Stratford artist Debbie Gilbert was so enamored of the sites and people she encountered during a recent trip to Italy that she wanted to bring them all home with her.
She did, in a way, by snapping over 3,000 photographs that serve as instant, no-words-necessary testaments to her love affair with the country.
Now Gilbert, 57, is sharing those precious mementos with her Stratford-area neighbors. She's selected more than 40 of them for display at the . The exhibit, titled and centrally located on the ground floor, can be seen through the end of this month.
"It's been a lifelong dream. I've wanted to go for as long as I can remember," said Gilbert about her March 2011 trip. Over a two-week period she traveled with her husband, Jim Taylor, to Italian cities and towns that included Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice and Pompeii. The exhibit includes an array of landscapes, village scenes, religious sites, foods and people.
"I like people who don't look ordinary," said Gilbert, pointing to the subject of one of her photos, an older man lounging on a public sidewalk. In another, youngsters and adults enjoy playtime together. Among her goals was to document life in the smaller villages.
"It was a very real Italian experience," she said. "Outside of the city, the way people have lived for 100 years, they still live that way -- it's very cool and very beautiful."
Though not of Italian descent herself, Gilbert, whose heritage is Eastern European Jewish, grew up in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood with predominantly Jewish and Italian populations. Embracing Italian culture comes, quite literally, second nature to her.
"It completely encompasses all of your senses," Gilbert said. "I love the taste of the food. I love the language, the sound. I love opera -- it's pretty and it's lyrical."
Keeping the Artist Alive
While photography, sculpture and other artistic pursuits are a large part of Gilbert's life now, it wasn't always that way. Her parents steered Gilbert away from an early interest in becoming a professional artist, concerned about her chances of making a living in such a mercurial field. Gilbert went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology.
But the artist in her was never completely buried. She continued to photograph, paint and sculpt, and she began presenting shows. In 2006, founded the Stratford Arts Guild.
Gilbert-the-artist's inspirations include works by Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz. Gilbert said she especially likes the way Leibovitz "manages to almost go inside the soul of the person she's photographing. That's pretty special."
At the top of Gilbert’s list of classical inspirations is Michelangelo. When she viewed his David sculpture during her trip, she became emotional.
"I had been longing to see this. I thought it might be disappointing but it exceeded every expectation," she said. "When I stood underneath David looking at it, it was so magnificent it moved me to tears."
"Bella Italia" photos are available for purchase. For more information visit Gilbert's website, www.debbiegilbertartist.com.
Editor's note: The original publication date of this article has been changed for layout purposes.