This summer, Su’a Uilisone Fitiao and Reggie Meredith Fitiao traveled to Europe and came face to face with some of the most celebrated works of art in the world. From Florence to Rome, they saw the work of great masters like Rafael, Michelangelo, and Giotto.
Now that they have returned home to American Samoa, these Samoan artists are reflecting on their experience and the impact it will have on their current and future projects.
Moving Beyond the Art History Textbook
As an art educator, this trip was a lifetime in the making for Reggie.
“I spent my entire career teaching art and art history to our people here in American Samoa,” Reggie says. “When I actually got to see the pieces I have taught about for so long, I knew that it was all worth it.”
After dedicating her life to the study and teaching of art and art history, Reggie was able to see masterpieces beyond their place in a textbook. One day that stands out for the American Samoan artist is their visit to Vatican City.
“When we were at the Vatican, we made our way to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings. Of course the anticipation, there’s nothing like it. You just know you’re going to be coming into this mastery that far surpasses anything you’ve seen up until that point,” Reggie remembers, her eyes closing as she thinks back on that day.
While Reggie had tried to prepare herself for seeing the Sistine Chapel, what has stuck with her most was the surprise encounters along the way.
“On the way to the chapel, I had so many ‘oh my gosh!’ moments. I’d see art, like the bust of Pericles, that I had taught about so many times,” Reggie remembers. “The best part was the unexpected, the surprises. But it felt like a familiar face, like running into an old friend.”
Art History as a Foundation for Art
For Su’a Uilisone and Reggie, the study of art history is essential to their work as artists. From studying the work of siapo makers throughout Samoan art history to learning about artists like Michelangelo, art history provides them with new ways of understanding art.
“Everyone should study art and art history,” Su’a Uilisone advises. “You won’t necessarily become a master like the ones you’ve been studying, but through study, you’ll understand that level of being and it will inspire you as an artist.”
According to the Milan Art Institute, the study of art history helps artists to “forge a connection with the past…and helps us orient ourselves in the present.” This connection between past and present is at the heart of what art history can bring to an artist’s life.
From a person painting on a cave wall in France to Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel to Reggie beating barkcloth in American Samoa, art and creativity is something found throughout human history. Studying this history, this lineage, provides an artist with a chance to explore their own place in the story.
Taking the time to study the works of artists in the past can help an artist to explore new artforms, learn from old masters, and understand their own identity as an artist.
Finding Inspiration and Connection in the Past
Now that Su’a Uillisone and Reggie have returned to their home in American Samoa, they are using their European travels to build connections and find inspiration for future projects.
“I’m planning a series of paintings, of deeply rooted floral. I want to show the richness and voluptuousness and gentleness of the florals,” Reggie smiles as she describes her inspiration, the combination of Italian art and Samoan flora.
Reggie is also planning a new project just in time for LGBTQ+ Pride Month.
“I want to do a series of illustrations of transgender individuals,” Reggie explains. “I feel a need to show support for the LGBTQ+ community. I want to convey transgender beauty in these drawings.”
For Su’a Uilisone, a major source of inspiration and connection was the similarities he saw across centuries and across oceans.
““What we saw was unexplainable, it was amazing. During a time when there were no stores to buy paint and canvas, they were making these works of art,” the artist reflects. “It’s a lot like our ancient siapo, all handmade with natural materials.”
Su’a Uiisone also notes that the master/apprentice training model was used by many of these Renaissance artists. The tufuga ta tatau (traditional Samoan tattoo master) himself trained for 7 years before he became a master, and he connected deeply with the similar process used by the Renaissance painters.
Sharing the Artists’ Struggle
Beyond these new projects inspired by the work of Italian masters, Su’a Uilisone and Reggie are also inspired by the lives of these artists and the lessons that can be learned from art history. As they work on large-scale projects in 2023, they have found a deep connection with the artists of the past.
“These masters, these artists, they struggled,” Su’a Uilisone says. “When you read their stories, you learn that it wasn’t an easy road that they walked.”
Learning about the struggles of the artists of the past inspires the two Samoan artists to push through the challenges that come with large-scale projects.
“The inspiration of their work keeps me going. I never ‘arrive’, artists never really feel like they’ve arrived,” Reggie says. “But studying these masters helps to strengthen the foundation of who I am as an artist.”
Interested in learning more about art history, Reggie and Su’a Uilisone’s work, and Samoan art? Stay tuned for future blog posts, follow us on Instagram @faasamoaarts, and feel free to reach out via email!