First off, the title I've used is borrowed from Mary Taylor Simeti, and if you haven't read her book (On Persephone's Island: A Sicilian Journal), then I advise you to stop whatever you're doing and go get it out of your nearest library and let yourself sink straight into the elegant beauty of her prose.
The week before last I had the absolute brilliant privilege of being able to spend a week in the world that Mary Taylor Simeti describes - or at least, in a slightly newer, more modern, and creatively chaotic version of it. Through #CCTravellers2018, which provides a home for creative travellers to live and work in an Italian city for a week in exchange for creating a story about that city, I was able to spend a week exploring the labyrinthine backstreets of Palermo, with washing lines crisscrossing overhead and cobblestones underfoot, street art covering every surface that isn't crumbling with age, and mediterranean weeds growing unabashedly out of every crack in the walls.
And in fact, this vegetation growing out of walls, between cobblestones, under eaves, off of roofs and out of balconies is precisely what I was searching for. My focus for my week in Palermo was on urban nature: what forms it takes, which plants are invited into the city's bounds, which creep in of their own accord, and how this abundance of nature shapes the appearance and feel of the city. How it intrudes into art, culture, identity. In other words, a second chapter in my "Portraits of Place" series (the first being Los Angeles). To this end, I looked for the weeds popping out of unexpected corners, for potted plants and balcony greenery, and for the city community gardens that often come paired with beautiful street art, as well as for the plants inhabiting the city's parks. Once you start looking for city greenery, it's everywhere!
I spent some time sitting in cafés and in parks, where I reread On Persephone's Island and flipped through cases by the good Inspector Montalbano (by Andrea Camilleri), inhaled way too many delicious espressos (espressi!), and treated myself to the odd cannolo. But mostly I just wandered, getting a feel for the city, finding street art, visiting gardens and museums, watching parades and ceremonies that took place in the evenings in the period leading up to the feast of Santa Rosalia (the patron saint of Palermo), and exploring a series of art installations throughout the city that were part of the Manifesta 12 art event. The Manifesta project included a series of installations exploring the city's relationship to its vegetation, including the introduction (and acceptance) of non-native plants, ways of pursuing sustainable agriculture in such a dry climate, and maps of edible plants throughout the city; these installations were of particular interest to me, and I'll definitely write another blog post specifically on them!
And of course I took some time to sit around and draw. Mostly vegetation, a few bits of architecture, and some of the statues sprinkled around the city. It was such a wealth of colour and smell and ancient and recent, and, with its Mediterranean vegetation, at once beautifully familiar to my Californian eyes. These little sketches (and the many notes I took!) will be the basis for my piece on Palermo... coming soon!