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Art alfresco

Big taste of Italy comes to Quattro restaurant's entrance

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By Nicole Fitzgerald

“It’s a pain in the neck,” chuckles Varvara Ilie amidst brush strokes of two mythological Roman Gods on the ceiling of Quattro restaurant’s outdoor entrance way.

The Romanian-born artist climbs down from her scaffolding perch to get a better view of a detailed flower crown held by the flower god Zemphir. Painting so closely with her head craning backwards, Ilie needs to constantly climb up and down for perspective.

“That is Flora and that Zemphir,” she says. “I didn’t want to offend any religion, so I chose mythological characters. It’s a typical ceiling painting: happy and bloomy.”

There is nothing typical about it, however. The ceiling is only one of the four walls draped in flowers, curtains and famous roman buildings typical of an Italian palazzo interior: the Trevi Fountain, Forum Romano.

She rubs her chilled hands, heats them with her breath, and then climbs again. She’s been working since the morning hours, determined to bring Whistler’s version of the Sistine Chapel to a close this weekend after five weeks of painting.

She needs to get back to her restorative work in the city she explains as she moves her attention to clouds supporting flower faeries.

While the Vancouver artist exhibits modern works and specializes in antiquing and art restoration, transforming an entire space into a living gallery of traditional icon painting is what she loves most — it was what she was born to do.

Growing up an artist in a communist country wasn’t always an easy thing, but with generations of artists behind her, a then 12-year-old girl was restoring church paintings with classic gold leaves and pillars with flat figures rich in colour.

There are no religious teachings in the Whistler work, rather it’s a celebration of everything Italian: food, wine, culture — and cigars?

On one of the walls Ilie’s jovial humour comes to life in a portrait of Quattro owner Antonio Corsi, who is illustrated in the body of a Roman god garlanded in leaves amongst an allegory of paint, art and music. He holds a wine goblet in one hand, his signature cigar in another.

“I can’t wait for him to see it,” Ilie says, chuckling again and stepping back to look at her wall-sized canvases. “I never shy away from big projects. The bigger the better. I have a large vision.”

A vision inspired from spending four years as a United Nations refugee in Italy, restoring old parishes. She then immigrated to Canada, where she carried on her artistic career with gallery showings, restoration work and murals such as these — figures always driving her brush, traditional and modern alike. The Whistler Plaza Gallery has showcased Ilie’s canvas artwork for more than a decade.

She steps into Quattro to warm herself by the fire, over a bowl of homemade minestrone soup and a glass of wine. We talk about art, dancing and family — everything her mural embraces.

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