Works and Days

Presidents Summer Fellowship - Art in Italy - Margaret MacLean - Part 2

A walkway between two buildings with plants on either side in partial sun.

The beautiful Cooperativa Barberi.

President's Summer Fellow Margaret MacLean '16, studio art major, is leading art classes for youth with intellectual and developmental challenges at the Cooperativa Barberi in Florence, Italy. Read on for her adventures:

The hardest part of my PSF experience so far has been wrestling with my expectations. The dreaming and planning I did to prepare for Italy was incredibly important but also left me with some lofty ideas about what my summer would look like. My views on all of the things I came here for have shifted. My project has taken a slightly new shape and is far less sparkly and neat than it was in my imagination. I suppose this is to be expected!

First of all, my relationship towards my photography has changed. Usually I feel like my camera gives me the power to enter into spaces and situations that I couldn’t ordinarily. As photographer Diane Arbus said, “the camera is a kind of a license” that allows you to ask more questions and look more carefully than is usually socially acceptable. But in Florence during peak tourist season, with a camera in hand I feel like a tourist, not an artist. When I click the shutter button I feel like I am a part of a tourist culture that takes-takes-takes and gives nothing back. Italy’s biggest industry is tourism and in Florence so many things are constructed purely for tourists to experience and photograph. I don’t know if what I am feeling is genuinely a dislike for this exploitative aspect of photography or simply a form of artistic self-consciousness. Probably a bit of both.

My solution to combat this feeling has been to photograph the city when it is empty and quiet. I bought a gloriously clunky used bike and I have been waking up early to ride around with my camera. The hours between 4 and 7am provide the most variation in lighting conditions, and feel the least like I am wandering through a Renaissance Disneyland. I am reminded that my favorite things about Florence have always been the way the light reflects off the cobblestones and the shadows that the buildings make at night.

The biggest change has been my conception of Italian culture. As opposed to last year when I studied abroad, I am not surrounded by Americans every day on a university campus. I am attending an Italian university and this means that there is a hierarchy between students and professors and a degree of formality that I am not used to. Last year I fell in love with Italy for its beautiful traditional values like family, loyalty, and a deep respect for art. What I didn’t see was that the flip side of these traditional values is not always so pretty. Putting family loyalty first creates space for a distrust of immigrants and foreigners. Valuing personal connections means that in a business or educational setting it takes a frustratingly long time to make decisions. I love Italy but I’m not into the bureaucracy and old-school Catholic social rules. I miss the “American political-correctness” that my host dad playfully teases me about. Of course the U.S. is far from perfect as well, but now I’m finally seeing that every place has its flaws.

A smalle container garden in an outdoor area against a wall.

Nevertheless, I always look forward to my afternoons volunteering at the cooperativa. I am getting to know my students better and I have been able to talk more with my mentor/co-teacher, Fuad. He is an amazing sculptor, children’s book illustrator, and art therapy instructor. I am lucky to be working with him and have so much to learn. Lately I have been playing with the idea of exactly what “art therapy” means. Again, I had a pretty idealistic view of what art therapy would look like in real life. I thought there would be lots of creative-wiggle-room for imagination and experimenting with the materials. Before I began volunteering, Fuad told me specifically that this was not a “normal” art class, and I was like, “yeah, of course!” But what I didn’t realize was that these students are learning basic skills like hand-eye coordination, paying attention, following directions, and making conversation. We are learning to use both hands at the same time, cut with scissors properly, and use a rolling pin. We start each class with an end goal in mind (make a horse, a fish, a house from clay) and we work through the steps to the final product. 

A clay horse with three legs.

This means that there can be wrong answers — no matter how imaginative I think it is, a horse does not have three legs. This has been frustrating for me, but I understand that this is only one form of “art therapy.” I still love my students and how sweet, open, and accepting they are. I love that I can be silly with them. Even for me, playing with clay is soothing.

More to come: Bittersweet endings to Italian class and volunteer work, and lots of time for photography! 

Tags: PSF, presidents summer fellowship, art, therapy, Florence, italy, international travel