Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Art Monastery Project

From Firenze, we took a train-bus-Kangoo combo to Labro, Italy, home of the Art Monastery Project - a host we had heard about months prior, and were eagerly anticipating visiting as work traders. We arrived at dusk, and shared introductions and food with the project's resident Artmonks: Liz, Molly, Charles, and Rob, just before setting up our tent and catching up on some much needed rest.

The Art Monastery Project is based in a renovated Franciscan monastery dating back to the 17th century, and could be described, in the words of the Artmonks themselves, as "a radical contemporary experiment in social sculpture inspired by tradition: to apply the disciplined, contemplative, and sustainable monastic way of living to the creative process." In addition, the project seeks to create a viable relationship between the traditions and people of Labro, and the international visitors it invites.

As work traders, we were very happy to find out that our hosts intended to tailor more specific jobs for each of us according to our interests and strengths. Catherine almost immediately began compiling information about local edible plants for a foraging guide, and Roy set to work building a wooden box to cover a battered electrical outlet in the office. Another of the first jobs presented an opportunity for Catherine to attend a local wedding to photograph the Artmonks playing a mixture of classics and originals for the guests.

To gather information for the foraging book, and generally acquaint ourselves with the area, we set off on lots of excursions. We always came back with our hands full of wild edibles, bones and feathers, and often with a reptile to share with the others.

About half-way through our stay, we were met with the arrival of two new work traders in Dylan and Laurel. Dylan was returning to the project from a week-long walking trek to Assisi, while Laurel was continuing her journey across Europe. Before long we were settled in together and working on various tasks around the project, including the construction of a bat box to house some local pest controllers.

One day after work the four of us crowded into the Kangoo and drove to the nearest mountain lake for a quick swim before sundown, followed by a lakeside bonfire. The heat of the flames reminded us of the magic of gelato, and after eating some delicious gnocchi at a local restaurant, we descended upon Labro to gorge on the icy goodness and watch Liz, Molly, Charles, and Rob crank out a set of tunes for the townsfolk.

The biggest performance that the Artmonks were part of during our stay was the eccentric and entertaining "Spettacolo" to celebrate 150 years of democracy and unification in Italy. The show started, seemingly inexplicably, with a grandiose display of fireworks in the appropriate colors colors of red, white, and green. Then began a wacky procession through Labro's streets, with stops made along the way for scenes to be enacted. Unfortunately, we couldn't understand much of what was going on (and are not convinced anyone could), but it had something to do with a jester (or witch clown?), fire dancer, stripping gentleman, a pregnant woman singing with the most beautiful voice, a really phenomenal classical guitarist, our friends dancing and singing on stage, and all sorts of other tomfoolery meant to be symbolic of Italy's last 150 years. During it all, we feasted on sun-ripened and sweet black figs from our favorite tree in the village, and eventually we wandered back to our tent, exhausted and with stomachs fig-swollen. It was, by any standard, an authentic, yet unexpected, Italian experience.

On our last day in Labro, along with Dylan and a new work-trader, Kirdy, we decided to trek along a small portion of the Cammino di San Francesco (which conveniently picked up right in the front yard) up to the Beech Tree of Saint Francis. The path, which links Assisi and Rome was famously walked by Saint Francis, and represents a pilgrimage of sorts today. Along the way, Catherine spotted a motionless and nearly invisible viper while picking up worn shards of glazed terra-cotta tiles. Roy thought it looked different from the European adders we had heard of earlier in the trip, and coaxed it into his water bottle to take it home for identification and to share it with the others before releasing it. It turned out that the snake was a Central Italian asp (Vipera aspis francisciredi), which is currently listed as an endangered species, making the find even more noteworthy.

After hiking almost entirely uphill for three hours, we finally reached the unmistakable tree. Adorned with handmade crosses woven from sticks and hanging rosaries, the massive beech exuded a presence of peace, benevolence, and seclusion. At once ancient and lively, its gnarled limbs sprawled out gracefully over the ground, seeming almost to delicately umbrella those beneath it.

We all returned from the walk thoroughly thrashed, so we headed to Labro for one last time to drink a beer at the local bar and visit our favorite fig tree while taking in the beautiful views at sunset.

For our last night at the Monastery, the wooden dinner table was unusually packed with the arrival of Kirdy, as well as Charles' mom, Jo, and her friend Donie. We all shared a delicious meal, and were caught off guard at the end with the Art Monastery tradition of 'Gratitude Circle' - when everyone involved expresses their thanks to the workers who are leaving. Not allowed to speak, and thereby forced to absorb everyone's remarks, we were both overwhelmed and buoyed at the reception of everyone's amazingly generous compliments and thanks. It was something both enlivening and affirming for both of us. After the Gratitude Circle, we decided to have an art share, where everyone was encouraged to share their individual art forms with the group. We passed around our sketchbooks, while Laurel showed us a few of her paintings, Charles played some songs, and Molly shared a visual journal idea that brought about a lot of fun little scrawls and drawings. As an extra treat, Molly also brought out some of her hand-made fire-spinning tools and taught us the basics of spinning poi. We went to bed thoroughly exhausted, yet reluctant to sleep for fear that it meant accepting the end of our stay.

Our stay at the Art Monastery Project was so different from what we had anticipated, yet it exceeded every single one of our expectations. Everyone involved with the project, was not only an amazing person and master of their art, but also shared a sense of humility and hospitality that we had not before experienced in our travels. We were both humbled and warmed by how completely and immediately we were enveloped, welcomed, and encouraged by the community. We have every intention of coming back.

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