Roberto Mannino was born on 21 June, the Week of Magic according to the Vedas. At 16 he ran away from his family home in Rome, getting as far as the Netherlands with designs on catching a freighter bound for the Congo. Only someone interested in the unknown, beyond the immediate, someone who voyages after discovery, endeavors so. For reasons undisclosed to me, he was returned home, sat down by his father – working professionally as a doctor – confronted with what to do with his life. At the guidance and encouragement of his sister, he pursued art. A choice-compliment from an art professor about an ear Mannino was working on all day in a drawing class later that year heightened his longing to pursue art. After doing well for three years in Rome’s art schools, and a bureaucratic matter demanding the renewal of his American citizenship, Mannino, with the support of his family, enrolled at Rhode Island School of Design to study painting and printmaking. By 1993, he found himself in the papermaking studio at RISD and from that point forward, he dedicated himself to making his art in the hand-papermaking process.
As two Italian-Americans, we found a common ground in having read literature by John Fante. What is more, our networks are linked with some of the same people in the papermaking field: BFA candidate Mia Brown-Seguin and Morgan Conservatory Director, Tom Balbo. There were some of his own words regarding his art, which he’d requested, for the duration of my stay, I keep in mind: It is a reward to redefine the void that exists in perception, to witness contradictions existing between appearance and reality, both for the viewer’s perception and for creator. Roberto works in order to find out why and the what he’s making through an open vision to the world and reality – this is the richness of a dedicated, process-based approach to creation – a voyage of discovery.
To indulge oneself with the tremendous pleasure of driving into the Apennine Mountains augments the experience. What with the sweeping vistas, the grazing mountainside cattle, the aviary soaring through all colors associated with high altitudes, the quaint villages like oases (or tombs) rising out of the rocks becomes a nation unto itself, thriving and bustling along. I’ve had the recent opportunity to visit one such papermaker in his studio in Pescasseroli, Italy. In the last hour’s winding drive through the country’s first national park, I had some doubts about the effect my presence would have on his projects: one a private commission; the other for a gallery.
Paper has been made for years in order to assert one’s individuality, one’s own circumstance, including timing and way, both apart from society and within the sphere of contemporaries: friends and family of future and present. To work alongside another papermaker, a serious one, one who does not own an apron and instead sports a puffer vest with turned up Lacoste Polo collar underneath, well, by him it was sufficient. As Roberto is an artist whose dedication spans for more than three quarters of his life, it is naturally a great privilege to make his acquaintance.
I was there to help pull the large sheets, which we’d set to a sequence of pressurized wetting and drying. In the series’ entirety, representations of a visual nature of space, light, and air, all exist within and about the paper and made articulate. There is an overwhelming sense in these papers, of which there are four, having undergone a process of pressure and release, finally set to shimmering!
After a day or two, what with my mumbling and whistling, my boyish enthusiasm in snapping instant Polaroid pictures, taking down shorthanded notes in my hand stitched breast pocket book, coupled with my endless questions and silly phrases in broken Italian, Roberto professed to be glad for my help. The way in which the maestro went about his work was a process rooted in quiet meditation followed by exact movements, executing an informed sequence. He explained to me, with a Camel depending between his forefinger and thumb, that paper derives its own scope. Is paper shaped forever? is a question he will continually ask himself when creating large pieces like the ones we were drying. The methods I witnessed required of him various creation tactics. In certain instances for paper sculptures, he will design hollow volumes with paper ‘skins,’ working from the outside and moving in instead of casting the material into a mould, though the pieces we were currently drying measured longer than two meters, were cast in a mould of his own assembly and were clamped down onto a vacuum table. In any case, whether sculpture, book arts, or paper pieces by Mannino, it is the drying process, the air itself, becoming the limitrophe core that renders the piece.
When one chooses to work in vulnerabilities, as artist Roberto Mannino has in his entire oeuvre, he moves among mysteries. The entirety of his reward for not playing it safe, which is to say working openly towards possibility while abstaining from exacting tendency, results in an art that at once is possessed by qualities adjacent to enchanted and bewitched, as if these odd, mysterious shapes were speaking directly to me, their tones (I’m speaking of shapes and colors) convey their meaning in the alchemical process of changing from a liquid to a solid. This phenomenon is congruent to his approach’s ability to beckon the uniqueness of his vision and the specialty of fiber. The key to understanding Mannino’s art lies in the conscious choice to work in a material’s vulnerability. He avoids being hemmed in by any one form and, as a consequence, speculates fiber behavior in his projects. Mannino stressed to me that a paper’s particularities has everything to do with its inner phenomena, that its interloping behavior and expansive vastness as an artistic medium, maintaining consistent relationships with sculpture, printmaking, and book arts, excites him as an papermaker. His decision lends itself exactly into a mysterious art realm.
Roberto Mannino is 64-years-old and incredibly fit, possesses the stamina and endurance of an athlete, and is able, from the outsider’s view, to keep his studio in immaculate order with ease. Often he has concurrent projects running alongside time to design, time to reflect – the meditative stacks of legna recount his life all from 8 a.m. when I’d arrive, fatigued, jet-lagged, until 19:30, when we’d break for supper, feasting in the evenings until sated and sleepy. We return for the next morning – me to my hotel minutes away; he upstairs. Mannino fits in a 35-minute lie down at two, after lunch, a contentment of the belly – roasted red peppers, steamed carrots remanso, Spanish for ansa, luogo per riposare, mettere la carota davanti all’asino, whole grain spaghetti leftover from the night before, a frittata in a glass dish to cook inside the wood stove – all things that are good, rich and cultural, center around eating and drinking. He is promptly back to work after we take in a decaf espresso with cinnamon. Such endurance and dedication is unparalleled. The neighbor’s dog on the other side of the fence I would give four biscuits at lunchtime while we were throwing wood. Mannino invariably and each day, “make it five.”
Roberto is wedded to his art, lives it day by day. Wherever the eye falls in his studio, there is color, a pleasing palette; his studio is a tranquil place of clarity – blue tiles surround, exposed natural woods, piping woodstove priming one’s olfactory, the sea-saw saw-sea song of cicadas and crickets just beyond the window, the singing of the birds before the jarred windows of grand proportions the better to let in all kinds of rays of mountain light, a first-rate sound system with ample speakers to accommodate a myriad of audio mediums: vinyls, .mp3 from the iMac or iPod, CD’s. Please reader, hear at once Satie’s “Gymnopedie” as the rain pitter patters down the metal roof followed by Måneskin’s rock and roll covers, Kaki King’s multi-layered acoustic playing and Ry Cooder’s slide steel guitar, the vocals of a West African somewhere between a scream and a cry. There is at our disposal limitless water, both hot and cold thanks to the solar panels and the abundance of ground water, stainless steel sinks, moulds and deckles of all sizes, an ample drying box, a vacuum box, a soundproof room of beautiful tile and foam specifically for the Hollander, entire spectrum of colors and hues, a good squeegee that led me everywhere, a NYFD nozzle outfitted onto his indoor hose and pressure, adequate drainage – one feels they have entered upon a hallowed ground of creation. On such a Saturday afternoon Mannino said I had the studio at my disposal. Even though I was able to maintain, with some strain, the sage advice of poet, performer, and tour de force Anne Waldman’s view that human-beings can only hold three variables at once, but that as poets, as artists, one must be able to hold ten or more. In this reckoning, I timidly set to work, always aware and ready to abruptly stop (and perhaps I can even admit that I was a little nutty in this way) in order to help him move about his mythic-sized pieces – 4 large works in abaca, dimensions 170×85 each, currently untitled, as part of a group show opening on October 10th at the Ex Cartiera Latina on the old Appian Way – prepared and set to dry or be cast, toss wood into the stove, find the tweezers forth to pick imperfections out in the shuffle, minding the clamps to be unwound or tightened at his discretion, or any other request reasonably assumed by an apprentice (I wanted to achieve disciple-hood). Mannino gave me much encouragement.
As I’d only made paper one time thanks to a generous merit scholarship from Wells College Summer Book Arts Institute, I felt I was so lacking in varied techniques, I’d even hesitate to call myself an amateur. Within a half hour of making paper in Mannino’s studio, this resulted in my lack of vision and perspective on what might come from experimenting with his many supplies. In the same breath, I had the impression the maestro supported what I intended to do and would remain uncritical. “Do what you like,” he’d say, approaching my station to take a peek at what I had laid down from my elbow and would continue in a quiet, authoritative way, “try this” setting down one of the ironmonger stencils his leatherworking friend had gifted, having polished it with a fine chrome. “Maybe make a series in homage to a poet you admire. Use this testa di morro.” I could’ve expected he’d set down that color for me to use. When he and I initially corresponded via e-mail, he intimated I’d be able to identify his residence by the parked Red Ford Puma in front, which served as a useful signpost when the address he’d given me was miswritten, leading me to a horse farm not far from his actual house and studio.
I was engaged in pulp painting, dripping the pigment through a screen, to rock the mould across my couched paper in order to render the absolute tint of the color. I decided to make a series of double-layered papers, all featuring a prominent use of the red-hued cotton linter pigment, in the name of American Poet Ted Berrigan’s “Red Shift.” Lord knows in my writing how many times I’ve tried imitating that poem, to bring out that magic certitude borne of the dedicated approach to production. But for me it rarely works out that way. True, elements of my poems and paper bring out responses in viewers like, “what freedom, what fun you must be having.” Accepting Roberto’s suggestion, I withheld for whom the homage was, and wanting to know the next day what he’d say of the piece once it was dry, if anything. The process and effect alike were satisfactory. Later, removing the pieces from the blotting paper, the near finished product, called to his mind Kandinsky. Fine, fine enough, I thought.
Then came an equally exciting period. When Roberto’s pieces were dried and removed from the blotter. I gazed in amazement, courting, as it were, the paper he had made. Did I really witness this happen, assist in some small way this object d’art come to be? It is in the way of floating in the cushioning bosom of tradition and the whimsy of improvisation that carries Mannino’s pieces off into another realm of art, one that incorporates the songs of birds and angels, it reaches any tangent with intelligence, incorporating a facility of control. How had I been present for such marvelous creation? How? In this mood, I’d rather stare at my poor efforts and Roberto’s exceedingly artistic ones, than take in the art of Italy’s better-known masters.
I am reminded by my diary entries that each day I spent in Roberto’s studio, I asked myself why does someone persist in making art? As Roberto himself admits, papermaking is a wet and constant process of cleaning. It is a goopy chaos of an alchemical process. It is a mess. No mud, no lotus. When I left Abruzzo, I pointed my Panda south towards the Tyrrhenian Sea, named by the Greeks after the Etruscans, that ancient collection of people still shrouded in mystery who once reigned over these lands. I was steering the Panda towards Magna Graecia, and the question of why anyone continues with art, in spite of the official archive and narrative for world events and what it might implicate in my life to call into question my being a “maker,” someone who contributes to the ongoing dialogue in art, and if I ever could convincingly refer to myself as finding something interesting to express visually, or would I as apprentice and assistant forever be genuflecting the mercy of the masters and their will? Well, the sun was shining and I was smiling at having accomplished what I’d set out to do by meeting Mannino. We all rely on one another for support in craft, and if not that, then otherwise morale. Papermaking is no exception as an art form, seems to me to simply be an expression, a means of achieving alacrity of mind and spirit readily unavailable in the busyness of everyday life.
I feel my papermaking approach has become what the Germans might call Gesamtverk, a term I interpret as a broad-spectrum approach to the artistic and scholarly medium of bookmaking. With papermaking in particular, I feel one recreates the experiences registered in the soul. The subconscious, ineffable “thing” responsible for transforming pain and suffering into symbols of beauty, what we convince ourselves we ought to strive for (perhaps truth) however reduced and/or abstracted. My time with Roberto Mannino restored the faithful picture of life, which the absurdities of modern society obscure and nullify. In other words, creation in the name of clarity, of order, for charity, underlie the creative spirit. With this mantra in mind, it seems to me paper serves as a veritable link between the persons of today and of the future, helping us to manage an inner intensity I am convinced each of us carries, whether with an expressed or unexpressed desire to give some semblance of raison d’etre for who we are.
Author’s Note: This artist profile was first written on abaca linter blended paper