Monday, July 19, 2010

At the Races, In the Studio, Meeting Old Friends

The summer garden

The church bells go quiet at 10PM, allowing for the dark hours to be timeless. They resume again with enthusiasm at 7AM.  First they ring seven times. In case you missed it, they ring again seven times. Now you're awake. After a brief pause the bells ring three times, and then again three times and yet again three times. Now you're a bit confused, but you let it go as you start slipping back into sleep. Just as you're beginning to snooze off for a few more minutes, the bells go mad. I once counted the number of bing-bongs and it's close to two hundred. It must be time to get up.

The bells perform the same extravagant cacophony at 7PM but we're usually too busy with other things then to even notice them. The bells' concerts mark matins and vespers, morning and evening prayers, which traditionally in the Catholic church were at 6AM and 6PM, so at least someone has prevailed upon the church to be a bit lenient about timing. When Quinn is here and the bells start going, he stops whatever he's doing, gives you a meaningful look and puts a finger to his ear. We all sit quietly together with our fingers to our ears too, and listen with him until they're finished.


Montmirail proudly opened its very own Hippodrome last year. There's a grassy race track just below the village, heading west out of town, and no, they don't race hippos. The races are a big event but only take place a few times during the year. There are trotting races, where beautiful thoroughbred horses with light-weight chariots attached and very small men or women, dressed in bright silk suits, race around the track. The spectators bet on their favorites, just like at any other track. The winnings are modest, but locals are enthusiastic when they gain a few euros. Almost everyone in the village goes to try their luck.

This year, surprisingly, we also had a traditional sit right on the horse, horse race. That's new. (Like to see some stuck-up jokey boy sitting on Dan Patch, make your blood boil? Well I should say!) Forgive me, I couldn't help myself from launching into Trouble, from The Music Man, the words of which are forever engraved on my mind. If I could remember French phrases the way I remember the words from old musicals, I would be positively poetic in French by now. 

Speaking of which, the other day the doorbell rang and when I went to answer it, I found Samuel and the mayor standing there ominously with a man wearing headphones over his ears and holding a microphone. "Where is Rick?" I ask  myself desperately...he's off grocery shopping. I'm alone.


They're doing a radio program about Montmirail for Radio Bleu, would I like to say a few words? Well, actually no I wouldn't! If my husband were here, I'm sure he'd have lots to say, but as it is, I'd just as soon not...I don't speak well enough...I'm too shy. I sincerely  believed they accepted my demurring. They left. Fifteen minutes later the bell sounded again. This time, as I went out, thinking to myself "now what?" the radio personality had his tape rolling and was speaking into his microphone announcing my arrival at the gate to his radio audience. "Here comes Nancy, an American living in Montmiral, to open the gate for us. Hello Nancy, please tell our audience why you moved to Montmirail," he says this jauntily and then points the microphone right at me. What could I do? A short interview was conducted. In the end I was relatively relieved that I was able to keep from making too big a fool of myself. Samuel said "your French is getting better and better." Trial by fire.


At the beginning of the week I had a day and a half in the studio. During our high season it's unusual to have too much spare time, so I very much value those precious hours where no other work demands my attention. It takes a long time to discover what it is you want to "say" in your art work...and there are plenty of side roads to explore along the way. I tend to look at other people's work and say "Oh, I wish I had thought of that!" I try this and the other, inspired by someone else and have mostly found that nothing fits me quite right. The work I have created that I have been most happy with didn't come from any particular style and wasn't inspired by someone else, but was more or less from my own imagination. One thing you learn early on when studying in art school is that you have to develop your own voice and create a body of work that looks like every piece is created from the same hands. It's a bonus if your work has it's own individuality and doesn't look like a dozen other artists.

I love type, I admire good design, I just adore painting. What I have come to realize, however, is that my training and personal interest is in illustration. I want to tell a story, I want to draw people, events, daily life. I like line, I want color and first and foremost, I am a printmaker. So how to put that all together and find my own way of working? Etching isn't naturally the most direct choice for creating colored illustrations, but then again, etching can be anything. It offers so many possible results. I have been working on a set of drawings over the last few weeks and I have been happy with the results. I went through various techniques for transferring my images onto copper plates and after several frustrating failures hit upon a simple process that works for me. Now that has been established, there is not much strain required to get the images I want...however I have not been content with how to color them. I tried mono-printing color with oil paints, using water soluble inks painted onto the paper before printing, coloring á la poupée on the original plate, and hand coloring with water colors after the print was dried. None of these gave me satisfying results. I don't want black and white and I don't want traditional aquatint shadings. What I want is water color like color, but I don't want to hand paint my prints. I want to be able to have clear flat color while still making an edition. This week I had a happy break-through. It only took me one sleepless night to figure out how to achieve what I was after.

I made a small experimental plate to test my late-night brainstorm hypothesis. I'm satisfied with the results. I made a hard ground line drawing on one plate and put aquatint tones on a second plate. The color is meant to be flat and rather abstract, so registration is not a critical issue. Besides I want the color to be breezy, clear, light and sketchy. It looks a bit retro. I added pure color á la poupée to the second plate and since it didn't have to mix with the black lines of the line drawing, it came out just as I wanted it to. I am now set to create a series of illustrations of daily life scenes and color them using my new technique. The process is a bit long and does require double the materials and lots of time for meticulously adding  color with Q-tips onto the individual patches of aquatint, but hopefully I can find the patience to realize my little series even on much bigger plates. I will be using Mariann's cold wipe technique, so I don't have to rush. I have several images going. All I need now is some time!


Buzz and Ginger are friends from long ago and far away. They moved from the Bay Area about 20 years ago, and we lost track of them. We reconnected over email last year when a mutual friend told them we had a Bed and Breakfast in France. It turns out that they get to Paris as often as possible and were keen to come say hello after all this time. We made several plans but nothing had come together until this year. One of their best friends has a son who was marrying a girl from London, and they were invited to the wedding. The couple is Sikh and if you saw Monsoon Wedding, you'll have an idea of what kind of an event it was. This couple, being modern and busy, had a short version. Only four days long. The Sikh community is extremely generous and friendly and Buzz and Ginger, being one of the few gore (white people) to participate, were treated like visiting royalty. When one of the groom's relatives heard that they were planning to take the Eurostar to Paris after the ceremony, and then the local train to our house, he insisted on driving them in his Mercedes taxi all the way from London to Montmirail. They arrived at our door in style. The driver took a cup of strong tea and off he went back home. 20 hours round trip, including crossing the Channel twice by ferry.

We had lots of fun catching up with our friends. I have always thought of Buzz as a nature sprite. I knew him when he used to scamper up huge trees and balance himself on the top branches to prune dead wood away. He clambered up one of our pine trees in the first house we ever owned and I could hardly watch him. He is clearly not afraid of heights. Ginger was always one of my favorite people, with an easy smile and a warm generous spirit. She's one of those people you can't even imagine being remotely disagreeable. It was such a treat for us to reconnect. We told stories and reminisced for hours on end, cooked, and laughed. It was as if no time had passed at all. Ginger helped me with flowers and dinner and making beds. I had to put my foot down when she wanted to help with the ironing. People on vacation should not go near ironing boards. She taught me how to make real Indian dal.

If we have time for touring when friends come, I am always happy to take the opportunity to visit somewhere we've never been before. There is so much to see near us but we rarely tour ourselves. I have wanted to visit the Jardin de la Petite Rochelle, which I have been hearing about for the last three years. It is rarely open except during the month of July. I've missed it consistently since this is a month that flies past me. It is a private garden, in a private home and it just happens to be absolutely fantastic, so the charming old lady, Hélène d’Andlauin, no doubt close to ninety by now, and her lovely daughter, open up their garden to the public for a very brief period during the year. The place has an excellent reputation in the area and we have finally discovered why. These two women, and their one gardener, maintain a series of garden "rooms" on about 4.5 acres of land, The owner is a horticulturalist and has been around the world collecting plants. She spent the last thirty years designing and building her garden. It is quite breathtaking.

We also took a lazy boat ride down the Huisne river in La Ferté-Bernard. The day was perfect and the paddle took about an hour through the ancient town,  and out into lush countryside.

Buzz and Ginger stayed most of a week. We had some other clients as well; a lovely grandmother from Luxembourg, on her way to deliver an 11 year old granddaughter to a sailing and swimming camp in Brittany. She told us she had slept "like an angel" and really hated to leave. She was very interested in bringing her daughter back to take an etching course with us. A Dutch couple who had stayed with us last year, returned for one night. They invited us to come to Holland in the winter and skate on the canals with them after hearing of Rick's life-long Hans Christian Andersen fantasy. On the weekend we were full with three French families. We served dinner  in the dining room and breakfast on the terrace. Our friends fit in perfectly. By then they seemed like locals!

1 comment:

  1. I love your long rambling posts (rambling in a very good way). Isn't it wonderful to reconnect with old friends and spend some time together. Loved the garden photos and the Pink Umbrella print is're so talented!!!

    Janet xox