By Chiara Mannarino
A week after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991, artist Melissa McGill travelled to Europe for the very first time. This independent voyage, beginning in Venice, Italy, would unexpectedly lead her to an abundance of friendship, love, and creative inspiration, all of which have coalesced to inform her most recent project, Red Regatta.
Red Regatta is an independent public art project presented in collaboration with Associazione Vela al Terzo and Magazzino Italian Art Foundation. It activates Venice’s lagoon and canals with large-scale regattas of traditional vela al terzo sailboats hoisted with hand-painted red sails. The visual combination of fifty-two carefully crafted and applied red hues swimming and swirling together through Venice’s unmistakably distinct greenish-blue water is an unforgettable sight, leaving its imprint on the “Floating City” forever.
Such ambitious, grand, and site-specific public art projects are central to McGill’s artistic practice, which redefines each landscape it touches through physical interventions seeking to illuminate rich histories and traditions and to foster a greater understanding of our surroundings as well as our relationship to them.
CM: Can you speak a bit about your connection to Venice?
MM: I lived in Venice for two years from 1991-1993. Right after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in the sculpture department, I went to Europe for the first time. Venice was the first place that I landed. I went by myself and that helped me learn to speak Italian. I made many friends, who are now like family, and became part of a community of Venetians. I have been going back and forth for 30 years for inspiration, for friendship, and for work.
CM: How did you become so invested in the longstanding Venetian sailing tradition and how did the project come to light?
MM: Two years ago, I did an exhibition based on the Campi in Venice. Through doing this project, I was lucky enough to meet Giorgio Righetti, the president of the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venezia, and Silvio Testa, who wrote a wonderful book about vela al terzo and to spend a day in their boats exploring the small canals in the city. On the plane back to New York, I just completely fell into Silvio’s book and was so inspired by the tradition and these boats. These two became my core collaborators in the Red Regatta project, and it was really from that moment that the project started to unfold.
CM: Can you speak a bit about how the project has developed since then?
MM: Last month, we did sail painting workshops with art students from IUAV (University IUAV di Venezia) and my collaborating sailors from the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venezia in Spazio Thetis in the Arsenale, which was very generously donated for the project. We painted 104 sails in 8 or 9 days, and the reason it was done in such a timely way is that we had such incredible enthusiasm from the students and the sailors. To see and be working with the actual sails in space and to have this community form together between the students and the sailors painting together created this wonderful feeling of collaboration.
CM: It must have been quite a feat to complete all of that work in just 8 or 9 days! What did the actual painting of the sails look like in terms of technique?
MM: While testing a prototype sail in my studio in New York, I realized that I wanted to have the hand evident in the painting rather than it just being a flat color field, so we used brooms and brushes to create these big, beautiful, expressive brushstrokes. Each sail became a painting on its own. The idea to use brooms to paint the sails was something that came to me at 5:00 in the morning on the second day with jetlag. After testing a few types of brooms, we bought all the brooms of this one type from the Ferramenta on Via Garibaldi. The guy was like, “What on earth are you doing with all these brooms?”
CM: Was he excited when you explained what they were being used for?
MM: Oh yes, he was very excited. He even asked, “Can I come and see? I’m really interested!”
CM: It seems like so many are drawn to this project. The workshop collaboration itself involved people from all different walks of life. Can you speak about the significance of this unification of young and old through painting the sails?
MM: We had sailors of all ages, including those who are in their 70s, participate, and between the university students and these people there was a huge age range. Some even brought their kids to see the sails being painted. It was just this incredible community that formed. They were all getting to know each other, the students were asking the sailors questions about the maritime traditions, and there was this exchange, collaboration, and connection created between all involved.
CM: Why did you choose to involve young Italian art students specifically?
MM: Involving students in a public art project provides a unique opportunity to invite young people to participate and engage with the work in an intimate way. That opportunity, I think, is community-building, which is really important to me and my public art project. The sailors were so moved by the students’ interest and their involvement and passion for the project that they invited the students to be crew members in Red Regatta!
CM: That must be so exciting for them! The students’ enthusiasm alone demonstrates just how significant this tradition remains today, and your project and process really honor it and bring it into our current moment in a new and exciting way. What does the Venetian sailing tradition mean to you and what about it excites you?
MM: This is a tradition is about the lagoon and its history. Many of the boats have been passed down through generations and restored, and they’re so beloved. These boats are very specific to Venice in that they are very low draw, so they have flat bottoms and can go in very shallow water, and the mast can be removed and laid down so that they can go down under bridges or be rowed. It’s a tradition that really involves the rowing or sailing and the wind and the water. It’s important to keep this tradition alive.
CM: I feel that this project is crucial to have in Venice at this time. How do you see Red Regatta fitting into the unfortunate realities of the city today?
MM: The timing for this project is now. There are issues with rising water, climate change, mass tourism. There are many things that are having a huge impact on Venice. There’s also a shrinking native population and a rising tourist population. This is a public artwork, and this work is not meant to presume to solve the many problems Venice is dealing with. However, it is meant to raise awareness about a lot of these things.
CM: The project celebrates Venice and the qualities that make it unique in so many ways—one that really stands out is your consideration of Venetian colors. Can you speak a bit about your selection of red as an emblematic color of the city?
MM: Red is a color that I associate with Venice, and reds refer to an enormous range of things in the city. From Rosso Veneziano, Venetian red, to traditions like the Festa del Bòcolo with the roses, the terracotta rooftops, Tiziano and Tintoretto paintings with that rich red, and the pigment trade, there are all types of things that we can talk about in terms of the color’s direct physical associations with the city. But then there’s also the emotional. Red is a color of energy, of life force, passion, alarm, warning, love. It represents a huge range emotionally, so for me, a core decision in the project is that it’s not one thing, it’s many things, and all of those colors and all of those possible references are sailing together in this work.
CM: How have you chosen and procured the shades of red that you use in the project?
MM: I’ve walked around taking photographs of all of the different reds as reference material, I developed about 100 shades of red, and finally chose one for each of the 52 boats we have participating. The range of the reds goes from orangish to brownish to purplish.
CM: What were you most excited about as you sailed closer to the project’s official launch?
MM: The moment we see the sails on the boats reflected in the water, against the city, against the sky, against the lagoon, that is it for me! I’m excited about seeing it in its context because I’ve seen the sails hanging in the Arsenale in Spazio Thetis, I’ve done all these experiments in my studio, but when the sails are actually on the boats and when we’re there with the boats sailing together, that’s when the project will come to life. Doing a project like this is a long and challenging road, but when the sun illuminates these red sails, mixing and blending together in Red Regatta…that makes it all worth it!
Red Regatta officially commenced on May 8 with an artist talk and community open house at Ocean Space and a preview regatta on May 11 on the northern lagoon at Fondamente Nove. Additional regattas will sail at various points throughout the duration of the Venice Biennale until November, including during the annual Regata Storica in the Bacino di San Marco and the Regata di Burano in September.
To follow the Red Regatta project, please visit the artist’s website where you can find an interactive map, additional details, and updates.