`A Painter of Olive Harvests

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A Painter of Olive Harvests

Jan. 25, 2011
Lucy Vivante

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By Lucy Vivante
Olive Oil Times Con­trib­u­tor | Report­ing from Rome

Mariella Gualtieri lives in the sea­side city of Vasto in the Abruzzo region of Italy. She grew up north­west of Vasto, in a small town called Pol­lutri. Here, her great grand­fa­thers worked with olives: one as a miller, and the other as a mer­chant sell­ing olive oil. Nicola Mar­i­otti, the mer­chant rel­a­tive, did­n’t sell it in his town, or even nearby, because every­one had their own olive oil. His busi­ness revolved around sell­ing olive oil in the moun­tain towns of the Abruzzo, where the cli­mate is too cold for olives to grow.

Mariella’s paint­ings of olive cul­ture cen­ter on the har­vest­ing of olives, but also include such tasks as the prun­ing of trees. From the age of eleven she was involved in the annual har­vest. She remem­bers a man who had been hired to help with the har­vest, and see­ing Mariel­la’s small hands shiv­er­ing in the Novem­ber air, he said, If only olives were the size of oranges, we’d fin­ish sooner.” From this mem­ory, and also because of the impor­tance of olives for her fam­i­ly’s liveli­hood, she paints olives as if they were the size of oranges. Her blog is called realfantasy1371. She chose this title to high­light the pair­ing of the real with the fan­tas­tic in her work.

This com­bin­ing of the real and imag­i­nary can be seen in her New York City olive orchards. In 2005 she vis­ited New York and was sur­prised by the immense trees in Cen­tral Park. She was also drawn to the High Line Park. One of the rea­sons for putting the olives in New York City was her wish that Amer­i­cans could have bet­ter food. In our con­ver­sa­tion she did­n’t say that she thought US food was poor – she is too polite for that. Still, it is clear that she thinks that olive oil is the fun­da­men­tal ingre­di­ent of good cook­ing, and Amer­i­can cook­ing could do with more olive oil. In our con­ver­sa­tion she seemed par­tic­u­larly con­cerned that the Mediter­ranean diet was only afford­able to rich peo­ple.

The Great Wall of China is the back­drop to another of her olive har­vest paint­ings. Mariella is now work­ing on a paint­ing of Milan’s cathe­dral with an olive orchard. She says of the work, the inspi­ra­tion for the paint­ing comes from Renzo Piano’s project for trans­form­ing this mar­velous city into a green metrop­o­lis, and from themes com­ing from Expo 2015.” Healthy diet and feed­ing the planet are among the fair themes. Mariella and her hus­band have recently become par­ents to twins, and proper nutri­tion is very much on her mind. Her two-year-old twins are given a table­spoon of olive oil in their daily soup, up from the tea­spoon they had with their ear­li­est pap, called pappa” in Italy. The olive oil and the amounts are on the rec­om­men­da­tion of the fam­i­ly’s pedi­a­tri­cian.

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She is a self-taught artist and calls her style naive.” (Her degree, which she received at the Uni­ver­sity in Pescara, was in Eco­nom­ics. She works with her hus­band in Vasto, where they own an insur­ance agency.) From an early age she enjoyed draw­ing with col­ored pen­cils. Once she was look­ing with her grand­mother at a cal­en­dar, which had an image of Saint Anthony. She told her grand­mother that she would copy it, and her grand­mother smiled think­ing she would­n’t be able to. Mariella does­n’t remem­ber the draw­ing, just the look of sur­prise on her grand­moth­er’s face at the very faith­ful copy. For years she worked with acrylic paints, but since 1998 favors oil col­ors. The series of olive grove paint­ings were started in 2001. In addi­tion to paint­ing land­scapes with olive trees, she paints por­traits on com­mis­sion and seascapes fea­tur­ing fish­ing machines, known as the tra­bocco, pecu­liar to the Abruzzo and Adri­atic coast.

She has exhib­ited her work at Vas­to’s main exhi­bi­tion space, the Palazzo D’Ava­los, an early 15th cen­tury build­ing. The name sounds Span­ish because it is. Vit­to­ria Colonna the poet, and close friend of Michelan­gelo mar­ried into the D’Ava­los fam­ily and spent time in Vasto. The palace houses the city’s archae­o­log­i­cal col­lec­tion, has a per­ma­nent col­lec­tion with works by Abruzzo artists such as Francesco Paolo Michetti and Giulio Aris­tide San­toro, and tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tion space. Her show was a one-woman show and took place in 2007.

Her fam­ily sold their olive groves some time ago. I asked Mariella how she bought her oil. She said that she uses two olives oils in her kitchen. From local mills she buys olive oil to use on sal­ads, to dress veg­eta­bles, and on bread. Every Novem­ber she stocks up on De Cecco olive oil, which goes on sale at local super­mar­kets to make room for the new sea­son oil. De Cecco, best known for its pasta, is an Abruzzo com­pany, with its head­quar­ters about an hour from Vasto. She uses this oil for fry­ing.

Mariella says that a typ­i­cal Abruzzo salad is made from sliced oranges, dressed with excel­lent olive oil, and sprin­kled with salt. Oranges and olives in art and in cook­ing.

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