This article follows on from meeting up with Debra recently and a visit to her permanent exhibition in the Villa del Grumello.
On the 30th September this year Debra Dolinski was able to fulfil a long standing ambition to see her art works permanently installed in what she considers to be their perfect location – the Villa del Grumello. The permanent exhibition is entitled ‘Sui Muri’ – on the walls – and it consists of digitised photographic studies of the impact, effect and changes of light on simple walled surfaces – walls on walls.
The Villa del Grumello is a delightful summer pavilion set in the midst of a botanical park along the so-called Kilometro di Coscienza running from Villa Olmo to the Villa Sucota. The building dates back to the 1500s but has seen many modifications as ownership has changed hands down the centuries. In the 1950s the occupier at the time, the Contessa Giulia Celesia, donated the villa to the Ospedale Sant‘ Anna. They subsequently allowed for the Como Chamber of Commerce to form the Associazione della Villa Del Grumello which then set about the restoration needed to transform the villa into a cultural centre for the benefit of all.
Debra recognised the villa’s unique qualities – its south-facing exposure to light with reflections from the lake, the contrast between its decorative stuccoed ceilings and monochromatic surface decoration – would all go to provide a perfect background for her very particular and individual art. Debra has always been mindful of the influence of setting when exhibiting her works. She will reject any offers of display if the exhibition space fails to compliment the installation. Her works derive from close observation of changes in light on form and colour – often recorded in series of images captured from the same vantage point. Their full impact for the viewer depends on the absence of any nearby visual distractions or irrelevancies. Her patience and perseverance in acquiring a permanent exhibition at Grumello must represent a significant milestone in her career seeing how the villa and her art compliment each other so well. Although the Villa del Grumello is not always open to casual visitors, the Associazione are rightly proud of the exhibition and will readily allow for viewings by appointment. Contact details are provided at the end of this article.
Debra Dolinski’s artistic career has developed over fifty years while living the majority of that time in Como. She discovered where her creative interests lay when studying at Cornell University’s Faculty of Art and Architecture back in the early 1970s. She has worked diligently at her artistic evolution ever since. Her oil paintings from those art school days reveal her initial interest in focussing on the changing nature of views from a single fixed location. Those shown below were views from her studio window.
Compare those images above with the photographic studies below of the differences in the quality of light on a single area of wall over a given time sequence. Each image is identified solely by a time stamp – precise to the exact minute.
These studies above formed part of an exhibition also named ‘Sui Muri’ held in 2013 in Como’s San Pietro In Atrio gallery on Via Odescalchi. One might casually mistake these studies of light on walls as being abstract but they are not. They are, like all of Debra’s work, based on acute observation of the physical world around us. She uses low resolution settings for her photographic studies to add some texture to the images but that is the only form of artifice allowed. There is no use of photo shop or digital manipulation. The images hope to be an accurate record of actual light situations. Altering the images would bely that intent.
Behind this spectacular evolution in her style is a continuing commitment to the key elements of her figurative training – to the aspects of line, form, space and colour – but with a focus on observing the qualities of light. The progression towards an abstract appearance in her art is explained by art critic Stefania Carrozzini’s comment that ‘Debra eliminates the superficial to arrive at the essential’. Debra herself explained how she does not want figurative elements to be ‘telling you what to see’. She does not want to limit the scope of the viewer’s own observation.
Skies, 1979 to 1985
The subject matter of her studies has changed over the years and these changes have coincided with other major life events. For example it was the birth of her first daughter which prompted Debra to start a series of studies of skies. She was adamant that she would not allow motherhood to discourage her continuing development as an artist – a fate she had seen happen to too many of her contemporaries. So she vowed every day to record in water colour the portion of the sky visible from a fixed location in her home which was then on the lake in Ossuccio.
Debra’s website presents a comprehensive collection of the different sets of sky paintings categorised as Sky Diary, Sky Watch and Sky Tiles. For Sky Diary, Debra fixed a north-facing viewpoint and then recorded the sky on 10cm squared paper every day. She exhibited some of these sketches in Milan back in the 1980s in a space which almost miraculously accommodated precisely 365 of them to complete the wall space provided.
Sky Watch introduces a more precise time stamp to the pictures by depicting the sky from the same viewpoint but at different times throughout a single day.
Sky Tiles provide another means for presenting the Sky Diary paintings by transferring them on to porcelain. Debra admits to not being good at promoting her work commercially which is a shame because I think her Sky Tiles present an excellent way to commemorate a special event. For example, what could be a better way to recall memories of a special day than to have a series of sketches that capture the changing light of the sky over the course of the event. Looking at those sketches would I am sure evoke the emotions of the day in possibly a more profound way than would a conventional set of photographs.
Walls, 1988 to 2018
In 1988, Debra and her husband moved to the centre of Como for a variety of reasons including to be near the schools of her two daughters. They found an attic apartment in need of radical renovation which they subsequently converted into a much-loved family home. Debra is particularly inspired by the large south-facing glass wall that floods the sitting room with light. This new location and the effects of the light on its various surfaces inspired a new output. Her daily presence at the cultural association Borgovico 33 provided ample time to study light conditions and these studies were initially exhibited in San Pietro in Atrio in 2013 from which some examples are now installed in the Villa del Grumello.
Mountains, 2018 –
The large window in Debra’s home in Como is not a ‘picture window’. It is not designed to offer an external view over the roofs of the old town, but rather to provide a variety of changing light to the apartment’s interior. It is only relatively recently that Debra has rediscovered an external artistic interest thanks to the views from her garden up in Rovenna, above Cernobbio. From there she has an unimpeded view over to the mountains around Brunate. She admitted previously to thinking these mountains were as much an obstacle to viewing what lay beyond them rather than an interesting subject in their own right. But her attitude has now changed as she now begins to explore the changes in light and colour accentuated by natural lines with their various folds and contours.
As a migrant and long term resident in Como, I wanted to ask Debra about her personal and professional attitudes to her adopted city. Professionally speaking, she found promoting her work much easier when living in Switzerland where her membership of the now defunct artistic association known as Movimento 22 helped her gain exposure. Como has proved more difficult with more of a need to gain the support of some key individuals to unlock opportunities. However appreciation and understanding soon follow once those connections are made, as in the case of Villa del Grumello.
Como’s landscape has until very recently seemed entirely irrelevant to Debra’s art. More important instead is the quality of the light. Debra could never have been a London-based artist. She appreciates both the quality and quantity of light found here and the way that its qualities change through the very distinctive seasons.
Being based in and around Como also allowed her to study at the Brera Academy where she followed a course on colour given by Luigi Veronese – an abstract artist of international renown with a background in textile design who had strong links to the ‘Astrattisti Comaschi’ such as Manlio Rho. I had to ask if she had been in any way influenced by the Astrattisti Comaschi who had all mostly progressed from figurative to abstract painting. Given that Debra is not an abstract artist, it was unsurprising to hear that she was more inspired by early Renaissance innovators such as Piero della Francesca although she does admire the work of Como’s group such as Carla Badiali.
In spite of Como’s exceptional heritage in the areas of innovative art and architecture, it is a city that appears nowadays to be resistant to change where, on an administrative level at least, promoting culture and exploiting the city’s numerous exhibition spaces is not given much priority. Debra expressed a frustration over this shared by many residents who long to see sites like San Pietro in Atrio, Spazio Natta, Villa Olmo and so many others back in use after what seems like an overlong hibernation. As she pointed out, the cultural activity in Lugano, Mendrisio or even Chiasso puts Como’s weak efforts to shame.
Debra’s family have grown up in Como and this second generation do not and are not considered as outsiders in any way. She herself though still feels herself a foreigner but interestingly, she sees this an advantage. Professionally it might spark some additional interest and socially, it allows her a degree of licence to either ignore or transgress some of those intricate laws of etiquette that operate particularly strongly within provincial settings.
Debra’s art is not accompanied by any manifesto or explicit message but it must, if only through example, prompt us also to apply our own powers of observation to the world around us. That in itself is a valuable lesson but additionally her observation becomes introspective by being paired down to ‘arriving at the essential’. That introspective quality gives the viewer the time and space to think – almost like an aid to meditation. Many of us may lapse into reflective moments while staring at the sky, or looking up into the folds of the mountains, or even simply by staring into the corners of a wall – Debra’s art reflects those moments.
Hers is an art that is figurative while seemingly abstract, and personal yet universally accessible. Her subject matter has shifted from the sky out of her window in Ossuccio to walls and now to the mountains above her garden in Rovenna – but all have been viewed consistently with close attention to the quality of light and a grasp towards the essential. While she will willingly recognise the importance of time in her work, I also believe that place has also played its anonymous part. And that is why I see her as a Como artist who has justifiably found a fitting home for some of her works in the Villa del Grumello.
Debra hosts occasional open days at her studio in the centre of Como. If you would like to be invited to the next of these or want any information on sales or commissions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make an appointment to view Debra’s ‘Sui Muri’ exhibition in the Villa del Grumello, contact the Associazione on +39 031 228 76 20 or on mobile +39 347 444 51 53. They can also be contacted by email at email@example.com
Go to Debra’s website www.debradolinski.it for a presentation of her Sky series.
More information about the Associazione Villa del Grumello with details of all upcoming cultural events are available at www.villadelgrumello.it
Como Companion has written a number of articles celebrating Como’s artistic and architectural heritage. In particular, go to Astrattisti Comaschi for our feature on this innovative group of artists who put Como on the worldwide cultural map during the mid twentieth century. Our archives also include articles on Como’s rationalist architects as well as on those artists from the Val D’Intelvi who spread baroque decoration across the churches and courts of Europe in the 17th century.