Author Archive
'Blackbird' by Sollai Cartwright
'Thought' by Sollai Cartwright
Sollai kissing his 'Woman'

Sollai’s adventures learning to carve in Pietrasanta have led to more studio time up in the mountains on a friend’s farm looking out over magnificent vistas and finally down on the river where he has a small studio. Here he was able to complete the sculptures he had started in Pietrasanta. It is no easy task finishing an artwork. Once you have resolved the idea and the forms it seems tedious to finish the work when all you want to do is get onto the next work, the next act of creation. The labouring in polishing marble is huge, hours and hours going through the grades of honing stone and papers, but herein lie the rewards. There is something about polishing marble and bringing out that special luminosity that brings you more and more in love with it. It seems that the marble is living, light twinkling in all the tiny crystals below the surface. The final result is joyous and feels like a massive achievement, no matter how small the work.

Sollai has completed four really lovely works. They are abstract versions of nature and seem to spring from his own sensitive earthiness. He found inspiration on his treks in the summer through the mountains of the Orrido di Botri, adding little organic finds to his collection of studio ideas. He is a good drawer and his sketches are often the foundation of his work, a part of a long process of a sculpture’s evolution. I have put up three of the sculptures and am waiting on a photo of the fourth.

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We have just returned from a wonderful break in Nice. Four hour’s drive from Bagni di Lucca to the boulevard in Nice. Its extraordinary to have so much at our fingertips. While Bagni di Lucca lay cloaked in cloud and rain, Nice was enjoying glorious days, blue blue skies, people sunbathing and swimming and hundreds of people out on the stroll. It felt great to be out in that lovely open clear light, even the colours of the vegetation and buildings and bare hillsides were filled with luminiscent light, and it was warm, very warm.

The contrast to Italy, its next door neighbour, seems enormous to us. The food is so different for a start. Italy is simpler, relying on the beautiful tastes of good produce; I salivate when I think of a simple Italian fresh salad of lettuce, tomatoes and mozzarella dressed in olive oil, salt and lemon. It is such a taste experience. But France is about combinations and we could hardly wait in the car, imagining the cheeses, the quiches, the pastries, the breads, the soupe di poissons…. utterly delectable treats in our greedy minds.

We stayed in the old town on the top floor of a little apartment building, near the flower market, the steepest of stairs making short work of our feasting. At night the area raged. People were still partying and coming out of the bars at 4.00 in the morning. We were pretty bleary eyed for a couple of days before learning to tune out. The mornings were lovely, walking down to the market to buy our croissants and bread and veges and fruit for the day. Everyday the aromas of constant cooking, greeted us and teased us and I confess to being a terrible pig and eating probably six meals a day…. We also walked and walked and walked, not just on the Promenade des Anglaise, but through all the lovely winding streets, around the port and in the commercial districts.

Our biggest treat were the galleries in the area and we didn’t do them all. The Museum of Modern Art (MAMAC), was just around the corner from where we were staying and boasted a great collection of contemporary art since the 1960’s. The Chagall Museum was a good stroll away in the Cimiez area, set in beautiful gardens and lovely contemporary architecture. His stain glass was fantastic. We loved how he painted on it, smearing over the colour so it emerged like jewels in the murkiness. One of the days we spent at the Picasso Museum in Antibes. As usual, Picasso is a fabourite for us. He is so utterly courageous in his work. This collection of his work was just post war and there were not many materials available, so a lot of the work was done with house paints and on panels of plywood. He is completely not precious and every moment is about creating – and he is so not contrived and formularized. So much of today’s modern art seems to be formula because it seems to have to answer to the criteria of the intellectual explanation. For lunch that day we went to the Antibes vegetable market and selected a fantastic lunch of olives and cheeses and beautiful fresh bread and some delicious light red wine. Having bought our feast we then had to go and find utensils to eat with which we found in the antique market nearby. We now have dainty little french glasses and rustic old red plates and antique corkscrew that featured from our picnic. Afterwards we found our way to the Fernand Leger Museum in nearby Biot. What a day it became for us. We were joyous with the surprise of it all. Huge, absolutely huge mosaics adorning the museum outside. Stark and monumental they soar over the building’s surface. Inside, a beautiful use of space, showed an interesting family collection of his work over the years of his life, plus there were some great stained glass works which were also monumental and spectacular.

We got to a point of saturation looking at art, even though we were looking forward to seeing the Maeght Foundation in Vence after so many years, but we didn’t get there, buying instead, art materials from one of the many abundant art shops in the area, to partake in the inspiration of it all. In fact, after a week, we were busting to get back into our studios from the feeling of being filled to the brim with delight and new ideas and our trip back to Italy in torrential rain flew in the memory of our experiences.

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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.

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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Sunday evening we went down to Pietrasanta to deliver Sollai back to his studio after he had a weekend walking in the mountains. Sollai in his usual generous and egalitarian way, invited us for dinner and extended the invitation to friends of ours as well as to Jacob and Jaqueline and her sister who were playing on the beach that day. So 10 of us for a picnic dinner under a canopy of cool vines, around a great long marble table, thousands of mosquitos, citronella burning and the dusk, warm and balmy.

We wandered around the studio and delighted in Sollai’s new work. First time carving and he is natural with stone carving, throwing himself into it and quickly learning the tools, having finished his first small piece in Portuguese Rose marble in three days. His sculpture is a lovely pod like form folding into itself. The colour is beautiful and he is gratified to be told that for a first piece, the Portuguese Rose is very hard.

He spends his days waking up at 6.00, heading down to the beach on his pushbike for a swim before breakfast, a brioche and cappuccino, then hard at it till lunch time, when he stops and makes a pasta that will last all day long for nibbles as well. A bit of a snooze in the hammock, then onto it again till dusk, when he cleans up and heads into Pietrasanta to cruise the galleries and enjoy the long night time passegiata throughout the town.

We think we too will enjoy a passegiata through Pietrasanta that beautiful summer’s evening. The streets are full and the shops are still open even though it is nearly 10.00. It feels wonderful to be in here amongst twirling running children, performers surrounded by dense crowds, the outdoor cafes full in the great piazza, overlooked from above by the arcing town walls. Sculpture everywhere. Exhibitions still with the doors open at 12.00 when we slowly make our way back through the streets to the car to take our young bare foot bohemian back to his pad under the giant Mediterranean pines. Such a spectacle and such a promenade and such a lovely accompaniment to art.

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Overhead, on the verandah, Sollai is cementing the patch work of canals made for recent wires and plumbing, cheerful and gung ho, cement is flying from his flailing spatula. The garden is water ridden and the river is swollen and brown, but today the sun is shining and we pull the geraniums back out onto the walls – they had become so water logged we thought they’d drown. Glorious to see the swallows swoop and glide over the river, gobbling insects in the fresh glowing light.

Michael is standing back absorbing the triptych he has just completed for Morgon Stanley in Hong Kong. Its beautiful. A river scene. The bank full and pulsating with wildflowers and lush green herbs. The river gushing past, and on the canvas it looks fast, the colours almost tripping over themselves, glinting and dashing with that special light at sunset. The energy of the paint is fantastic and you feel part of early summer and its bountiful delights. He’s a mad man in the studio. How can he work so fast? At the end of every session he’s exhausted but emerges victorious, eyes shining, and then dumps on the couch and naps as quickly and intensely as he works. He says he doesn’t think about it – just does – complete trust.

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Today is the 21st June and the weather is unseasonably cold and wet. People have lost their lives in the floods in Provence. We were just there picking up our youngest son, Sollai, from the airport in Nice. It rained so hard that we were completely drenched in seconds while walking on the Boulevard Des Anglais. Back here in Italy the weather followed us and for a week we are back in winter dreaming again of the sun and light summer clothes.

But still dreams are made. On the way back from France, Sollai ventured forth his dream of working in a marble studio in Pietrasanta or Cararra. We stopped at Pietrasanta enroute to inspect a bronze coming out of the foundry and casually asked the owner if he knew of a good marble carving yard for Sollai to start off in. They gave him their introduction to a carving yard they knew of, ‘Shakti’, situated under beautiful mediterranean pines, with accommodation as well, albeit an aluminium shed. He is so excited. Now he is back in Bagni di Lucca working his tail off so that he can afford the rates for his one month sojourn in Pietrasanta from mid July to mid August. Michael will happily go with him for a week to teach him some pointers on carving and set him on his way, as well as to enjoy some carving of his own. Summer carving in Pietrasanta, home to the great quarries that Michaelangelo discovered, beautiful stone tools, a city romantic and ancient, its walls climbing the hills above its centre, overlooked by great craggy mountains, olive groves, below it on the flats, mad industry and the sea, every day in summer a pushbike ride to the beach – the sculptors life.

Today this sculptor is back in her studio. A week away is sometimes a long time and today was joy itself. Its like coming home. This beautiful space under the old vaulted ceilings, bricks black with age, a cave to indulge in one’s fantasies, surrounding yourself with nothing but yourself. I love it when I come here. I come back to myself. And today I started a new series of horse and riders. I have been going regularly to my friend’s ranch where I have been drawing and touching and loving her beautiful horses. At last I am sculpting – from a Shona perspective – these noble creatures that for me express a freedom and at oneness with life.

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