Gabriel Buttiegieg was invited to an artist residency last September at the Clover Mill Artist Residency, a studio and exhibition space based on the grounds of an old water windmill, in Giessenburg, the Netherlands. He talks to Joseph Agius about this experience.

JA: How did this residency come about?

GB: The curator, who is also the person who set up the residence, is an Irish artist based in Holland. She had been following my artistic progress on social media unbeknown to me. She messaged me on Instagram and initially, I thought it was a joke as I had thought that Malta, being such a small island, wouldn’t get that kind of attention. She gathers international artists of her choice. In fact, the first residences were planned to engage other artists but travel restrictions hindered this. I was earmarked for the third residence in the programme, however, these circumstances propelled me to be first in line.

Originally, another artist was meant to be my partner during this residence, but she dropped out last minute. So Russian artist Julia Kiryanova, who is incidentally based in The Netherlands, was contacted to replace her.

Gabriel Buttigieg and Russian artist Julia KiryanovaGabriel Buttigieg and Russian artist Julia Kiryanova

JA: Quoting your words: “The project focuses on the process of art, rather than the actual artistic product.” Can you please elaborate on this?

GB: The process is always part and parcel of the artistic journey. At that particular time when I decide that a work is ready and completed, I would be ruminating and mentally exploring alternative ways forward. My creative process leads me to a finale, to a point of conclusion. Lately, that process has been a rather prolonged one. I’ve refrained from working in a series; thus, I’m becoming conceptually more selective.

I feel that the small group of works tackled this year, that is Agnus Dei, Primavera, and Hubris to be more defining. Each of these required approximately two-and-a-half months of work, from start to finish. I treat canvases like drawings; drawing has always been my main focus – the way I hold the brush is like handling charcoal. I attended the residency with the frame of mind and intention to be more fluid in my execution. Knowing that I had a two-week time frame that set boundaries, I had to discipline myself by attempting just four works during the whole residency, becoming more process-focused rather than pivoting all of my attention to the execution of an actual finished piece.

Allegory of Love and Wisdom (and The Triumph of Flora) at Clover MillAllegory of Love and Wisdom (and The Triumph of Flora) at Clover Mill

JA: Was the creative process during the residency enhanced by working alongside Russian artist Julia Kiryanova? Was there any cross-fertilisation of concepts?

GB: This is a very interesting question. Even by having a simple coffee with someone, one can tap on to that person’s character, vibes and what makes that person’s world go round. I had never shared a studio space with anyone before. So, well beforehand, I started debating with myself what her tastes would be, what musical taste she might have, if her presence is going to interfere with my work schedule or disturb me.

These might appear to be ridiculous considerations, but in my case, they are essential and important ones. During the residency we discovered that we had the same tastes regarding music, we shared a similar artistic vision in the sense that we were both doing narrative work through the research of symbolism and archetypes.  I can’t say that she influenced me in the way my paintings developed.

Talking about influences, it was the moody weather and the natural environment that really affected me – I experienced four seasons in one day for the two-week length of my stay. That landscape can never be experienced in Malta. Admittedly, we are spoiled with the colours of the Mediterranean Sea as the Dutch sea is grey and morose. My colour palette changed, it became livelier. I introduced pink hues as everything there is cloaked in pink at dusk. I contrasted this colour with green, which, in my opinion, worked perfectly. I was captivated by Kiryanova’s energy, and we shared the same drive when we tackled the canvas space. She studied for years at a Russian academy, so her technical background is solid. She influenced my attitude rather than my actual artwork.

I never fully comprehended the concept of masculine and I would dare say even the concept of what is feminine escapes me

JA: The feminine is a theme which you continuously explore. How does it clash, or is reinforced, through your masculine perspective? Does being a sensitive male artist offer new viewpoints as regards such thematic expression? 

GB: I never fully comprehended the concept of masculine and I would dare say even the concept of what is feminine escapes me. I feel that they are interrelated as every person has both attitudes and attributes in their personalities. I have sensitive traits which have been there since forever. Is this feminine? I was never the beer and car type, although I admit I like the design of a car. However, I was never one to be proficient in changing, let’s say, an oil filter. I was brought up by a man, my father, whom I regularly saw cooking and preparing stuff. He is a man who is sensitive, genuine and altruistic, maybe he transmitted these ‘feminine’ qualities to me. I can affirm that I owe most of my good qualities to my dad – diplomacy, respect, relationships with people – although my mum has always been there too.

Jennifer, Rens, and the Kids (after Tintoretto) at Clover MillJennifer, Rens, and the Kids (after Tintoretto) at Clover Mill

For my masters’ thesis, I am embarking on a multidisciplinary exploration of the feminine through sociology, philosophy, theology. Maybe the role makes the woman, whereas in psychology, this is attributed to personality or vision. I have never investigated the masculine counterpart, the anthropological hunter-gatherer as I find the macho alpha-male perspective very boring. In actual fact, I’m exploring the feminine vs masculine argument as I don’t really understand the whole thing and that’s why I’m researching it. On an aesthetic perspective, in my art, the feminine is always present in the shape of the Madonna, the witch, the seductress. And on a strictly personal and intimate level, I do love women.

JA: This residency plays an integral part as regards your masters’ dissertation. It will also lead to a solo exhibition in February 2022 curated by Justine Balzan Demajo. Can you tell us more about it?

GB: I have to explain this side-project. I came up with the idea of interpreting the theme of the four seasons in a holistic mode. I’m going to use my research to do this; I’m a bookworm and all the information thus garnered will be interpreted in the thesis. This exhibition is a sideline and not really part of the thesis itself.

I recently had a very interesting discussion with Fr Charlo Camilleri who gave me new insights for the exhibition. I was deeply intrigued by his perception of some personages mentioned within the confines of Christian literature, like the 15th-century mystic Caterina de’ Pazzi. These people experienced God, in the privacy of their rooms, through a strong physiological reaction that bordered on the orgasmic. It was essentially a pathology. Fr Camilleri analyses these issues and narratives through a metaphorical, and certainly not literary. perspective. This discussion was inspiring for my thesis although it is strictly not related to my thesis.

Gabriel Buttigieg with one of the paintings executed at the artist residency.Gabriel Buttigieg with one of the paintings executed at the artist residency.

JA: Did you learn something about yourself during this residency?

GB: I realised that I wish to live in a caravan for the rest of my life, that I want to leave the country, that I’m rubbish at canoeing and that I need to be more disciplined. During the residency, I didn’t allow anything to deviate my focus. One important lesson was on how to achieve more fluidity in my execution. I also learned that I need to take a step back and try my best to deter my compulsion to finish my paintings at all costs. Although I must admit it’s hard for me to be approximate about these things and hate to leave things incomplete. At the end of the day, I always focus on the finished product as I almost always unfailingly search for an image that transcends, that transmits, that creates an aura.

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