Reentry

I  just woke up in my own bed for the first time in a month . Yesterday morning, up at 3 a.m., I drove through the French countryside, village after village, on the slowest route I could find to the airport. The spectacular full moon hovered all the way.  I noticed a while back that if I drove in the country with my windows down I could hear cricket sounds the whole time.

This morning in North Carolina, I drove to the grocery near dawn so I could have milk for my coffee.  Over and over I have forgotten I’m not driving a manual transmission, romping the brake like it might be the clutch.  My Honda seems so doleful  after the fun of rolling over hills in a  peppy little rented five speed.  Leaving the grocery store, I  saw a clerk arriving for work. Without thinking, I lapsed into appropriate behavior for France, where one never encounters anyone in public without acknowledging them with a greeting.  “Good morning” I said.    She smiled, I think with a little touch of surprise, and said the same to me.

In the night I woke up  and the moonlight filtering through the trees cast patches of glow on the floor and walls, and half asleep, it registered on me as beautiful– as the moonlight I’d left.

The yard is green from the rains I missed.  The roses  are in full bloom from the fertilizer I said goodybye with.  Today there’s the gentle cloudy light that comes before a rain.

I walked over to Grier and Kim’s farm to say hello, and they gave me a dozen eggs from their hens, and sent me to pick all the fresh asparagus I wanted from their beds, just  like an early  morning trip to a French farmer’s market.

All morning there have been a brood of wild turkeys grazing in the pasture, right under my nose. And I set the fountains to bubbling next to the outdoor table.  It’s every bit as magical as the view I left behind.

 

Among the piles of bills and letters I came home to, there was a postcard from a dear friend.  It said “She dreams in perfect French”.  I do, sometimes, when I’m around it all day, but it is far from perfect.  Sometimes it’s just a voice speaking nonsense sounds that echo the intonations and rhythms of French speech.  Sometimes it is the odd word or phrase, for no particular reason, like an echo in my dreams, ringing over and over in a kind of random rhythm.

It was a rough ride home, hauling six new paintings, and all my tools and the treasures I found, down concourses, across parking lots, through long lines.  But the actual soul transition  from countryside paradise to countryside paradise is not so radical.  In both places there are thorns attached to every single rose.  In both places there’s  beauty enough to break your heart.

 

Spring Planting

A week from today I’ll be trapped in the airless confines of multiple airports and planes working my long slow way back home. I’m feeling the things one feels at the conclusion of a residency, the end of a journey. I noticed, at other less exotic residencies, how the artists bond, share their stories, thrash through opinions about art, and ideas about the making of it. As the door begins to close on that magic space, it seems one first withdraws emotionally, then physically. There’s a hole in the shape of that person when they are gone. It’s as painful for the people who stay behind as it is for the person leaving.

 

I’ve started the process of withdrawal early to protect my soul a little. I’m organizing my piles of receipts, cramming in a few last destinations, and spending 14 hour days in the studio. Finally the painting is flying. After a halting awkward beginning wrapped in jet lag and mental fog I’m deep in. I knew I didn’t want to paint Quaint France. France is so mellowed out and smoothed over with thousands of years of habitation, so developed in its way of being. I was looking for something wild— “sauvage”— underneath all the culture I so love to photograph and study. It’s finally coming clear to me. The last paintings are the best paintings. They revolve around botany— quirky juxtapositions nature allows for here, and maybe only here.

In college I signed up for Botany just because I was obsessed with botanical illustration. I nearly flunked Botany, but I got to stare at the illustrations for a whole semester. Part of what I loved was their dispassionate precision. Sometimes it’s enough to just tell the truth about a thing, truth being stranger than fiction.

 

These days there’s a certain amount of guilt in my thoughts— anxiety about the things I didn’t go see, the museums I skipped. Instead I find myself returning over and over to the supermarket, like a kind of tiny personal ritual. For me, it’s become a microcosm of middle class French daily life.

I like to see what the “specials” are, what is considered ordinary in the life of these people—la vie quotidienne.

I like to observe behaviors . Yesterday a woman insisted I go ahead of her in line at the checkout. It sparked a tiny conversation and a moment of goodwill that I treasured.

Often, after a long day of moving a paintbrush, I will travel many kilometers on the country roads above the village. It’s fun to drive my tiny car. There’s no traffic and I get to see the swell and sinking of the land, the perfection of the spring plowing, the tidiness of the farmhouses and the occasional astonishing ancient church or ruin.

And there is the botany. I have watched those fields first being plowed, then harrowed, and now they have begun to sprout.

A new friend stopped by for a studio visit yesterday. We were talking about how an artist’s work changes over time. How it’s hard to pin it down because it’s always in flux. He told me he’d gone to hear a famous jazz group from the 60’s perform in the 80’s. They’d played the same way and the same things they’d played 20 years before. It was just as he expected it to be. Then, he went to hear Miles Davis play. He said Miles stood with his back to the audience and launched into a barrage of audacious improvisation that was very difficult to take in. He told me how that was, to him, the perfect way to understand the mental wanderings and growth of an artist. I agreed, explaining that sometimes I am doing things I’m not sophisticated enough to understand, and it takes me a stretch of time to wrap my mind around my own ideas. The most uncomfortable, detested paintings are often the fields where the seeds of newness are just beginning to sprout.

Visiting the Deep Past

Finally, I have managed to shrug off the strangeness. I have found a level of ease with everything from starting a new painting to driving a different car. Yesterday I explored outside my circle of familiarity, traveling to a village about 10 km away to see a storied chapel, and really, to visit another time altogether. We drove on looping rhythmical roads over gentle hills, surrounded by nothing but agriculture.

Lachapelle was the destination, with only about 100 inhabitants. Its centerpiece is a thousand year old chateau Templar. Beside it sits a tiny Baroque chapel built in the 18th century, inspired by an Italian opera house. Its sponsor hired an ébaniste who spent many years creating the tiny church adorned with panels and pilasters, gilded and faux marbled.

There were large panels depicting scenes from the Bible and an enormous lecturn with carved eagles to hold the huge communal hymnal.

 

There was a guide who spoke only French, so I struggled to understand the complicated history of this jewel-like chapel. Women and children were seated on the ground floor in those days, and there were diminutive provincial rush-seat chairs that converted to kneelers for each of them. Some had initials from the original supplicants written with brass nail heads.

Men stood in the balcony. There was a stark difference between the high style of the chapel itself, and the beamed and rustic balconies in the rear.

Our visit was initiated by friends of Moulin à Nef, who live nearby. They are also friends of the current maître of the chateau.  He appeared in the church during our visit, and invited us to see the oldest part of his chateau.

The word “chateau” is French for “castle” and in most cases, in ancient times, that meant a fortified position on top of a hill where one could be protected from invasion. Vincent’s chateau surveys all the countryside for miles around. Because the land below is so valuable for agriculture, there are no intrusions from commerce or infrastructure. Just curving roads among hundreds of fields in cultivation, a few old trees, some tile roofed farm structures, and the sky. The one utility line is strung between weathered and knotted grey tree trunk poles with no particular attempt at uniformity.

It was a fine spring day and the village was spangled with blooming roses, irises and wisteria. The magic of it all was feeling as though we were having the same experience one might have had in that same place a thousand years ago.

The chateau’s owner, a retired pilot, explained to us that he’d persuaded his wife to allow him to chip away at an area of the wall in the entrance hall because he thought there might be something interesting in back of it. He, in fact, uncovered a thousand year old massive fireplace. He opened up another wall and discovered a kind of ancient sink where vegetables might have been washed— a stone basin that drained through a hole in the wall to the outside.

He showed us a favorite antique find— an elaborate turntable he’d found in Brittany, asking us what we thought it might have been intended for. Elaborate and polychromed, there was a group of cherubs carved into its ceiling. He explained that it had been installed in the outer wall of a convent, with a bell alongside it. If a woman gave birth to a child out of wedlock the penalty would have been death. It was designed so a woman might have rung the bell, placed the infant inside under the watchful eyes of the carved and painted cherubs, and then turned it, delivering her baby to the nuns within, the woman being neither seen nor recognized.

We ended our day on the terrace of our friends’ remodeled farmhouse. A large and rambling structure, their home was built long ago to fit its environment and serve practical purposes. It is now the warm place where they gather friends and family together. Besides the excellent company, amazing food, the view of miles and miles of farmland, and a stunning sunset, I was most captivated by the exposed ages-old beams and their irregular and quirky arrangement.

They were like large abstract sculptures coming out of the ceiling. When gaps developed, someone hundreds of years ago had created a patch to reconnect the beam to its load.

It reminded me, exactly, of the ways Charles had patched the beams in my own barn. It seems as though a carpenter’s practical wisdom is timeless and universal, passed in some mute fashion across continents, from century to century.

Wood Smoke and Roses

 

Twice today I had to climb the steep hill up into the village to the little grocery.  It was my night to cook supper.   At lunchtime I went up to finish my shopping, and then, when I poured my first glass of rosé at 5:00 and started cooking, I realized I had no butter, so I had to walk back.  The distance from our kitchen to the grocery store is the same as the distance from my kitchen back home to the backside of my farm.  Round trip, one mile.  The big difference is that hill.

 

On both trips I admired the flowers blooming everywhere.  There were parrot tulips in one garden, wisteria cascading over a doorway.  Another garden had flesh and fire colored roses. There was a shrub with thousands of bright blue blossoms, and a lilac bush in full glory.  On the five o’clock trip there was smoke rising from chimneys as the chill of evening descended.  All week the tiny airborne seeds of some plant have filled the afternoon air, lit by the slanting light.  They are everywhere.  At first I thought they were dandelion seeds, but on examination realized they were something fuzzier and more cotton-like.  When you look up at the sky, they are always there, like ethereal sprites flying around, looking for some new place to light.

 

At the grocery, the brothers who are cashiers speak impeccable idiomatic English, but I speak French to them, and ask them to correct me.  When I am corrected, I am more likely to learn the right expression.  My French teachers are so good– they know how to make it really clear.  They pantomime the meanings of words for me so they become unforgettable.  The woman at the art supply store demonstrated that the word  “terminé” as we used it, meant to be dead, not ” finished”, by showing her head being severed  by an imaginary knife.  Gesturing graphically at her body, she explained uses of the verb “to be”.  My grocery store teachers showed me,  pantomiming sleep, that I shouldn’t cook dinner in the “nuit”(night).  I needed to cook it in the “soir” (evening) instead.

The ingredients for dinner were amazing.  I roasted a gigantic yellow skinned hen, along with its innards, covering them all with fresh herbs.  From the jus I made a gravy like my grandmother used to make, with bits of hardboiled egg, celery, and the gizzard, heart and liver chopped fine.  The gravy went over whipped potatoes flavored with scallions and morels.  There was sauteed celeriac and a green salad.  For dessert I made an Alsatian bread pudding using apples and pears and my stale hazelnut bread.  And it all started with a duck paté and a rosé, and finished with several really fine bottles of Bordeaux.

Last Sunday I went to Easter mass at the Gothic cathedral in the nearest town.  All the text was printed in a program and because I knew the liturgy in English it was easy to understand the French.  Driving to mass, we passed a horde of Boy Scouts, returning from a campout, with backpacks and sleeping rolls on their backs.  By the time we got seated in church, they began to reappear as altar boys and congregants.  I loved the kind of gangly, familiar way they handled the candles and censers. A large group of them took seats all together beside us.  I’m not Catholic, so the chilly holy water being freely slung by the priest came as a tiny shock. Incense filled the air. I stood under the ancient vaults and absorbed it all as something intensely French, part of a long tradition of the spirit.

Moulin à Nef is on the Pilgrim Trail to Santiago de Compostela.  Every day pilgrims walk by our windows, or rest in the park between the studio and the river.  They walk, as those Boy Scouts walked, toward some spiritual destination.   They walk, as I walk up that long hard hill to the grocery, to learn some hitherto unknown thing, to fill in some missing piece, drinking in, along the way,  France, her roses and wood smoke.

 

Good Food

Thursday nights in this little French village, the old hotel that clings to a precipice overlooking everything else plays host to a tiny organic market in the lobby. A couple of farmers sell their home grown carrots, cauliflowers, mushrooms and homemade breads. It’s on the honor system and you do the math. Meanwhile, on the terrace the hotel conducts  tapas night with local wines.

We  picked a table on the end of the terrace, and turned our backs on the setting sun, after filling our bags with homegrown vegetables. We had the remarkable tapas and the lovely soft wines to go with them. I watched a troop of Boy Scouts walk down the street below—every one a beautiful child.

The sun had been hot at midday and it seemed the whole village, including me, had been out absorbing it. The Boy Scouts all had rosey cheeks to show for it. A little girl bounced up to our table, playing some game of chase and said her hellos to me— “bonjour madame”, with the flawless formality she’d been taught. When we turned around we were shocked to see the whole village behind us on the terrace enjoying all the same things. We ambled home through the old marketplace, slowly descending to the riverfront where our studios are.

 

 

The night after, I made a soup of the shiitakes I’d bought. Every time I’ve prepared something from the local market the taste of the soil trapped in the vegetables astounds me. The simplest carrot is like no other carrot. I made a roux and added the carrots and spring onions, saving the shiitakes for last. We cooked some sausages that had been beautifully crafted, and served them with some freshly dug potatoes mixed with creme fraîche, and put together a salad from the spring lettuces we found in the market. There was rosé to start, and a fine old Bordeaux to end. We sat outside in the ambivalent air— not sure if it wanted to be warm or cold. We let the wines warm us, and had the most remarkable night. It was one of those nights when your judgement is clouded by your consumption, but also one of those nights you want to remember forever.

Somewhere before dawn each day, my farmer genes wake me up with the local rooster. I love that the air is always full of two sounds— that rooster, and a mourning dove. There’s the chalk scrape rooster sound and the warm come-hither dove. In the sky, in the dark, there is a close-to-full waning moon and Jupiter. There’s a down comforter, and those great casement windows without screens that are wonderful to fling open in the middle of the night. Never one to sleep in, I find I could hang out under that comforter for a very long time, only lured out to drink some espresso.

 

This morning I barely made it out of bed in time to greet my luggage which finally arrived five days after I did. It was a race to do what was most important first— assemble a stretcher, and put together a canvas, gesso it, and set to work on the painting that had been hanging out in my brain for several days. I even ignored the costume change that was long overdue, and the luxurious shower with my actual toiletries, until I felt I had some work underway. Now it’s midnight and I can’t pry myself out of the studio. Here’s to dreaming up some time-stretchers to make this moment last.

Mining in France

 

 

Staring at a stucco wall struck by sunlight, covered in vines, I find myself beside a river, beneath a hill, in the agricultural belly of France. It’s a rare opportunity to briefly live and work in this warm light, surrounded by a thousand kinds of patina. For a month I have a residency at Moulin à Nef in Auvillar. It is the French outpost of the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. VCCA is one of the midwives who delivered me into my current state as an artist. The opportunity to live and work in their community for the first time was a watershed. I am hoping that Moulin à Nef rolls over me in as powerful a way.

 

My studio is tall and wide with 6 foot windows and mottled walls stained a pale jade. I have suffered all the vagaries of travel in the last five days with canceled flights, lost luggage and bad rental car contracts. The first thing I plugged into an outlet blew a fuse and then I turned around and slipped on a throw rug. Five days after leaving home, I’m still wearing the same outfit, and trying to figure out how to be an artist in the absence of my materials. Somewhere in Boston, or maybe Madrid, there is a hard shell golf case filled with stretcher bars and canvas, and every color of the rainbow. And I am here, disjointed as though missing my beloved. Aimless and lost.

 

My son challenged me, upon saying goodbye, to pretend I was on Mars— to loose all the familiar bonds, including, he said, the bond to the self I know. I’m beginning to think that there is some divine plan at work to divorce me from my supplies and plunge me into some deeper mining. Yesterday I prowled the Super Marché for kids’ art supplies and came out with some too pale, too tiny markers and pencils. I spent the afternoon by the river making marks, pushing the inadequate materials to speak. It was a challenging and stimulating exercise with a kind of odd, fresh success.

My first night here, we residents and the directors enjoyed a two hour dinner talking about our lives as artists. I said something about how handy it can be to be creative, and how, as a teacher in secondary school, I discovered there was no budget for supplies so I taught my students to paint using discarded house paint donated by Lowes, on pieces of packing cardboard. The directors were in the midst of installing Ikea cabinets in a pantry, and set the packing cardboard aside to be recycled. I asked if I might have it to work with.

In the early hours of the morning I had a vivid dream. Long and elaborate, and completely remembered, it bore powerful images of home. Someone from my past came for a visit and spent the night, sleeping bolt upright in an armchair. In the studio that dream is feeling very close to the bone, and is being expressed in cardboard.

 

My favorite line, in all the poetry I have ever read, may be the line from Mary Oliver, “You do not have to be good.” Oh, really? What a relief. Words to live by.

As the first born southern daughter of a first born southern daughter going back seven generations of first born daughters, I have some deeply embedded notions about how good I must always be. So today, I revolt and cut cardboard at random, allow that it does not have to be good. If I am lucky I can reach inside and pull forward the mysteries of that dream.

Time out of time

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It’s been a daydream of mine for a long time– to find a little house to rent in France and stay there long enough to become chummy with the butcher. This was the year I finally did it.  I rented a cottage on the grounds of the restored 15th century Chateau de Lerse in the southwestern region called the Charente.   Though I thought I knew what to expect I did not know how truly rural and agriculturally focused France could be.

I believe the grounds of the chateau were the quietest place I have ever been.  The fine old castle sits on a farm of around 125 hectares and is surrounded by miles and miles of farms, some as large as 10,000 hectares.  It is a region of vineyards grown for cognac, as well as sunflowers, and feed corn.  They appear in fields like a patchwork quilt thrown over a sleeping woman, rolling hills and gentle valleys, all calm under a flawless blue sky.  The air is clean and the colors crisp and intense.  At night every star is visible.

Along with the cottage came two lovely friendships with the kind and charming couple who manage the farm: Yveline, its chef and household manager, and Pascal, its farm and grounds manager, whose stone house is next to the gîte. When the chateau was empty of guests Yveline gave us a tour.  It has been transformed from a ruin with rain falling onto its floors, into a comfortable and breathtaking home of baronial proportions.  Even the round stone pigeon house has been converted to be an enchanted little dwelling.

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My temporary home is attached to a 500 year old stone barn with post and beam supports created from enormous whole trees, trunk and limb. I was so drawn to its venerable construction, its heavy terra cotta roof with hundreds of years of patina, its slope and undulation, that it became the subject for a little painting.

barn

When I arrived at the gîte I opened the tall windows in my bedroom, with its two foot thick stone walls, and left them open for two weeks.  And every night a dome of stars and the smear of the Milky Way appeared overhead.   I would, every night, prop my head on the stone wall and look at Mercury and Venus and count my blessings. When I woke, from the vantage point of my bed, I could see the chateau’s ancient tower rosy in the daybreak.  The silence and isolation of the Chateau de Lerse was so complete that I could hear the tires of a car contact the asphalt of the road two miles away.  There were no frogs or crickets, and often little birdsong other than the occasional dove.  There were locks on the doors but no one ever used them or mentioned a key.

We arrived in the area late one evening and fearful we’d not have anything to eat when breakfast arrived, we stopped in a village nearby to pick up a few provisions.  The only place open was a funky little ill-stocked convenience store cum florist shop called Chez Fatima.  We picked up a few things, including a bottle of wine to have once we arrived.  We didn’t think much about it, just grabbed some snacks and a 6 euro bottle.  Later that night we opened it and were shocked that it was an absolutely wonderful eleven year old Bordeaux.  Thus began our romance with the region’s offerings.

We fell in love with the local cognac distillery which is housed in a fine old chateau, having once been the home of the French writer, Alfred de Vigny.  It is now a family business that is run cordially and casually by three generations who invite the wanderer to visit their small museum in the chateau, devoted to the life and writings of de Vigny, and to sample all their fine products, including a generous pour of their 25 year old cognac.  If I’d waited 25 years for something to come to fruition I doubt I would feel disposed to sharing it with every passerby.  But they do, and we became loyal customers after that visit.

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Every day we would strike out in a different direction, looking for the local farmers market wherever it happened to be that day. We’d bring back the bounty to cook in our cozy kitchen.  At night we dined outdoors in our stone-walled terrace.  Rabbit with prunes, turnip and potato purée flavored with duck fat, foie gras, locally made sausages grilled over oak, crusty bread, fresh oysters all come to mind.  Pascal brought us strawberries he’d grown, a cultivar developed from the wild local berries. Another day he brought us an enormous box of pink fleshed peaches from the little orchard.  From that there were oak grilled pork medallions with a pear-peach reduction.

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One memorable night we went to a restaurant in a tiny village nearby that had been recommended by a native.  We were the only people there who were not French.  The place was filled with burly sunburned French famers and their wives, all of whom received a hug from the proprietor/chef, who wore a black tee shirt and a hat like a hot dog stand man. The placemats and napkins were paper, and the food was elevated.  I was in love with the total simplicity of  the place contrasted with the refinement of the food.

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Every day we would visit one or several of the 400 small village churches in this region, all Romanesque in origin, c.1100, and many modernized in Gothic times.  When we could look inside we marveled at the pure acoustics, the haunting echoes, the traces of wall painting, the vaulted or beamed ceilings, the deeply spiritual austerity.  We stopped at every one to notice out front the ever-present memorials to the boys lost in World War I, each and every one of their names carved in stone .  Hundreds and hundreds of names. I try to imagine the grief of a mother country whose beautiful boys were cut down, their strong arms not tossing hay, laying stones, bringing harvests, but instead guarding, protecting, in the way of men of all times.

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It was a visit rich with images.  I think back to the tiny Romanesque church with the towering ancient ladder aimed at the belfry but looking more like it was bent on reaching heaven, built of oak, twisted and crooked–organically rising from the stone floor.  I think of the tiny shells mixed in with the stones on the ground to remind one of this place’s ancient status as seabed,  the slope and pitch of rock buildings and terra cotta roofs, beamed underpinnings slowly and gracefully accepting the cant of that weight, developing their own rhythm.  Wine bottles with a touch of mold in the tasting and dust on the bottles.  Blackberries growing in huge clusters, the patent leather shiny ones sweet as sugar.  Pollen floating on the farm pond, or mist rising off of it early in the morning.  The sound of friends’ laughter.  Stone walls holding heat, and holding silence. Pascal watering the vegetable garden with an arc of spray in the afternoon light.  Some hours summer hot and some spicy autumn cold.  A whole farm community gathered together around the town square on a Saturday afternoon to play boules.  Four matches going on at once.

But I always come back to the faces of the people I met. The French do not ignore people. They acknowledge them, universally, as a cultural norm. It is a kind of built in civility that is noticeable to an American accustomed to ignoring and being ignored. So among my loveliest images from my visit are the faces, the eye contact and greeting of a couple of 12 year old boys bicycling by me on the street, the eyes and smile of the lady at the charcuterie, the concerned faces of people trying to give me directions, the many faces I passed who looked at me and acknowledged that I existed, for that moment, in their world.

The Cinderella Experience

Rodin

I’m just home from a true Cinderella week in Paris.  I love that metaphor because I’m literally cleaning the ashes out of the woodstove one day and sitting under 15 chandeliers in Paris having tea, the next.  My son Gordon had an exhibition which opened in Paris last week and I made the rash decision to take a week away from my students and be there.  Turns out it was a completely sound and life-expanding decision.  Everything conspired to make it magical and nourishing.

There was time to joke around with my son, and share the discoveries that are around every corner in such an amazing city.  There were many kind and considerate people to meet and be touched by.  And there was Paris.  It was hazy, and moody with clouds a lot of the time.  When the sun shone it had the long shadowed slant of fall.  There were lacquered doors and polished brasses.  There were pinks and golds against shining blacks, and the lovely flavors of herbs and cheeses.  It was artful and alive.

Using the Metro is fantastic for looking at people, and studying a population–the handbag of the working woman, the  young mother’s scarf, the cut of the career man’s jacket, the immigrant family’s jewelry, the shopping bags carried by the old gentleman, the curious, laughing face of the little one in the stroller.  One Metro station which I had the good fortune to land in twice had a seven piece gypsy band performing with edgy passion.  If I concentrate I can still hear it, and its powerful echoes.

We discovered a little restaurant in the neighborhood of our b&b that was remarkable.  We appeared there one night without a reservation and the proprietor found us a corner.  It was apparently a much touted place because another American couple told us they had traveled from the opposite side of Paris to dine there.  The proprietor took a pity on us when my fairly competent restaurant French failed us– the menu was that exotic. He came to our aid by extravagantly pantomiming the contents of all the dishes for us– which ranged from veal brain to skate.  We quickly fell under Giles’ spell and when we left we were all kissed goodbye.  Gordon went back again to invite him to the exhibition, and then spent his last night in Paris dining with Giles again.  We may have to go back to Paris just to see Giles whose dark eyes, booming voice and theatrical love of his business made him totally irresistible.

So, yes, we ate.  But we also went to museums.  I think I counted seven that I went to, as well as Versailles.  It was at a strange juncture in my career as an artist, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that it was planned this way by the spirit guardians of my work.  I had just emptied myself of my work and set forth to discover my future when I found myself in Paris with a museum pass.   Today, I came across  a wonderful summation in Traveler magazine, in an article by Andre Aciman: “Once again, through an unforeseen ascent of a hill, I’ve stumbled upon something perhaps far better than what I came looking for.  I find myself suspecting that the humbling, intruisive hand of Providence is arranging events which couldn’t seem more random.  I like the idea of a design behind my desulatory wanderings around Bordighera.  I like thinking that perhaps this is how we should always travel, without foresight or answers, adventitiously, with faith as our compass.”

What did I find?  Exquisite and mythical relationships between human figures in the Musee Rodin;  sculptures from New Guinea that towered over me and overwhelmed me with their mysticism and power;  a modest piece by Eva Hesse that made me think seriously about tapping into my desire to make sculptures.  And some huge panels painted by Vuillard, of domestic scenes, that held me in their grip by virtue of their scale and their charming oddness–more eccentric than I’v e come to expect from him.  Brancusi’s recreated studio made me hungry to get back to my tools.  Gauguin’s bas reliefs stopped me in my tracks.  Oddly, much of what was most compelling to me was three dimensional.  I will watch with interest to see what spins itself from my hands and mind after that intense week of schooling.  I hope it bears an echo of  moody, rich, and ordered Paris.

My Old Friend

Call me corny and predictable, but I’m a huge devotee of Monet.  I know, there are a thousand bathrooms in a five mile radius where a Monet poster hangs.  I know.  But I fell in love at 13, and I never recovered.

My parents took me to NYC that summer.  We went to the Met.  The way I remember it, and the way I describe it to my 14, 15 and 16  year old students is:  coming around a corner in the museum, my eyes glazed over from Masterpieces,  I saw my first live Monet.  All my synapses fired.  I went into shock.  The way I remember it, it was a small painting, with color like a bucket of jewels.  I’d never seen color act as a participant in a painting like that before.  That was what it was ABOUT.

I know– color is the easiest way into  a work of art.  Everyone, except for possibly the color blind, can be touched by color, regardless of their insensitivity to the other aspects of a work.  But, in my soul, I am a colorist, and that little painting was screaming in my language.

On my last trip to France, five years ago, I had some pilgrimage duties planned.  I went way out of my way to visit Giverny.  And I planned to end the trip at L’Orangerie.  I was devastated to discover that the restoration of L’Orangerie was still ongoing and it was closed.  So, on this trip to France, I set aside one afternoon to make up for that missed opportunity.  I had seen isolated pieces of Les Nymphaes at various museums all over the world, and I’d seen studies for them.  But I had never seen them as Monet intended them to be seen,  all together.

I felt a real rush of empathy when I saw the sign at the mouth of the gallery  “Silence”.  Indeed.  I wanted to allow my soul to drop down into wordlessness and to float into this work.  Nobody else seemed to have that impulse, however.  I kept wishing I had a special pass to come after hours and stand in that space alone, and allow it to subsume my field of vision and sweep me up.  It had to do that in spite of elbows and voices and cameras and other folks with a more relaxed interest.

Over the years I’ve read a lot about this particular work– the work of Monet that I’m most interested in.  I’ve read that it moves toward abstraction possibly because he was quite elderly and his vision was failing.  But seeing  the ensemble live I was shocked at  the explosiveness of the abstraction.   In my journal I wrote that they were “more wildly and vigorously abstract than I’d expected– as violently flung down as a Pollock or a de Kooning .”  They had a topography that surprised me as well.  Encrusted and multi-layered.  Thought and rethought.  I took photographs of abstract details.  But at a distance the work locked together like the dials on a safe.  They were definitely not the work of an artist whose vision had failed.  They were infintely sure-footed and wise.

I sat down and found myself settling deeply into the trunk of  a reflected willow tree.  It held me for an inexplicably long time– not billiantly colored, simply a dark textured vertical.  It was sinewy, rope-like, male and archetypal.  There was more in this shrine to nature and art than I had expected .

How nice to still find surprises in one of my oldest relationships.