CR: We have talked about your paintings of ancient statues and your figure studies, but not about your landscapes. Here too you are engaging with the past, and very directly with, to quote the title of a book I loved as a child, the “pleasure of ruins.” You are also taking your place in a grand tradition, both low and high, of making vedute di Roma. Where do you see yourself in that tradition?
WA: Rome is so beautiful. I had never been interested in painting landscapes until I arrived in Rome, and then set myself the goal of painting one landscape per day. I started out with simple silhouetted images of domes and pines. Bit by bit I allowed the backlighting to slide to the side, which you can see in my painting of the columns of the Temple of Saturn. Sometimes I tried to imagine how a painting of the landscape before me would look if I saw it and wished I had made it, and then I would try to paint that image. As I continued, the paintings became more and more complicated, until I was relishing the most complicated views, the visual mayhem of ancient ruins, baroque domes, and trees. I learned how to measure and grew to love the repetition of arches, of windows, of columns. I was able to sit outdoors for weeks, months, years. The weather is good for “plein air” painting in Rome. Some days I see my subjects just as piles of stones, but I started the paintings when I thought I was going to leave Rome forever, as nostalgic treasures.
These pictures are a very contemporary look at the remains of the past: I am not painting the buildings of the Romans but the vestiges of those buildings, as when I paint the remnants of chipped statues or the plaster copy of an artifact. The subject matter is rich with history and romance, the ruins poignant remains of what is no longer there. Time and erosion have turned the man-made into interesting organic forms. I use sepia watercolor to capture the warmth and brilliance of the Roman sunlight.
A couple of years ago I was speaking with the poet Jessica Fisher at the American Academy in Rome, who said that she wanted to write about Rome but that so many people had written about Rome, she did not simply want to fall into their well-worn tracks. People have already written about the parasol pines, the ruins, she said.
I said, what about nostalgia? Revisiting what you love, over and over again. There can never be enough pictures of the loved one: originality is not the point. Each new image is another moment of reliving that beautiful thing that is not present. The pictures, or poems, are like the key that you take away with you instead of all of your weighty possessions.