You have lived a fascinating and also a ‘peripatetic life’ – as you put it in your contribution to We Refugees. Were your parents or other people in your family also great travelers? Did you imagine, growing up, that you would live your adult life in so many different places?
My great grandparents came from Ireland in the mid-eighteenth century and settled in Victoria. I can only imagine how distant Australia must have seemed, the sadness of leaving loved ones behind, mixed with excitement for making life anew. I think the key word here is ‘imagine’ – we carry the memories over generations, both through storytelling and body-memory.
Growing up with my family I moved to Italy for two years at the age of ten. So I had an experience of a ‘big’ world, of a distance travelled but – like many of my contemporaries – we also moved locations within Australia: Bendigo, Echuca, Melbourne, then Canberra. I was always deeply fascinated with people and places afar – the desire to experience that, to immerse myself in diversity was exciting. My experiences with travel taught me how hospitable strangers could be, and thanks to my parents, we were encouraged to be respectful. So it was not unnatural for me to return to Italy for temporary study in 1981 at Florence University for Foreigners; to meet an Italian back in Canberra and decide to travel permanently from Australia with him – there followed a diplomatic life in many countries, a new identity with an Italian passport, full of experiences but also of responsibility.
You are a trained artist and also art therapist – what led you to pursue postgraduate studies in Art Therapy?
We had lived in Belgrade, in Serbia, during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. I had been immersed in studio work there, in exhibiting and meeting artists, but the situation was very tense and, obviously, violent and tragic. We experienced, for example, how easily language changed – linguistic taboos were broken – and violence followed. We lived through the sanctions and saw the deep stress, the unravelling of everyday life for citizens caught in the upheavals. On leaving Belgrade, we were posted to Edinburgh in Scotland. There I re-set up my studio but was aware of the ongoing reality in the Balkans, of Bosnian refugees arriving in UK, of the fragility of peace, of those we had left behind.
I was aware of feeling, initially, so lonely – even though I had a family, support, and was in Scotland by choice. I felt that, if I was so lonely, what must it be like for those who must flee, who have no choice, who leave families behind? What resilience must they have?
I still remember the day I was in my Edinburgh studio (asking myself interminably, why am I here? What is the purpose?) and was listening to BBC Scotland when an interview with art therapist/course founder Peter Byrne was aired. I stopped working to listen, and immediately after, rang to make an appointment to apply. I felt that with experiences such as mine, and an understanding of studio practice and the power of images to help show us the way forward, the study would add another dimension to my work and that it might be useful in the future. I was accepted, and over the next two years met an extraordinary group of people who continue to inform my work.
In 2016 you established Make Art Not Walls with a group of asylum seekers in Umbria, Italy. The group has exhibited internationally and produced some wonderful, vibrant work – some of which we are delighted to be using as the cover art for We Refugees. Do you believe that every person has the capacity to be an artist?
I believe that every person has an inner necessity, overt or latent, to realise his or her true self – the ‘actualising tendency’, to paraphrase the psychologist Carl Rogers; an inherent tendency within ourselves to grow and reach our full potential. Exploring this through visual mark-making is a powerful tool. Whilst not all image-makers can be artists (which I see as a commitment, an identity, a long and hard road for most), we can all make images to tell our stories and to understand our lives, emotional states, and the times we live in. These images can be powerful testaments of our historical moment; of enormous visual importance. A small group within Make Art Not Walls Italia, two or three individuals, say they are now committed to growing their artistic experience long term. Here the title ‘artist’ is being earned.
What is it about the creative process that makes it – at least potentially – therapeutic?
The creative process leads us to ourselves. It connects us to our deep and collective ‘human-ness’ and aids us in understanding the beauty and tragedy of existence. The creative process heals us in times of trauma as implicit in ‘creating’ are active states of courage, connection, and hope. It connects us to the best part of our common humanity.
Who are your artistic inspirations?
I have met extraordinary artists, mostly unknown outside their city or national sphere, who continue to work, often in financial difficulty and with little recognition, in many different countries. These people are part of the ‘art-worlds’ that I know, so different from the ‘art-world’ of market forces, important though that is for many artists, myself included. My artistic inspirations are these people – they are my community.
Do you have other people, places, or things in your life that represent important sources of inspiration?
Yes. Apart from my studio, gardening! Walking. Swimming. Deep conversation. My children. Artist friends. Listening to music – jazz and classical mainly – and endlessly strolling through art galleries.
Can you tell us a little about where you grew up, and where you live now?
I grew up in a family of five. I was lucky to grow up in a family where I felt loved. My foundation was solid. Obviously, it was not always clear sailing, but a childhood where one feels acknowledged is the greatest gift a child can have. Although we moved a number of times for my father’s work, our homes always felt safe. Living in Varese, in Northern Italy, as a child meant that I grew up with two languages and a sense of the world as a wonderful, big place.
I now live in the ‘centro storico’ in Trevi, an ancient hill-town in central Italy; we are perched on the hill amongst an olive grove in a restored olive-mill. This is my base, my refuge.
Can you tell us about some of the projects you are working on currently?
Apart from ongoing studio work, presently I am involved in the publication of a book in Italian/English with prominent Europe/America-based arts writers, which considers my work in West Africa from 2001 until 2016. The book will be published by Fabbri Editore in Italy next month; plus a number of exhibitions are in progress.
With the organisation ‘Imagine’ – a collective who worked in Calais Jungle with asylum seekers – we have been invited to exhibit works from Make Art Not Walls in Paris in October 2018, and we are also to set up a permanent exhibition of some of the organisations’ work here in Trevi, our town, in the next few months.
In early 2019 I will be in hosted by Chameleon Art Collective in Balmoral and at the art residence, Off the Rails, in Dunkeld in Victoria, Australia, to continue developing my practice and be involved in a community cultural integration project: it will be interesting to travel back to Victoria, the state of my birth in 1956, and to see if I can begin to thread together the strands of this peripatetic life.
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Virginia Ryan is an Australian-Italian binational artist/art therapist working in Europe and West Africa who studied at the Florence University of Foreigners, the National Art School, Canberra, Australia and Queen Margaret School of Art Therapy in Edinburgh, Scotland. Ryan co-founded the ongoing Foundation for Contemporary Art (FCA) in Ghana, which she directed until 2007, and the association Make Art Not Walls Italia with asylum seekers in 2016 in Umbria, Italy. She exhibits internationally. For further information, visit: www.virginiaryan.com
Regal House Publishing and Pact Press are proud to publish our third anthology, We Refugees, in the spring of 2019.
Proceeds from the sale of the Anthology will go to support the work of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.