A Little Italy: the Arte Studio Ginestrelle at Assisi

It is the last weekend of Italian Week in Ottawa, the annual celebration of all things Italian. It takes place in “Little Italy” during the week of the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua, one of Saint Francis of Assisi's first friars, a theologian and faith-filled preacher, who, says the legend, addressed even fishes when human ears were deaf to the gospel. I have taken this week to think longingly again about our time as artists in residence at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle near Assisi in Umbria last October. It was not only an artist's refuge but also turned out to be an unexpectedly meaningful place of pilgrimage for both me and Shlomo, I, as a Catholic and Shlomo, a Jew. Assisi is, of course, a major Catholic pilgrimage site but, perhaps less well-known, it can be a destination for Jews in recognition of the city's successful hiding of Jews from all over Italy and elsewhere during the Nazi occupation. ( FYI ” The Assisi Underground” is a book and a movie on that subject. It was especially moving for us to visit the “Eremo”, the Franciscan monastery/hermitage where many Jews were concealed. )

Arte Studio Ginestrelle is the brain-child of a remarkable young woman, Dr. Marina Merli, director at the studio residence. Marina is a graduate in law, economics and international tourism. After some years in the business world in major Italian cities, Marina did a crazy thing: as a single woman with energy and a vision, she bought an old farm and started a business in hospitality to artists, focusing on artists whose practice incorporated deep love of the natural environment. Surely Saint Francis was onside! The Town Council of Assisi is certainly onside, providing the studio with important business support in the hospitality industry outside of the millions of pilgrims to Assisi, as well as the distinct honour of offering the town art gallery in the main square of Assisi to the artists in residence for their annual show each December.

The studio, its rooms and its environs are furnished and furbished with Marina's exquisitely creative and elegant Shabby Chic taste, using Umbrian vintage treasures in exciting new ways, repurposed to create harmonious ambiance (without the fakery we might shudder to experience in over-designed, under-hospitable, self-important Places To Stay.) All that at Ginestrelle, and wi-fi, too.

The heart of the Arte Studio Ginestrelle, though, is not the artists' comforts, the elegantly rustic accoutrements or the delightfully quirky “architectures”.

The heart of Ginestrelle is the hardworking, efficient, competent and intelligent business approach and astounding personal generosity of Marina Merli, the director, for whom nothing is too much trouble where artists are concerned. Is there a word for “no” in Italian? If so, Marina never used it…though she may have used many, many synonyms (I think she said “No TV” very directly, as well as: “NO, cats, you cannot come in the house”…However, the cats did not listen and they did not watch much TV, anyway…)

Situated a few kilometers from the medieval hill town of Assisi, the art studio is a restored farm house part way up a mountain slope of the regional park of Mount Subasio ( a conservation area), along a twisty road rich in Umbrian vegetation and spectacular views:





Outside the residence are cabin and barn, havens where one can enjoy nature, meditate, paint, write, sculpt, picnic…


A broom made from the broom plant – the ginestrelle dye plant which grows in abundance on the property.



A chair with seat woven from rushes or maybe broom plant:


Inside the residence, are many different spaces for artists, simply but appropriately furnished in creative rustic style for work in different media:


There is a great selection of books in the library, too, in many languages. I greatiy appreciated that Marina had stocked up on books about the vegetation of the Subasio and Umbria in general. Latin nomenclature for plants transcends my limited Italian!


Resident “working” cats, Cimabue and Negrito, try to get inside for treats at “breakfast” time:


And why not? The breakfasts are sumptuous, more like lunch or dinner, so delicious and generous, prepared freshly every day by Adria from locally grown and organic foods: and always there ar leftovers for lunch and snacks…

Cheese, ham and sage filled pancakes, like tortilla:


Little spinach, truffle and mushroom crostini (October was still truffle and wild mushroom season; truffles and mushrooms were foraged at the residency, courtesy of a neighbour with a truffle dog!) served with farm-cured ham.


Fresh bocconcini with peppers and home-pressed olive oil: yes, they have olive trees in the family.


Grapes from the home vinyard, drying in the residence kitchen to make raisins.


Fresh local cheeses, yoghurt, tomatoes and ham: set out in vintage pottery on vintage embroidered linens Adria, the cook and housekeeper (and most important, mother of the Director) knows her linens and her embroideries! She is a former textile designer, before the Italian fabric indusrtries went off- shore for workers…she has an amazing collection of embroideries in traditional Assisi-work; the linens at the table, on the beds and at the windows are all treasures of traditional handwork rarely practiced these days.


Adria's little raisin cakes still made in Umbria from a recipe dating back to the time of Saint Francis:


Mushrooms from the residency property: for breakfast omelettes.


A picnic lunch (artist-prepared) outside. The grocer and the baker come to the studio in their vans…

Days Away

The nearby towns are fascinating centres of art, history and archaeology. Assisi is very close by car; for day trips (we went every third day for an adventure in the other hill towns) Spello, Spoleto and Florence are only a short train ride or car trip away. Even Rome can be made there and back in a day! When we did not feel like driving to Assisi, Marina would load up her four wheel drive with artists and off we would go for the day.


Assisi, beautiful city of peace. Looking down into the valley and the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli where Saint Francis dwelled at the Porziuncula.


The wonderful flea market at Santa Maria degli Angeli, outside the basilica and in the main square (I bought vintage linen here for eco prints to make “textile frescos” contact printed with local plant pigments.


The River Arno from the bridge in Florence:


Bruneleschi's Dome in the Duomo, Florence:


The Ducal palace at Gubbio. Francis ran away to Gubbio when he renounced the world, escaping the wrath of his textile-merchant father who disputed his son's vocation. At Gubbio, Francis is said to have tamed a wild and ravening wolf.

Gubbio also has a marvellous flea and farmer market in main square, at the same spot as in medieval times. It is a fantastically scenic mountain drive from Assisi to Gubbio!


Somewhere in Perugia, tne university town that we can see from Assisi. We had a wonderful day with one of the professors of environmental studies who came to the studio to give a presentation on the environment and took us on a hike around Mount Subasio, explaining the flora and fauna and management challenges in a national park where people still own and farm land. Marina arranged this for us!




Giotto's frescos in the basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi:


Saint Francis and Saint Clare. Paintings at San Damiano monastery:


Somewhere in Spello, a town that is home to frescos by Pintorecchio.


Mosaics in Spoleto:


Square in Spoleto, a town which is a stop on the Via Francescana (like the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain)


Alley in Spoleto:


Bookstore, antique and handmade books. Each of the hill towns we visited had at least one shop that made and sold beautiful leather-bound journals – bookbinding is a craft that seems to be surviving in this part of Italy (even if, as we learned from a bookbinder in Florence, that they send to Talas in Brooklyn for many of their supplies…)


Thank you, Arte Studio Ginestrelle, and Dr. Marina Merli, for one of the most beautiful months we have ever spent. And we even made art.



Viva Italia! And grazie.





Works In Progress

Summer Solstice is fast approaching and my garden is almost ready to meet the longest day of the year! It has been a month (and some! ) of long days for me in the new garden. For what is an eco printmaker and dyer without her plants? It was a matter of the utmost urgency for me to rearrange the existing botanicals at least by the solstice so that eco dyeing and printing could resume…With the addition of some new plants and a few transplants from my old garden (though, sadly, most died in the harsh winter 2013 – 2014) I am almost there! So here are some pics of the garden, back and front, and the progress to date.

The front garden from the porch.

The specimen red Japanese maple (an eco dyer's delight) is underplanted with various shade lovers moved from the back garden which became suddenly very sunny due to the over-winter demise of a sugar maple. No more grass, just pea gravel now with field stones plus brick edging that will disappear from sight as the edging plants (for example: geranium, thyme, dianthus) grow in:



Along the sunny fence, I have planted old favourite cottage perennials, many of which give colour in the eco dye pot. More are to be added, like tansy and goldenrod.



Ferns, Solomon's seal, Siberian iris, daylilies, hostas, lupins, mint, variagated weigela and dogwood:


Before I made it my own, the gardens back and front were already rich with interesting native plants like Eastern cedars, Bloodroot, American smokebush (Cotinus obovatus) redberried elder, wood poppy, ostrich ferns, American bittersweet, goatsbeard, virgin's bower clematis, Virginia creeper. But as you know, one thing always leads to another in a garden (Didn't Adam and Eve set us some examples?) First, the mature sugar maple that died rendered areas of the back garden inhospitable to some shade plants. Then, installing a walkway in the front occasioned the transplanting of three mature evergreens- two yews and an Alberta spruce – which I couid not bring myself to chop down…We will see if they survive among other native plants installed along the shady perimeters of the back yard. Some images:

In the back, a native prairie grass, big bluestem, with rocks and vessel to break up the gravel “lawn”


Natives along the back fence: Pagoda dogwood shrub (back left) and Joe Pye weed (centre right) with fave green immigrants greater celandine (back right), sweet woodruff (under the dogwood) and hostas (foreground). I have planted the native celandine (aka wood poppy) elsewhere in the woodland area.


Native serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea or laevis, not sure which…the tag said A. canadensis but that is a cop-out name…)


Ostrich fern, Black Chokeberry(L), Solomon’s Seal and American smokebush(R), natives all.


Wonderful native sumac, Rhus typhina. With iron bedstead as Sugar Snap pea support and as eco print assistant later this summer…TBD!


The loud purple smokebush, brash and brazen, wonderful hybrid, fronted by enormous bloodroot, a native dye plant. Set beside Shlomo's garden candelabra, hand-wrought iron.


The Black Chokeberry in bloom, early May, beside red-twigged dogwood. Shade-loving natives. And another iron sculpture by Shlomo, “Peony” .


The greater celandine, green immigrant, which gives lovely greens and oranges when smooshed onto paper:


Smooshed thus:


In May, before some plants in this area were transplanted to the front garden. The whole candelabra – sculpture by Shlomo. The bedstead was garbage-picked.


“Canadian Pioneer” sculpture by Shlomo in the “woodland” garden of native plants alongside a few respectable green immigrants. (I am into native plant gardening but am no purist…Live and let live, in life, in gardens and in art, say I …Am I not also an immigrant, a stranger and a sojourner on this earth? )


Now for a little Non Native Gardening: I am growing these in pots for now:

Woad. Weld. Indigo. Japanese Indigo.

Just because. Reports later in the season!



This is the Persicaria tinctoria (Japanese indigo) in planters:


Native baptisia australis, AKA Rattlebush because the seed pods rattle when drying. This plant fixes nitrogen in the soil. I have put a weedy “Northern Lights” (bright orange blooms!)azalea close by to fatten her up…




Coreopsis verticillata. Red dye from every part. Not the prairie version which is a native but a respectable relative. This image shows all that survived the Winter From Hell in Ottawa:


A hybrid of the threadleaf coreopsis above, in the front garden, too.



Good old tagetes, red, orange, yellow from the blooms and green from leaves and calix.


Precious wee pansies, even if they are not real Johnny-Jump-Ups. Blues and teals and turquoises in the dye pot.


Foxgloves and chives. Not sure about these in th dye pot…foxglove is risky!


Hybrid chartreuse sumac as companion to the red Japanese maple. Colour in the dye pot: TBD


Siberian iris (blue and green dyes) with pollinator plant, Canada thistle (L). Not natives but useful – to me…


Ostrich ferns, black chokeberry, Solomon’s Seal and smokebush, all natives. All eco-printable.


Sumac in June…growing nicely!


Red-painted bamboo poles as climbing supports for Hubbard squash in pots: nicely tied with copper wire by Shlomo (copper thrifted from a cable)

. Expecting the squash will cover the pergola while we are waiting for the grape vine and arctic kiwi to grow.


And after all this art in the garden what about art in your dye pot or at the printing press or at your bookbinder's bench, you may be asking.

This collagraph plate is part of my new series about a venerable elm that stood near my old house. I have collected photos of that elm for over 30 years. So now I have another way to say goodbye to our old home.


The “Elm” test print on eco printed paper:


Another collagraph plate created from some of my super-textured embroideries:


A third plate, also an “Elm” collagraph plate, yet to be proofed and printed. Report later. It has a kind of Wuthering Heights look to it, all windblown and broken…

Some of the prints from these plates will be on exhibit in July at the gallery associated with my printmakers’' group. Report later.

Next, on the topic of book arts:

“Unbound/Debride” is an exhibit of books and boxes by the Ottawa Valley chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild, held at the gallery of the lovely City of Ottawa Archives building.

Here are my eco printed box (L) and Shlomo's “El Anatsui” box (R)' with works by our colleagues Maggie McGovern (front), Paul Champion Demers (R), Beatrice Lourtioux (centre) and Holly Dean (back)


A funky selection: Genevieve Samson (L front) , Spike Minogue (L back), Shlomo (centre), Madeleine Rousseau (R) and Holly Dean (top). (This book by Holly appears in my article about book arts in the current issue of Fiber Art Now. See below)


My eco printed box and book with a coptic-bound, wooden-cover book by Paul Champion Demers:


The poster for the show:


Finally for this post, I mention two of my articles recently published: one about eco dyeing (with tutorial) in the current issue of the UK Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and one featuring Canadian book artists in the current Fiber Art Now.

The work of Sandra Brownlee (winner of the 2014 Governor General of Canada award), Martha Cole, Holly Dean and myself appears in Fiber Art Now.


Happy gardening! It is a great joy. And it entails many other joys.