Artist Jules Maidoff, currently celebrating his 33rd year in Florence, has exhibited his paintings in over 200 one-person exhibitions around the world. His artwork has been presented in major retrospective museum exhibits in Pisa, Orvieto and San Giovanni Valdarno in Italy, Museu de Spirito Sanctis, Lisbon, Fondaciao Cascais and the Museum of Leiria in Portugal as well as in juried exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Pennsylvania Academy of Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1975, he founded Studio Art Centers International (SACI) in Florence.
The Florentine: Tell us how you first came to Florence.
Jules Maidoff: I came to Florence as a Fulbright scholar when I was 23 years old. Fifty years ago! I remember driving up on All Saints’ Day (Tutti Santi) from Perugia where grantees had to take a month-long Italian language course. Coming down and seeing the city for the first time was an incredible experience—one of those indelible moments. Life here was a huge change for me. I remember going into a bar with paint on my jeans and the barman said, “Oh you’re an artist!” and from then on he always greeted me as “Maestro”. I remember thinking, “That’s pretty good compared to what you get in the States.” In America, I’d tell people that I was an artist and they’d say, “Yes, but what do you do for a living?” In Florence, I was suddenly part of a society where being an artist was a normal profession. It wasn’t like it was better than others. It was just a normal profession. You’re a “master” in painting; that’s what you do. After the Fulbright, I went back to New York City and had a successful career as a designer. Nine years after I’d left, I decided to come back to visit Florence. In 1970, I bought a house between Florence and Arezzo and moved here. I wanted to see what my pictures would look like. Don’t get me wrong; I had been exhibiting during my years in New York and had a following. But I wanted to see what my pictures would look like if I had enough time to make them look as good as I could make them rather than doing what I could with the time left over from my career as a graphic designer.
TF: Did you come back to Italy knowing that you would found an art school?
JM: When I came back to Italy I thought, “Oh, I’ll do some teaching in the summer in my nice big house in the country,” and I did. I taught painting, drawing and etching and took the students on tours of the countryside. My wife Gill fed and “mothered” them. Some of them stayed at our house and the rest in small hotels. It was great fun. I called my program Studio Art Center of Tuscany and 12 people came over that first summer. It was exhilarating. I hadn’t taught since graduate school, but I did enjoy explaining ideas to people. When you try and explain how a concept works, you really have to think about it and integrate it into yourself to be able to verbalize it.
Around that time, there had been a U.S. university program in Florence, which decided to close, and the guy who had been running it asked if I’d like to get involved in creating a private art program. I ended up being the director, the painting/drawing teacher and the “mother superior”. That was 1975-76 and the students lived in the school in via Ginori. Within ten years SACI went from 12 to 80 or 90 students—as large as almost any program here. Little by little, it became a much more articulated program, with more subjects and more space. Students came from many of the best universities in the US, and a smaller group came from other countries—all were seek-ing to earn US university-level credits while studying art in Florence.
I never believed that I would be so lucky—to see the little school that I started become a monument to my craziness. Because it was a mad experiment. SACI was founded as a “not for profit” intentionally. When I left the States I was doing very well. I had everything most people want, but I just feel that art is not about money. And that education shouldn’t be either. I knew if you started thinking about the balance sheet then the education would suffer, so we started the school as a U.S. not-for-profit and it still is. It has given away I don’t know how many thousands of dollars—about a million dollars over the years in scholarships to art students and young artists.
Since I retired as director ten years ago, my successor, Mary Beckinsale, has turned my experiment into an institution that is recognized worldwide. When I visit the palazzo that SACI owns on via Sant’Antonino—and when I think, with awe, that more than 7,500 students have studied at the small art school I founded over 30 years ago—I realize that, for me, creative education has meant changing lives.
TF: What advice do you have for the artist? If you were to give us an “art lesson” right now, what would you say?
JM: About what? About how to be an artist? I’d say to do all you can to become a complete individual. To feel as many physical sensations as you can. To think, read, feel and live deeply, and ask yourself why things work the way they do, why they look the way they do, to really believe that art is an intellectual activity. Sometimes, my students would produce a really good piece of work and they’d say, “It just painted itself.” “No, it didn’t,” I’d tell them, “You painted it! It was your hand and your brain and your heart, and your months of effort. What’s happened in this picture is that the questions you’ve asked yourself consciously were answered in mille-seconds because the data was already there. You’ve worked for weeks to see what doesn’t work and finally, all the things you’ve discovered meet on the canvas.” Art is not just about inspiration. It’s not about magic guiding the artist. It’s about knowledge and discovery, hard work and recognizing what’s your own.
TF: Do you ever feel that Florence is a difficult city in which to produce art? Do the old masters weigh heavy on the artist’s mind?
JM: As far as the masters go, we need to abandon the myth that everything that was produced in the Renaissance was a masterpiece. I used to take students into the Uffizi and tell them to look for the ten worst paintings that they could find there. The students were always very surprised. But I liked to open up that possibility to them: “These artists were just like you.” They produced memorable works, but they often made less successful ones. They experimented and often produced work that didn’t work as well as others. About whether it’s difficult to be an artist in Florence, I’d say that you can produce art anywhere. All you need is four walls and the artist. Some artists go to Paris and Berlin thinking that it will be easier to create in a city with a more dynamic contemporary art scene. And perhaps these are “better” cities when it comes to selling your work. But Florence is as good as any city for creating art. You just need the determination and ability to be self-critical in order to create.