Art as Language

Artist Serena Depero Converses with Nature

Hook Magazine, Holiday Issue 2020 (Oct/Nov/Dec)

Story by David Neilsen

Photography by Andrea Swenson

serena depero

In Serena Depero's painting Water and Earth #8, there are wide bands of color - blue atop gold, then grey blue, and grey again. And there's life within each band. The art moves, carrying your eyes along for the ride. The topmost band is not a line of solid blue, but a blend of blues, with patches of darker hues scattered about. And then maybe it's not a band of color, it's the sky. Below that, the gold may be the rays of the setting sun reflecting off distant mountains. Beneath these peaks could be a small valley in deep shadow containing a lake. But maybe this isn't representational; the decision is left to the individual viewer. Textutre also brings the painting alive. There are a series of rings hidden beneath the left side of the work which rise from the lake and reach into the sky as if roots were somehow sprouting from under the paint. Nature raising from the water.

Taken as a whole the work is visually stunning. It feels worn, ancient, and natural. Transformed by the complexity of what at first glance seemed so simple, the viewer cannot help but have a conversation with the piece.

Born in Rome, artist Serena Depero, moved to New york at the age of fourteen. "When I first came to the U.S, I spent a lot of time by myself", she recalls. "I started drawing and painting as a way to occupy my time. I couldn't speak [English] that well, so [painting] was a way for me to express myself." Depero found her artist voice with the help of an art teacher who took her under her wing. "She helped me realize that art was an outlet", she said. "That it was a way for me to deal with the things I was going through in my life".

serena depero

After high school, Depero studied art at Brown University, spending one semester abroad to study in Florence, Italy. She then went to the Art Students League of New York before getting her Masters in painting at Hunter College.

Much of Depero's work, which is mostly acrylic on canvas, revolves around her reflections of the world around her. "I've always been interested in nature, whether it's the human body or a landscape or the natural world in general", she explains. "That's always been my source of inspiration, even when I was younger."

Water and Earth #8 is just one of a larger series she is currently working on. There are ten Water and Earth paintings so far and each piece has bands of blues, greens and neutrals combined with intricate textures and layers." I start most of my paintings with an underpainting, a dark color - maybe a red or a blue," she says. "And I start out by putting down certain shapes that I know I want in there. Over time, those initial layers get covered up. Most of the time you don't even see them at the end, there is so much layering that goes on in my work". It's really about what's going on the canvas, ultimately. About the colors, the shapes, the textures, the lines, the gestures. They are inspired by things I see in the natural world, but also once I get started it really becomes about what's happening on the canvas."

serena depero

What a person sees in these paintings can depend on their own relationship with nature. "I want my paintings to be evocative," explains Depero. "I don't necessarily know what those feelings are when I start out, but I want the viewer to get something from my work. It's not just trees and mountains. I want them to be experiences in and of themseves. It's about the spiritual connections that we make with nature. When you are in a beautiful landscape, you feel a certain way, you feel connected. There certain feelings we get from nature that I'm trying to carry through in the work. Some of my previous work was more about silence and peacefullness. In this series, they seem more melancholy to me, or maybe nostalgic."

The end result of Depero's process are paintings that speak to us in a multitude of ways. "I really believe that there are certain things that you can't describe [with words]", she says. Just like other forms of art, there are certain things that can only be described with paint of canvas, and I think that's very powerful. It's a language in itself. I guess what I'm trying to do is to describe visually what I can't put into words."