By popular demand, I am reposting my "Reality Of An Art Residency" journal from my last month in France as one continuous post. There will be a postscript when I have recovered from jet lag and croissant withdrawal. This is a pic taken from the reception evening with the two paintings of mine chosen for the Yvonne Jean-Haffen museum, including a portrait of her I presented to them.
REALITY OF AN ARTIST RESIDENCY:
Dinan, France. October 1st, to October 28.
Arrive via Paris to Renne. Pick up car hire in Renne but unfortunately no bags arrive. All my carefully thought-out tightly packed panels and paints that I will need this month are in this bag so a bit of a worry. We are told to return at 9pm or wait until the next afternoon. Groan. Always travel with a spare pare of underwear – and paints. Forget airline restrictions. I also had an exercise band confiscated at French security who made a great show of how I might strangle the pilot with it. Goodness sakes. Guess those other pilots on my other flights got lucky.
We arrive at the studio house in the ancient chocolate box port of Dinan at our appointed time, pre-arranged by carefully written/translated emails from the US. This part of the arrangements had been vague and I am worried about getting the key. I called the numbers I had been given, no reply. We are left sitting in our rented car and I am left wondering why there couldn’t have been a more definite ‘meet and greet’ after all these emails and travel from afar. I call again. I find the wife of the person I was supposed to call is now coming to meet me in half an hour. She is running errands in twon now. Phew, at least I have made contact! With someone!
The small studio house looks locked up and oddly abandoned. White wood shutters bolted closed. We learn the Yvonne Jean-Haffen museum attached to the house, that I will be donating a painting to at my month’s end, closed yesterday for the winter season. I was obviously a day short of being given a peak high season slot for the residency! Ah well…fewer crowds to worry about. I can see in the summer this place is probably more packed than a sardine can.
In all honesty, I had done my research on the house/residency starting months ago hunting down people from the Internet who had done this trip and making personal phone calls to strangers. It was well worth the effort. People were very kind to me sharing detailed information, one artist in particular really made it possible for me go get here. Thank you C.H.! You know who your are.
I had heard different accounts about the set-up, from all around ‘fantastic’ to the house being very basic. I felt I was prepared either way and my research had given me a much needed reality check with my expectations low and not romantic rosy. I am such a romantic it hurts!
So this chic French lady arrives with the house key after waiting about half an hour, younger and prettier than I was expecting and all I could think of was “OK..here we go”. She was polite but businesslike. She speaks no English. I tell her my French is poor. Please speak slowly. She seems to speak faster. The only thing I really seem to understand is that the bidet doesn’t work. Darn it. I like those things. So French. As for the rest of the house, how the heating works, hot water, shower, how I return the key at the end of my stay, the reception and presentation of my donated painting to the museum at the end, ah, well, these are things will have to be worked out later somehow.
The studio is small but nice, somewhat bare , and clean. I am stunned how clean actually. 12 years of artists painting in here, a different artist each month, and there is barely a mark on the floor. Odd. There are NO left over paint supplies either which I also find strange except for a single bottle of medium with one centimeter left in it. NO forgotten brushes, no left over paint tubes or canvas that people didn’t want to drag home and be charged excess baggage for. Very few remnants of the vibrant art life that I know has gone on in these four walls.
The house itself smells terribly damp and my husband who has allergies to dry rot starts sneezing right away. A dry rot sneeze long forgotten in sunny LA. His eyes start to go Alizarin Crimson red. I remember seeing a Best Western nearby. I make comments that he can go there. He takes it the wrong way. Oh dear. This house has two tiny bedrooms, beds made up with clean but faded sheets and well worn, bobble effect, blankets; a small kitchen with small table and two chairs, a sit –in chair-style French tub with rust at the plug hole. An assortment of dead flies cover the bathroom windowsill. The walls haven’t been painted since I was young and give new meaning to the decorating term Shabby Chic. There is no living room, no couch, no TV, and a phone that doesn’t work.
The house is best described as modest and functional and in need of a little TLC. Damp course installation perhaps? I should add the heaters are super efficient and the water piping hot! And I should add I am grateful to be here.
We immediately open the wood shutters on the studio and the light streams in brightening our molten sneezing spirits. I immediately unpack into the studio what art supplies I have in my carryon. And I start to feel good. Wow, I am really here.
I had been told to read the artists’ visitors book in the studio so I hunt it down immediately. There were actually three of them. I start to read them right away and they are fascinating with little pictures of sketches done here, and anecdotes of artists’ visits to this studio over 12 years from as far a field as Russia, Poland, Australia, the USA and England. I feel an overwhelming sense of elation that I made the effort to do this trip in the middle of difficult personal times, selling and moving home etc., when I wondered should I cancel? France and the program seemed a long way away. And my energies were drained.
But from these books now in my hands, the sense of art legacy that I am now part of, thanks to Yvonne Jean-Haffen and her board of helpers, Les Amis de la Grande Vigne, the experience she and they, have given so many artists, well, I couldn’t be more grateful to be here or more anxious to start painting.
I look at the bare cork walls, waiting for my month’s work to be displayed up there for the board to see at the end, and feel somewhat overwhelmed at the task at hand but also knowing I can do it! And want to. I think of all the other artists before me filling these same walls.
The books tell stories of artists doing anywhere from 17 to75 paintings. Some doing just pencil sketches, that would be turned into large paintings on return home over a two year in-studio span, some doing simple water color notes in sketch books. Some very abstract work, most realism. It is clear to me that I can make this my own. Most of the entries in the books are glowing, full of praise for Jean-Haffen and Les Amis de la Grande Vigne. I would expect this. But the books also tell of different levels of interest in different artists visits by the hostees. Some were left completely alone until the end; others got picked up at the airport, wined and dined by the board and families, even taken to the launderette! I wonder how I will do? A ride back to the airport will be helpful. I must talk to everyone I meet in my schoolgirl French. My husband will be here for only 10 days. He- and the hire car- disappear after that. This is fine by me…I see more when I move on foot. Too much information visually, whizzing past things in a car, and I get overwhelmed.
Just a few entries in the books shared feelings of loneliness here, a sense of isolation, language barrier probably, and a feeling of complete artistic overload. How on earth do you capture this incredible medieval town in paint? How do you avoid the chocolate box painting in a picture-postcard beautiful town? One artist said it took him 10 days to get going on any art worthwhile. I am beginning to feel those feeling myself and know I will just start anything, something tomorrow, not be precious, to get the creative juices flowing. One small painting up on that corkboard! This will be an important step for me.
After settling in, and unloading our carry-ons, checking things worked like computer/camera adapters, etc., we set out to find something to eat in the Port of Dinan, which is puzzling. Lots of waterside creperies, restaurants, and such, open at 6pm but NONE of them serving food. We can’t work this out at all. The tourist season has clearly passed but people still need to eat and places are open after all but only for beer and coffee it seems. We settle for a packet of potato chips from a mini-mart sort of place, a french 7/11. A few minutes back at the house and we drive into the town of Dinan settling on a rather average tourist fly-trap seafood place for less than good moule frites, the dangers of being over-hungry, before heading back to the airport via the market for essentials, milk, cheese and wine. Suffice to say, our bags are no-where in sight at the airport - along with the lost baggage clerk. Both gone. The airport is empty and about to close . A struggle with the language and handsome custom guys to find them. Super relieved when we do. Let’s just leave it there.
It gets light late in Dinan. I am writing this at 8.30am and it is still not light. Dark settles in around 7p.m.. We go out for breakfast hoping something is open. It is. Just. The best café au lait with brightly colored sugar packers over-looking the grey-ish green River Rance. This is to be my first painting although I don’t know it yet. I have decided to take my camera everywhere. We have a lovely walk through the cobbled streets and I snap away the whole time. I love photography. So immediate .An art form of its own. I find it quite easy compared to painting. Ha ha. I shall expect a call from Annie Leibowitz any second. We return to the house. It is pretty gray outside so I decide to start painting in the studio right away from my laptop feeling guilty not doing en plein aire but the coffee cup seemed to fit. I get a great start and feel happier with it than anything I have painted for a while, even from life!
We go back into town looking for a more honest and cheaper Plat du Jour. We find one. Omelets and green salad. Very good. Find a free Internet café. Also very good. And very important. Although I decline to connect. Sick of all of that Facebook/Twitter stuff. I connect instead with real people-watching over a lazy red wine. We wander through the maze of Dinan, marveling at its architectural and food delights. Early evening I paint some more on my coffee cup. Dinner was local. Better moule frites in a quaint side street cafe. More red wine. I love the pichets of wine they serve here. You can choose a size, 25ml, 50 ml, 75ml. Light buzz, medium buzz, acting silly buzz.
Bad night’s sleep. Those moules and red wine. Paint right away with coffee in hard in my pajamas. Finish my painting. My aim is to point and shoot. As in, paint and don’t noodle. Finish fast. I take so long to do commissions at home. I want to avoid working on anything too long here.
Set off to Saint Malo to find a vague address for an art store, given to me by someone who looks into my studio window to see what I am doing. How hard would it be to have someone compile for the studio board helpful hints like this, or even addresses? Art supplies, launderette, grocery, gas, Internet, medical. That sort of thing? I had been told not to worry when I was worrying about what art supplies to pack and excess baggage fees, that there was a great art store in Dinan with a super helpful lady, friend to all. I was smart enough not to trust this. Things change fast in a tourist town, especially in a down economy. Dinan’s helpful art lady had long gone, revealed to me by the Tourist Office, not by anything in the studio or recent notes in those art books. I make a note to leave information on the board when I leave.
I have packed compactly, basically bringing in everything I will need including 30 gatofoam panels expecting to paint one a day. But OMS and medium always have to be found due to airline restrictions. Needless to say I have very few clothes with me.
The art store is a bit disappointing. Expensive and more toward the hobbyist. No huge bottles of OMS. We have to wait for it to finish its’ two and a half hour close for lunchbreak so another Plat Du Jour is had, Mediterranean Fish salad, and we are now drinking a glass of wine at lunchtime. Just because they all do here…when in Rome…
Off to the hypermarket to buy extended food and supplies, more milk, cheese, wine, new towels, and masses of paper towel. This is fun. How much cheese can you find in a hypermarket? An awful lot it seems and all good. I also see a whole chicken filleted including guts and eyes in the meat counter. Dutch still-life idea? Nah…gross.
More importantly, I also find a lovely bunch of yellow roses which I want to paint in the studio with props from the studio, to remind me of the studio rather than an obvious studio painting which I know from the books has been done before and really rather well. I was praying for a vase in said studio. Boy, did I get lucky. The studio is not exactly furnished with fine china but hiding in the corner cupboard was the most delightful blue and white Dutch kinda thing! PERFECT. I take a lot of time setting it up using the backlight of the window coming through the rose petals, propping the vase on a book about DINAN. Clever. Don’t want it to look like just any old still life I have brought from home. Block the painting in until I lose the light. Am pleased with my efforts. Shouldn’t I be having an art crisis yet? Have nibbles at home, and late night fries in the town. NO more fries. But they are SO good here.
Day 4. Go straight out for café au lait at the nearby bar. The owner assures me he will be open until after I leave. A lot of places are shut down as it is now off-season and I am still anxious that the stores and restaurants that are open have VERY odd hours. One could lose weight it seems. Certainly save money on shopping all around. Just how do these stores make money? Return home to the studio for the day, as I want to paint my yellow roses to completion, which I do. Am very happy with them. Nice backlit arrangement. White on white, hard to paint. We run out for a bite and watch a busy canoe race that is going on. The day is grey and drizzly so I am glad I painted in studio. Eat the most awful fish soup the color and consistency of diarrhea and manage to complain about it in French. OUI! Return back to studio and do touch ups on roses with a fresh eye. The pot needed to be more rounded. Out for dinner, moule frtites again! Wake up at 2am. I suffer from the fish soup and I now know why it was that color.
Wake up with a sore tummy. Head into Dinan for an omlette. We decide to hear out for the day to Dinard, a town across the Rance estuary from Saint Malo. I get out my paint box and have a grand time. An English onlooker shows up, also a painter, who decides to bend my ear. I try to be as polite as I can but when she goes back to her car to get her ‘inspiration’ art postcards to show me, I finally have to draw a line in my paint sand. I just want to paint! Happy with my sketch. Grey and overcast but so what. Won’t set the art world on fire but I am used to that. Finish with a nice ordinary chicken sandwich at waters edge. No fish today. I also wonder after a day of driving through French towns how many crepes and galettes do the French consume? Every nook and cranny is full of businesses offering them.
I finally decide to take my computer to the Internet cafe to catch up on what I have been missing. Nothing! However I do spend longer on the computer than I want to. And drink two large café au laits. Note to self…computer is often a time waster. And drinking too much coffee leaves you buzzed. It appears I enjoy both. Decide to head out for the day to a few sights. Just a couple of 11th century monasteries, ancient castle ruins built on sand, antique windmills, you know, the usual thing you find in America around every corner.
We finally end up in Cancale. Wow. This is the place John Singer Sargent painted his Oyster Gatherers of Cancale painting. Let me tell you, the beach hasn’t changed much since his visit! And this town is still built on the oyster harvesting and eating business. It is fantastically interesting. I am really trying hard NOT to paint. Finding every excuse not to paint that beach that Sargent did so well. Well, I slap myself out of it and set up my box. The light is dark and fleeting. And hard to capture. I do a simple one hour sketch hating it. People stop by and say absolutely nothing. Not a good sign. But when I return home and look at it again, I am so happy I did it. I will always have that memory of painting on Sargent’s beach. We also eat oysters at a café overlooking his beach with a glass of Muscadet. The absolute perfect day!!!
I take over a 100 photos today. And know I have two good portraits for when I get home to the US. One I am really excited about. A fisherman, yes, on that beach, gathering not oysters but WORMS!!! True.
In the evening, I block in a sketch for his portrait, using of course my little study of the beach as reference too. Ah…just like it should be.
I can’t believe a week has almost gone by. I wake up pretty late. It is so dark in the mornings which I am finding difficult. Very rainy and grey. I head out for a café au lait on the deserted corner and return to paint. It is a bit depressing out to be honest. I miss the CA sunshine spoiled brat that I am. My plan today is to paint the Port of Dinan, which is my neighborhood. I am nervous about painting its’ quaint boats and houses. It has been done so well already by so many who paint said things far better than I can. The posters of those successful paintings are everywhere reminding you how it should be painted. There was even one in the café this morning just to really annoy me. I am not really into painting architecture to be honest. I feel it has to be done though as a tribute to the town that is hosting me. So I set up a small panel with a burnt sienna wash. My composition is good as I had already set that up two days ago. About an hour in, I hate my houses and don’t even mention the boats. I am trying to render from my reference rather than abstractly paint the complicated shapes around value. I have to have a cookie break. I see yet another poster on the kitchen wall of a very loose boat painting. I scream at myself Just Paint. Feel it. Don’t over think it. I also pick up the biggest brush possible and dip it into piles of the juiciest paint possible. A change of approach.
This helps. It always does. Ah yes,,, it clicks. I have something! Abstract but ok… My husband returns from the Internet café and tells me he wants the painting. I can’t sell it. I know I am done. Tie my hands behind my back with rope but so hard to eat a baguette that way that he has just brought home for lunch.
In the afternoon, I find a blowdryer that works in the studio. MIRACLE. No left over art supplies, few books left on the shelves from weary travelers, but a blowdryer….YES! Must have been a well-groomed group overall.
Rough night. Something went crash in the night knocking over an empty wine bottle in the kitchen. I thought we had either mice or intruders. Crept downstairs with my heart pounding hoping it was an intruder rather than mice! Didn’t sleep much after that thinking something was going to hop in my bed.
Waking up it is raining and dark…that seems to be a constant. I head to the local weekly market for some flavor. Settle on a 12-inch baguette with super fatty sausage and FRIES. All in the same sandwich. I think of my favorite TV travel foodie Anthony Bourdain and his street eating extravaganzas and KNOW he would approve! My stomach is actually now looking like a croissant with red spots thanks to five very Cadmium Red mosquito bites. (I can’t find Pilates anywhere here. I don’t think they have ever heard of It.). The studio is right by two stretches of water. Bugs are everywhere. I find a huge red caterpillar in the tub. That will throw me over the edge if it happens again.
The market is everything you would expect. A market of old in a setting of centuries. No Wholefoods here. The sights and smells are extraordinary. The butcher, the offal man, the cheese man, the olive man, the wine man (I like him! Too early for tastings for me though. It is not yet 6pm anywhere in the world. This market has it all, along with very cheap clothing and jewelry…a smorgasbord of delights! I check out what I plan to paint (and eat) here en plein aire next week. Ran or shine. I have brought a plastic poncho of the advice of former mentioned CH and know I am going to need it.
Too wet to paint outdoors in the afternoon so I settle on doing a portrait of Yvonne Jean-Haffen in black and white. I get it to an ok point, then take a break. Go the Best Western, Internet. Clean loo. And a healthy bowl of free salted nuts. Don’t see those too much in these parts. Devour them.
Back to paint YJH face a bit more. Call it a night knowing YJH is going to need more of my attention.
I head out to a local restaurant on damp cobbled streets for crème brulee. I am delighted to see real vanilla specs in it. Ah, the French. They do things so well. But they do seem to eat a lot. High crabs, frites with everything, bread basket with everything and I rarely see a plate of steamed veggies anywhere. Where is Panda Express when you need ‘em. You can get real cheap veggies there.
I do notice a lot of runners though. And a lot of smokers. A collective persistent cough can be heard in the mornings here I notice.
Head to the Best Western in the morning for free Internet, and clean toilets. Clean everything American style. Kinda love that! But hate myself for it at the same time. We pack and head out to relatives who have bought a Gite about four and half hours away. The drive is amazing. We are heading south, our ultimate destination being between Bordeaux and La Rochelle on the western side of France toward the coast. The light changes fast. Beautiful light. Mauves, pinks and subtle green-greys. I so want to stop the car and paint but I can’t. I feel frustrated and have to settle for an incredible café au lait at a mere run of the mill freeway stop. Ah, the French…
Arrive at Gite…very old and very marvelous. This part of the world is full of castles and Roman relics, and all pretty affordable to buy, well, not the Roman bits. If you can find work here, go as fast as you can. Trouble is, there is not much work to be found in these parts. Gites can be a good source of income providing quality lodgings for travelers in an old world setting, which is why you can buy a chateau for a song, which a lot of British moneybags have. I could not believe my eyes to be honest…fabulous piles of bricks!!! Rustic lamb roast cooked for five hours, copious amounts of wine and stinky cheeses, the setting centuries old, our hosts much younger and ever so genial I did have to make the gravy though. Well, you get the picture…
No painting today.
Everyone is impressed, including myself, that I am the first one up, out painting the old garden well, coffee cup in hand, and I haven’t even cleaned my teeth yet. The French kiss both cheeks, sometimes four hits on both sides, which is great unless you haven’t cleaned your teeth!
Do an hour and a half sketch. Relatives come to look. It is going just ok… not a disaster. Had to stop to get on board the travel schedule with our host. It was a tough decision. A sightseeing tour or paint on the gite grounds. I figured I could paint any day but I may never get to see these local sights again. It was a good decision. A delightful afternoon in the sun, driving from 11th century towns to 3rd C. Roman rocks. Those kind of things make you feel very small. Have one of those once-in-a-lifetime lunches you always remember. Waterfront, local café. Amazing moules, crab, scallops, frites, salade vert, (fancy French words for just plain old green lettuce) washed down with dry white wine. Yes, amazing.
Even more amazing, I had been taking pictures throughout our lunch, for some still life ideas settting up the table like a food stylist. I do this all the time so think nothing of it. However at the meal’s end the restaurant owner did think something of it and came over to ask if I was a food spy. Planning on opening a rival restaurant. Gosh…when this was all translated to me back in the car I realized one should probably think about things like that in the future. But I don’t think anyone will care at Panda Express, do you? The joy of chain restaurants.
Enjoy a dinner of more rustic meats, more wine and stinky cheese. I also go for an after dinner drink here called Pineau that the locals make and love. It is a cross between port and car fuel….oh dear, a certain headache in the morning.
Yup. A certain headache indeed. But sunny day, and nothing eggs and bacon can’t cure in a lovely authentic French country kitchen with blue doors and green glass knobs. Eat your heart out Martha Stewart, this is the real thing.
Head off for five hour drive home. Amid goodbyes and photos, not knowing when we will see these kind relatives again, we discover their charming black cat Freddy has walked all over my wet painting set to dry in the rental car. Now oil kitty prints are all over the interior. Dashboard, fabric seats, windows. Actually very funny. But not so funny because the car is to be returned tomorrow and I don’t want a fine for kitty art work as much as I support animal art. Need to clean it up fast and air it out to dry.
Bittersweet day as my husband leaves Dinan, with the rental car, to head home. I am sad about both…and jeeze, the SUN is finally out in Dinan on HIS last day. The town is looking magnificent. We are invited to tour the house/museum of Yvonne Jean-Haffen in private as it is closed for the season, which we squeeze in before he leaves. I am reminded how lucky I am to be here hosted by YJH in her bequeathment. We head for a quick lunch afterwards at Café Noir, one of those amazing French cafes where the food is very good and pretty cheap and you watch the PEOPLE.
I find the French women very stylish indeed. They are into shoes, especially pointed ones with kitty cat heels, and their hair styles. Always wear a scarf just the right way, and I haven’t seen ANY botox or lip fillers anywhere. Note to self…practice becoming French in my new hometown of Ventura.
Say goodbye in the middle of town. It feels really odd. My husband who is not much for words tells me I am very brave. He knows it is not all warm and fuzzy here doing this thing because he did it too but just not the painting bit. It makes me teary-eyed. I walk back to the studio, taking a deep breath, hoping I won’t get lost, checking about 20 times I have my keys, a little OCD kicking in, and decide to just stop and paint on my walk home down this amazing medieval narrow alley that was the main thoroughfare for life in the old days. It still has the dip in the pathway that the sewage would have swooshed down. It is humbling. I paint here for two hours or so. And I AM calmed. Reminded why I am here.
Returning to the studio, I look at the cork wall as I put the new one up painted from the long walk home and don’t feel too happy with anything I have done. Doubt sets in. I can always count on that! Well, the art crisis always has to happen at some point, n’est ce pas? I am reminded seeing the house, work and studio of Yvonne Jean-Haffen this morning, right behind the atelier I am in, that the artist journey is long. One saw all the photos of this amazing woman. Bright-eyed and chic in her youth, bright=eyed and chic in her senior years. ZEST for her painting life clear. Her paintings had vigor. She was brushy. She had a voice; She was all about recording one’s world through a very personal view. She drew the bridges and buildings wrecked by the Second World War. That must have gutted her to see her town so torn up and beaten. I found her sketches of the town from that era beyond profound. She won awards. She became famous in this town I am reminded of Sorolla and my visit two years ago to his studio. MOVING. To spend a painting lifetime recording your own area of the world you are passionate about and do it so well… ahh.. I think this is the GOAL and I will take it home with me.
Tonight I pull up landscapes on my computer done by my painting hero, Everett Raymond Kinstler, NA., looking for inspiration. I am left in awe of his work once again. Realizing his command of all of the above.
Suffice to say, I am left feeling tonight that I have so much more to do with my art to make it how I want it artistically…but also SURE I have the desire of these greats to make my mark however the art spirit determines my journey. I take strength from them and that for tomorrow.
Before bed, I knock out a landscape from photo reference taken at the weekend. I think it is not too bad.
Up with the birds and it is SUNNY! Pack my painting bags and head out for the day on foot. There is a distinct winter chill in the air and steam is coming off the river and my breath. Grab a café au lait and croissant, yes, a whole fat-ladden one, then head up the steep hill with closed artisan stores. It is empty. I am the only one there. Gosh, how these same streets must have once been buzzing this time in the morning in medieval times. But arriving in the main town of Dinan, high on the hill set behind the walls of a fortress, people are beginning their day. Smoking and drinking coffee. Ah...no rush to the gym here it seems. Kinda like that.
I walk around for ages. Can’t find anything I want to paint. I love this one building that is pink with chocolate beams. I had the pleasure of meeting through email the artist that owns part of this building, now living in Ireland. I so want to paint it but the light is flat and there is a side walk café in the way of a really good spot to stand in. I wonder if they would mind moving?
There is also beautiful light on a church. I want to yell at myself “What is wrong with you, Jo??” Just paint that! Jeremy Lipking would in a flash and do it beautifully so would Michael Shane Neal. They wouldn’t be dithering around like this. This is always one of the challenges I personally find doing landscape painting. I can easily find a person I want to paint or a still life. But landscape choices are harder for me. I guess I am just not so turned on by them.
So I walk back down the long steeped cobbled alley to the port feeling like a fool. Then I remember a back view through a bridge with some nice reflections at the boat launch area I had seen a few days before. This is just perfect apart from an annoying driver backing his car and boat down the launch. It takes him five attempts. He almost runs me over. NOT joking here. I have to pick up my whole art set up to avoid being trampled. When he finally hits his mark in reversing, coming by me, he doesn’t EVEN look at me to apologize. I SWEAR at him in French. I know he can lip read through his rear view mirror and good to learn some early French words other than please and thank you. By the way, there is a new language over here called Franglais. A hybrid of French and English spoken in the same sentence. I find myself getting quite good at it.
So my landscape painting of said bridge is now done. I enjoyed doing it but it is not that good in my opinion and I don’t know how to make it better right now. It doesn’t look like a Lipking, an ERK’s, or a Neal’s. I want it of course to look like mine…just better than it does right now. Tough painting composition though, and inconsistent light to battle with. I am proud of myself for giving it a go. I grab a nice lunch in the sunshine, with myself for company. I have always liked my own company but I am realizing to do an art experience like this, YOU have to REALLY enjoy your own company. You might be the only person you are talking to for days.
I return to the studio and find a note left by one of the art committee asking in French if I am doing ok. I wonder if she read my blog? I am really pleased she has checked in with me. I don’t feel quite so alone.
Adjust the bridge painting some more. Realize once again my darks are too heavy. How many times do we have to repeat the lesson before mastery I wonder? A lot in my case. Head out for the internet, just to get out of the studio before night sets in. And I don’t want to eat another thing or drink anymore coffee.
I return and paint a little girl I saw at the market last week that I was charmed by. She was eating a galette pulling on the melted cheese with all the personality of kid in a Kellogg’s commercial. I have in front of me a copy of a Charles Hawthorne painting of a little girl in pink that I brought all the way with me from US, given to me by someone special in my art journey who was trying to help me see how my darks need more air. It seems like a perfect moment to work on more air after the bridge painting. I am beginning to see what I am doing wrong. And ‘seeing’ is half the battle I find. Then you can take steps to correct – with time. Nothing comes easy.
I whip out my own little girl in pink in about two hours with breaks. . I am very happy with it. Probably the first thing I have done, no, two, with the yellow rose still life, that I really like.
I am going to bed happy. I resolve to work harder on doing studies that appeal to me. Don’t just paint bridges for the sake of it. There is a painting here in the house, on a poster (of course!) done by one of the artists in residence from 1999, Suzette Brailey. It is charming. A bunch of school kids arriving to look at the YJH museum. This artist caught a moment in this town that other artists/passersby might have missed the joy in this ordinary moment. But this artist caught it. She was awake! I am assuming caught with her camera as the kids are moving up the stairs. But who cares. It is a wonderful piece of art in the great Rockwell tradition. Telling a story. Bridges don’t tell stories for me. I know for others they do like YJH…each to their own I say.
It is sunny again. Yipee. I catch up on my journal realizing week two is done. Wow. I give myself the luxury of washing a few ‘smalls”, a.k.a. knickers, and basically try to “live” in this house a bit, rather than rushing off all the time in ‘visit’ mode. I have a while to go so I feel I need to get more comfortable. Boil an egg or two.
Pack my painting bags and head out. I walk up the tall drag to the town, again loving the exercise. Move around again way too much looking for a spot to paint but know today I HAVE to make myself commit sooner than yesterday. I do. I settle on the pink chocolate box house knowing my internet friend will enjoy seeing it painted, if nothing else.
I work on it for way too long. Dreadfully long really. Quite complicated. LOOKING UP - foreshortening. Oh dear. I am not happy at all with my results. But am kind to myself knowing it was one helluva stretch. I had also planned on painting the building next door but had to leave that blank. My hands were numb with cold. And there are only so many onlookers you can bear without barely a kind word spoken to you. Dinan is used to artists painting in the streets. WE are as common as muck. Two a penny. YOU had better really stand out from the centuries’ old painting crowd. A few people took pictures of me. I think someone had paid them off. Maybe they liked my hat.
I head for the long walk home, dying for food but nothing is serving until 7pm, not real food anyway. I can’t stand baguettes or crepes anymore. Tantee Pies. I settle for a beer on the way home and meet a young male French artist, smoking roll-ups, who is delightful, into the Aztec calendar, shows me his sketchbook and the walking library he has with him in his sac. French men carry purses, you know. Oh yes, and the drawings on his body done with markers. Actually, that is how we started our conversation because my eagle eye spotted those body drawings.
We have a wonderful conversation even though he doesn’t speak a WORD of English and I don’t speak much of French but certainly better than his English. But somehow we get by and resolve earnestly to meet at Café Noir again for a very odd non-conversation. Art breaks barriers always!!!Funny, I feel I know more about him than most artists I meet casually in the US. His passion was so sincere.
I get ‘home’ just wanting to be quiet and somehow really ‘at home’. Not just visiting someplace. The glitz and glamour of endless French cafes has lost its’ appeal tonight. Ah pity me. I just want to be in my jim-jams watching Law and Order. In my own bed and sheets to be honest. With my little dog Bentley in my lap. I miss him. Alas no L&O. And no yip-yap Bentley.
Truth be told, the residency spot is quite a long way from human contact at the end of the river. It is quite isolated. I resolved early on, that for safety’s sake, I should be home by dark. I would not want to be walking alone on this street late. One thing I regret perhaps is not traveling with an art buddy. I like my own company as aforementioned but know I am vulnerable traveling as a female, staying in a remote spot. For the first time in my life probably, I find myself being not quite so open with the few people I talk to. If I had an art buddy, we could go out all night. Explore.
But I am also realizing that THIS is the point of an art residency. To be alone with your art thoughts. Be challenged in every way. To have no needless interruptions. The first time in my life for sure that this has happened. To live eat and breath art 24/7. AS a mother who has raised two girls to adulthood, this is an incredible moment. No portrait commissions to worry about. No car pool. No ‘what’s for dinner?”. Just what I am going to do today around my art in this foreign town. How do I see it? Do I measure up? My youngest daughter tonight, who turned 20 yesterday, reminded me in a phone call of my own words of wisdom to her “Let go of the outcome”. I needed to be reminded of that. Badly in fact.
So, I have a quick nibble of cheese and get back to painting. Tweaking things. Resolving things. Realizing you can get a nice effect when the paint has almost dried. A nice ‘pull’ which works well if you tend to paint HARSH and thick ‘en plein air’ as I do. All that gusto.
I feel the reality of this residency has set in. I am working a few things out. I feel somewhat quiet. Reflective. I feel I am really looking at my painting honestly for the first time in a long time.
I am going to need that sausage sandwich with fries at the market tomorrow once again. The alarm is set. My paint bags are packed. It is a heck of a walk. And I can’t wait.
Day 15. Thursday
Yep, sausage galette and fries prompto on arrival at weekly market. Boy, is it good. I am going to miss this diet on return to US. It was quite a walk lugging my stuff up the big hill. I took a roller cart with wheels. Bad idea on medieval cobbled streets. More bumps than bubble wrap. I wander around. Feel a certain malaise. Not as fun as last week when my husband was here and I had someone to ‘oh and ah..” with. The market seems to have lost its’ French glitter somehow. I feel a bit lost. What shall I do next?
I start to paint on site finally, a statue. one of the most historic in the town. Thinking of that incredible statue Michael Shane Neal painted in the past. Mine is a crap job. Not even a good start. I always make myself finish things usually no matter what. Not today. Sling it fast. Cross at my ineptitude. Try to regroup. Walked to Internet café. Looked at some painters I admire. The same painters I looked at five days ago. Do some panicked sketches back home in studio at night trying to work it out some ideas for the next few days to make myself feel better. For the fist time, picked up one of the mere seven reading books on the lonely shelf in studio. Anything but think about art. That is rare for me.
Day 16. Friday
My Euro mobile phone has died. Beyond repair. I feel my lifeline is cut off somewhat until I walk to the Internet place. I feel bad my family can’t get hold of me if there is a problem. Amazing how many cords and attachments one needs to travel.
UK/French mobile charger
US mobile charger.
What would Singer Sargent make of this kind of travel these days? A sketchbook in the past was enough. And the odd letter received if you were lucky.
The light bulbs in my house are slowly dying. Try to buy a new ‘euro green’ friendly bulb, whatever that means. IT was 14 Euro! ($25). No can do, however green. Why is it that GREEN costs more? The planet needs to do something about that. The planet was green in the first place.
I will be in the dark soon fighting off all sorts I fear. See a big black bug on the toilet floor. Put a glass over it hoping it dies before I do. Stamp squirmingly on a slug in the kitchen this morning. Watch it squish to smithereens. Remember I ate something like that in garlic a few nights ago. Yuk.
Paint in the morning, view of the river. I like it. I am m still in my pajamas at mid-day, have not brushed my teeth, and mascara on my cheeks from the day before. Rock band KISS comes to mind. Low and behold, a darling couple I met at Café Noir show up. Don’t’ you hate it. The one time you let it ALL go, you get company. These could be only visitors in a month for goodness sakes!!! They are beyond kind and invite me for lunch overlooking my disarray in all quarters. Don’t say much about my paintings though.
Day 17. Saturday
Do a quick en plein air study riverside in cloudy conditions. Planning to paint the same spot at different times of day on advice of my mentor. I see the value in this and feel very good about it. Also see a lovely old lady come out of her house while I am doing this study: we make an appointment to take photos of her the next day at 10am. I am getting brave with my French! Feeling bolstered up, I then persuade the pattiserie to let me borrow the steel pan this historic town’s “Butter Cake” is baked in, for a still life. I have been intrigued by the rows of these cakes in the window. The French must eat a lot of them because it is pretty much all this shop sells.
I am realizing the benefit of walking up and down this port street. Narrowing your options without a car has benefits. People are getting to know me. AS in…that crazy artist who has wild ideas and tries to express them in terrible French.
But seriously. I now know a bit more about the lives that go on behind the doors and business doors of this port. And if I had a car I wouldn’t. There is Pasqual, who has a a twin brother with one arm, who serves me café au lait most mornings in the small hotel he runs with his wife; there is Anthony who works six nights a week at the Best Western, his passion is for music and he feels he might like to have a home with a garden rather than live on the port, there is the waitress who carries herself like a dancer but isn’t…you get the idea…people are just living their lives just like in any town except this one is centuries old and that moves me. All the people who have gone before. I keep thinking about that actually in Dinan. The history of the place is mind-boggling. You walk the streets that centuries have tread. The same problems. Maybe not the Internet café issue though or all those extension cords and adapters.
Anyhow, the rest of the day I choose to just enjoy Dian, watch and be, sitting in the cafes. I have to say it is one of the best days of my life. Just being. Looking. Living. I am glad I gave myself permission not to paint but it was a tough bargaining situation in my mind, that I can tell you.
Day 18. Sunday.
Do photo shoot of French lady outside her house at 10am. This will be a painting I do at home probably.
Painted my ‘Gateau Beurre’ cake still life. Raced, on foot, out to patisserie other end of port deciding I had a desperate need for something red. A raspberry tart. I had my eye on this tart for days, I ate it as soon as I had painted it - by mid-day. I also had a slice of the Butter Pie. Imagine 100 croissants compressed with a pound of butter and sugar drizzled on top. Yes, it was that bad and that good. Although I never want to eat it again. And I have a ton left in the fridge. Sacrilegious to waste a $15 pie. Kind of a disgusting pie really if you have ever heard of The American Heart Association. Ah the French..
At 2pm sharp, the absolutely delightful couple who had me at me a Café Noir, then visited the studio’ KISS day’, pick me up for lunch at their incredible gite. The kindness of strangers! I am blown away. A full roast lamb lunch, rugged roast potatoes, yummy Yorkshire pudding, sprite brussel sprouts, heavenly mint sauce. Red wine. Followed by English trifle desert laced with brandy. My all-time favorite food.
The conversation never stops, the wife being a mural artist of very considerable talent, and the husband a writer from Fleet Street days of old, well seasoned in life. Wise. Quoted verse from 500 years ago with eloquence. Love people like that. Live for them in fact. We have a lot to talk about. Probably the most giving, kind, and interesting people I have met in a long time. Note to self…be giving to strangers. Because I SO appreciate a nice warm home to go to with home-cooked food and warmth….wow…I will never forget it. I don’t think they know just how much I appreciate it actually.
The lady artist also said the work on my website reminded of her of Vermeer. Not the work she had seen in the studio (well, derr…if you have read ALL of this journal you know that!) but, another note to self. Make France more Vermeer! I think this is PROFOUND. Come home thinking about this deeply.
PS…lemme know if you need a good gite to stay in…this place was lovely! And the other place I went in the south, amazing too.
PPS…I now know the secret of the French diet. French women really ARE skinny. This is the key. Eat a small portion of high fat food at breakfast, (croissant), a ton of high fat food at lunch until you are just full (as much cream as you can cram in) and you will not need dinner. You won’t be hungry in fact for 48 hours. FACT.
Less is more? No. More is less. I decide to eat this way forever.
Day 19. Monday.
I am writing this at the end of the day. I have had a real breakthrough. And it is exciting for me. I just need to paint France as I see it. This is obvious, I am sure, to you. And you are wondering what the hell is wrong with me. Why did it take me so long to work it out? Day 19??? Lord!
Well, you come to a town like Dinan, steeped in history, chocolate box beautiful, and almost every nook and cranny as yummy as an English muffin, already painted so well by other artists over the centuries. You come to France with other living artists at home that you admire dancing in your head. I hate to admit it, but for the longest time here, I said YOU must paint the landscape, you must do this, you must do that. SO many rules. “Because that is what ‘so and so’ would be doing”, the visions of their paintings dancing in my head, or should I say torturing me like a slow dripping tap. I think it comes down to just wanting to get better as an artist. You get so caught up in what you are reaching for.
Then on top of ALL the art fairies dancing in my head, you have my hosts in Dinan coming in at the end of the month to view what I have done and chose a painting for the museum.
Let me tell you, this adds a certain pressure. I have wondered what would they wish to see? Certainly paintings of Dinan. I have been very mindful of that. And that has been part of the challenge for me.
I am not a landscape painter. I tell that to everybody I meet. I admire those that do it well. I admire the art form. My heart is just not in it.
I am stunned when people say they like my landscapes. I know I must paint the landscape. I know the value in it is huge. A painter must paint it all. No holds barred. I am a trooper. I listen to my teacher also. I want to improve.
Dinan is all about painting the panoramic view, it seemed at first..
The battle in my head has been to paint a personal vision of Dinan. Something ‘me”. Something you can return home with and be proud of. Not for sales or accolades, (letting go of the outcome), just capturing a very personal view. Knowing you gave it your best voice/eye/.
So I have found at last my up close and personal view of Dinan. What I want to paint.
I realize tonight my everyday ‘walking around’ perception is very keen. I observe. I always have. Something from my old journalism days perhaps. I am interested in the throw of a scarf on a French woman, the cakes that the locals buy, the ‘scooped-up’ almost medieval style of shoes the young-uns are wearing, the absolute seductiveness young and old have here. The fantastic jewelry bought cheap at the market. The lovely flower arrangements at the mere hypermarket. The window dressings, particularly in the lingerie stores. From food to clothing, there is a quiet indulgence here. France is VERY sensual. But the paradox seems that it is also very modest. I haven’t seen a single cleavage in three weeks unlike at home. They are wearing that lingerie and well-fitted clothes on top. But not in an “in-your-face way”
SO PAINT THAT. The simple things I mean, not the cleavage.
I start my day finishing my portrait of benefactor Yvonne Jean-Haffen. I am pleased with it. I hope the people who are hosting me like it. I feel YJH helped me paint it. In fact, I am sure of it. It is simple and straightforward around the circumstances, but I am so glad I made the effort to do it. And it reminds me, that I LOVE to paint portraits more than anything else. It also reminds me somewhat of the portrait in SEES Candy of its said benefactor. That is ok. I have always kinda liked that portrait and wondered who painted it.
Tonight I start a portrait of a beautiful girl I met at Café Noir. Actually, I spotted her from across the street, eagle eye that I have. I couldn’t believe my luck when she and her three male friends then sat down next to me. Tables in sidewalk cafes here are breathing distance. We talked for about an hour, in FRENCH…and she gave me her soul I thought in terms of responding to my desire to paint her. Letting me take endless photos. She was only 17. I am hoping she will come and sit for me.
I feel a sense of excitement tonight, knowing the road ahead. Knowing I don’t have that long left. Turner liked painting landscapes, that is wonderful. I rather like painting pies, shoes and frilly things. Oh yeah, and portraits!
Day 20, Tuesday
Finish French girl at Café Noir. I love her. It the best thing I have done here. Race out to buy pink frilly underwear for my next still life. I race up the ramparts. It is raining and stores are about to close. I find just the right pair. Have lonely dinner in café. Persuade them to cook me grilled sardines off the menu. Aren’t you impressed by new French speaking skills? I sure am. I plan to continue to learn French at home. Please keep me to this.
Day 21 Wednesday
Up late. It is so dark again in the mornings. Bad weather has set in. I paint right away another girl I met in France hoping for the success of yesterday. No such luck. I struggle with it for about six hours spitting toward the end. But it turns out ok in the end. I will have to tweak it some more. Go out for more sardines. I really like French sardines. The streets are wet and deserted. Few cafes are open. Winter is really setting in. I am so glad I did not to this residency any month after October. Clocks change at the weekend.
Market day again. Raining. This will be my last journal entry for the trip, I have decided. Only seven days to go. I am racing the clock to finish stuff. I plan to stop doing very thick very wet paintings by Sunday giving them a few days to dry. I have run out of Liquin which is a problem. The art store is too far without a car. I will have to plan around it. I am sure Sargent had this problem too. We share that at least.
I plan to do small panels ‘en plen air’ for the rest of next week which will fit wet into my pochade box for the journey home. I also plan to blast the heat in the studio to sauna temperature. I have a sitter coming to the studio tomorrow to do a head study. Young Anthony who has been very kind to me. Speaks fluent English, so he has been my main conversationalist.
I enjoyed the market today. Bought some local wine and cheese for my reception, although I haven’t heard from anyone yet, but I am sure I will. I wonder what painting they will chose. I hope they like what I have done. Felt my first twinge of sadness today that I won’t be at the market next week but on my way to Heathrow. A hotel for the night! A shower! Proper sheets! Fresh towels! No bugs! No dark corners encrusted with years of travelers’ muck.
I have my favorite little cafés to go to now. That is part of the fun of beign somewhere so long. I stopped at a café near the bottom of the market which is delightfully full of locals, buzzing with business and full of steaming hot beverages. They start drinking booze early here…11 a.m. and people in the café are on their second beer or ‘digestif” as I walk in. Maybe we should start this habit in America. The French are so darn friendly and cheerful. Is it the ‘digestif’? I stick to another sausage gallette reasoning it will be my last one ever and a great café au lait. Heaven! The locals on their second beer stare at me…they KNOW I am not a local.
Wandered back to the studio. Buy a very french dress. I have had my eye on. I had promised myself one dress purchase around my budget. I shopped carefully, no impulse buys. Now I am on rations to make my money last for the rest of the week. Must make sure I don’t run out for the cab to the airpost. $85 euros. Yikes! There is no such thing as a free residency. This trip has probably cost me several thousand all in.
I get back to work on my still life with pink box and a little fuchsia lace ooh-la-la kind of thing…ah, the French.
I will take home, not only my paintings (over 20 panels done) but also huge lessons from this experience. Lessons about myself, my art and a deeper understanding of that art and who I am around it. It hasn’t been an easy month in some ways.
I feel blessed for the huge support and encouragement I have had to do this trip: my family, Tim and Eileen B., my mentor Everett Raymond Kinstler, N.A., - and of course Les Amis De La Grande Vigne.
I take a little piece of Dinan home in my heart.