Photo taken by student Sharon Murphree while studying abroad in Florence
Photo taken by student Sharon Murphree while studying abroad in Florence

Recently, several students studying abroad came back to the States after a semester of learning different languages, exploring new cultures and countries, and creating projects to be exhibited in the annual study abroad exhibition next spring.

I sat down with Sharon Murphree, a photography major and a good friend, who just returned from Florence, Italy, to talk about her adventures. 

Hey, Sharon! Welcome home! So, how did you decide to study abroad?

I have never had the opportunity to travel outside the U.S. I thought it would be a great opportunity, but felt like it was so out of my reach since my youngest son Garrett would be graduating from high school this semester and it was just a long time to be away from home. It was the support that he and the rest of my family gave me to pursue it that helped me decide to go.

Sharon Murphree poses next to a face carved by Michelangelo in Florence, Italy


What was the process for applying to study abroad?

Well, there was a list of requirements to meet to be able to apply, such as a minimum GPA. There was also a to-do list such as an essay, letters of recommendation from two faculty members, financial proof, etc.

Where did you decide to go?

I first looked at the options available and researched current events and cultural changes taking place in those countries and figured out where to go based on that research. I decided to go to Florence, Italy because of the history, art, and ease of travel around the country not to mention the research I did on the culture which led to my proposed project for the semester.

“We lived in a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment next to the Santa Maria Novella Church and Piazza. It was originally an old palace that had been converted to apartments.”

How did you prepare for your semester overseas?

Once I was selected for the Florence honors program, I followed up on the research I did prior to being selected. I began contacting Italian businesses with very little success. Something I learned after being in Italy for a while is that they don’t do email much at all. I also wrote an introduction and explanation of my main project that I was going to be working on and translated it to Italian, then printed it on postcards to hand out so that if I had difficulty with the language barrier, I could still communicate what I was trying to achieve.

Arno River, Florence, Italy, photo by Sharon 

What was the living situation like in Italy?

Three students from MCAD were selected for Italy. We had a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment next to the Santa Maria Novella Church and Piazza and about four minutes from the train/bus station. It had a small kitchen with the essentials that we needed to function, such as a refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, oven, and microwave. It was originally an old palace that had been converted to apartments sometime. Based on the design, I'd say in the 1920's or maybe even earlier. We had a doorman named Carmine who spoke no English but was a whiz at Google Translate. He helped take care of things such as packages and letters being delivered from home and calibrating the old cage-style, two-person-capacity elevator when we pushed buttons that we shouldn’t have, causing it to stop between floors. He also turned his head when all three of us American students would pile in together.

Sometimes we would cook meals at home and all eat together in the dining room and talk about our projects and adventures we had taken or were planning.

What was one thing you packed that you didn't need, and what was one thing you didn't pack but definitely needed?

I packed a hair dryer that I didn’t use at all. There was one in the apartment that was already wired for the European voltage, so I didn’t need an adapter. I also never used my tripod because I had to walk everywhere and all the photo equipment made it cumbersome.

The item I didn’t pack but needed was a coffee maker. All I could find in Florence was a mocha maker, a strange metal thing that made espresso. American coffee makers were almost impossible to find in Florence and when I did find one, they were expensive. €45–€55 ($50–$60 in U.S. currency) for a tiny four-cup coffee maker that would normally cost $10 or $20.00 in the States. I stopped by a store one day that I passed on the way to class each morning, and the nice strong Italian-accented English-speaking gentleman running the store told me he had an American coffee maker he could sell me, but it was at his other store. He asked me to wait while he went to get it. He was the only one running the shop so he locked the door, reminded me yet again to wait and that he would be back in five minutes. He hopped on his bike and rode off. That’s a strange custom that you don’t experience in the U.S. He ended up being gone for longer than five minutes, but eventually he came back with a package in the basket of his bicycle, unlocked the store, and I followed him inside. He presented me with an American coffee maker, and announced it would cost me €50. But after a bit of bartering, we agreed on €40 and he threw in a pack of coffee, filters, and sugar.

“I thought, ‘Hmmm, sculpture classes at the school started by Michelangelo? How bad could that be?’”

What was a typical day like for you?

Typical days changed depending on where my roommates and I  were in the semester. The first six weeks we attended language classes five days a week. Mornings were structured. Breakfast for me was fruit, cheese, and coffee. We walked to class together at 8:30 a.m. and walked home together at 12:15 p.m. Some days we would go our separate ways. I might eat lunch at a small cafe for a quick sandwich or try a different pasta dish or I would go to the market or stop in a museum. Most of the museums were free with our student ID. In the afternoon, I would either do the homework for that day, or head out with my camera to explore. If it was cold and rainy, I would watch people on the street below from the fifth-floor apartment and if I saw something interesting, I would photograph it. By 2:00 p.m., my family back home was waking up to head to work or school for the day, so I might get a skype call in to them. 

View from Sharon's apartment in Florence

After language classes ended, we started school at the Accademia Di Belle Arti. I had decided, based on the description of the class, to take Digital Photography from one of the professors that could understand English and would be easy to communicate with. I thought it would be great to compare to photography classes at MCAD. On the first day of class, I found a spot in a ladder-back chair with a caning seat in a dimly lit room surrounded by various marble sculptures and frescos. At the front of the class, there was an unusually large table resembling the table in Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper. I introduced myself to the professor and he said I was probably too advanced for this class but I could stay and decide for myself. After fifteen minutes of Italian lecture that was difficult to hear because of the massive height of the ceilings, I realized it wasn't a studio class, but a lecture class! I quietly left and never looked back. I met with the secretary of the school, Julia, and told her my situation. She put me in touch with two other professors. One was teaching anatomy and the other sculpture. I thought, "Hmmm, sculpture classes at the school started by Michelangelo? How bad could that be?"

Sharon (left) with her professor Fabrizio Lucchesi

I met with professor Fabrizio Lucchesi who taught ceramics classes on Thursdays and Fridays. He listened to me talk about my independent photography project and structured a ceramics project that would be a good fit. Aside from class time, Saturdays through Wednesdays were my free time to take trips and explore. 

What project did you work on while abroad?

I had one major project that I worked on in Italy. I call it My Family Business. This was my proposal that I presented to the panel at MCAD who selected me to study abroad. I had researched current situations in Italy and found a couple articles discussing millennials, and how they were abandoning their families and the traditional family businesses in Italy to follow their own dreams, leaving their parents to run the businesses on their own with no retirement in sight. What I discovered while working on that project was interesting and exciting. Everyone will have to wait until the spring study abroad exhibition to see how it turned out! (Check out last year's study abroad exhibition.)

Photograph from Sharon's project, My Family Business

Before going to Italy I talked with my advisor, Rik Sferra, about other projects I could do there. He told me that I probably wouldn’t know what those other projects would be until I got there and that is exactly what happened. One day while I was out exploring, I witnessed a vain middle-aged Italian man stop at one of the million Vespas parked around the city and check his hair in the side mirror. After he walked away, I looked in the mirror to see just how good the reflection was. What I discovered was the scenery behind me. I began photographing the reflections in the Vespa mirrors, calling this the Vespa Mirror project.

Photograph from Sharon's Vespa Mirror project

I still needed a couple more projects to work on besides these two. So I walked everywhere—sometimes I walked as much as eleven miles in one day—looking for inspiration. I sat on a curb to take a break and was amazed at all the shoes and feet I saw walk past in just a few minutes. That’s when I incorporated film into my work. I placed my camera around at mid-shin height and filmed shins and feet as they walked by, dubbing this project as my Walking.

In regards to my final project, Bill Viola, Electric Renaissance was showing at the Strozzi. The Strozzi is a very cool Renaissance building with an open courtyard in the middle and exhibition halls around that. (If you ever have the chance to see this show or any of his work, you should.) Essentially, it was great people watching. I won't spoil the rest by telling you what happens but it inspired my last independent project in Florence. It partners with my "Walking" project and it captures people as they are unaware they are being photographed while going about their day. Again, you will have to wait until the study abroad exhibition in the spring. I’m not sure what I am calling this project, but I'm leaning toward Simple Minds.

A sneak peek at Sharon's project Simple Minds 

Do you have a favorite day or moment from your trip? 

I went to visit the Santa Croce Church, where Michelangelo was buried. The tomb was beautiful and I became emotional just being there. He is one of my heroes.

Michelangelo's tomb in Italy

I also really enjoyed the street musicians. I became friends with some of them. I would sit and relax on a stone wall next to the sidewalk and just listen and watch. If you are walking around town and you come across a musician, by the time you walk by and they are no longer in earshot, you will happen upon another one. It is a great way to relax.

A street musician in Florence, Italy 

Is there anything you would do differently, given the chance?

I would plan more small side trips, and spend more time with Virginia, our advisor in Florence. And I would have spent more time at the Accademia with my professor, the Fabulous Fabrizio, working on other ceramic projects instead of just the one I made to go with my photography project. 

Rainy street in Florence, Italy


Thank you Sharon, I can't wait to see all of your projects in the spring!