by Ellen C. Caldwell
In my series of guest posts for The Artsy Forager, I have been writing about my time in Bali during an arts residency earlier this year. I was introduced to painter Federico Tomasi by another artist Giovanni Lovisetto on a trip to Bali in 2012 and upon my return, I was lucky to revisit Tomasi’s studio and discuss his current works.
As many of us in creative fields know, artistic inspiration is always something of a process. As artists, we are constantly pursuing new creative styles, mediums, subjects, narratives, and voices. Through this process of searching for ourselves, we get used to the circle of finding our grounding, losing our footing, and continuously rebuilding our foundations.
This process can feel painful, isolating, and challenging, but it can also offer creative redemption, freedom, and inspiration. As I discussed in an earlier essay The Writer’s Ledge, these moments on the creative “ledge” are simultaneously terrifying, jarring, and exciting, ultimately yielding the most creative and unique results. It was a joy to visit with Tomasi and discuss the pitfalls and roadblocks we all endure during the creative process—while also seeing the moving and dynamic results coming from this beautiful struggle.
In discussing the beauties and beasts of the unknown, the cycle of returning back to our roots and formal training, and the bounty of this very endeavor, Tomasi and I explored the ongoing challenges that come with living the creative process.
Ellen Caldwell | Please tell me about the large-scale, monumental portraits you are working on in your studio now.
Federico Tomasi | The large, vertical-scaled portraits are simply the desire to make them have a monumental aspect even if they are paintings—more as sculptures, huge and oversized for a different perspective. The chromatic choice of colors goes from that marbled, transparent feeling to the copper and bronze. And of course the unusual dimension (3 meters tall and 1 meter wide) helped me to reach what I had in my mind. I actually like them leaned on the wall rather than hung so they look more three dimensional, as sculptures are. It’s still an open chapter for me so let’s see how it will end.
EC | How do they differ from your previous bodies of work?
FT | I don’t think those particular ones are very different from my previous paintings in terms of technique and apart from what I mentioned before, of course. There is a step forward or a research of something different, chromatically speaking, and there are more visible parts of the body instead of the close up facial portraits I used to focus on. There are so many elements that occur to me in this process so it’s a bit difficult to give a harmonic answer…
EC | Who are you painting in your portraits now? Could you tell me a little bit about how you have chosen your current subjects or is it still too soon to discuss?
FT | I really don’t know where I’m going right now! I’m trying different things at the same time and the subjects just come either from pictures or movies or my own sketches. I’m still waiting for that sparkle to arrive and a bit of anxiety made me just paint without thinking too much! I have been working on two large portraits of my grandmother who passed away last year. She was incredible, so that brought me to another level. I remember working day and night on those pieces as they where so personal to me. I painted them with oils, which also made it very intense.
EC | We talked a lot about artistic background and training – how often an artist will learn to paint by copying and mimicking the masters. And you were saying that in some ways you felt like you had to return to this time and go back to more of your original training. What inspired you to move in this direction?
FT | Well each artist has his masters and backgrounds to actually admire and learn from—it depends on your goal—for sure not by copying, but what I was saying was that there are skills when it comes to figurative art that have to be there and it’s important to feed those skills to be able to move on. I believe you have to know how to do things in a traditional way to be able to do something very different in the future. I guess it’s the technique that matters in my case… When I feel it’s time to move forward, I always start from some basic skills (traditional) and from there find my own direction
EC | Where do you see yourself moving, having circled back to this original training? Do you see it taking you in an entirely new direction now?
FT | I see myself in moment of transition—a bit frustrating when things are not always coming out how I thought. But that’s part of the game; persistence will take me to a new direction.
EC | Yes, that’s part of the beauty and agony of the process, right? How has living and practicing your art in Bali impacted your work—or has it?
FT | Unconsciously probably, it’s more the lifestyle—the freedom and the beauty everywhere that makes the difference but not more than that. Bali is not the same as when I arrived; the tourism and the development of businesses became very chaotic in the last years so it’s not really inspiring me anymore. And I’ve been here for 14 years almost so maybe it’s time to move again!
EC | When did you first start painting and how did you learn or train?
FT | My father was studying at the Academy of Arts in Stockholm when I was around eight years old and I was always surrounded by creative people, so that was my first introduction to that world. After I decided to study five years of art school in Rimini, Italy, and that’s where I started to take my first steps… I’m still learning and hopefully I will learn more in the future.
EC | Regarding plastic in Bali, we discussed the over-packaging of products and how there is such a vast amount of plastic debris all over – in the rice paddies, on the streets, and filling the ocean and beaches after big rains… Could you discuss this a bit?
FT |This is a global problem not only about Bali, and it’s very sad. It’s about a lack of education and personal responsibility towards mother nature. For sure there are solutions, but there are too many businesses involved to change unfortunately. It’s incredible, sometimes I manage to see such a perfection and beauty in nature compared to what we humans have been able to do …we are terrible! Sometimes I feel ashamed to be a human being.
EC | Do you feel like you address this plastic problem as an artist or activist – or more simply just on an individual level?
FT | It’s difficult as an individual to change the world but you can always be aware of things in your little microcosm. I collect stuff on the beach, just walking with my dog, for example. I do it even if I know it will not solve the problem, hoping someone sees and gets the message. I said before it’s all about education so let’s start ASAP. It will take a generation to change if we are lucky…
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Federico Tomasi began showing his work in 1997 after moving to Asia. Since then, he has shown internationally in Italy, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Lebanon, and the U.S.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor. Read about her last interview with Tomasi in “History Revisited: Federico Tomasi’s Puputan Paintings” for New American Paintings.
All images are courtesy of Federico Tomasi; all display works in progress in his studio.