Return to Capri (Australian Ceramics & Pottery 01/03/2005)
Artist Feature Sergio Rubino
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Sergio Rubino's story cannot fail to inspire as it relates a way of life that brings joy with each new brushstroke. The mantra, 'create do not copy; invent do not repeat', expresses this master artist's path to happiness, a path that I was fortunate enough to hear about when I visited his island home on a recent tour to Italy.
Stepping off the ferry onto the Isle of Capri, the balmy holiday atmosphere is immediately present. It is a typical summer's day and the island's main port, Marina Grande, is humming with activity. A tingle of excitement warms me as I realise that this is neither postcard nor travel guide, but really Capri! So much awaits a boat trip to the Blue Grotto, a walk above sheer, white cliffs plunging into azure waters, and also along picturesque medieval lanes full of tantalising shops. As if all this isn't enough, I have also arranged to visit Sergio Rubino, a local artist of world repute.
It is still early, making it easy to flag down one of the distinctive convertible stretch taxis, hungry for morning trade. The gleaming white door pulls to with a soft thud and in a flash we are winding our way up Mount Solaro through an arcade of blossoming vines to Anacapri. Sergio's studio is tucked away down a cobbled lane just off a fashionable shopping strip. An unassuming glass front reveals a paradise within of paintings, sculptures and ceramics confirmation that I have arrived!
Sergio is seated in a small, lush garden peopled by colourful clay figures and accompanied by the sound of water trickling into his spa pool with its heavily decorated tiled facade. Tools at hand, he is eager to begin sculpting while the day remains cool. As he picks them up his face seems to glow with an air of peace and the story of his life and love of art begins to unfold.
Sergio's affair with art started at an early age. In his youth he attended the Istituto di Arte in Sorrento, the majestic port town just a few kilometres across the Mediterranean from his island home. After his school graduation, Sergio accepted a place at the pestigious Accademia della Belle Arti in Naples where he immersed himself in the technical aspects of art while also developing his lifelong passion for art history. For him it was an easy and natural progression from art school to working artist such that in 1967, less
than a year after his graduation from the academy, the young Sergio held his first exhibition. On an island steeped in tradition, this heralded his 'initiation' as an artist and with it came introductions that were to change his life forever.
Capri is an island frequented by magnates and dignitaries from foreign lands and it was in this cosmopolitan environment that the nascent artist met Asbrink, then the Swedish Governor. Sergio's talents soon led to an invitation to join the Governor and his wife in Sweden, where the artist resided free for six months to explore a new culture with its different take' on life and art.
His youthful travels continued while completing compulsory national service with the Italian Navy during which when he was not painting portraits and caricatures for his own and others' amusement! his time was spent operating ships' radar. By 1970 the traveller had returned to his island haven intent on pursuing a career as an art teacher. However another chance meeting, this time with a German journalist, convinced Sergio to accept work as a commissioned artist in Germany. His spirited interpretations of Capri struck a chord in northern Europe which gave rise to a mass of works, including paintings that adorn the walls of a prestigious hotel in Bobenheim.
Capri's spell again drew him back, this time invigorated and inspired to expand his repertoire to new media. As if followed by good fortune, Sergio soon encountered David Rawnsley, the founder of London's Chelsea Pottery.
Recognising Sergio's talents, Rawnsley made him a gift of a kiln and an array of tools and in so doing, launched a new chapter in the blessed life of this artist.
Figures, plates, tiles throughout the 1970s, Sergio revelled in clay. He sculpted, moulded, turned and painted until his tiny island home only 16 kilometres square was alive with his designs and forms. Exhibitions in Florence, Padua and Naples increased his renown, while his international commissions continued and prizes abounded as all the while he continued to teach, always intent on fostering emerging talent. In 1980 his efforts were acknowledged anew when he was elected Chairman of Anacapri, a role that provided new opportunities to promote art in life.
By the mid1980s Sergio's desire to stretch his wings had returned. Much to the dismay of the Caprisian community, his intention to start a new life in America with his wife and two sons came to fruition in his usual effortless style. The Rubino family arrived in New York in 1992 and almost immediately, Sergio opened a studio and shop on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The business thrived and with the able help of his sons, Michelangelo and Raffaello, its success compounded.
It's fair to say that, like the Swedes, Germans and Italians before them, New Yorkers relished the Rubinos ceramics. For the ItaloAmerican community, the handcrafted works of the three men were reminiscent of an otherwise distant culture, while others of European heritage found similar ties to their past.
An invitation to visit friends in upstate New York enticed the Rubino's to transfer their lives and their work to yet greener pastures and in 1993, a new and much expanded studio was established in the picturesque town of Jeffersonville. By this stage more than 250 shops across America carried the works of Ceramiche Artistiche Rubino and Sergios pieces were also sold in Europe and Japan. As if to reaffirm his connection with New York, however, in 1994 Sergio was commissioned to assist with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, culminating in the creation of eight splendid terracotta vases.
Over the years as his reputation grew, the world seemed somehow smaller for Sergio Rubino, such that America and Europe became alternatives. By the mid 1990s, he was again spending more time in Capri enjoying the simple things in life, such as relaxing with friends at a summer house overlooking the clear blue sea. It is during one of these regular long visits to Capri that he was asked to help create Miniature Capri, a work that was to take many months of effort on two continents as well as much collaboration and planning. By February 1996, the work was being installed outside Zeus on Capri, a masterpiece in its every tiny miraculous detail. And then came the accolades, the news stories and the commissions. And so it goes ... creating not copying; inventing not repeating.
As the years progressed and the millennium passed, Sergio's time away from his beloved Capri has diminished even further although, who really knows if this will continue? Today he still visits America, which is home to his sons, but more often than not he can be found seated in a small lush garden.
It was an enchanting morning spent with Sergio, watching his hands breath life into clay to reveal a figure of perfect proportions and full of character. In the afternoon, time spent exploring the island was also captivating and the shopping, fabulous, but as the ferry pulls away from Marina Grande, my mind slips back to the sculpture that. through Sergio's skill and devotion, in a few short hours was born of clay.
After Capri the tour spent three glorious days on the Amalfi Coast visiting heavenly, scented gardens in Ravello and ceramics studios in Vietri sul Mare, punctuated by long evenings sipping cocktails on the waterfront at Positano. It was hard to imagine that life could get better, although with Sicily as our next stop I was quite prepared to be proved wrong!