Who are the three women in red who parade around the streets of Atina, seeking for their lives, lost in time? Emigrants who returned home, tossed on the changes of Europe and who found themselves homeless in their hometown. Women who had broken barriers and through the vicissitudes of war, found themselves washed up on the cobbled lanes of the mountains that had been their family’s home.
The women fly round the street, detritus of red tulle streaming from their arms and legs, their heads full of the sounds of their adventures, their hearts screaming for their lives back. The church bells ring out the hours, dully, on time, clang clang clang. But they find no peace in the rhythm of the regularity imposed on the church for they are now outsiders.
I have been returning to the town of Atina in the Appennines for four years to work as an artist. For three years I have been running the Passaggiatina art residency there with fellow artist Chris Simpson. Passaggiatina 2019 will be exhibiting work from the residency in January 2020 at hARTs lane arts project in SE London.
This film, ‘Painting the Town Red’ was conceived and filmed (with camera work and supporting direction by Nico Mahoney and Mia C) in the summer of 2017 on one of these explosive and experimental residencies. The parts of the women are played by Veronica Shimanovskaya, Katja Heber and Jude Cowan Montague.
The story is taken from a Chinese whispers story in which the tales of the women of Atina came to me through other excited artists on the residency. They told of female artists who began as artist models. They went to Paris to set up the first artist school for women. They were driven out in part by the military and changing times of the Risorgimento. But Paris was the place to be for art in the Belle Epoque and subsequent years. Then came World War One and the Italians were on the opposing side to France. So to avoid being interned, or just to escape the prejudice, or were they driven out? The artist-teachers-model returned from a town where they had been celebrated to find themselves outcasts. The mountain town of Atina, with its strong Catholic identity was critical of these cosmopolitan returners.
In 2019 I was was able to visit personally, for the first time, the museum of the Academie Viti in Atina where I got to see the stories and understood them more deeply. This compelling and unusual narrative with other stories of outcast women in Atina.
I had been told how those who were considered outside the Catholic ideals of purity, those who had babies outside wedlock or who were rejected by their families for their association with outsider men, or those who were born into disreputable families, were held to be prostitutes. At a time when washing clothes in the river was an essential part of a clean, healthy life and was a job carried out by women, outcasts were forced to do their washing down river from the regular places so that their laundry and bodies did not pollute the townsfolk’s clothes. I learned how prostitutes and those who were thought to be equivalent with whores were barred, in fact banned from the cathedral and had to listen to mass outside the doors, where they stood in the open air to obtain their godliness in the piazza while the community of the town prayed to God and the Virgin Mary and the saints who might intercede on their behalf inside. These visions fused together to form the narrative for the film.
On the days of the filming there were great storms in Atina. The women in red fly around the town in a short clearing from a great storm. Exhilarated by the cool, fresh wind we leapt and scampered through the streets, empowered by the electric air, alive with the munificence of the bountiful mountains. It was a divine experience. The river scenes were filmed in the morning in the River Melfa, deep in the valley below Atina. They were taken in the morning after great rainfall the night before. The river flowed with water, bright and clear, rushing powerfully down from the high peaks. It was cold as snow and crystal as ice. And the steaming speed of the flow pulled the long lengths of tulle here and there, grabbing them and tugging them as if the river was a gigantic washing machine, part of the great eco-system of the planet. Which, it is.
The final touch of the ‘Painting the Town Red’ was from the music. I am a composer and it was tempting to score this short film. But instead I relied on the ringing town of the great bell of the Asilo, left in the cellar of the local orphanage building where the artists slept and had their studios. This great cast iron bell was found deep in the cellar, taken to the mountain where it was played by the musiciand and composer Matt Scott. I recorded its distinctive ring, recognised by many in the town who had not hear it toll since they were children, and it became a moving soundtrack for the short film.
With so many thanks to Mia C, Nico Mahoney, Matt Scott, Veronica Shimanovskaya, Katja Heber and to the people of Atina, far and near, whatever their history, whether they are considered or consider themselves insiders and outsiders of the emotional stories of this inspirational area. Also, thank you to Chris Simpson for supplying the red tulle which he brought to Atina for his own fascinating works. One of the important qualities of the arts residency is how artists work together, learn from each other, sharing materials and tools and challenging each other to take their work to new places.