Sabbatical in Sicily

Gwynn Zivic By: Gwynn Zivic

Gene Mackey always encouraged architects to stay curious and to never stop drawing. In keeping with this spirit, award-winning designer Gwynn Zivic, AIA was able to step away from the architectural studio in order to nurture creative passions and travel abroad. Here, she shares with us this incredible experience.

Taking time off work mid-career to paint in Italy is a fantasy for many artists at heart, particularly Architects with a love for travel. And it remained a dream of mine until last summer, when I got an opportunity to join an artist’s residency program in Tusa, Sicily, and threw myself all in.


Perched on a hilltop above the Tyrrehenian Sea, Tusa is a small town on Sicily’s northern coast, between Palermo and Messina, overlooking the Aeolian Islands. An authentic town of long-time residents (minimal English spoken), the culture is traditional and family is treasured. Speculated to be founded as early as AD 898, the town was once a walled city with a castle, with portions of the wall and entrance gate still in existence. The prevailing historical architecture is comprised of Norman, Medieval and Baroque styles woven across narrow streets of worn cobble, leading to a pinnacle belvedere overlooking the sea.

The residency is titled Officina Stamperia del Notaio, run by esteemed print-making artist Serena Peronne and Sicilian arts enthusiast Alfonsina Bellomo. Artists are invited from around the world to explore in their chosen medium.

The studio was housed in a historic rehabbed stone warehouse with breathtaking views of the hillside. My apartment was right beneath the studio, not a bad commute. In addition to working on projects, days consisted of living like the locals, getting groceries and attending family dinners or the occasional community cultural event. Weekends consisted of exploring nearby cities by train.

tripleThe real gift of the program was time and solitude granted to focus on artwork. My work morphed while I was there. Reading my original artist’s statement now, I was initially interested in sketching Sicilian building details and the surrounding landscape. The solitude allowed me to let go of those rigid expectations, to delve deeper into a pure abstract, impressionistic interpretation – inspired by forms and colors of the rolling landscapes. I also found freedom – to purely explore a new style of painting. Mesmerized by the colors and organic flow of watercolor, I fell in love with chasing the movement with hand inked lines. Every contour a new journey. Each painting a unique landscape.

Mesmerized by the colors and organic flow of watercolor, I fell in love with chasing the movement with hand inked lines. Every contour a new journey. Each painting a unique landscape.

I came away with what I consider 12 finished pieces, but those pieces are only the beginning of a further exploration into medium, style, and technique.

watercolors_detailAs a new year unfolds, I look back in awe of the opportunity and the inspirational quality of the experience. As a project designer, the residency program experience along with extended travel throughout Sicily, Italy and Croatia, truly ignited the creativity within me. It gave me a stronger foundation in the authentic architectural styles, proportions, and  details that guide my work on university campuses across the country. I’m immensely grateful to all those I regularly work with, both at the firm and my clients, who were all completely supportive allowing for this experience to happen. Wishing all the best for the year ahead and I encourage anyone to look for that dream, and when you find it, allow it to carry you away for awhile.