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The following story appeared in The Artistic Stenciler, Spring 2008

Tuscan Adventure

by Gary Lord

BELLA TOSCANA is the decorative painting workshop Melanie Royals and l assembled in collaboration with artist Jeannine DostaIand Alison Wooley Bukhgalter, of florenceart.net. The trip took place in October of 2007 in Florence, Italy with 27 other Americans joining us.

The translation of the tour name means "Beautiful Tuscany", which indeed you know is true if you have ever been there. All of the movies, photographs, calendars, and post cards you have seen of this region only do partial justice to what it really feels like being immersed directly in its beauty. It is not just the panoramic vistas of the countryside that gives this area special charm. The history of the region, its impressive architecture, the exquisite food and wines, its timeless sense of fashion and design and most importantly its wonderful people, will leave you spellbound and not wanting to come home.

We stayed at the Fattoria di Maiano, five kilometers from the old city center of Florence, located on 300 hectares of the surrounding green hillsides within sight of Brunelleschi's Duomo. The Villa di Maiano property dates back into the 1400's and has preserved its genuine charm: original furniture belonging to the XVII-XVIII century, their richly colored frescos, and refined tapestries. The Maiano estate is actually a totally biological working farm, which, for the most part, is employed in cultivating olives (20,000 olives trees on 110 hectares). As part of our trip, we were fortunate enough to be able to schedule a private tour of the main Villa and a tour of the harvesting and pressing of this year's new olive crop, producing world renowned Laudemio extra virgin olive oil.

The Fattoria di Maiano is divided into many separate apartments and suites, usually with two beds per bedroom and two or three bedrooms per suite. The suite would also have a full kitchen/eating area, common room, and multiple bathrooms per unit. Our group took over a large amount of the Fattoria and occupied eight of the apartments for the two weeks we were in Italy. Some of the people on the trip went with their spouses or shared rooms with other friends that were going on the trip. The majority of the people though did not know each other and were able to establish new friendships. These friendships blossomed durIng the trip to the point that many of these people will keep in touch with each other for years to come. I certainly know that I personally was able to strengthen my existing relationships and foster new ones.

The trip started with all of us meeting each other for the first time at the ]FK airport on Friday. We all wore red so we could have a way to 'somewhat' recognize each other. We boarded the plane for the overnight trip to Italy and landed in Pisa the next morning. From there, we departed via our deluxe motor coach for the I-1/2 hour drive into Florence through the beautiful Italian countryside. On the outskirts of Florence, just before we arrived to the Fattoria, we stopped at a grocery store to pick up food, drinks, and wine for our suites. This was where we began to know your roommates even better. Upon arrival at the Fattoria we all registered, unpacked, and then went to see everyone else's suites. The rooms are charming and the views from some of the rooms are breathtaking. You can see these for yourself by going online to www.fattoriadimaiano.com.

Part of the bonding experience on these trips is having our meals together, and we did this the first night by taking a short walk up to the Cave di Maiano restaurant where all 30 of us dined. The location is infamous because it was the hillside where Leonardo da Vinci tried to fly his flying machine. The three hours spent enjoying different Italian menu courses was wonderful, the wine flowed freely, and the group began to get acquainted. This was typical of all our evening meals. We also ate all of our breakfasts together at the Fattoria, all of our lunches together during our workshop days, and two other meals in the evenings including our Grand Gala Farewell meal. These were some of my favorite times of the trip, getting to know people better over a long enjoyable meal. Sadly, this is something we do not do much of in America.

We also intermixed touring throughout the trip so we could enjoy the culture and the beauty of this magnificent country. Our first bus tour left on Sunday late morning and took us through the Tuscan landscape to the Villa Vignamaggio, which has been a winery since the 1400's. We had an excellent tour guide that was very informative about the history of the region, of the Villa, and of the ancient and modern day techniques of winemaking. We actually toured the Villa itself and saw the equipment used in the making and storing of the wines. Then we sampled many of the wines in a buffet/wine luncheon that was as educational as it was delicious. Later in the day we went into the nearby village of Grave where there was a local antiques market going on that filled the entire city center. This was our first day of shopping and it seemed everyone found something to purchase. We had a show and tell on the bus ride back to our Villa.

Breakfast was served between 8 AM to 10 AM for the two weeks we were there. On the days of our workshop (Monday thru Friday of the first week) we would eat breakfast, then catch the bus at 9 AM and ride into Florence to Alison's new studio where we were actually holding the workshop. Alison owns a decorative painting business and school in Florence. It was at this new location we were to teach various techniques on sample boards the students could take home and then apply the techniques to the walls and floors of the studio. Alison and Melanie spoke for months about the finishes to be taught and executed with all final designs being created and taught by Melanie. The goal was to try to use Italian and American products that could be purchased in the United States easily. Alison had five main areas designated for decorating.

The studio's main floor was decided to be SkimStone by Modern Masters with the usage of an elaborate Modello pattern for the overall design. SkimStone is a hybridized Portland cement and this was my first time using it. I was very impressed on how easy it is to use. By applying multiple coats of applications in varying colors, we created a unique textured appearance that transformed the old concrete floor into a beautiful design element reminiscent of the original tiled floor.

The design chosen for Alison's office was a silk damask fabric finish. We used a product called Kreos from Oikos for the dimensional stria texture. The Kreos was troweled onto the surface and then striated vertically with a Corduroy tool around the entire room. Next, we mixed a darker color of the Kreos and rolled it through our stencil pattern. The final step was to roll on two different waxes that had been tinted with mica particles. The room had a beautiful soft glow to it upon completion.

The design for the front showroom of the studio was a multi-layered lime paint finish. Once again, we used an Oikos product called Pittura Cake Verona tinted to five different colors of green, pinks, and cream. The green and pink colors were applied with a 4" chip brushes in a crosshatch motion, blended and softened as we moved around the room. Next, we brushed on light pink, rose, green, and cream and used a trowel to knock down and blend the colors. The final step was to seal the walls with Millenium Wax from Safra applied by cheesecloth. This ended up a very soft subtle finish, which works very well as a backdrop for the displaying of Alison's furniture pieces.

The back apartment area received what I thought was the prettiest finish we did. It was an inlaid pattern in Coccio Pes to from Safra. Three walls were just the Coccio Pes to with the forth wall being accented with an inlaid technique using Modellos. This finish starts out with a base coat in Firmanova as a bonding agent. Then using a trowel, we applied Prontomuro in large strokes and opened up the surface using a Darby tool. The Coccio Pesto was tinted to a light terra cotta color, the wall lightly misted with water, and then a thin skim coat was applied to the wall using the "two hands busy" technique. The Modello was applied to the feature wall. Then the final coat of untinted Coccio Pesto was applied in the same manner as before. The Modello's were removed after this step to reveal the inlaid pattern left behind.

The bathroom received a finish called Faux Sgraffito. A variety of more Oikos materials was used in this bathroom including Travertino and Marmorino. The walls were troweled in a medium brown texture using Inotaco Antico and Travertino and then pounced with a Corduroy tool. The walls were then glazed with Vel Decor, scrubbed into the texture, and blended. A Modello was installed as a border and troweled through with Marmorino Naturale, Finitura Autolucidante and soon after with Pittura Cake Verona. The Modello was removed immediately and a weeding tool was used to scratch in the Sgraffito details.

Decorative artist Jeannine Dostal started out the week by teaching everyone how to create her Pompeian Fresco on Roclon panels. Jeannine lays out her panels with a very simple method using blue tape as its own measuring device. Acrylic colors are then washed onto the surface in a blended muted effect. Stencils are then used in a positive or negative manner to create the designs of your choice. A slight broken texture of Kreos was sponged on and knocked down over random elements of the design. A final over-glaze was applied to break up and marry the colors and designs together. We did not execute this technique on the walls of Alison's studio but I am sure many people will do this wonderful finish at home.

We started all of this work on Monday around 10 AM and completed all samples and rooms by Friday around 3 PM. We were only at Alison's studio five days and never longer than eight hours on any given day. I think the hour plus lunches that included wine was a good motivator we need to do more of in America. Alison was so confident in what we were doing she even scheduled an Open House for Friday evening. The open house was a big success and everyone enjoyed meeting Alison's clients and sharing the tips and techniques of what we had done for that week.

After Friday, we were all about PLAY. We did a bus tour on Saturday to San Gimmigano and Siena where we shopped for lunch and dinner. On Sunday, we took a bus tour to Lucca and Pisa where we enjoyed the sightseeing, shopping, and meals. It was tremendous fun to see all the Italian clothing and souvenirs on the bus each night on the way back to our Villa.

The next three days were on your own to choose what you wanted to do. Some people went to Milan and Venice, some to Rome, some to Umbria and the wineries, some to cooking classes, sightseeing or shopping in Florence, and other just relaxed at the Villa itself. One of the people on the trip wrote this note to Melanie and me.

"I have been wanting to tell you what a fabulous trip you and the rest of the crew created. It was well planned, fun, upbeat, with just the perfect mix of networking, learning, planned excursions, personal choices of venue, and downtime. And the group of artist was amazing - I learned something from everyone I spent time with... "

I wish to personally thank Melanie for helping to put this fantastic trip together and Alison for opening her studio to us. Also thank you to Jeannine Dostal for her leadership and teaching, and Becky Roth and Kari Caldwell for being the best support staff. People have asked me what the best part of the trip was and I say it was getting to network and know all the wonderful people that went on the trip. These trips are amazing because I laughed so hard and have a lot of fun and enjoying getting to know everyone. Also without everyone's skills and good work ethic we would have never been able to meet Alison's open house deadline. Thank you to student travelers: Todd and Susan Allemand, Velvet Barton, Mary Battaglia, Mary Bolan, Jody Buss, Laura Conway, Sandra Crissey, Anne Devers, Thersa Giffin, Patti Halstead, Debbie Hayes, Nancy jones, Eva La Rue, Jennifer Ludvik, Bob and Bonnie May, Eric Meyers, Debbie Morthland, Debbie Rye, Leslie Sexton, Barb Skivington, Lori Slusarek, Christine Tasheff, and Marla Williams.