Radio Maine Episode 33: Brenda Cirioni

For Brenda Cirioni, art has provided an opportunity for both catharsis and joy. While attending a retreat as an adult, she reconnected with feelings around a fire that destroyed her family’s home when she was 16-years-old--an event that was found to have been caused by arson. This emotional touchpoint became the impetus for a body of work that spanned several years, and eventually provided her with a sense of closure around the tragedy.  More recently, she countered the challenges of COVID by finding joyful inspiration in her gardens, creating a series of floral abstracts. Learn more about Brenda’s experience with the interplay between art and emotion on today’s episode of Radio Maine.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Hello. I'm Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to, or watching Radio Maine. Today I have with me artist, Brenda Cirioni. Thanks for coming in today.

Brenda Cirioni:

You're most welcome. Thank you for having me.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Now, I actually have to start the entire conversation with a discussion about this beautiful piece behind us. And for those who are just listening to the podcast, they'll have to go to the website and actually see it for themselves, but I'll let you describe it. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Yes, well, it is 48 by 48 inches and the title is Late Season and I've been doing a lot of work based on the garden since the pandemic.  When the pandemic hit last year, my studio was closed down. And, you know, at first, that was February, so I was in the house doing all the things that I had neglected since I've had a studio since 2004. I basically painted every room in the house and then spring came and I had also been neglecting my garden. I love to garden, but I like to paint even more so, you know, I spent every day in the garden and when I finally was able to go back to the studio, that's what came out. You know, I don't ever try to paint my garden, but I internalize everything and I paint how my garden affects me, how it makes me feel.  And, so this is the latest, it's not on the website yet because I just finished it, just signed it and titled it last night. But I will be dropping it at the gallery when I leave here. So yes, it's very, very colorful. There's colors that I can't even name, and there's a lot of movement.  But what I get is just excitement for life. You know, I always get choked up when I talk about life because it's precious and we can sometimes take that for granted.  But anyway, that's what I have to say about that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I also get excitement out of this. You know, when I look at it, it's almost like fireworks of flowers, you know, it's like things just exploding off the canvas and the colors and I mean it just makes you feel joyful. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Yes, I have a lot of joy in my life. It's kind of my personality to be optimistic and happy. But I also really like calm, and I try to get a bit of calm in every painting so that it's not totally just like being bombarded, and this doesn't have that much of the calm element to it. But, you know, at the top and the bottom, there is some calm.

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You know, I think  it's interesting you would say that life is precious because I think on some level, most of us acknowledge that, but on a day-to-day basis, we don't necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about it. And it's very important to actually remember that and very important to come back to the fact that it could all change in a minute. So stuff that's happening, that's really good, could all of a sudden not be really good anymore. Have you had that sort of thing happen in your life? 

Brenda Cirioni:

I have had that sort of thing happen many times over.  Yes, I have. So I work in series and now I'm in this series, which I'm really enjoying, but the first thing that set me off into working in a series was in 2012 and my house had burnt down when I was 16. So, you know, I went off to school with a home and everything in it. I came home from school and had nothing. And so, that happened when I was a junior in high school. So it was a while back, 2012, I went on a four day, conscious raising retreat, let's say. And  during that process, we had a meditation where we go back in time and I experienced that, which I had just apparently buried. 

Brenda Cirioni:

It was arson. So I had just buried that and it was mind-boggling to me, what came out of my little body in terms of sounds and energy, the energy just like was racing through my arms, out my hands. And when I was done with that, I was like 50 pounds lighter. And I went to the studio and I started painting. I painted my very first house with fire and thinking that I just needed to paint that that was my thought. I have to paint this and I painted it never expecting anything to come of it, never thinking that anyone would be interested in seeing it. And, you know, I would say I haven't counted, but I mean, at one point I counted and I stopped counting at 80 paintings in that barn series. And it was, you know, a really wonderful experience, really wonderful. 

Brenda Cirioni:

It lasted for several years. It went from like a raging fire. Not at first, I didn't let loose at first, my very first painting people thought it was foliage. I'm like, how can foliage have black smoke coming out of it? You know, but people see what they want to see often. So anyway,  yes, eventually they just became barns with no fire or the fire was in the distance. And anyway, so it just ended up being a gift and I have thanked the person, not to their face, but, you know, just thank them for this gift.  

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I mean, that's such a great story because you almost painted your way through the trauma of it. Like you painted your way into a new story, into framing a new narrative. And I love the idea that by the end things were smoldering and then they were gone, but it enabled you to work through this in a way that maybe just talking about it or thinking about it, maybe it wouldn't have happened quite as successfully for you. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Absolutely. I had always been a landscape painter. I had never had a structure, nothing to do with humans in my paintings, just trees and birds and blah, blah, blah. So now I've got these structures and I started incorporating all kinds of materials into the work and I had never done that before. So it was really pretty fantastic. But then, you know, I've done barns. People ask me, “Will you do some barns? Why don't you do barns?” I'm like, if someone commissions me, I will paint a barn, but otherwise I have moved on from that. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

One piece that I can't get past without asking about is the arson piece. I mean, I know that we have fires. Obviously there are wildfires, unfortunately going on actually around the world right now, but somebody deliberately went and set fire to your family home. That seems like a lot to wrap your head around if you're 16.

Brenda Cirioni:

That is true. Yes. It was a family member. It was a lot to wrap my mind around for sure. Yes. So I think, you know, what's done is done. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it makes sense, that you'd want to kind of tuck that away somewhere just to move on with your 16 year old life, because that's so enormous that a lot of people who have much more mature brains probably would have a hard time figuring out their way through that. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Right. I have very good friends. Friends are invaluable. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Have you gone back to those friendships in order to get through the last year and a half, let's say when your life was kind of turned upside down by COVID? 

Brenda Cirioni:

Yes, I reconnected with some high school friends, before COVID though. And, you know, life is funny. I just reconnected with my best friend that lived across the street. We lived on a dead end road, right. Surrounded by woods, it was just like our house and their house. He was the same age as myself and we were best friends. There was no one else to play with, but we did love each other. And we thought we were going to get married and all that stuff. And, so we went to Catholic school together. He skipped the sixth grade. So he went from fifth to seventh. I was left behind. I was devastated. And, I just saw him on Monday for the first time in I think 40 years. He lives in Louisiana and he came back to Rhode Island. I grew up in Rhode Island. He came back to Rhode Island for his 50th class reunion and we saw each other and he found me on Facebook this past year. And he bought one of my paintings with the fire. 

Brenda Cirioni:

It totally shocked me. He said it was the first piece of art he's ever bought. And he said that he remembered that day, and the two of us sitting on his stone wall and him feeling so helpless to do anything. And, it was just like the best sale that I could ever have, you know, that it would go to him. And, so yes, I have friends and I stay in touch because I hold them up and they hold me up. I was telling Kevin, I just found out last night that our studio building where I've been since 2004 is being shut down, like the town came in and pulled the occupancy for safety reasons. And I mean, it could be for a long time, and right away, one of my friends who lives very close to me has a separate studio building that she's not using. She said, you're on a roll. You're gonna move into my studio. And so we're going to do that this weekend. So, yes, friends. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So it's kind of like, life is conspiring to cause you to be an artist. 

Brenda Cirioni:

I think so. Oh, I think so. I don't know why, but I always wanted to be one. I mean, I don't know where that came from because there was no art in my house. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Was there a lot of art and art education in the Catholic school that you went to?

Brenda Cirioni:

Nope, none. Zip, zero. I don't think we had art. No, we didn't have art. I have no idea, but I loved doing it. And fortunately my mother found that there were two local painters in my town and one of them was an oil painter. He was old and he was crusty and he painted like, you know, we grew up on the water basically in Wickford, Rhode Island. And he would go fishing and his studio was probably 20 or 25 feet high, the ceilings. And it was filled with oil paintings, dark, you know, women and you know, like Spanish-looking women and fishing, boats, and platters of dead fish and, you know, everything that you would think you'd find he had. And that was just like, when I walked up there, it's like, this is what I want, you know, so yes, my mother, she was great in that way. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So how did your mother encourage you? 

Brenda Cirioni:

I think probably I asked her, I would imagine, because I wasn't in high school yet. I was still in grade school, but I really can't remember. And unfortunately I can't ask her now.  But anyway, she connected me with that person and I went to his classes and then I think I may have started with a watercolorist who was a woman who had a studio in her house. And I mean, it was good and she was a good water colorist. And, I learned a lot, but it was John User's studio that just blew my mind. Yes. He would make popcorn for us and put cheese on it. Another reason to go. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's interesting to me, because it seems like, you know, Catholic school upbringing, people could expect a certain outcome from that. Now maybe a little bit more conservative, maybe a little bit more middle of the road with the approach. And I grew up Catholic. I did not go to Catholic school, but I mean, a lot of people go in kind of one direction, but it doesn't sound like you went in that direction. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Mm, no, I mean, I have no idea why, none of us did. There were four children in my family and none of us did. My mother’s extremely religious, and no one else is. But I really grew up in the woods. That's where we played. We played in the woods, we played in the swamp, we caught things, we let them go. And,  I just have this love of life that I think I learned there. And I do have to say like a lot of people like, you know, hated their Catholic experience. And I did not, I loved church. I loved being good. I wanted to be a nun. Yes. I wanted to be a nun. And then I realized that, you know, nuns couldn't have boyfriends or something, so it's like, okay, forget that. But, yes, there was something about just the sacredness of being in church and I feel that same way being, you know, in many, many places, actually I was gonna say in the woods, but I feel that almost everywhere in a way, I mean, not the grocery store, but anyway. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So I can relate to what you're saying, because I remember when I was growing up and going to church,  I mean, it wasn't always like this, but I was a singer. And so as a Cantor, I remember getting up in front of the parish. And again, not every Sunday, not every song because some of them hit you more than others, but,  just connecting with the voice and the music and the people and the sense of spirituality and tradition and community. And I think that was always what I brought away from mass at its very best was this was this space where you could experience that and have that connection. And in some ways have it be validated. And it's interesting to me because there were other aspects that kind of pushed me away from the church and caused me to stop going to church because I just couldn't reconcile with that anymore, but I've always missed it. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've missed that place and that formal acceptance of a connection with something larger. But certainly what you're saying is also true for me, where I may not go to mass every week, but when I'm in the woods and I'm running or walking,  it is there or when I'm out on the water, you know, it is there. So, and maybe not at the grocery store, and in some interactions with people, you know, when I'm sitting with patients, sometimes I just feel this sense that there's just this enormous energy that I don't need to go back to a building to feel, but you have to have an openness to that. You have to allow yourself to actually feel really deeply. And that's a little bit painful at times. 

Brenda Cirioni:

True. But I mean, it's worth it. I feel like, you know, the alternative is to shut down and not feel because if you don't let the pain in, you're not going to feel the joy. And so I have a 30 year old son who is like the best, he's the best. Right. He was the best from the second he was born. And I tell him like, that's why I didn't have any other children because he was just so great. And, he taught me so much, like I felt at the time that he taught me about unconditional love, you know? And, just that open. Like, it didn't matter. Didn't matter to him what I look like or, you know, all those things that like, you know, would matter to a parent. Like my mother was all about how things looked and, you know, I didn't always measure up big time. So, he was just always a joy and he still is, and he's getting married now. That was the big news for this year. He's getting married next July. And you know, I told him about this interview and he's like, mom, you'll do great. Thank you, honey. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I think that, I also feel it, I feel the same way about I happen to have three children, which doesn't mean that my first one wasn't already awesome. So to be really clear about that, Campbell, if you're watching this, you were great. I wasn't trying to get any better than you first child, but at the same time, I always felt, and I don't know if you can relate to this, because you said, and I keep going back to the Catholic thing because I think this is really an interesting commonality that you and I share, this need, this desire to be good, to like in your case, even want to be a nun. Like you do actually want to follow that path because there's something about that experience that really resonates with you, but in order to be who you are, you actually can't follow that path. And so I think with my own children, even trying to simultaneously be good and be myself has always been an interesting struggle because sometimes myself isn't that good. And it's a funny thing to try to understand about oneself is that kind of continual conflict. I mean, your son, obviously this unconditional love that you're describing, is amazing. And you know, it's a funny thing to try to parse through.

Brenda Cirioni:

Well, I mean, I think all children have that. I don't think he's unique in that way.  But yes, about the nun business, I was very young. I mean, I started school when I was five, so, you know, I'm 5, 6, 7 thinking, just loving the nuns. They were very kind.  and I just thought, you know, to be, to be so, you know, to live that life would be wonderful.  But I didn't go into being like 10, 11 and 12 thinking that I wanted to be a nun. I think by then I wanted to be an artist. Yes. And that whole bit about being good. Yes. I mean, I fail every day, but I know it, you know? 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, and I think when I ponder my own journey through being, I would consider myself very sensitive. I almost left medicine entirely because I was so sensitive to the pain of other people. And I saw that as a major failing that, you know, if I was good, then being overly sensitive, wouldn't really work because I couldn't follow on that good path because it's hard to hold pain and smile at the same time. It's hard to not let these things bother you. But I guess I'm not an artist who paints, but I consider the artistry that I do are my interactions with people. So I had to come to a place where I could hold the pain, acknowledge the joy, feel the connection, and know that it was really only as an imperfect individual that I could proceed forward in my life. Did you ever have to come to a place where you knew that in order to feel great joy, that you would have to let yourself be open to great pain and know that that kind of requires looking at yourself as a whole person rather than just a good person? 

Brenda Cirioni:

Oh yes. Yes. I've taken some deep dives. Let's just say that. And I continue and I have a community of people that I dive with, which is fantastic, you know? I do have to just say about the children, the child thing. I mean, the truth is I was an older mother and I was confined to bed at five months of pregnancy and my son was very active. So the idea of having another one, like I had a short window to have another one at my age. No, no. So he was four by the time I thought I could do it, but we had decided we were good. So, yes. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

So you're just saying there's a larger picture here. 

Brenda Cirioni:

There's a larger picture here. And I would have had more children for sure. Because he would have been a great big brother and I love children. 

Dr. Lisa Belsile:

So did your son end up going into the arts? 

Brenda Cirioni:

Well, I tried to keep him away from that. I consciously did not promote drawing, coloring all that stuff, but we read nonstop, nonstop and he loves stories. And so he majored in English and he writes, so there's that. And I didn't think that would happen.  He's more of a sports nut at the moment. I mean, he's kind of picked up sports and he plays in leagues, men's leagues and co-ed leagues and they just won a championship again. So he, it's not like he spends a lot of time writing, but he came home one night. He had done some spoken word thing somewhere and he came home and he said, “I'm an artist.” So Yes, 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

It's true. It is just, it's different ways of approaching story and often. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Right, right. If I could write... I love stories, movies and books, music and all those things that have to do with words. And if I was good with words, that's what I would do. I think they're incredibly valuable and more accessible, you know, than art in a way.  But I'm not good with words and that's why I paint. And I have that written in my studio. I heard it, you know, I was listening to NPR or something and they were interviewing someone and the person said that and I wrote it on the wall, like right on the wall. But it's true. That's how I express myself. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

And it's funny to hear you say that because if I could paint, I would, but I can't. That's why I use words. So I guess we kind of, we get what we get, right? 

Brenda Cirioni:

We get what we get. Yes. Oh, the one thing about the Catholic business, you know, it was drilled into my head to not use my talents is a sin. Well, thanks. You know, because I had times in my life when I couldn't paint for whatever reason. And I mean I was still pretty young when I was thinking these things.  I mean it really weighed on me. Not that I was committing a sin because I don't believe in that.  But just guilt, you know, that's the one thing, you know, guilt. It's not a good thing to have really. It's not, it doesn't produce much good I don’t think. Yes, so I had this talent and if I didn't use it, I was guilty. Yikes. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Yes. I'm extremely familiar with the whole Catholic guilt conundrum. I suspect many people who are watching or listening can relate to this for sure. What is your connection to Maine? 

Brenda Cirioni:

Well, as I was driving up here, it's so beautiful. Once I got off 495 and took that exit and  was on Tuttle Toad, it's like, oh my God. So, you know, as I mentioned, my studio is now gone, I was thinking maybe this is a time to relocate. But my sister lives in Newcastle, Maine, and she lives on Perkins Point Road and has like 18 acres and access to the water. And it's wonderful and beautiful up there. So there's that. And prior to that, her husband's grandfather built a log cabin in Weld, Maine, in the Western part of Maine on a lake, surrounded by mountains. And you know, I would go like every summer, such a wonderful place. I loved it. And my son loved it. And you know, we had great times up there, out on the lake and on the canoe. In the night, you know, lots of things happen in the night on the water. So that's my connection. Yes. I love Maine. I would move up here in a heartbeat if my husband would come, but I do have so many friends down there so it would be tough. And of course my son. So until I know where he's going to settle, which I have a feeling is just going to be in Massachusetts. But anyway, it's not that far. Maine is not that far. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

That's true. You said it took you two and a half hours or something like that to get up here from Stowe, Massachusetts. So how did you end up connecting with the Portland Art Gallery? 

Brenda Cirioni:

Well, it was my lucky day actually. I had been up visiting my sister and my husband and I stopped in Portland, stopped in the Old Port, went to the Greenhut gallery and then continued down the road. And I'm like, what's this, I've never seen this gallery before. And I went in and met a really friendly, lovely young woman and you know, I mean, it's a beautiful space as you know. So I walked in and my mind was blown because as I said, it's a beautiful space. And Jane Dahmen's work was on the wall and I knew Jane from Massachusetts and you know, the woman was very friendly and you know, I said, how long have you been here? She goes, oh, four months. I'm like, oh. And I gave her my card. I think I must've asked her if, you know, they were taking any artists. 

Brenda Cirioni:

And she said, well, give me your card and we'll take a look. And, you know, I mean, often that happens and nothing else happens, but I got an email right away saying, you know, can you bring some work up? Which I did. And that was it. Now that was a long time ago. I'm not quite sure what year it was actually, but it's been a while and now the gallery is even bigger and better. And, you know, I just, both of you and Emma and the other people on the team, Sean, just do such amazing things. They come with amazing ideas and execute brilliantly. Like Sean is so good as the photographer. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

You're talking about Sean Thomas. Yes. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Yes. Another perfect human being. I'm sure. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, I can't really argue with that. He happens to be my stepson and also a colleague in this field. So, Sean, if you're listening, you are also amazing as are all the rest of my stepchildren and children just to be clear. But yes, Sean is very good at what he does. And also Lamia who does the videography with the gallery and the entire staff that works at the art gallery. And one of the things that I've always liked about the Portland Art Gallery is that art is not static, that it's not just something to put on a wall and then we come in and we're blown away by it. But it's still sitting on the wall and there is always the story that kind of winds its way around it. And that the gallery tries to bring that out. And I mean, honestly, I think it's such a pleasure to be able to sit down with you and have this conversation in a way that if we were just at an art opening, you know, we probably wouldn't. I would never know that when you were five, you wanted to be a nun. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Oh boy, this is out now in the world. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, there's no pressure to go back. I think you're probably past that phase now. I'm sure your husband's happy to hear that part too. So what are you looking forward to in the next year? 

Brenda Cirioni:

Well, okay. I have maybe 15 or 20, very large canvases. And, this is my third. I mean, I've done big, large work before, and I'm back to canvas because the larger you get, you know, the heavier they get. And, so I'm just really excited about setting up a new studio and continuing to work. And, yes, I have no idea. Like I have no idea what's going to happen when I start a painting. I don't have a formula. I try not to really look at my last painting because I don't want to copy myself.  And I am forever saying, I don't know what I'm doing to my friends. And I know that I just keep going, you know, you just keep going and it evolves. And so I imagine it's going to be more, you know, continuation with the garden. Because I like to really explore if I'm in a series, I like to work on it until I feel like I'm done with it. And who knows, you know, I mean, I often like will pop into another series for whatever reason something moves me, you know? And,  because now that I've been doing these, I can't imagine ever really being done with gardens because gardens are so wonderful. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

Well, as I said, it's been a pleasure to be able to have this conversation with you here today. I've certainly learned a lot about you and I appreciate your willingness to dive a little deeper than I think you may have expected and possibly other people who are watching may have expected, but I always find it–I always find it really interesting to kind of see the person, the person behind the painting. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Yes. Thank you. I'm probably first and foremost, a people person, so I'm really interested in how people think and feel. And so it was great to talk to you as well. 

Dr. Lisa Belisle:

I've been speaking with artist Brenda Cirioni who is represented by the Portland Art Gallery. We have a lot of her work, which is beautiful and equally as beautiful as the piece that we have behind us. I encourage you to go to the Portland Art Gallery and see her work or go to the website and see her work. And,  if you have a chance to come to one of our openings so you can meet her. I think you'll enjoy talking to her. Thank you, Brenda. 

Brenda Cirioni:

Thank you, Lisa.