Around Cambridge, I occasionally see groups of people sketching – bending over sugar paper and sketch pads, on King’s Parade or in Market Square, they record the buildings, the people, and the trees which surrounded them. Federica Marinaro belongs in one such group, having joined three years ago when she arrived in Cambridge for her neuroscience research into Alzheimer’s. 

The organisation, Urban Sketchers, has local groups across the world. They meet to sketch their immediate environment, predominantly focusing on documenting their urban surroundings. Federica describes the progression of her own sketches; it began with attempts to draw King’s College Chapel, and she later realised: 'I am good at telling stories, so I can try to tell these things through my sketches.'

"I am good at telling stories, so I can try to tell these things through my sketches."

It is an effusive recording of life that we find on her Instagram page. Federica loves colours; their brightness and vivacity make her paintings compelling and joyful. She released a book My World through the Pandemic after the first national lockdown, cataloguing her own isolation experience in Cambridge. Audiences from all over Europe wrote to her. One, a school art teacher, expressed gratitude for Federica’s paintings which she shared with her students to help inspire them during the lockdown. Another, a new parent, described using the book to explain to her child what lockdown was, as each painting depicts a different moment of everyday joy. Federica laughs at the enthusiastic reception of her paintings, many of which depict rather simple subject matters — ‘I mean, it’s just my refrigerator, my pens, my cats’.

Quarantine timeFederica Marinaro

But these images enchant as a record of a strange time. Federica carried a small sketchbook with her on her daily commute to London when her lab moved last year. On these commutes, when she wasn’t working, she sketched the people around her. Federica notes how the sketchbook became a kind of historical record of change, as it recorded her journeys to London before March 2020 when the train was fully packed as well as her tentative return to the lab once the lockdown was eased.

Before the pandemic, Federica’s drawings on these journeys record lively encounters with strangers, something which has disappeared entirely in our new isolation — she notes how people ‘really open up to you and really tell you things’ when she is drawing them, or sometimes offer you just enough that you can begin to imagine who they are. This makes me think of Zadie Smith, who once said that she wouldn’t have any novels had she not listened to so many conversations on the train and the tube. And so I asked Federica if any stories stood out to her. She recalls a time when she drew the same person twice, and another occasion where she befriended a woman in a wheelchair who she drew because her ‘eyes were very expressive’, later realising that she too was a scientist from Italy and would soon be moving to Cambridge.

A story of love: even heroes take coffee breaksFederica Marinaro
Train sketches printsFederica Marinaro

One story is particular poignant, demonstrating how her sketching is essentially uplifting and mood-improving. It is about a couple sitting across the aisle from one another; she notes that the man was comforting the woman who was ‘maybe in pain… she was pale and tired… and when they saw my drawing of them her face changed. She felt able to talk to me and said that their son also loved to draw and make cartoons’.

Federica has participated in the Brooklyn Art Library sketchbook project, which sells A6 sketchbooks to participants that they must fill over six months. Federica was gifted hers by her partner in February last year, but she was only able make four sketches before the lockdown began in March. Needing to fill up the sketchbook before the deadline, she had to look elsewhere for inspiration, using webcams to look into different cities and then painting them in watercolour. Towards the end of the sketchbook are pictures painted in person again, showing a family reunion in Naples when she was finally able to return this summer.

Lockdown - Lazy afternoon observing the sun light coming through the windowFederica Marinaro

These records of memory are intensely personal, yet speak more broadly of our need to connect with others. Federica’s current exhibition represents a hopeful possibility for such reconnections. The show is on display at Hot Numbers on Gwydir Street until the 4th of April, and for those who are not in Cambridge, her work is also available via her Instagram account. Titled Until We Meet Again, the collection is a display of Federica’s recollections of jazz and blues concerts at the café from over the last few years. As well as memories of a time where we listened to live music crammed in a venue together, Federica wishes for the paintings to imbue us with hope for the future while we wait to meet again in person.

"These records of memory are intensely personal, and yet speak more broadly of our need to connect with others."

Trilling exhibition by Derek Scurll & Co.Federica Marinaro

With the sketchbooks, Federica says, ‘you can tell the story you want’. It is this sentiment that I am left with — Federica’s drawings are populated with stories of strangers, of family, and of her home in Cambridge. It is a document of her memories and a testament to the value of contemplative and close observation of life around us. After our conversation, all I want is for my sketchbook to come with me everywhere.

Federica Marinaro’s exhibition Until We Meet Again is currently on display at Hot Numbers, Gwydir Street, Cambridge until April 4th 2021. It is also available for viewing online via her Instagram.


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