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Tuning the Senses – the paintings of Silvia Pastore.

"By refining our vision we may acquire the ability to move beyond the edges of the light spectrum and discover new colours."

Silvia Pastore, 2009.

When Silvia Pastore came to London for the first time in 1973 she intended to stay only for a few months. She had left Italy with a degree in education from the University of Trieste, but in London she soon began to attend evening classes in painting and drawing. Thirty-six years later she is still living in Britain. How does she explain this change of plan? ‘London gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself’ Silvia says. ‘In Italy I would have needed to show exceptional talent from an early age in order to pursue my painting, but in Britain things were quite different. It didn’t matter that I was a beginner. Anyone could join an evening class, and that was a great gift because it allowed me to become the person that I wanted to be’. She pursued her painting so earnestly and so successfully that she was soon offered a place at London’s Central School of Art and Design. After graduating in 1980 with a BA in Fine Art she attended a one-year course in advanced printmaking. Some time later she followed a course in Renaissance techniques where she learned to grind her own pigments and to prepare gesso panels. Since then she has worked in watercolour, oils, woodcut, mixed media and stained glass, and exhibited her work widely in Britain, Italy and France. She continued to live in London for many years before moving to Oxford with her husband and their two children. More recently she has moved to a farm in Herefordshire where her husband is renovating a farmhouse and a complex of agricultural buildings.

Silvia’s work falls into three categories. She produces still-lives, landscapes and paintings from the imagination. ‘Sometimes I feel that people expect me to specialise in one style’ she says, ‘but I find that each style feeds the others, and that is why I like to keep them all going’. This interconnection becomes clear when she speaks about her still-lives, which are often set against the background of a landscape. ‘I am fascinated by the idea of creating a web of lines and shapes on the canvas that will combine to create a balance between the still life in the foreground of the painting and whatever can be glimpsed in the background’. Through this ‘entanglement of forms’ and ‘crossing and meeting of lines’ she endeavours to create a link between the two separate but parallel realities of the foreground and the background. By this means Silvia uses her still-life paintings to allude to our own battle to create harmony between our interior lives, and the demands of the external world.

Over the years Silvia has admired and studied the work of many different artists, but only a very few of them have had an enduring influence upon her, becoming points of reference in her life and in her own work. The first of these is Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), whose work has delighted her ever since she was very young. Throughout her life she has striven to capture some of the qualities of his work in her own. She admires the harmony of his composition. ‘In Morandi’s paintings’ she says, ‘every object retains its identity, whilst simultaneously becoming part of an organic whole in which the empty spaces are as significant as the objects themselves’. Silvia also values Morandi’s ability to give proper weight to every detail, creating a valid reason for an object’s precise position on the canvas, and perfect harmony between it and the surrounding objects. ‘When an artist can create a relationship between a cloud and a vase of flowers, between the lip of a cup and the horizon, between a tree and a hill, he touches upon the fundamental essence of things, and penetrates the surface of reality’. Silvia has also been deeply influenced by the work of Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981). ‘For her colour was not subordinate to form and light’ she says, ‘she knew how to use it as an independent element, capable of expressing emotion, mood and even movement.’

The move from Oxford to Herefordshire was bound to have an influence on Silvia’s landscape painting. ‘In a town you are always enclosed’ she observes, ‘but here the view stretches to the purple hills on the horizon’. She delights in her new surroundings, where a simple car journey through the rural landscape translates into ‘sheer pleasure’. She believes that painting and drawing have trained her to look more deeply at her surroundings, and taught her to ‘refine’ her sense of sight. Silvia has found the teaching of Zen Buddhism very helpful in this respect. From Zen she has learned the importance of being mindful and fully present in her daily life. ‘In my opinion’, she says, ‘painting demands this same ability to be present’. In this state, the dawn breaking outside her window ‘becomes the first dawn, the only dawn that I have ever seen, and my heart is filled with amazement and delight’. She seeks to bring this sense of wonder into her paintings, restoring to the world the enchantment that we experience as children. There is no doubt in Silvia’s mind about the overall function of art. In her view painting has the potential to ‘purify the soul of the beholder, to uplift his spirit and to create in him a sense of well being’. When this happens, the work of art becomes ‘an instrument of discovery, transformation and growth’.

While landscape painting and still-lives draw on Silvia’s powers of observation, her works from imagination relate to an inner world. Her inspiration is often drawn from mythology. ‘When I work from imagination’ she says, ‘I like each painting to include a story, and mythology has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration’. In Britain Silvia has become particularly interested in Celtic mythology and in the Celtic concept of a universe that exists on three, interconnected levels: the Upperworld, the Middleworld and the Underworld. This structure is represented by the archetypal symbol of an immense tree. The Middleworld extends from its centre in all directions and is traversed and encircled by the shadows of the other dimensions. Man inhabits the middle part, but if he has the knowledge, he may pass from one dimension to another, an experience that will reveal to him his relationship with the stars and planets that gather among the branches of the tree, with the earth, the animals and the water that springs from its roots. Silvia has introduced this idea into her paintings from imagination, where the three worlds intermingle freely. She compares this new vision to an experience that she had many years ago when her children were young. The three of them went on an organised walk at night in order to see bats. The naturalist who accompanied them had a tiny gadget that amplified sounds. ‘The bats made extraordinary noises’ she recalls, ‘really loud shrieks that we normally don’t hear at all’. This made her aware that we hear only a fraction of the sounds around us. ‘I feel that the same applies to our sight’ she says, ‘and that by training ourselves we may be able to see across the accepted boundaries of reality, and that by refining our vision we may acquire the ability to move beyond the edges of the light spectrum and discover new colours’. This is at the heart of what she aims to achieve in her paintings, but the work can only be done by constantly tuning her senses.

Helena Attlee, January 18 2009

Title of work: The Seed
Date: 1998
Medium: Mixed Media
Size: 25 x 37cm