Deep in the COVID weirdness of the fall of 2020, Blue Lake artist and Cal Poly Humboldt lecturer Gina Tuzzi got a call from a friend about contributing to a "small indie film." Tuzzi didn't find out until later, but the film was the locally filmed A24 and Apple TV+ production The Sky is Everywhere, now streaming on Apple TV+. And her role ended up being more significant than the overture suggested. Ultimately, Tuzzi made 25 original paintings for this whimsical YA romantic dramedy, about half of which appear in the movie as the work of Fiona (played by Cherry Jones), the earthy-gardener-grandmother of the film's lead, Lennie (Grace Kaufman).
Not long before her friend's phone call came, Tuzzi had an unrelated dinner conversation about alternate lives and career paths. Speculating, Tuzzi remarked that she might have liked to work in the film industry painting sets. The pieces then fell into place for her to experience something close to that alternative reality from right inside her Humboldt County studio, as well as the surreal chance to realize the art of another artist.
An art direction team in PPE visited Tuzzi's studio and found her aesthetics "a really good fit" for the look of their fictional character's paintings and the film as a whole. While the team was originally considering Tuzzi for a smaller contribution, they asked her for a body of paintings that would be a character's life's work, asking if she be interested in making a set of paintings of women in green.
The Sky is Everywhere is set in Northern California and several scenes were filmed here in Humboldt, showcasing our big tree magic, but Tuzzi didn't learn the identity of the film or the novel it's based on until nearly the end of her art-making process. Instead, she crafted her paintings based on the description of Fiona's character attributes directors gave her. Having no information about the narrative, she developed art specific to the characterization, rather than to the movie's themes or story.
The turnaround time was quick: August to October. The art director gave Tuzzi a vision board for the set mood and environment. She says they gave her a "color story" with which to work. From there, Tuzzi fleshed out Fiona's personality based on the character's house. As she made paintings, the film's art team gave her feedback on style and technique, guiding the next steps in her process. Tuzzi says she felt the directors trusted her.
Color is one of the affinities the fictional artist's work shares with Tuzzi's own. Tuzzi describes herself as having a "love affair" with the bold use of color. Both Tuzzi and the fictional Fiona paint the women in their lives, too. Tuzzi says this choice of subject is an "artery" in her practice and was a point of connection for her with the character. To make a character's whole life's work, she considered what it would have been like to paint her daughter and her granddaughters across the spans of their lives. Tuzzi also decided to place Fiona within art's historical context, asking herself what artists the character would have been looking at during various moments in her life for inspiration, painting figures and using those historical influences to inform the progression of Fiona's art.
There are, of course, significant differences between the artist Gina Tuzzi and the fictional artist Fiona. Tuzzi's larger painting practice negotiates abstraction and figures, and uses personal and auto-biographical references. She is heavily influenced by music and explores its relationship with art in her work. Fiona, on the other hand, is a casual "Sunday painter." Based on feedback from the directors, Tuzzi had to "un-do" much of her work so her paintings showed the appropriate skill level for the character. Thinking about what this character's work would be and how to make it, had the effect of "freeing [Tuzzi] up to think differently." In her own artwork, Tuzzi says she's engaged with the labor of painting and is invested in contemplation. The process of conceiving the art of this other identity required her to "not overthink" — advice she says she often gives her students.
Lately, Tuzzi is working in relationship to landscape and focused on finding joy or pleasure in our North Coast environment. While the work she created for Fiona can be seen in the streaming film, you can also see Tuzzi's own work in Eureka next month. Tuzzi will have a two-person show with Luke Forsyth titled A Constellation of Flowers at Epitome Gallery, with an opening during Arts Alive on April 2.
L.L. Kessner is an Arcata-based artist and writer.