Elizabeth Briel, Travel Artist

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From Dusty Warehouse to Art Studio, Part 2

See Part 1 here

Renovating a house is never easy, but the first time is always the hardest. You never know quite how excruciating things will be until you’ve thrown yourself in the midst of them – when it’s too late to turn back.

And in Sicily, just to make things more entertaining for one and all, most transactions for my studio were done in a language I barely spoke, in a town where I was still a stranger. However much I’d read about Sicilian house renovations, however many people I consulted in two languages – many of whom disagreed with one another on the best approach – my experience was nil.

And it showed. (More about that in my next renovations post, about the final frantic days on-site.)

In late March after a trip to Rome to see my Dad, I returned to Cianciana in southern Sicily with a few friends in tow, and found Matt the Builder had knocked a beautiful new door and window into what I had once called the Hobbit Room, because it had looked so small and grim.

These openings really began to let some light into the space (hat tip to Diane Lainson and to the Geometra who came up with the idea).

Studio Sicilia: new door

But the lintel of the door was so low that anyone taller than a Sicilian (that’d be most of us born north of Rome) would bang their heads on it. The plaster had begun to crack as he created the door, so to play it safe, Matt had kept it low.

But plaster is easy to repair and the wall wasn’t structural, so David (who renovated & owns this beautiful house in Cianciana) bashed out the lintel and raised the door to an even more pleasing height.

(And the plaster didn’t crack, hurrah.)

Upstairs Bedroom Doorways

In fact, he’s so good at bashing things, David is, that I asked him to knock a doorway between the two rooms.

Drill marks the spot for the new doorway:

Drill in Wall

And here’s the other side of the wall, still with its retro flowers rolled on by a local decorator, sometime last century:

Studio Sicilia: Checking Measurements

And then the doorway, halfway done. Check out the wall made of yellow tufa rock.

Studio Sicilia: Entrance halfway

I’d had the romantic idea of using the stones for a stair between the rooms, but was told it’d take far too long.

David also built the mezzanine to hold a pair of water tanks – and eventually, a person or two adventurous enough to sleep in a loft. Here he’s putting in the supporting steel beam (cracks in the plaster were dug out here before being filled with concrete):

David Beginning Mezzanine

Sharon looking good next to the water tanks to give a sense of scale:

Sharon and Water Tanks

She was one of several friends who came to help out with renovations work and advice.

Water tanks resting on the mezzanine, before installation:

Water Tanks - 1000 Liters

Cosmetic work was crucial to keep my morale up – because as a former scenic-painter, it was the only thing I was really qualified to do.

After Diana and Nguyet patched up this sun-bleached wooden door,

Patched Doors

I painted it a marine blue, then varnished it. Patches of the wood show through the blue, and look nearly orange in real life. The two complementary colors vibrate and give a weathered texture.

Studio Sicilia blue doors

The railings in transition from brown to blue:

Railings Brown into Blue

Some of the neighbors were shocked at the blue: “We only use that color inside houses here, not outside!” said the geometra, who claimed to like it anyway.

Many houses in town are painted a brown identical to these railings, as though someone awhile back got a great deal on giant barrels of brown paint.

Most of my artwork is blue, and this is the color you’ll often see in Sicilian towns near the sea, not inland; in a way I think of this as my seaside Sicilian studio, without all the corrosive salt air to ruin exotic door handles.

Sharon made quick work of the concrete covering up this old stove – all she needed was a crowbar and this outfit like something out of a sci-fi film:

Sharon and Stove

Here she’s opened up the stove halfway:

Stove Half Opened

And finally it’s the perfect size for a small built-in wardrobe.

Stove into Wardrobe

A final hurdle was the studio bathroom. After the walls were bashed out, I mapped out several layout ideas – all had to keep in mind the multipurpose use of the space. There will be visiting artists and students here, as well as friends and family coming to visit.

But art-making space is my priority, not a big shower. The room had to be private and space-efficient and make the most of all natural light: a tall order.

This version would’ve been too big, it really ate into the studio space (wall on right):

Studio Sicilia: too-big bathroom

This version was just the right compromise between work- and private spaces:

Studio Sicilia: just-right bathroom

Once the bathroom dimensions were mapped out, David installed the shower tray:

Studio Sicilia: Shower Tray installed

I’d chosen a curved design because:

A. I go for curves over squares every time, and

B. I thought it’d be more space efficient.

But it wasn’t really. Still it has a nice line.

Studio Sicilia: Curved Shower Tray

Next task? Tiling. Here are the vintage tiles I’d brought down from Palermo, drying in the afternoon sun.

Studio Sicilia: tiles drying

Why were they wet? Because they’d soaked in water for days to loosen old lime mortar and concrete from their backsides. Then we chipped it all off, one by one. A finicky task that sent one ‘volunteer’ into mutiny mode.

Frankie was a star and offered to pick up the slack – she stopped by one afternoon dressed to the nines as always, pulled on a pair of gloves and got straight to work:

Studio Sicilia: Frankie Chipping Tiles

You can see what the tiles look like here.

All these new doorways let in lots of light, but I wanted them to look harmonious with the arched doorways already in the house.

So David – again – came up with an ingenious solution. He’s a carpenter, and had devised these uniquely-shaped arches for a friend’s house, which he replicated for mine:

arches by David

I call them “Davide” arches – because that’s what the Sicilians call him.

Here are the arches during installation:

Studio Sicilia:arches in progress

So much work to be done, and so much more work to do, it’s easy to lose sight of why I did this in the first place.

Every once in awhile I’d look out the balcony window and see these two old gents hanging out in the doorsteps and the park at the end of our small street. They chat in Sicilian dialect all day long. I call them the street guardians, because they know everyone and everything that goes on in our ‘hood.

Their favorite topic for debate? What they’re having for lunch or dinner. Over and over again, I hear them say, “Mangiare”, and they go into raptures of praise about meals they’ve enjoyed (or, sometimes, dishes they haven’t).

Two Gents

And really, isn’t that what life’s about? Good times with good company. Hanging out after a hard day’s work, whether that’s making art or helping out your friends or checking on your aunt across the street because she’s just been diagnosed with high blood pressure while your Mamma watches from her balcony two streets away (that’s what the plumber did during his lunch breaks, and you’ll get to see his handiwork in the next installment).

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