Meet the (ND) Maker: Isabella Di Bono '21 Makes Abstract Paintings Experiential

Author: Shannon Rooney

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For Isabella “Isa” Di Bono ’21, the “new normal” of COVID-19 has meant moving home to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and finding ways to make art without a studio.

Among other work, the senior studio art major has a thesis to plan as part of her bachelor of fine arts (BFA) program. But when Honduras announced that the country’s borders were closing on March 15, Di Bono moved home. She happened to be in Miami for Notre Dame’s spring break, so she stocked up on art supplies at a Michaels Store there and booked a flight to Tegucigalpa. 

Further shutdowns in Honduras have dictated that citizens can only leave home on days assigned to them based on the last number on their national ID cards. Di Bono can go out for specific items—food, medicine, fuel, hardware supplies, and to access banking services—every 15 days. Fortunately, she is quarantined with her family of five, all of whom go out on different days to get what they need. 

Di Bono can’t buy art supplies, specifically canvas, which she needs for her large-scale abstract paintings. And being away from Notre Dame for the end of the school year meant not having access to an art studio. So Di Bono has found ways to create without both. 

Lacking canvas, she has pivoted to more works on paper. In May, she put out a call to family and friends, offering Mother’s Day portraits and received around a dozen commissions. 

Her situation may be different, but Di Bono’s process hasn’t changed much. She is able to draw a parallel between her work and what is happening in the world outside her door. 

“Finding motivation can be a challenge. A lot of students are encountering that. But making art here has been a way for me to escape everything going on. It’s weird because it somewhat ties back to the concept in my art, which is greatly about immersing myself in a daydream through color and line. It’s freeform exploration,” says Di Bono.

In other words, no rules. Dedication to the materials but freedom from structure. 

The ability to explore freely is essential to Di Bono, whose path to an art major wasn’t a straight one, just an obvious one. She enrolled at Notre Dame intending to major in economics but figured out after just a couple of classes that the major just didn’t interest her. 

She intended to minor in studio art from the beginning but as she got deeper into her art coursework, it became clear that she needed to switch majors.    

“I’ve been drawing pretty much since I was a baby,” says Di Bono. As a secondary school student in Honduras, Di Bono visited the home of a family friend and painter Sandra Lardizabal. Di Bono watched and learned, working on her own art in her free time outside of school. 

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Untitled abstract oil paintings by Isa Di Bono '21; Left to right, they measure 40 x 48 inches and 36 x 36 inches

But until she got to Notre Dame, Di Bono considered art a hobby, a passion she could pursue on the side. She took foundational art courses in her first few semesters. Later on, electives introduced her to different mediums, like photography, ceramics, printmaking, and bookmaking. 

“And slowly my art minor grew into a major. It became a supplemental major, then a major, and finally a BFA. I couldn't run away from it. It just—it was pretty clear that it was the right path,” says Di Bono. 

Now a senior, Di Bono has a BFA thesis to plan. She is working on a concept around the work she gravitates toward naturally—large-scale abstract paintings. She starts with oils or acrylics and sometimes weaves in spray paint or drawing. 

Above all, her work is process driven, “an experimentation in color and form.” She wants to start a painting without knowing what the result will be and she loves the immediacy of the results. 

“I need that immediacy for the creative juice to flow fluidly, which isn’t like other mediums that require more planning beforehand. I can't be as abstract and as immediate [with other mediums] as I can with painting,” says Di Bono. 

Why large-scale? 

Di Bono’s abstracts usually measure five-by-five feet, nearly as tall as she is. The scale is intentional. “I want to make environments that the viewer can feel immersed in and the large scale definitely immerses the viewer, being confronted by this huge space that they can just see and explore and discover,” she says. 

Before COVID-19 hit, Di Bono planned to show those large paintings alongside smaller works on paper for a spring exhibit in the South Bend Museum of Art. The idea was to show works that move the viewer around a physical space.  

“The larger paintings make you step back and take them in. While the smaller ones feel more intimate, like you want to get close to them and grab them,” she says.  

For her thesis, Di Bono will work closely with her mentor, painting professor Maria Tomasula, Michael P. Grace Professor of Art and director of graduate studies. Each BFA student forms a relationship with a professor who mentors them through the thesis process. Tomasula will guide Di Bono through her work, the refinement of her artist statement, and preparation to exhibit on campus next year. On campus, BFA students also make use of studio space for their thesis and receive a stipend for materials when their project is approved. 

Like other students, Di Bono is waiting to hear how the COVID-19 crisis will affect the fall semester. She continues to make art at home in the meantime, keeping her practice alive through smaller scale projects and planning for the thesis project to come.

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                   Left to right: Untitled 2017, oil on canvas, 40 x 40 in. and Untitled 2019, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in.

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Originally published by Shannon Rooney at admissions.nd.edu on June 17, 2020.