The series of ‘firsts’ that form part of the human experience are essential in the process of growing up, and while both universal and singular, there is no definitive moment of transition. No distinct line that crosses into adulthood. Your first kiss. The first time you formalise a loan, in your name, independently. The time you sell your beat-up old car to buy a brand new one. Your university graduation … or when you visit your first foreign country. We tend to associate life’s milestones linearly, as if each should occur at exactly the right moment – and almost always at exactly the right age. But the reality is, it happens in tangled lines. In gradients and shades.
For Silvia Rotundo, embarking on her career as a full-time artist at the age of 49 was terrifying, exhilarating …. and inevitable. And once ignited into her story, it required no further examination; “I’m doing what I was born to do.” says Silvia.
“Ever since I can remember, I would always create. I would draw or make things; I’d collect mum’s leftover scraps of fabric and sew little dolls, or pouches for my pocket money. I can’t remember spending much time playing with toys as a kid, but I can remember cooking! By the time I was 10 I’d make homemade ravioli – they were huge because I was time poor. I’d hurry it all up because I wanted to be done by the time mum finished work.”
Silvia grew up in a quintessential Italian household where family and food were valued above anything else, except for perhaps hard work, which was their lifeblood and a source of love in so many ways. The youngest child to her parents, Silvia was accustomed to the notion that you reap what you sew; both literally and metaphorically.
“Dad worked in a factory and sometimes as a gardener. He would have two or three jobs going at a time, as most people of their generation did. Mum was a machinist. She had her own busines with two other friends; a career she started after raising the family. She made furnishings and curtains for renowned interior designers like Jean-Pierre Heurteau.”
Her father prided himself on his vegetable garden, where hours were spent tinkering with, nurturing, and sharing the fruits of his labour with the family. Equally, Silvia’s mother grew a beautiful garden of flowers. The family tended to their leisurely outlets as sincerely as they tended to their work, “I was always around creativity in a sense, even though it was work, work, work – it was all creativity: dad’s gardening, mum’s cooking and sewing. Their passions were woven into life.”
While art is the life Silvia was made for, the lead up to it required stripping herself of her career identity. “It felt like I was going through the motions for many years. The confidence I have today is a new feeling. I was lost. For 27 years I was an interior decorator. It wasn’t so much about what I was doing, but what I knew I should be doing – I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it.”
“For 13 of those years I worked at Rogerseller, I enjoyed what I did and especially the people I worked with. I met my husband Frank there, which is a special memory. I’ve made great friends, lifetime friendships … and sometimes when I think that maybe I was there for too long, I remember that it’s why I am who I am today.”
“I ended up working for myself. I enjoyed the niche jobs most. I loved hunting down vintage wallpapers or creating murals. I worked with other artisans – I tried to bring in artisan works into my projects, like handmade tiles, or bespoke décor. Those jobs weren’t frequent, but they were fun. In the beginning, I took on anything and everything and I just burnt out. It took a toll mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I wasn’t calm, I wasn’t focused – deep down I knew that there was something great waiting for me I just didn’t know what.”
This transition felt like she was growing around herself; making choices around the core of who she was. Silvia was going after the soft edges of what she wanted, and not what she actually wanted. “I thought I was washed up – approaching my 50s. I was painting the whole time though; it was always a part of me. I used to visit a crystal and spiritual store in Williamstown, I grew to know the owner well. She asked what I was doing with my time, and I said: I paint. I showed her some of my pieces and she offered to put one up in the shop for sale – it was a dreamcatcher – and it sold. Then people asked for my work, and more pieces sold. I just didn’t feel pressured anymore and it flowed.”
A combination of passion, gut instinct and good old-fashioned serendipity saw to Silvia paving the path forward for her future, but there was an underlying guilt, “I was self-conscious about the money side of things, I didn’t want my husband to carry all the burden. One day we were at a little store and I picked up a magazine, the cover said in bold writing: reinvent yourself. Frank looked at me and said, why don’t you just paint. From that point onwards, just knowing he had my back, brought it all out of me. Like vomit! I started experimenting, creating sculptures, working with paper, making a mess!” laughs Silvia.
“Frank has been my rock. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him. But i still have my identity, which is so important.”
On snowballing into iconic status, Silivia is humble, “I often visited a shop in Footscray called Post Industrial Design, it’s owned by a now very dear friend Mary. She saw my potential before even I could fully acknowledge it. ‘Why don’t you do a little show with me when you feel like it?’ she asked one day. This was only six months after I started painting full time.”
“We booked the show and while my nephew was helping set up, people started walking in and buying my art. Most of the pieces sold as we were hanging them! On the night of the show I was numb. There were over 200 people there. We were like sardines! It was beautiful!” says Silvia.
Upon meeting Lucy Fenton, Founder of Fenton & Fenton, Silvia remembers Lucy describing her art as naïve, childlike and beautiful, “I didn’t have a word to describe my artistic style, I didn’t have a category or language for it.”
“When I was in kindergarten, I painted for the first time; there’s a photo of me standing by my easel, just looking up at the camera a little stunned. I had painted a person, imperfect in dimension, using only primary colours. I have many precious memories of childhood and it’s come through in my work.”
“My style is naïve. It’s simple. My scale can be off, I guess you could say that I’m breaking the rules of fine art. My decorating days taught me a lot about composition and colour – these are now the two main components of my art. As my work has matured and as I’ve gained more confidence, it has evolved. It’s folk art.”
“A friend recently told me that it’s a young Silvia painting. I see that.” she says.
Silvia’s new path has her desires and life trajectory layered on top of each other instead of separate tracks, “I’m doing what I want to do. I felt at one stage that I needed to please people – but I just wanted to be me, be bold and loud with compositions. With Fenton & Fenton I’ve found my people.”
“On the day that I showed Lucy my work in person for the first time, the team helped me unload my car, and as they did, they stared at my art in what looked like awe. Not uttering a single word. I knew it was enthusiasm and it made me more enthusiastic! I carried in a large piece – 1.8m x 1.8m – and I laughed at how bold and ridiculous my entrance would have been.”
“Fenton & Fenton aren’t afraid of colour or boldness; Lucy saw my work and just got it. Just as I was leaving, I remember her saying: I’ve got a really good feeling about this. I thought, so do I.”
Silvia’s latest artwork – Poinsettias & Pudding – is commission by Fenton & Fenton, to help raise money for young people through Artists for Kids Culture. For children experiencing hardship, the not-for-profit provides opportunities to be involved in artistic, cultural, musical, dramatic, dance and other creative activities.
“When I first spoke with Lucy about the initiative it was like we were reading each other’s thoughts – it all fell into place very easily. I wanted to support a smaller organisation; something grassroots. For me it circles back to my childhood and what exploring my creative side did for me. You don’t need a lot of money to make art, but you do need encouragement and backing. Someone to believe in you.”
When Silvia was playing with the colours for Poinsettias & Pudding , she looked down at her palette and saw a mishmash of red, pink and blue colour combinations and wondered why she loved the kitschy confusion so much, “I kept thinking – why do I love this colour combo? Then I realised, it’s the satin suit David Bowie wore in Ziggy Stardust! He’s a huge creative influence of mine, along with the nostalgia of the 50s, 60s and 70s.”
“The glass baubles are an ode to the vintage ones I own from the 60s. The tartan in the work is representative of the season, but with a twist. And I dotted in the Star of Bethlehem flower for mum.”
“I love Christmas time. I love making our home welcoming. I love presenting food in beautiful ways! That’s where the pudding comes in; food plays a big part in sharing the joy of Christmas. This piece represents the energy of the festive season for me.”
Christmas is a time of reflection: the year that was, the year ahead, and the choices we make. It’s a flurry of thoughts that capture the past, present and future. The sum of these stories can see us recreating ourselves … or tearing ourselves down. We can choose to define our journey as growing up, but perhaps it’s simply best described as growing. And there’s no age you can tether to that sentiment.
“When I’m painting, I feel joyous, full of life. This is how it all worked out for me, and it feels pretty perfect.” reflects Silvia.