelly, a sculptor with a studio in Texas, came to Florence just in time to fulfill a lifetime goal of seeing Michelangelo’s works before she turned forty. A few years later she joined an organization of pavement painters. (They are licensed by the city and pay for the privilege of using the designated spaces.) Her fascinating book contains hundreds of photos and the story of the little understood group of artists who have thrilled and amazed an audience of thousands of bystanders through the years.

Kelly Borsheim and her book about the life of Florentine street artists
Kelly Borsheim and her book about the life of Florentine street artists

You visited Italy for the first time in 2004 and in 2011 you published a book with the intriguing title My Life as a Street Painter in Florence Italy. How did you go from being a tourist to joining the small community of madonnari in Florence?

I backpacked around Italy for six weeks in the summer of 2004 and I fell in love with Anacapri and Florence. I decided to find a way to come back and stay for a longer period of time and returned to the Renaissance City as a student in the fall of 2006.

In early 2007, I met another student who created street paintings as part of the organization of madonnari (street painters) in Florence. She invited me to attend one of the meetings. Shortly after that, I returned to my home and studio in Texas. When I came back to Florence that fall, I went to Via Calimala where the street painters work and spoke with Claudio, the head of the organization. He had been instrumental many years before in having the city create three large squares on that street, consisting of street stones smoother than normal and outlined in brass. I was given a space on two different days in September while the senior madonnari were on holiday. 

Could street painting be considered performance art? What are the skills that make a successful street painter?

Yes, street painting is more of a spettacolo, a performance. Timing is important. I learned a bit about what to do and when to do it in order to help the passersby envision what I was trying to accomplish, whether or not they would be able to return to see progress later. We work large; we work fast. The idea is to create a “Wow” impression in one day. Like any performer: the more skilled we are, the better the show.

With a young assistant kelly reproduces Bartoni's Madonna and Child
With a young assistant Kelly reproduces Batoni’s Madonna and Child

Florence has an established group with most artists being fairly competent. I found that my having some drawing experience already made it easier to adapt my current skills to working large and in color, as well as working on a horizontal surface and in front of an audience. Physically, the work is very difficult and more tiring than anything created in a vertical position.

Kids are the best helpers
Kids are the best helpers

The history of madonnari is a bit unclear, but it seems that they were never really a part of the traditional atelier system that fine artists/professional artists were. There is a school for madonnari in Napoli that I believe was started by Gennaro Troia. The madonnari in Firenze have come from diverse backgrounds (and countries). Often they are art students temporarily in Firenze and working alongside master street painters.

Where else in Italy are there communities of street painters? Are there street art festivals?

I do not actually know if there are communities of madonnari, per se, or at least organizations such as we have in Florence. The madonnari mostly know one another because of the festivals. I have to say that I was thrilled by how so many of them welcomed me into the fold. I find so many in this community, either in person and on Facebook, to be wonderfully supportive of one another.

Festival in Grazie di Curtatone (photo by Luca Volpi)
Festival in Grazie di Curtatone (photo by Luca Volpi)

Yes, there are festivals and they are grand! I wrote about the two in Italia that I have attended: one in Nocera Superiore in southern Italy, not so far from the Amalfi Coast (in May) and the competition on Ferragosto (August 15) in Grazie di Curtatone in north central Italy. And there are other festivals in Europe and the US, perhaps in other countries.

You were a sculptor when you came to Italy. What are you working on now and how did your street painting experiences inform your present endeavors?

 I am still a sculptor and I am in the process of finding a home in which I can start working with stone on a daily basis again. I have been lucky in that some Italian sculptors invited me to participate in a symposium to carve stone in Tuscany two summers ago. That led to my going to Bulgaria for a similar event last summer. Currently, I am working on several figurative paintings. This summer I will return to Texas to carve some of the stone I left there. I hope to be back in Italy this fall.

Kelly's sculpture entitled Gymnast carved of Colorado Yule marble
Kelly’s sculpture  “Gymnast” carved of Colorado marble

Drawing is the basis of all of the visual arts. Drawing and painting helps my sculpting, and vice versa. Before I began street painting, I had little experience with color. The sense of touch is far more important to me. However, I enjoy pastel art. I also wanted to work large and street painting was great training for my first mural as an adult. In 2012, I designed and painted a mural (400 x 200 cm) for a collector in Caprese Michelangelo. I was thrilled since this little village is the birthplace of the great sculptor. I would love to create more murals!

A sketch of "Portrait of Niccolò da Uzzano" by Donatello
A sketch of “Portrait of Niccolò da Uzzano” by Donatello

In Florence, street painting is creating copies of masterworks. I learn best through the sense of touch. So, through the copies, I was able to understand how great artists solved problems of design. I am not sure that I would have allowed myself as much of the luxury of learning from copy work if I had not been working as a street painter.

What question haven’t you been asked about your book or your life in Florence that you wish someone would ask and what is your response?

I have been called “The What-If-Girl” by friends. I can imagine all sorts of things. And yet people still surprise me. I want to change the world, but I have not yet figured out how. The life of an artist is rarely easy, but the Internet has opened doors never before available to the majority of us. Musicians and authors are reported to have used the Internet to change the dynamics of getting their work in the hands, ears, and eyes of new fans and outside of middlemen and normal distribution routes. They are often in direct contact with those that love what they do.

Painters and sculptors create art that is not so downloadable, nor available for a low accessible unit price as a digital artist. Even giclée fine art reproductions cost the artist much more than the individual cost of a digital book or album.

I would like to find a way to get fine art into the lives of more people without actually giving it away. Or, I would not mind giving it away if an artist could still find a way to have a long-term place to live (of his choosing) and not want for food or other things that people choose to have in their lives (travel and even our own art collection!). Unless a work of art is a commission, the artist must find a home for her creation.

In 2001, I met my mentor, Vasily Fedorouk. He introduced to me the world of stone carving symposiums. Here is how it works: A community or group of people get together and decide that they want a handful of large garden-size sculpture for a public art garden. They buy or have donated some large pieces of stone. They organize the workspaces for artists and they chose these artists, sometimes by jury, others by word of mouth. This group provides to the artists the electric power to each carving site, the air compressor and hoses, tables, tents or lots of trees for shade, and of course the work site itself. They also house and feed the artists for the duration of the symposium, which can last anywhere from five to 30 days. They pay each artist a stipend so that he may pay his own living expenses back home, as well as for his travel. The artist creates a specific design, gives his desired dimensions of the stone to the symposium organizers, and brings all of his own individual tools. And he works and works until he is done or the time is up.

And the community? If they did a good job of it, they created a work site accessible to tourists and locals so that everyone could watch the art evolve. They received an “instant” sculpture garden for a lot less than any other means of acquiring large original artworks in stone. They may later place their new sculpture wherever they like, usually on a permanent display. This helps the community build a tourist destination. It is an investment that improves the quality of life for all the citizens.

An angel comes to life
An angel comes to life

As for the street artists of Florence, I have not figured out how they pay their bills. Madonnari work for tips, but the ones I know have other means of income and it is still a difficult life. The world needs more beauty (and less graffiti/tagging).

A Venus by Kelly lasts less than 24 hours
A Venus by Kelly lasts less than 24 hours

I am grateful every day. I do not earn enough in art sales alone but I am quite fortunate in many ways. I know that my artistic life is made possible by every single person who treats me to a meal, gives me a place to sleep when I am traveling, shares useful information with me, makes me smile, makes me think, says a kind word about my work to someone else, and helps me in any number of ways. I work a lot to not disappoint while I follow the individual path that I must travel. But I still want to find a way to change the world . . . and not be living on the street.

(All of the photographs in this post, except as noted, are from www.borsheimarts.com)

Kelly Borsheim’s book My Life as a Street Painter in Florence, Italy  is available at Amazon.com.

One thought on “Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – 5 Questions for Kelly Borsheim, Street Painter in Florence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *