"Drawing Lessons from Civita: an artist's adventure in Italy" by Anita Lehmann. Image courtesy of Anita Lehmann.
"Drawing Lessons from Civita: an artist's adventure in Italy" by Anita Lehmann. Image courtesy of Anita Lehmann.

To draw something is to fully understand it — that’s the rule Anita Lehmann lives by. So when the chance came to spend two months living and drawing in Italy, she took it. And what came from that was her new, first-ever book, “Drawing Lessons from Civita: An Artist’s Adventure in Italy.”

Lehmann is an artist, teacher and architect, but the common thread in all of her work is drawing. She works from her Queen Anne home, with a drawing studio for students downstairs and her architecture studio upstairs. She used to teach drawing and painting at the University of Washington. It was through a program there that she first discovered the tiny hillside town of Civita, Italy.

She spent three months there when she was 28, with a group of students, as a teacher’s assistant teaching drawing. Now, a “whole other lifetime later,” at age 56, she returned, to live and draw.

Lehmann was selected as one of the two fellows for the Civita Institute, based out of Seattle. She left mid-August 2013 and returned to Seattle in mid-October.

The Civita Institute was co-founded in 1981 by UW professor Astra Zarina as a way to foster intercultural communication and professional growth and enrichment, according to its website (www.niausi.com).

James Corey, president of the Civita Institute, experienced Civita’s magic himself when he lived there for four months in ’99. The trip changed his life, he said:

“The quality of life there is incredible, from the food to the camaraderie to the language and the arts. It’s a transformative thing for people.”

The institute has been sending mid-career people to live there for the last 30 years, to learn and bring that knowledge back to share with others. 

Town became teacher

The town of Civita is tiny. It’s only two city blocks long and one city block wide, Lehmann estimates. It sits atop a rocky hillside that’s inaccessible by car. Each day, Lehmann would cross the bridge, pulling a cart, to get her groceries from the nearby market. She’d always remember to bring some carrots to feed the local donkey, Rufina.

With only about 16 permanent residents, Civita is often called a ghost city, Lehmann said, adding that people who visit often think they’re visiting a museum or movie set.

“And then you walk out of your apartment and they go, ‘You live here?’” she said. “In reality, there are people that live there and it’s a vibrant town.”

Lehmann went in with a proposal of what she wanted to accomplish.

“I was sort of coming in as a bossy American [saying], ‘I’m going to do a drawing book about Civita,’” she said. “All of a sudden, Civita became the teacher.”

She spent every day drawing, toting her portable REI stool and sketching supplies. When the afternoons got warm, she’d work in the studio the Civita Institute provided. She worked mostly in graphite and pen but colored some sketches with watercolor or pastels. Most of the drawings were descriptive, to give the viewer a sense of place. But eventually, she transitioned to the “artist realm” and did evocative drawings.

While she worked, Lehmann saw many tourists snapping pictures of their travels. But for her, the true power came from recording her memories in drawings. It’s something she writes about in the book: how each drawing takes her back to the specific place, smells, tastes and feelings.

As Lehmann went back through the drawings, she compiled the lessons Civita taught her about drawing. Those lessons became the chapters of her book. In addition to the individual sketches, each day she added a sketch to a 30-foot scroll of paper that encompassed the “whimsy of Civita.”

And she also created a series of comics about a bird named Willa and her adventures in Civita. This fall, she’ll present the scroll and her other works for the Civita Institute.

Some parts of the books are practical, such as a list of what to take with you when you sketch on location, but others are more about the power of drawing. The drawings aren’t perfect, but “it really does come from the heart,” Lehmann said.

The biggest lesson Lehmann learned was “the power and joy of adventure and sharing it with others,” she said. 

No matter the place

When she returned to Seattle, Lehmann scanned the images into her computer. A friend helped her edit her writing, and another helped her design the book. She’s selling the book on the self-publishing website Blurb, which prints the books as they’re ordered. The finished version released in March.

“I’ve never seen someone with her fluidity and productivity,” Corey said. “I was stunned. It’s a great book.”

“I think for [the institute], it’s a beautiful presentation about the quality of what Civita brings,” Lehmann said.

Next, Lehmann would like to visit Norway or Walla Walla, Wash. Or she may do a drawing-lessons book about Seattle — the place doesn’t really matter. It’s more about the experience: sitting on her tiny stool, recording the details of the beautiful surroundings and living her passion.

“Drawing Lessons from Civita: An Artist’s Adventure in Italy” is available for purchase at http://www.blurb.com/b/5184804-drawing-lessons-from-civita.

To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.