Patches of Layla Fanucci's lawn started dying out not long after she came home with $20 worth of oil paints from the local five and dime and a big idea for a bare living room wall.
In 1999 Layla Fanucci was looking for a large, colorful painting to add zing to her home. But when she couldn't find anything she liked, or could afford, she decided to paint it herself.
That's when the former guitar teacher discovered talents she didn't realize she had — an eye for color and composition and a love of the bold statement.
In the seven years since, Fanucci has headed downstairs almost every day to paint in her "studio" — two easels set up on the backyard lawn under the trees.
"If I have something in mind, I just go," Fanucci. "I don't sketch and I don't think too much. For me it's just easier to go. I've found that my best work comes out that way. The joy of the journey is just going."
In her Scott Street home brimming with color and light, are big — really big and bold — paintings. They lean against walls and furniture, are propped on chairs and tables as they wait for protective bubble wrap before being shipped off for a December show at a New York gallery.
Groupings of canvases of all sizes and themes have turned living room, dining room and den into temporary storerooms, leaving the kitchen to serve as all three.
As Fanucci dodged a dining table to show a visitor part of the collection, she dreamed aloud of one day being able to sit down to dinner there. At the moment, however, the table is serving as a repository for her tax-attorney husband's recent-vintage Zinfandel, also on their way to New York.
Most of the art pieces dwarf Fanucci, who at 5-foot-3 relies on a rickety, paint-spattered ladder to get to the uppermost reaches of a canvas — a ladder that once belonged to her husband's grandfather, Guido.
If it weren't for the family connection the weathered ladder would have been jettisoned long ago, she said.
The importance of family is reflected in much of her work. Her French uncle Alfred, a study in red, is in the living room. Her aunt Lisou looks serenely down from the den wall across from a painting of Fanucci's husband at 18 wearing his grandfather's fishing hat and jacket. A vibrant still life of sunflowers, lemons and blue violas includes a bottle of Rob Fanucci's Charter Oak wine.
The real thing, each with a label enhanced by Fanucci's artistic whimsy, will accompany the New York-bound series she calls cityscapes and be included as a bonus with each piece sold.
Taking it outside
Unlike the current state of the house, Fanucci's downstairs studio is wide open and spacious. The ceiling is a leafy canopy, there are no walls and one of several easels is propped against a persimmon tree. Grandfather Guido's ladder leans against a fence.
Fanucci, who once tried painting in a small room off the garage, prefers the open air.
"People can't believe it," she said, "but I love to paint outside, I love the light and not having to breathe the paint fumes. In winter time I have a canopy I put up. We have so few days when I can't paint."
Besides, she added, "I'm messy. I throw paint around. That's why the lawn is a mess."
When she started painting seven years ago, she admitted, "I didn't know what I was doing. I just knew I wanted big and I wanted color, I love color."
After a quick trip to the old Ben Franklin for paints and a piece of heavy poster board, she set to work under the trees, using the colors that pleased her. She added abstract shapes representing her husband and their three children, Nicole, Michelle and David. She even sketched in a Christmas tree because she loves the holiday. As soon as she put down her brushes she took the finished work to Alan Fowler's to be framed.
"Alan said, 'Shall I let it dry first before I frame it?'" Fanucci said with the energetic laugh that is her trademark.
Fanucci was pleased with the result and so, it turned out, were her friends. Within a year she had sold nine 6-by-5-foot paintings and was working on more. She had no formal training and had never painted or sketched but she didn't hesitate. She found inspiration in the works of Henri Matisse.
Then she created her own, individual cityscapes series based on vacation photos from friends and family. A friend's helicopter ride over Paris led to "View from a Helicopter of Arch de Triomphe," a 48-by-48 inch oil on linen — Fanucci no longer paints on poster board — one of her smaller cityscapes pieces.
There are paintings of Siena, the Amalfi Coast, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome, Istanbul — where her father was born — and several of New York and San Francisco. Background layers of color set the mood for the city scenes she sketches in black.
Fanucci grew up in a lively household in Menlo Park. Her parents — mother was from France, her father an architect from Turkey, met at UC Berkeley.
There was no art in the house but there was plenty of music. The couple insisted that their children, Layla, Selma and Erol, learn to play at least three musical instruments. The youngsters all studied piano and Fanucci added clarinet and guitar to her list of accomplishments. She taught guitar while pursuing a degree in sociology at San Francisco State University. Following her marriage she taught in schools where ever she and her husband settled, including a stint at Howell Mountain School and 10 years at St. Helena Catholic School.
With the encouragement and guidance of an art consultant Fanucci has been going full speed, creating a body of work that includes 150 paintings, 22 of them in the cityscapes series. Two of these sold a month ago and another three — "Lucca," "San Francisco" and "Rome" — sold last week, putting to rest some of Fanucci's fears that maybe she was in over her head.
As she prepared for her one-woman show at the Walter Wickiser Gallery in New York's Chelsea district, Fanucci thought about the unexpected road she's traveling.
"When I first started I couldn't believe the feeling I got from the process of painting," she said. "I used to feel that way when I was doing concerts with the kids, the joy of the whole experience.
"That feeling is what I have in painting from beginning to end. I never get tired of it. I paint every day and I love every moment of it.
An opening reception for "Traveling the World - City to City," will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Walter Wickiser Gallery, 210 11th Ave., New York, N.Y. The show runs through Dec. 27.