A Divine Gaze
Painter Caroline Lizarraga’s Vision of Life and Art
Above Image: Caroline Lizarraga in her San Francisco studio wearing the new Painter’s Coat in Olive, part of the Lan Jaenicke new collection - Series No. 21, launching on May 18th. Photo by Jason Hsu.
A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e'l velle
sì come rota ch'igualmente è mossa,
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.
Here force failed my high fantasy;
but my desire and will were moved already
like a wheel revolving uniformly by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Dante, La Divina Commedia / The Divine Comedy
This phrase by Dante adorns the central stairway in Caroline Lizarraga’s home. Painted by the artist, it is visible only as you ascend. Accompanying one’s climb, it enacts not only the journey of Dante’s pilgrim, but so many uplifting aspects of Lizarraga’s life: her passionate pursuit of her work, her support of other creatives, and her elevation of spaces. And, of course, her love of Italy. Lizarraga’s path as a decorative painter began in Florence, where she learned restoration and pietra dura techniques. Today, based in San Francisco, she leads one of the country’s most esteemed studios, known for its virtuosic decorative surfaces. In residences, hotels, restaurants, and creative spaces, she and her team leave their mark with silver leaf and gold gilding, bold abstractions and haunting landscapes. Lizarraga is also a force of positivity, her enthusiasm spilling out in a tangible effusiveness of spirit. Alisa Carroll spoke with her about inspiration, craft, and tending to the soul.
You and Lan recently met, and were immediately simpatico, particularly in terms of craft.
We met and it was a true love at first sight kind of thing. I think it's because we both share a very similar value around craft, and how important it is to use your hands and your eye. When I'm working on a wall, I'm putting a lot of love and energy and thoughtfulness into that wall. And you can feel that. And you can feel that in Lan’s space and in her work. At the time, she was designing ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan’s wedding dress—I had just seen YYT at the San Francisco ballet and was crying watching that woman dance because she's all soul. It doesn't matter if it's dance, if you're making a dress, if you're painting a wall, it's an emotion that you're putting in to an environment. It's an energy, if you will. And it feels different than having something made by hand. It just does.
Caroline in the new Painter’s Coat in Navy. Photos by Jason Hsu.
And the simplest thing is often the most complex to achieve.
I think we're also having a moment—and I think this goes back to Lan’s pieces—which is about exquisite craftsmanship. It’s funny, I was just in New York and I was hired for this particular project to do white plaster. And the clients were like, “Wait, why are we hiring Caroline to do white plaster when she has all this over the top stuff and anyone can do white plaster?” And I said, “It’s harder to show you the most beautiful white wall in the world.” And I think in Lan’s case—her pieces are tonal—when you look at a piece, you can feel it, you can see it that it's the most exquisite sewing detail work. It's those little details when you experience couture, and when I say couture, I mean something custom made for your body, for your home, for your spirit. There's no going back after that. So, you know, I really do think that once people start understanding that it's just a magical path.
The Mission atelier is a space for multidisciplinary creativity, including the development of paint treatments.
Caroline wears the Painter's Coat over the Liquid Slip Dress in Midnight. Photos by Jason Hsu.
With the white wall, the quality is rooted not only in the level of detail and the loving way it’s applied, but in your historical knowledge, your training in Florence.
Yes, in Florence I studied restoration. I also was exposed to marble and stone techniques, but most of all the deep historical aspect of decorative painting. I had full access to the libraries of the Uffizi, the archives of documents, so I could look at drawings—eye to eye—of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Botticelli. It was one of the greatest gifts to my life.
And regarding white plaster, there are actually like six different whites. So it's very layered. And, you know, it's the same with Lan’s work. I think it's harder to show a space or the dress or when it's so simple because you absolutely have to be perfect. There's no room for error. She's just an incredibly inspiring woman. And we're both born the same year, we're both the Year of the Dragon.
"Yes, in Florence I studied restoration. I also was exposed to marble and stone techniques, but most of all the deep historical aspect of decorative painting. I had full access to the libraries of the Uffizi, the archives of documents, so I could look at drawings—eye to eye—of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Botticelli. It was one of the greatest gifts to my life."
Caroline and Lan at the Mission studio. Photo by Jason Hsu.
Coming full circle, you’ve begun hosting your own artistic workshops in Italy, and are in the process of buying a home there. Would you share a bit about that journey?
Yes, my workshops are called Curiosare Italia. We're hosting two classes this month in Puglia. My first classes in 2022 were a total dream come true. I had planned them a few years back but Covid had halted them. Over two weeks, we had 12 guests each week, and it was magic. We are not only painted everyday but took everyone around Puglia to all the towns they could understand what makes it so special. You wake up and maybe take a walk through the olive trees, and have breakfast on the terrace looking over the valley. Then we head into a new town and meet with a local craftsperson. Then a gorgeous lunch in town, Then back to the villa for painting.
And we are about two weeks away from signing the documents to our Puglia house! It's an amazing, 16th-century property. Once we get it up and running, my goal is not just for me to teach classes there, I want it to be a mecca for craft. I feel so strongly about Puglia and its craft.
What does Puglia give you energetically?
It brings me balance. I would say when you've chosen your job as your passion, which I have, which you have, which Lan has, it's very hard to distinguish when you're working and when you're not because you love it so much. So you're basically working 24 hours a day. I think I need to try to find the balance. And I've realized Italy is that for me. Because, you know, siesta is real. And it's four to five hours!
The Curiosare Italia retreat in Puglia. Photos by Assunta Simone.
You know, I love that sense of timelessness, or that slow time, because I'm actually grappling with that idea at the moment. In recent research on sacred space for my own work, I read a book by Abraham Heschel, which is all about keeping a holy day. One of its loveliest aphorisms is “labor is not the only destiny of man; it is endowed with divine dignity.”
It’s an interesting thing, because if you think about it—and look, I was raised with Catholic religion, I'm not a religious person—but I will say when you go into a church, or a temple, or a mosque, something holy happens to you, because of all this beautiful labor that's gone into it. It's coming from a higher level.
I also think that we as creatives, we need to have a day to regroup ourselves, even just walking in the forest. I think we have a tendency as Americans to just grind, grind, grind, we're gonna get further, we're gonna get further, and maybe that works for some people. But the older and slightly wiser I get, I feel that I need to have a moment. Think about chefs, like think of El Bulli, which now is closed, but they used to close for months on end to create, and that's how I believe they became the most sought after, most famous, most beautiful restaurant in the world. Because creatives need space.
Caroline in the Sloane jacket in Black / Navy. Photos by Jason Hsu.
So beautifully put, the quality of your holy time, or slow time, is what informs how you move through life, how you contribute positively.
I think that's almost like a religion to yourself—give that back to yourself so you can go on a further, deeper journey, whether it's in your creativity, or your family, There’s some kind of nurturing we all need. When I do this house from the 16th century, feeling the soul of the house and nurturing that is to shepherd it for another chapter. And I think that's why the owner is very excited about selling us her family home, because she knows I want to give back tenfold. That, or being by the sea, or sitting with your family and eating or cooking. I think it's all restorative.
Caroline and her daughter. Photo by Lily Strandberg.
To learn more about Caroline’s work and retreats, visit Caroline Lizarraga and Curiosareitalia.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.