23 years ago Irma, originally from England but freshly arrived in Florence from Paris to continue her fine arts studies, imprinted an image in her mind of the city’s stylish young women astride their Vespas nonchalantly licking ice cream. That image proved the inspiration for a recent set of commissions arising from her exhibit at Milan’s EXPO in 2015.
This vibrant exaltation of iconic sensory pleasure is however just a foretaste of Irma’s work on show to all who visit her Brunate home; for her home, in addition to being her studio as well as the location for her workshops and residential courses, is also a gallery displaying the wide range of her artistic interests. And the two aspects that unite both her work and the Brunate setting are light and colour – light streaming in from the broad expanse of sky and the colours of nature from garden to lake to distant Monte Rosa.
Irma relates how her artistic talent was evident from as early as two years old and how it was encouraged and developed by both of her grandmothers. She went on to study textiles at London’s Central St. Martin’s School of Art followed by living and working in Paris for three years. She was then lured to Italy to study fine arts in Florence at the San Lorenzo di Medici Institute of Art. It was the chance of a job designing silk scarves at the Mantero SpA silk factory that first brought her to Como and Brunate.
As you take in the rich range of work at her home, it soon becomes clear that Irma has traveled extensively and that these journeys have had a significant impact on her work, particularly on her use of colour.
Her favourite repeat destinations are India and Morocco. She has particular family links with India since her ancestor John Kennaway made his fortune there and set up the Kennaway home in Devon on his return to England at the turn of the nineteenth century. She has published a marvellous account of the trip she made to India in 2005 on the trail of her illustrious great-great-great grandfather and his contacts with the local rulers at the time. This is entitled ‘My Indian Adventure Sketchbook On The Kennaway Trail.’ The sketches and illustrations show how shape and movement can be depicted with the most economical of pen or brush stroke allowing the palette to take visual precedence.
For someone so widely travelled I wanted to know what it was that attracted her to Como bearing in mind that Irma was resident here well before Como reached its current levels of popularity as a holiday or expat location. She listed her favourite locations – starting with the stunning view of Monte Rosa directly visible from her studio window. The other locations that stood out for me, apart from the more obvious highlights such as the lake and the Duomo, were the places that involve people and movement. These include the Teatro Sociale, the swimming club on Viale Geno and the covered market on Via Mentana.
Her mention of the covered market led us on to discuss her discovery and use of Apple’s iPad as a medium for artistic design, display and reproduction. She was inspired by an exhibition of fellow English emigré, David Hockney, held in Paris in 2010. Here is one art critic’s comment on that exhibition:
“The British artist [Hockney] achieves stunning effects of texture and light on the iPad…..The iPhone images, while less detailed and more stylized, also present intriguing explorations of color and line.” Grégory Picard
The same interest in line, light and colour are also evident in Irma’s work and maybe they share a similar motive for moving away from the muted shades of the English homeland to find enhanced luminosity in Como or California. Irma has exploited the versatility of the iPad to allow her to work outdoors from life in those preferred locations without the need for bags of equipment and materials. In this case the technology has definitely encouraged immediacy and boldness but also provides the range of tone and effect to suit the mood of a broad variety of subjects.
A visit to Irma’s website will reveal the extent of her artistic output and her familiarity with pen and ink, acrylic, oil and water colours in addition to her recent adoption of the iPad. She is therefore well qualified to lead the classes and workshops she holds on request at her Brunate home. Embracing the digital revolution has also broadened her capacity to customise and reproduce her work to meet customer needs. Some of her smaller pieces do make excellent mementos of Como as for example, the series of her local watercolours reproduced on packs of post cards.
We already noted at the start of this article how a parallel interest in food and cooking coincided with the Milan Expo remit leading to the ice cream studies. Additionally there was a recent exhibition and iPad workshop at Villa Carlotta entitled ’Plates Please’ which again took the food theme in a functional direction. However, Irma also seems to subvert the symbolic comfort and domesticity of the plate simply by breaking and shattering the images on them.
With the migration crisis from Syria and the Horn of Africa impacting Europe and cities like ours, what could be a more dramatic symbol of the impact of exile on the lives of those forced to flee their homes. And what could be more humane than for us, who have mostly selected a voluntary form of exile in this our adopted land, to consider the plight of those for whom exile is the price of survival.
I have attempted to convey the range and qualities of Irma’s work but nothing beats seeing them for yourselves. If you cannot get up to Brunate, her website is a good alternative. Click here (irmakennaway.com) to get an idea of the scope of her work. Better still, why not contact Irma on firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone on +39 338 1907860 and arrange to visit her. As mentioned before, her home is a also her gallery and all visitors are welcome via prior arrangement, with no obligation to purchase unless desired.
Como Companion readers will not have heard the last of Irma – we will be featuring articles on Como’s silk industry towards late Spring and I have already committed Irma to sharing some of her personal experiences when working for Mantero SpA.