Brenda Cirioni’s childhood home sat at the end of a dirt road that trailed off into the woods. It was here among the flora of the forest that she felt most at ease and where she spent hours, usually alone. Her early paintings reflect that experience. “You see tree trunks, leaves, and birds—never a human being or a structure in sight,” she says.
When she was 16, the house burned down, destroying almost everything in it. Her father set the fire “for financial reasons,” Cirioni says, and her parents subsequently divorced. Decades later, she attended a consciousness raising workshop where a regressive meditation session uncovered feelings she had unconsciously buried. “You go back to your childhood and knock on your door as a little kid and your father answers,” she says. “I let loose this rage. I was screaming at him; it was a total body experience. I had no idea that I was carrying all that.”
Cirioni knew she had to paint the experience of the fire. Her canvases began to include simple structures, with a small patch of flames or a wisp of smoke somewhere in the scene. “And then they just kept coming and coming and it became more of a fire,” she says. “One day in the studio, I thought, “I’m just gonna let it rip. I had the canvas on the floor and I was throwing down paint, and water, and black ink.” The 2012 piece, which is powerful even when viewed online, shows a charred building so engulfed in flames that its shape is nearly obscured. Small pockets of blue sky are just visible through the heavy smoke, and black rivulets running from the building scar the green landscape. Part of a show previewed by The Boston Globe with the headline, “In paintings, Stow woman rages against long-ago blaze,” the piece was sold before the show opened.
After a marketer friend advised against “burning house series,” Cirioni named her subsequent collection the “barn series.” Over time, though, the torrent of emotion receded to a trickle and fire became less of a prominent element, while other materials, including scraps of women’s clothing, began showing up in her barn paintings. “I wanted to place trees, so I used torn paper to make sure they were where I wanted them and I thought, ‘oh, these make really good trees.’ That’s how I started using not just paint in my work,” she says. Four or five years ago she felt she had taken the barns as far as she could. “I got a challenge to do something abstract; I had always liked it but had never done it,” Cirioni says. “It took a while for me to find my language, my voice in abstraction.”
The onset of the pandemic shut down her studio, and offered the chance to attend to a neglected perennial bed she had put in years before. “Once I got back into the studio I started doing paintings of gardens in spring,” she says. Colorful and joyous, these recent abstract works exude what she found in the garden, “the energy of feeling both connected to the earth, and free.” Holding her hands in a tight circle and then flinging her arms wide, Cirioni says. “I feel like my life has gone from constrained, to like this.”