Just towards the original gate of the medieval city of Assisi is a small studio that overlooks that overlooks the green Umbrian hills below. It’s raining and cloudy out but there is a warm glow coming from the Massimo Cruciani’s gallery. I am accompanying Elise D. on an interview as photographer. As soon as I enter I am taken with a large painting of an Italian poppy field. The red is instantly striking but as I look closer I am equally struck by the way the drops of gold in the center of the poppies glow and the way that the dark azure sky swirls onward towards its glass horizon.
As we wait for Massimo, Elise and I wander around the gallery. There are several other works of the countryside, villages with houses stacked up on each other and sunflowers. There are also several booklets with photos of his collections that include paintings of cities such as Hong Kong and San Diego. Among these books I notice a book of photography, The Long Road East, in both Italian and English with the face of a serious little boy on the cover.
His daughter, who works in the gallery, informs us that the book is a collection of the photos Massimo took on a road trip he took from Turkey to India when he was 22. The black and white photos portray a strange sort of journey. It’s the sixties and the two young men in the photographs are skinny with shaggy hair cuts. There are images of their Volkswagen beetle and a few of them posing proudly or making silly faces. There are both urban and rural landscapes but what stands out are the portraits- elderly men and women, women holding their babies, children playing, men working. I shut the book with the impression that its author is trying to say something through his photography that is both joyful and serious. It is a statement on life.
Massimo, like his painting of the poppies, is larger than life. He is tall and thin and wears a knit cap that covers his salt and pepper curls. He is a youthful sixtyish. He waltzes over to us and suggests that we go to the café next door for the interview as he is famished. He insists that we order, at the very least, something to drink and worries that we’re going hungry though we assure him we’ve just had a large lunch.
Elise begins her questions and I move around shooting some video footage and snapping photos. When he moves towards the camera waving with a smile and asking which way he should look I can’t help but laugh. The interview resumes when I tell him not to worry about it and to try to ignore the camera.
Massimo was born in Rome where he started out as a set photographer. Although we’ve met with him to talk about his glass paintings, he admits that his true love is photography. He worked as a set photographer and on assignment for magazines and newspapers in Rome during his early twenties. When his equipment was stolen at the age of 28, another artist offered to help him out by teaching him how to paint. By combining different techniques of the artists he worked with, he began to paint directly onto glass with acrylic paint and found his own style. He moved to Assisi in 1981 and enjoys the culture as well as its low-key atmosphere. He seems clueless in regards to his success as a painter perhaps because he never intended to be one. The way he tells it, it seems one day someone just happened to buy several paintings and then his style just happened to catch on. Before he knew it, he was shaking hands with the pope, heading to exhibitions all over the world and, of course, selling paintings.
When Elise finishes up her questions and closes the interview, Massimo takes this as his cue to interview us in turn and we talk about where we are from, what we are studying and discovering in Assisi. But I am anxious to ask him about his photography. He does not take many pictures these days, “Yeah but stupid photos you know like of my kids, my lovers, myself. I’m not too much into it anymore.”
He published The Long Road East a few years ago and is happy that the trip he set out on as a young man is now a beautiful collection of his early work. Although Massimo is honest about preferring photography over painting, he is remarkably positive about the direction his life took and rightly so. He appears much more the happy-go-lucky type then tortured artist. He does, however, confess he misses his dark room and seems a bit mournful regarding today’s digital revolution and the disappearance of film. This turns the conversation towards the instantaneous nature of today’s newer technology and I find myself explaining the way blogs work to Massimo who is wondering if he should add one to his website.
“I’d rather have a publisher. I’d rather write a book” I say as we explain how difficult it is to garner enough interest in a blog in order to make a living off it.
“That is some crazy idea. Start putting yourself naked or something like that” he remarks with a twinkle in his eye.
“Something shocking?” I ask as I wonder if he’s actually making a serious suggestion.
“No” he says, “But something that makes people say, ‘Oh let’s go there.”
His cell goes off and we continue talking for a while. Once finished, Massimo pays for his sandwich and our drinks (I offer to pay for mine but he shrugs it off, “It’s only two euros”) and we head back into the gallery to take a few photos of him with his paintings. He smiles mischievously, “So, should I take off my clothes?”
Thankfully, Massimo has already garnered enough interest in his artistry without having to resort to such blatant exhibitionism. No doubt his generous spirit has helped him along the way. He suggests Elise and I each pick out a print of his paintings. When I say I can not decide between the village scene or poppy field he tells me he’ll give me both of them and Elise should pick two as well. He tells us we’re both smart girls so one day we will be able to afford one of his glass paintings.
“Come back and say goodbye before you leave Assisi” he tells us as we head out onto the stone street. I promise I will. I already know what book I am bringing home as a souvenir.
UPDATE: I wrote this while still in Assisi. When I returned to buy the book, Massimo sold it to me for less than half-price and I couldn't be happier with my souvenir. In fact, he gave all of us in the class wonderful deals on the book and prints. Grazie mille Massimo! It was lovely to meet you!
Elise's much more official and well-written article on the artist is up on the IJSA blog. It's under "Assisi" and is called "Artist's Town." Read it!