A classic case of ‘coals to Newcastle’ – Dallas is sending painters to Italy. But in April, David Atkinson, a psychiatrist with UT-Southwestern, arranged for three area artists to fly to Prizzi, a mountaintop village in Sicily. Atkinson had hatched a plan to help the economically hurting town by adding to Prizzi’s old, fading stock of murals – these new murals would extol the town’s traditions. So, with his own money, Atkinson flew Frank Campagna, Olivia Cole and Maria Haag to Prizzi.
None of them knew Italian or even what they were going to paint.
In late April, three Dallas artists flew to a mountain village in Sicily to paint murals. None of them knew Italian. None of them had been to Sicily. This is the first of a two-part report on Dallas artists trying to help the village of Prizzi — through paintings.
Maria Haag is painting the face of death on a wall. It’s only fitting; she could break her neck. Haag’s 30 feet off the ground. She’s on steel scaffolding next to a four-story-tall building in the Sicilian village of Prizzi. Prizzi clings to the top of a mountain, so the winds up here can whip the glasses off your face.
“Oh my goodness,” she says, “last week, it was really cold and really windy and I was painting on that top level, and it was brutal.”
The views from Prizzi are breathtaking. You can see the volcano, Mount Aetna, on the coast 125 miles away. But Sicily’s economy is hurting, and Prizzi is not on the glamorous coast, where the sunbathers and G7 summits go. It’s relatively isolated and it’s shrinking. Today, 5000 people live along its narrow, ancient streets. But the younger ones are leaving, looking for jobs.
All of which is why the 28-year-old Haag is in the air painting a mural. It celebrates the town’s famous festival, il Ballo dei Diavoli, “the Dance of the Devils,” a combination of Halloween, Easter and a drunken, all-day dance party.
“It’s a beautiful town,” says Dr. David Atkinson, “and I saw that there were some very nice murals. I just thought it’d be great if there were more.”
Atkinson is a psychiatrist with UT-Southwestern who treats teens with addiction issues. The 40-year-old Dallasite first came to Italy in college — through the University of Dallas’ Rome campus. He’s come back repeatedly, but two years ago, he fell in love with Prizzi – especially its warm-hearted residents. (A town council member jokingly notes that Atkinson has more Facebook friends from Prizzi than he does.)
So Atkinson wanted, as he says, “to be more than just a tourist.” He wanted to help the town preserve its ways, inspire people to stay.
Last October, he ran into Prizzi’s mayor, Luigi Vallone, on the street. Vallone said send him a message – and that led to a meeting.
“So I pitched three ideas to him,” Atkinson says, “and this was the idea he was most interested in.”
The idea was to create more murals, murals extolling Prizzi’s traditions – religious, cultural, historical. So Atkinson rounded up Maria Haag, a friend and a painter, 25-year-old Olivia Cole, who teaches painting, and Frank Campagna, known as the Godfather of Deep Ellum for his many murals there. On his own dime, Atkinson flew all three to Prizzi.
It’s 11 at night in a noisy restaurant, halfway through the artists’ stay in Sicily. The first week was spent haggling with the council and with property owners over which walls and what subjects to paint. But tonight is a celebration, a celebration that started this afternoon and isn’t likely to end soon. Songs are sung, sentiments are applauded, food is consumed, English and Italian are badly attempted. All the fun was prompted by Mayor Vallone and the town council earlier proclaiming the Dallasites honorary or meritorious citizens of Prizzi. No one knows the distinction or the reason for it – or apparently cares – but the citizenship ceremony was typical, full of proud, grateful speeches and occasional chaos. People wandered in and out. The mayor’s phone went off repeatedly. The soccer team showed up.
“So it’s like this strange balance between very formal and very comical,” say Olivia Cole with a laugh.