Archive for October, 2010

our beginnings
Shona and Jake, first night in our new kitchen, Ortonovo

Twenty six years ago we came to Italy. We came young, enthusiastic, wildly idealistic and full of promise. We were going to spend the rest of our life dedicated to our art and we were going to spend it becoming great. We had met two years before in our final year at art college. We fell irrevocably in love, we became pregnant, we married and Mike got work teaching and only two years later we were on shaking ground, wondering how we could continue this life together without our art. A good friend and former lecturer to Michael, took hold of us and told us to get out while we were young. Go find yourselves. Go and work in Carrara – that’s what you were going to do before you both met, NOW, before its too late. We went. Joyous. Impassioned.

We arrived in Carrara in January, 1984, the coldest winter in decades. We had little Jake, not yet two, and Teddy and Potty, strapped to our backpacks. We trundled the streets fourteen hours a day for a week before we finally found a little house in the mountains in a village called Ortonova. Here is an extract from a letter we wrote to our family at the time:

“Tramp, tramp, tramp through Fontia and we eventually find a lady who has a home free in Ortonova, however she doesn’t want to rent it because its in the process of being renovated and no shower, no hot water, poor little bimbo (Jacob) – they’re not very enthusiastic about us at all, but their son is and insists on showing us the house. We couldn’t believe it when we saw it. It was putrid, plaster, dust, machines everywhere, but it looked wonderful. We were ecstatic and I think we would almost have paid any price for it. It has one small bedroom which houses a bumpy bed and a small fold-up bed and a large mirror cabinet, pink ceiling, blue walls and crucifix. A kitchen, a toilet, and stairs, and the most wonderful studio you’ve ever seen. The top floor is one large windowed room that was in the process of renovation before we assured them we loved it just as it was …. $15 a week. Marble bench tops and sinks and window ledges and architraves and stairs. Views like you would not believe. Absolutely spectacular. On the way up the mountain from Carrara a magnificent range of marble grey mountains, ragged and pierced by quarries are half covered in snow, surrounds you, and tiny walled villages defiantly perch on mountain tops or nestle into a shoulder. We are just over the mountain top which greets these views and face yet another stupendous view from our windows which look down onto terraces, vineyards and olivegroves to a steep decent into little orange clusters of houses and spires. The village of Nicoli sits like a nipple on a mound like hill in the middle of a vast valley that reaches the sea and is broken by deep green rivers. Your heart is constantly in your mouth and the village people feel real and on the ground. You sit on the steps of the church in the village square and kids kick a ball around, ducking buses and cars on the way down and you think if they kick the ball hard it’ll be flying down the mountain. Somebody in deep baritone sings Santa Lucia and you feel privileged that you’re witnessing people living in a setting that’s hundreds of years old and that they are really only a small part of the whole long cycle of life and death. Australia somehow makes you feel bigger and grander than what you are…”

So that was the beginning of seven special months in the mountains of Carrara doing our art. It cemented us together as we found ourselves back on the path we always wanted to be on. Our adventures related themselves to our quests for our art and we grew closer from the fun of it all.

I have found some old letters and extracts from this time and I thought it might be interesting from an historical point of view to post them up, so over the next couple of weeks that’s what I will be writing about; our beginnings.


Life is a cool thing. Its funny, not everything is meant to be known to you as you go about life’s lessons, maybe if they were, we would be too cerebral about learning, maybe you have to take things in through the osmosis of the emotions, the brain, the body, so that you really know and evolve fully.

The last year has been a truly great year for me in my studio. It has been a bit like a year off to totally indulge in myself as an artist. No exhibitions to look forward to, no projects (promises, but nothing on the table), just me everyday in my studio pushing my boundaries. This year Mike got the projects and at the beginning of the year, he gave me a hug and said, go for it Shona, this year is mine for projects, get into your studio and stretch yourself. So I did what I have never really done before, consciously sought the inspiration that spoke to me most. I dug out books and photos of Cycladic art, visited museums and allowed the work to directly affect me, working directly in the style of its art forms. The work is very simple and plain, oddly proportioned and broad open surfaces. I love these works because they are deeply spiritual and related to the deepest emotions of human beings, the desires for longevity, fertility, protection, abundance. Cycladic works in their utter simplicity, speak to the spirit of mankind through the essence of the art form, not distracted by the beauty of physical reality, not clever or cerebral, but rustic, always speaking to the unformed world of the soul. This work has always attracted me, but I did not know why, until I allowed myself the time to work in it. At first my whole attention was not to copy, but to be influenced by it so that I could reinvent the work. But you can’t do this work in an objective way. It is not form for form’s sake. You have to partake and my woman vessel forms, became not just beautiful forms, but forms that embody abundance, fertility, the cycle of life. They carry the true wisdom of life. And my sculptures are heavily reflective of the Cycladic works, not reinvented at all, because they didn’t need to be, it was more important for me to be true to the spirit in the works, invest them with the essence of life’s desires.

bronze sculpture by Shona Nunan

This period of my work has made me understand more fully, what I am searching for in art and it’s why I have also always been attracted to Etruscan art, and some African art. It’s seeking the essence and embodying it in form. I have always been able to see very well, and it is a distraction, as the human form is beautiful, and it constantly calls me back to itself, the unconscious regard for proportion and visual beauty always wanting to take over from the essence of the work. When you look at early Etruscan art, you get work that has complete disregard for proportion, sometimes a deliberate decision to make the body very long, the arms and legs very short and the head a square, even the surfaces are uneven and roughly hewn, but it is a devotional piece, so the work is not about human beauty but about human essence. The work can be really austere, but the work haunts you, disturbing you and attracting you. You need that in art because it is not satisfactory to be beautiful alone, or to play a clever mind trick with you, or tell you a story. You need the recognition of yourself as a spiritual being.

Throughout history there have been the great masters who bring their art alive and somehow embody the spirit, the physical and the mind into a whole. That, for me is the ultimate in art; to capture it all without rules, to maintain the freedom of the artist to create, but to give it all to us, so that we resonate with the whole truth.

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