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‘No vulgarity in my art’

His attire is sombre: navy shirt, black trousers, almost priest-like. It contrasts with his vibrant art pieces dotting the exhibition lobby.

Even if I say so myself, in Malta no one else can do it

All his work, says Paul Vella Critien, comes from his soul, his “anima”, including the ceramic column that occupies centre stage at the Luqa roundabout and which is possibly one of the most controversial art pieces in Maltese history.

His pain over the furore that “the masterpiece”, as he describes it, stirred after its unveiling is still there. Many people interpreted his Colonna Mediterranea as a phallic monument and a huge public outcry ensued, led by the Luqa mayor.

He was very disappointed that over the years, no journalist ever took the trouble to get his view, bar for brief sound clips. “Many people don’t know me, they don’t know that I am not one to make sculptures of that kind...”

He is soft-spoken, peppers his conversation with Italian phrases and has a tendency to trail off the words at the end of the sentence.

“I certainly never intended it to be a …” he says.

When Pope Benedict drove past the monument on his visit two years ago and the Neo Catechumenal Movement attempted to hide it with a huge banner, Mr Vella Critien did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Even people at the Vatican were apparently baffled.

He got a call from the Osservatore Romano secretary that day asking him: “Paolo che succede a Malta? Il Papa ama l’arte!”

His diplomacy saved the day. “I did my utmost to play down the whole fuss,” he says. He recalls how even art critics in Australia were calling him and asking: “What? Are people in Malta crazy?”

Mr Vella Critien, 50, of Mensija, describes himself as a “maestro d’arte” and is widely known in international art circles, with several public art works displayed in Australia and in Europe.

His grandfather was the acclaimed painter Gianni Vella. “He was my mentor. I was 13 when I started working with him.”

So is art in the genes? “Si nasce un artista, no?”

He was still in his teens when he won a five-year scholarship at the Academy of Ravenna, where he was tutored by distinguished ceramists and “was one of the best students, obviously”. This was followed by a further four years of art at the University of Bologna.

It was a time of hardship: he had to sleep outside at train stations because he could not find accommodation. “I won’t even begin to tell you how much I suffered, those were the anni di piombo” (so called years of lead in the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, which saw Italy plunged into civil strife and political terrorism), he said.

But the suffering was worth it: Angelo Bianchini, his world-renowned tutor, told him back then: “Tu sei un grande disigniatore, piu bravo di me”.

From Italy he was lured to Australia by his brother, where he worked as a lecturer in Fine Artsin Melbourne and even set up his own studio. He has several public art pieces in Australia.

“If I had stayed there I’d be a millionaire,” he says, explaining that for just one sculpture he would get something like €55,000.

But at 33, Europe beckoned again and after a whole year travelling around, he settled back in Malta, married, and over time had four children. He also invested in a highly technological ceramic lab and is now “Malta’s ambassador” for art.

The Luqa column, and a similar one in San Ġwann, are complex pieces of ceramic engineering, which involves “balancing” and “intricate interlocking”.

“Even if I say so myself, in Malta no one else can do it”.

The sculptures are not “just modern” but “futuristic” and he describes them as “a work of artistic technological beauty”.

The top part of the columns is tapered towards space. “They are a composition of vibrant colours on a column verso l’alto – they represent the bellezza of our island.”

We’re back in phallic-pain territory. “An artist is never appreciated at home,” he quips. He mentions French artist Marcel Duchamp and his porcelain urinal, which was deemed scandalous when submitted for exhibition.

“Invece, after 80 years, it is acclaimed as a masterpiece,” he says. When the whole hullabaloo broke out at the Luqa unveiling he was concerned about his elderly mother, a former missionary with Mother Theresa in India.

“She knew that I am not the type to do that …”

It all boils down to the “mentality” of people who “mix art with something else”. His daughter, then still a teenager, urged him not to worry: “Papa, there are so many people bereft of culture.”

He cannot understand how people comment if they don’t understand art.

Which of course begs the question: isn’t art subjective? “Of course people are free to comment, but when I created that sculpture, I never had in mind a pene.”

He also questions the lack of security on public art. “Why CCTV cameras on skips and not on public art?” This would prevent acts of vandalism, such as the one on the Luqa column two months ago – when its top was severed.

“It can be fixed. I have been contacted by the Ministry to restore it. I gave my feedback but I still haven’t heard anything.”

Art is clearly not a priority for politicians, he says, and that is a pity because the soul of democracy is art. “Malta is the only place where we don’t have a Modern Art Gallery”.

‘Sogno d’Oro’ Ceramics by Paul Vella Critien runs at the Cavalieri Hotel, St. Julians, until July 5.

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