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Xavier Magazine | July 28, 2017

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When in Rome… Draw

Greg Schaber

Mercedes Tryba is organizing her thoughts. A senior art major with concentrations in fibers and graphic design, Tryba is used to talking about art. But this afternoon, as she takes a break from a summer fibers seminar in the A.B. Cohen Center, the cascading images from her recent study-abroad trip to Rome are still too fresh—and there are too many of them—to wrap in a neat, all-encompassing description.

“Almost everything there is art,” she says. “Walking down the street, the cobblestones, the different-colored buildings, that’s all art. Even the people, what they wear, all the jewelry the women wear, the bangles. Everything is art.”

This kind of total experience is exactly what associate professor of art Suzanne Chouteau was hoping for when she began to plan the trip—the first of its kind for Xavier art students. Chouteau first visited Rome while a junior at St. Ambrose University, a small Catholic school in Davenport, Iowa, and it left an indelible mark on her outlook as an artist. So when Paul Colella, director for the University’s philosophy, politics and the public honors program, asked if any art majors would like to travel along with his annual summer study-abroad program in the Italian capital, Chouteau didn’t hesitate.

“Some of the most incredible pinnacles in the development of art and human life can be found in Rome and Florence,” she says. “There’s a long tradition of artists, since the early Renaissance, traveling to these places and sketching, a whole lineage of going to these places to study and learning from it. My goal was to expose my students to as many of these gems as I could. And at the same time, I wanted to give them the opportunity to make a very personal connection with something that’s part of their history by having them draw from artwork and objects in those places.”

A total of 11 art majors made the trip, staying at the Residenza Montemario, a Jesuit residence in the Roman suburbs, part of which has been converted into a four-star hotel. In the course of three weeks, they visited a mind-boggling list of sites, including the Capitoline Museum, Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Barberini Palazzo, Piazza Navona, Borghese Gallery, the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel and numerous other churches.

They also explored the zoo, visited the pantheon, forum and colosseum, and ventured out of town to see art in Florence and Assisi.

If the pace was non-stop, the art was, in the word of sophomore Chrissy Jackson, “awesome.” The group saw works by Michelangelo, Carravagio, Bernini, Boromini, Botticelli, Raphael and Perrugino, among others. In the process, the flat images from art history books came to life.

“The works of Carravagio are almost perfect,” Tryba says. “But you can’t fully understand them until you see them up close, see the brushstrokes and how they’re actually constructed. And then when you see them as these really large paintings that take up most of the wall, it becomes something more than just a picture in a book. And you realize that, yes he was an artist, and, yes, he did create this, and he had to start somewhere. ‘The Pieta’ was created when Michelangelo was 21, which is my age. So where am I supposed to be? It motivates me.”

Motivation comes in handy when there’s a lot of work to be done. And this was no mere sightseeing trip. Each student was charged with creating three to five exhibition-ready works—primarily drawings—plus a large, life-size self-portrait depicting themselves in Rome. These were then combined into a large mural.

With all of this before them, the students began each morning by 9:00 a.m. Chouteau’s schedule called for the sketching trips to end at 2:00 p.m, with students returning to work in the studio space at Montemario. But, in practice, the trips sometimes ran as late as 6:00 p.m. Students also had the option of drawing on weekends.

“Every day was busy. You didn’t really want to miss anything,” Tryba says. “I took 1,900 pictures. We would come home with pictures and sketches. And then you would have to sit down and think about ‘What did I see today?’ I bought postcards everywhere that I went, and I’m in the process of making a book with them right now, adding my thoughts and combining all that with my sketchbook.”

Not surprisingly, Chouteau says, the inspirations found and conclusions drawn were as individual as the student themselves. For Jackson, the trip provided a world of new ideas for using media, approaches and subject matter. “We saw a lot of frescoes, and seeing the way they did things was fascinating, like all the gold leaf,” she says. “It’s stuff that I wouldn’t think of using normally in my art, which would be fun to experiment with.”

Jackson also found herself drawn to the use of Greek mythology in art, in particular the symbolism related to the gods and how those gods interact with each other in various works. Tryba found her inspiration in Carravagio’s paintings and Bernini’s sculpture. Senior Elizabeth Lechleiter, who hopes to transform her concentration in fibers into a career in fashion design and merchandising, took particular inspiration from an evening side trip to a fashion show featuring evening gowns by such names as Donatella Versace, the House of Valentino and Giorgio Armani. Playing with that idea, Lechleiter’s self-portrait places her on a fashion runway. “It was a high point,” she says. “I have a while to go before anything like that is probably ever going to happen. But it’s very encouraging.”

If the sheer volume, variety and quality of art was even greater than some expected, perhaps the biggest surprises came from cultural differences. “They don’t have a bus schedule—the bus comes when it comes,” Tryba says. “If the driver wants to take a smoke break mid-trip, he will. You can’t have an agenda. They have no concept of time. When they say class starts at 9:30 a.m., nobody shows up until 9:45, even the professor wouldn’t dare show up until 9:45 a.m.”

Jackson recalls the trip back to Rome from Assisi. “We were caught in a traffic jam during rush hour,” she says. “It was really impressive. There’s a three-lane road, and they turned it into five lanes. They’re honking, cutting each other off, the scooters go up on the sidewalks—it’s crazy.”

But such experiences are more than curiosities, Lechleiter says. They help students learn not only about other cultures, but about themselves as well. “You have to be patient,” she says. “If you don’t know Italian, you have to work with what you have. You have to be resourceful. It kind of helps you see the world. It opened my eyes.”

While agreeing that the various impacts of the trip may take months or even years to surface, Tryba already senses some change. Certainly, she’s aware that her perspectives have shifted. “Only in Rome can you walk around the corner and see the pantheon and the colosseum,” she says.

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