The art of the drive

Exploring Lake Como in the Mazda CX‑30.

“Studying the sky reminds me that I am just a tiny speck, a small part of this immense universe. It has given me a whole new perspective.” Florence-based artist Sonia Bukhgalter speaks movingly about her love of nature. We’re in the Lombardy region of Italy to explore the winding roads and golden light of Lake Como. I’m here for the lively driving and Sonia for the inspiration. We’re both here for an adventure.

Sonia is best known for her otherworldly skyscapes. Working primarily with oils on gilded canvas, she explores the vastness of nature and our place within it. We begin our journey in the city of Lecco on the south-eastern shore of the lake. As we leave, Sonia explains she is an ardent advocate of technique, having learned gilding in her mother’s artisan studio and oil painting at the venerable Libera Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. “When technique becomes second nature it liberates me to express myself. I’m not focusing on technique, rather the feelings I’m trying to convey.”

“All we hear is the far hum of a seaplane drawing lofty vapor trails and the iconic mahogany motorboats slicing through the lake.”

I reflect on the idea that good design, like good technique, is invisible. The roads are challenging here. We navigate impossibly narrow streets, devilish switchbacks and cavalier pedestrians, but the driving is so instinctive, the Mazda CX‑30’s performance so seamless, it frees my mind to wander in the clouds as we drive. We orbit the lake through sun and shadow-striped tunnels. Ice-cream-colored villas line the elegant streets in lemon and pistachio tones, framed by grand cypress trees and vivid magenta geraniums.

As the light shifts we make brief stops for Sonia to sketch. The clouds scan past at pace and the quicksilver sky transforms itself by the second. I ask Sonia how she can possibly work fast enough to capture the scene. She quotes one of her heroes, Mark Rothko: “A painting is not the picture of an experience but is the experience.” When she is out in the landscape she captures fragments, but she is not trying to literally depict the scene, rather she is gathering impressions. Later, back in her studio, she will interpret these references to make the final work.

We reach Varenna at the base of the Agueglio Pass—an elaborate scribble of a road—and begin our ascent into the mountains, looking for the best vantage point for Sonia to set up her easel. Motorcycles sway past us around blind bends as we slalom slowly up the lush alpine pass. The motion becomes hypnotic as we climb up higher into the sky. Soon we are above the slender drifts of clouds that cling to the lake. The mood in the car is serene and companionable as we marvel at the light and discuss art, life, the universe and everything.

Just as the sun begins to dip, we find our perfect location—a scenic viewing area offering a divine panorama. The car’s platinum quartz paint glows in treacly dusk light as the lake comes alive, burnished by the rose-gold sky.

“Trucks grumble past scores of tenacious cyclists as they work their way up the punishing gradient.”

Sonia disappears into her work, depositing glossy blobs of titanium white, burnt sienna and vermilion oils onto her palette, deftly mixing them into a more delicate spectrum. The depth of the gold canvas gently reflects her movements through translucent layers of paint in a dreamy metamorphosis.

Too soon the world turns blue and the mountains vanish into the night sky. Sonia is done for today, pleased with what she has achieved and eager to return to her studio to see what paintings will suggest themselves. We coast slowly down the pass, warm air sweet with jasmine streaming in the windows, two contented little specks.

Words Jenni Doggett / Images Tanveer Badal

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Mazda CX‑30

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