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.