It’s been 21 years since I first entered Venice, wandering down a dark alleyway lugging a bag as big as I was. Sporting a pair of ’90s chic Gap overalls and an unfortunate dirt-brown bob hairdo that makes me wince just thinking about it, I still recall futzing with an old-school, paper folding map while winding down unmarked calles before finally finding the tiny, golden buzzer that would unlock my whole world.
I have always been a traveler — a voracious reader, sketcher of tiny, complex worlds real and imagined, a pretender with a capital P when I was little. I could turn dirt, dolls and aluminum foil into wild kingdoms in my backyard and loved nothing more than a good adventure. And Wake Forest had afforded my childish dreams a reality, providing me with a scholarship to study fine art there. For the first two years, Wake allowed my imagination and my junk-covered sculptures to grow, covering entire walls and looping the garden grounds on campus.
But at the end of my sophomore year, I was restless and in need of a change.
When the door opened to Casa Artom, this new world came with all the quirks of a great novel. Courses led by an ancient art history teacher with a glass-eye obsessed with the “little doggies” that often appeared in the ancient Titian paintings hanging throughout Venice. A secret rooftop that nearly interconnected with the famous Peggy Guggenheim museum, where we could spy on Julian Schnabel and Dennis Hopper as they drank spritz during the Historical Regatta. And of course, there was a flooding force of nature unique to Venice called Acqua Alta that swirled around the house on nights with full moons and high tides, sucking many a drying shoe and shirt out the open window into the canal below, never to be seen again.
Classes taught me plenty, but exploring Venice and all it had to offer provided me far more. I can still feel the Venetian auntie who taught us to make risotto, whacking my hand with a wooden spoon every time I tried to lift up the lid. Hearing my Grandma squeal with delight eating her first tiramisu during her 80th birthday visit to see me. Learning new dance moves from locals in the tiny, low-ceilinged Piccolo Mondo discotheque. Sitting quietly in La Salute church, trying to wrap my head around what I was going to do with my life.
At the end of my time there, I had cut off all my hair and dyed it blonde. It would be a far more dramatic story to say I burned those overalls, but I did the next best thing and waited for the full moon and let the winds of Acqua Alta carry them out to sea.
"When the door opened to Casa Artom, this new world came with all the quirks of a great novel."
On that foggy last morning before returning to Winston-Salem, my roommate, Amy Stribling (’98) and I walked to the edge of the Punta della Dogana, making youthful promises to return to Venice someday. I still have the blurry picture she took, standing at the edge of the island, full of hope but scared as hell that I would never, ever come back.
I didn’t return to Venice again until my honeymoon, seeing the city anew with my husband, Adam Wogan (’96), whom I first met on a college tour to Wake Forest when I was 16.
We were lucky enough to return again with our 2-year-old son, Aden, a few years later. At the Salute Church, we lit candles and each made a wish. And that wish came true nine months later with the birth of our daughter, Zoe.
And for the last five years, I’ve been able to return each year to the city I love, working for La Biennale di Venezia, helping artists and filmmakers from around the world tell their stories.
"... time in Venice stands still, while life and love march on."
The chapters continue to unfold and be written. But time in Venice stands still, while life and love march on. When we returned last December, our now 8-year-old Aden fell hard for tiramisu, and I couldn’t help but miss my wonderful Grammy GG, who would have turned 100 this year. Aden discovered da Vinci and his wild inventions, filling his own notebooks and drawings as I once did, trying in vain to capture and build upon all that I was discovering.
Our 5-year-old lover of life, Zoe, delighted in learning about Peggy Guggenheim’s 13 doggies that followed her wherever she went, and of course, I told her about my art history professor from long ago over giant scoops of chocolate gelato. But her favorite part of the trip was eating pizza after bedtime and playing an old record player in our tiny Venice apartment, having late-night dance parties with her brother, jamming out to Italian pop tunes.
It was all at once familiar and brand-new. Once again, Venice was mine.
Amy Dotson (’98) is the deputy director and head of programming for IFP (Independent Filmmaker Project) in New York City, the oldest organization in the United States supporting the future of storytelling in all its forms. During her tenure, she has supported over 4,000 U.S. and international film, TV and new media storytellers, including 2017 Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” She is also a leader at the La Biennale College Cinema in Venice and makes a fantastic risotto.