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The Key to Becoming Visionary: Countervisuality

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

In an overwhelmingly visual society, how do we become active participants in our creative vision?

In 2022, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life: like many young people struggling to choose their school and major, I decided an entirely new path for my life. My biggest fear in shifting from Fine Arts studies to Communications was that I was essentially giving up on my dreams as a traditional artist, but I decided that staying here as an expat in Italy was of greater importance to myself and my artwork. What initially reassures me in this decision to stay here despite changing majors, is oddly enough, the very lessons I learned in creative practice.

Artwork in progress in the studio at Accademia Riaci, Study of Leda by Leondaro DaVinci, 100 x 60cm, sepia and charcoal on paper by Kristin Fiorvanti

Studying the Italian masters of the Renaissance, I, too, wanted to be a visionary like DaVinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. At the beginning of my studies, I thought that creating works like the masters meant really, intimately understanding your subject –every detail, gracefully accounted for with skillful control. I write this now to admit that this could not have been further from the truth.


More control over your medium is not the answer. In my experience, I found the opposite to be the case. Like in many instances in life, it is necessary to release control and step back. After all, you cannot see the forest from the trees. This is coined in visual culture studies as countervisuality, and it is essentially the essence of an artist, an inventor, an activist, or dutiful citizen, and the only masterful skill of any active visionary.

Artwork in studio at Accademia Riaci, 2019, sepia drawing on paper, 100 x 60cm, by Kristin Fiorvanti

As I open discussion about great historical visionaries like those of the Italian Renaissance, I remember the lessons of my painting maestro in Accademia Riaci, Alessandro Berti. After hours at the easel in the studio, working mercilessly on pieces larger than myself, maestro Berti would constantly challenge my perspective. Even stopping me mid-brushstroke, an abrupt pat on the shoulder was our universal language for saying, “alright, it’s time to give up control.” Oh, how I met this with frustration some days, but Berti was onto something. (He was always onto something).

Alessandro would watch me from near and far as I worked, pacing the floors like a watchdog. Then, he would stop. “Kristin,” he would say, in his heavy, Florentine accent, “come here.” Reluctantly, I’d pick myself up, and he would position me carefully in the far corners of the room. In the little English he knew, he’d say “look,” he’d point, “here, here, here, non è così:” the first Italian words I learned to understand, “It’s not like this.” At the start, I admittedly looked from a distance with a huff, defeated.

“To look is to labor.” -Nicholas Mirzeoff

Knowing my job was only to look, I nonetheless felt yearning for the brush in hand again. On my toughest days, I whelmed with frustration, feeling untrusted with control over my work, but slowly, with each challenge, I started to truly see. Alessandro did not have sight, he had vision.

Alessandro using a viewfinder on my painting of Boboli Gardens in the studio at Accademia Riaci, 2019

To achieve this, I firstly needed to let go –to challenge this need for total control –and ask myself what I’m not seeing. I needed a countervisionary perspective. With his help, my work was improving tremendously over short amounts of time. I was working faster, with less frustration, but more ease and finesse. With each, swift pat on the shoulder, I then began to fill with excitement. What was Alessandro showing me this time? What can’t I see from the confines of this easel? What details am I obsessing over now? It wasn’t long before stepping back became a staple in my practice, and maestro Berti would begin letting me fly freely. I didn’t know this at the time, but Alessandro was teaching me a profound lesson that extends well past the realm of artistic practice. He was training me to be a visionary activist.

The practice of visual culture is a lesson of open-mindedness which perpetuates itself in continuity, questioning authority (even if that authority is you), and positioning yourself accordingly. As professor of Communications and Media Studies, Dr. Della Ratta puts it, “the duty of visual culture as a discipline is to ask questions and step out of the flow.” It wholly encapsulates my experience as an American expat, eager for broader horizons, truth, and diversity. I am grateful now to have the knowledge to put a definitive name to this question of visuality, and furthermore apply its rhetoric to broader, more critical concepts that greatly impact us. Now, in a society increasingly saturated with media (photography, film, news and advertisement), I ask myself: What is there to see outside of its framework? Who are my eyes laboring for? How can I become more informed?

I write this firstly as a hopeful message for anyone who feels their creative medium is not informed –the same that felt true as I struggled to put words to artist statements in the past, and in the present, to this reflection. Secondly, to notice those who feel exhausted or distracted in this hyper-visual world; whether we realize it or not, we are constantly at work, forced to look and labor. If this applies to you, I'd tap your shoulder and insist that you accept the challenge; visualize it as an amazing opportunity to grow and expand. You may just surprise yourself.

Dearest aspiring visionaries, breathe and let go. Trust yourself within the confines of our only existing constant: change.

Thank you for looking.


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