In the summer of 2009, I boarded a plane in Los Angeles, California bound for Rome, Italy. I'd have a few hours to kill at the Toronto airport before boarding my final leg to the Fiumicino Airport outside of Rome. It was nervewracking traveling abroad by myself but I was thrilled by the prospect of what lay ahead...six full weeks in Tuscany. Six weeks for adventures in Italy, exploring famed cities, seeing the art from my textbooks and, most importantly, six weeks to make art.
As a 3rd year Fine Arts student at the University of Texas at Austin, I was given the opportunity to study abroad during the summer before my final year of college. Our professor had shown us slideshow after slideshow of where we'd be staying, what to pack and travel tips to help prepare us for six weeks in a foreign country. We were given a crash course in navigating Customs at the airport, what the Italian signs meant and how to find her at the platform of the Roma Termini train station. I was sweaty from the heat, smelly from the long journey, exhausted from jet lag but SO excited to finally be in Italy.
We boarded the train and found the closest thing to an air-conditioned car as we could find. I napped a little along the way but was shocked to see just how pretty the countryside rolling by was. Photos don't do this country justice...ever. Before I knew it, we were hauling our giant bags off the train and loading them into a little Ape to be whisked up the hill to our new home and then...we hiked. Hike is (barely) an exaggeration, but after nearly a day of traveling on little sleep it sure as hell felt like a hike. Our new home away from home, the Santa Chiara Study Abroad Center, was tucked at the top of this tiny hill town while the train station was down in the valley below. After what felt like ages, we finally arrived at this tall and unassuming building with a giant set of old wooden doors that looked like they were borrowed from the nearby fortress. Our Tuscan adventure had begun!
The next six weeks were a blur of day trips to Florence, museums and churches, group projects, exploring the town, PIZZA, and lots of art making. We were allowed to pick our focus during our time in Italy and the mediums to go with it. Most of my classmates packed their oil paints or acrylics. I had a blank sketchbook, some Micron pens, and a pocket sized Winsor & Newton watercolor set that I had no idea how to use. I had ZERO desire to be stuck in our, albeit, gorgeous studio so I decided to try and fill my sketchbook with watercolors during my time.
While my friends were tucked in front of their easels, I was getting lost in the back alleys of Castiglion. I found turquoise doors, families of kittens, perfect shuttered windows in quiet corners and a love for a medium that I had hated up until this trip. Back in high school, watercolors were my least favorite medium to work with. But now after finding scenery that perfectly complemented this loose, fast drying and portable medium, I was hooked.
I didn't fill my sketchbook that summer like I hoped. But I did find a love for watercolors and an addiction to a country that has changed the trajectory of my life. Nearly a year exactly after I first entered those fortress-like doors, I returned for an internship. This few month internship turned into nearly a two year long adventure that led me to nannying for a sweet family, many friendships, and even a brief stint in the world of tattooing. The newfound love of watercolors has become the principle medium I use for all the illustrations in my stationery business. And my love of this gorgeous and sometimes frustrating country has become my 2nd home and a passion to share it with others through retreats.
Now with every trip back to Italy, I bring a freshly bound sketchbook, a few drawing supplies, and my favorite pocket-sized Winsor & Newton watercolor set. I still try to fill my sketchbook every trip. I don't always succeed in filling every page but each summer I find a renewed love of this tricky medium and this addicting country.
Written by Chelsea Ward, the host and founder of Wanderful Retreats