Artist Paul Cosquieri demanded total freedom when he took on one of his biggest challenges ever this summer.
Yes, some of his paintings have been large but none on the scale of the mural, 8.54 by 2.38 metres, which today houses an entire wall at the new Kishin Alwani Foundation Student Common Room at the University of Gibraltar.
But Paul had more challenges to deal with having just suffered a stroke and as he created his mixed media piece he slowly got back on his feet.
He had to learn how to use the right side of his body again.
He had to battle with his mind. He had to take it one step at a time as the artist fought the demons with a project today he admits saved him.
For him, his ‘Non Plus Ultra’, has been a journey of recovery as well as an artistic exploration. I have known Paul for many years.
I have followed his art closely. I know how seriously he takes his work.
Listening to him at the University on an evening offering an insight into the process of the work it became evident this has developed into a new artistic phase in a new journey of discovery for him not just as an artist but as a person.
Pushing himself to the limits, having to deal with slurred speech and what he can only explain as “problems with my head”, committed to the project he seems to have come out of it – on the other side – with a new direction which could prove even more testing and exciting for the artist.
Now, there’s no looking back. And, he acknowledges, that perhaps the most important change is that he now wants to simply have fun with his art.
In fact listening to him narrate how it all came together, with great honesty and directness, Paul seems to have shed some of the baggage he may have been carrying – it happens to us all – and therefore as an artist feels freer to experiment.
His brief from the start was simple -the mural had to fit into place with all necessary fittings and its theme of Gibraltar. His aim was to bring something fresh to the canvas. He wanted the piece to be dynamic but most importantly he wanted it to speak to young people.
And he admits, this was the hardest challenge because he also wanted the work to “establish a dialogue with international students”.
A mural, he adds, is hard to define and from the beginning he wanted the work to grow and be “organic”. With no real plan as the work on canvas began just a month after his stroke he knew he wanted privacy and wanted to be alone in an enclosed space which was provided by Gibraltar Cultural Services with the help of Angela Bula.
His first steps would take him to the Gibraltar National Archives where he was “bombarded with information” by Government Archivist Anthony Pitaluga.
Not wanting to work on a timeline he gathered more and more images and suddenly had “a big vomit of Gibraltar” he expressed.
“There was just too much. But I wanted to convey Gibraltar and our identity and who we are without being corny.”
Finally he selected his images: WWII Evacuees, old prints, Dr Giraldi, Azuquita, the closure of the frontier, Tobabia, Robba, Henry ‘el gordo’, the Governor’s, , Boris Almeida, Prince Charles and Lady Diana as they set off on their honeymoon, Miss World Kaiane Aldorino, our Chief Ministers, and so on.
But he knew the first layer had to be copies of the Chronicle – he simply chose a day – and laid down the collage of newspapers across the panels at the centre of his mural which he had placed on the floor of the space he was working in.
As music played in the background a splash of colour came next – the colour had already been chosen to match the colour scheme in the Common Room.
Then, he added, a strip of pages from the telephone directory and more splashes of colour. Dividing the painting into four horizontal bands he wanted the colour to represent sky (sky blue), the sun (yellow) the sea (ultramarine blue) and the land (ochre, sienna and yellow).
He suddenly realised that as he painted the mural took on a life all of its own. He laid the photographs and he painted them yellow. Politicians were in blue.
An old friend, Andrew Agius, became his assistant and companion throughout the project. He was to document the whole process on film with the aim of making it into a documentary.
The mural was so big he had to work on each layer separately, waiting for the paint to dry, before adding more. He walked on the canvas throughout the process.
He used everything from brushes to spray cans, brooms and rollers – and just about anything he could get his hands on.
At one point the work called out for the colour burgundy, and as a final touch came the black. He tried it all and if it did not work he “took off” and started again.
He explains that in some way all of his paintings are about himself and this one was no different. Throughout the summer months this space became his second home – he called it “my man cave” – and it proved to him that when one wants to achieve something everything is possible.
As I looked at the work up close and personal, Paul had a surprise for me, as he had included my father Manolo Mascarenhas in the work.
As he spoke at the talk of the people he had selected for the work it soon became obvious to me how important the journey had been for him and how important it had been to included personalities from our past – his own past.
“Many of these people will soon be forgotten if we do not give them prominence. They are just as important as events in our history… I want people to ask about them, find out about them and talk about them. My mural has to talk to younger people and they must be inquisitive… I want this to spark debate about our history and identity.”
But this work also feels like a new beginning for the artist… the more he paints on a large scale the more he wants to paint.
Just like the mural the more you look at it the more you see in it and the more one wants to discover… and that was his aim all along.