Monday, August 9, 2010

Week 11: Workshop, Festival and a Glowing Landscape

Hollyhocks in the summer garden

This very busy week began with Atelier Conti donating an etching course to Montmirail's Medieval Celebration. This year, on week days before the actual weekend festival, there were five workshops offered, a different craft activity each day. We took Monday. Samuel asked me several months ago if I would be willing to do it and I can hardly ever say "no" when Samuel asks. He devotes so much of his time to Montmirail, where, incidentally, he no longer even lives. His efforts (with a very small band of helpers) have elevated the festival into a major summer event in the area and I believe that ticket sales for this one weekend must finance most of the rest of the year's activities in the village. He is tireless in his commitment, besides being a charming, soft-spoken guy, and so when he asks for something from me, I try to accommodate him - even if my inclination is to resist, as it often is. So he stretches me.

I told Samuel that we could allow eight people maximum in a course here, as we have no more stools than that, and eight is already slightly unwieldy. I left him and his staff to disseminate publicity to attract participants and the tourist office to collect the registrations. I didn't know until just a few days before the class, that it was fully booked. Since I would have to give the course in French I must prepare the lesson very carefully and be quite organized in the way things would go. I don't think in French, so it means I have to do all the thinking in advance and translate it! When the time came for people to arrive, I felt pretty solid about how I would handle it, as it was all down in my mind in a most methodical way. I had chosen a project (we would make a family coat-of -arms, un blason) and I would take the participants through all that was required step-by-step. We would work together and follow each activity simultaneously. Normally I allow workshop participants to pace themselves, but in this case we only had two hours and no one in the course knew the first thing about etching.

Unfortunately Murphy's Law took over from the get-go. Apparently there was contradictory information published. One place announced a start time of 3pm (which was what I was planning for) and another for 4pm. Only half my confirmed students arrived on time. My program was timed down to the minute, so immediately I was in improvisational mode and the students were all décalé (out of sync...sometimes the French language just expresses it best). Some embraced the project as presented, some just improvised.

Several people who had not signed up arrived and told me there was no announcement that registration was required, and would not accept my explanation that all the spaces were taken. One woman simply sat down, uninvited, in a late student's empty seat and began working. Another, with her 2 year old child in tow, always a bit underfoot, just stayed and watched until I relented and handed her a plate to work on. 

Just as I had things settled down and rolling forward,  about eight children, and their parents poured into the studio. They insisted that they had read there was to be a children's class of some sort. They didn't even know what the purported course was supposed to be about. Where had they gotten this idea? I put this question to Samuel, who had shown up to take photos along with a journalist and the village historian. He had no idea. Perhaps we need a village proofreader? Some neighbors, seeing our doors standing open, chose this moment to arrive and engage Rick in a long discussion about art and printmaking, in effect getting their own mini course in the other room while I was trying to direct my assigned students in the tasks I had planned out for them. 

In the end etching won the day and everyone, with the exception of the woman who had not signed up in the first place, created beautiful images and were very happy with the process and their results. It didn't exactly go like clockwork, but it did go. I simply surrendered to the chaos and was amazed and relieved that it turned out so well. In the end I think we created a couple of etching converts.

students discovering dry point--look how concentrated they appear

students inking and printing their plates as Samuel, in red, looks on

some results

We had a lovely couple from Australia staying with us during the beginning of the week. Lindsay and Peter have been traveling around Europe. Peter is a watercolor student of a woman artist I've met over the internet and she wrote me that she was sending Peter to have a look around for her. It is particularly nice for us when our clients spend a few nights here. It gives us the opportunity to get to know them a little bit. They become friends.

Australians have a world reputation for being easy-going, friendly and active. Lindsay and Peter certainly lived up to their national character. We had a great time with them. They took Rick's tour of the Perche and sat in on my etching course which they characterized as a bit like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Of course this was from my own point of view, which they related to as they watched. I don't think the participants experienced the class as at all crazy. They were very focused on their tasks.) Lindsay and Peter had been to London, and the South of France and were on their way to Paris, so they appreciated a little country break. They enjoyed a rambling walk in the woods. It is winter where they come from. We "met" the rest of their family over meal-time conversations.

Peter and Lindsay from Brisbane


I had a little bit of time in the studio for myself and continued experimenting with my new color etching technique. I'm not quite there, but I made some progress.

Village Scene

 Lunch at Marc's


Rick reminded me that I forgot to tell a good story from last week. Even though we haven't seen Quinn all of this week, I have to go back and relate a little moment from one of the last times we did see him.  He turned a year and a half at the end of July and is beginning to communicate in a wonderful way (in three languages!). When we took him into a church recently he saw a crucifix. Jesus was portrayed with eyes closed, arms outstretched and head slumped over onto one shoulder. Quinn contemplated the image for a few minutes and said "dodo" (nighnigh).


Dawn on festival day

Montmirail is a very quiet little village, which people who live here like just that way. Thus it is that we have to collectively grit our teeth just a little when once a year 3000 people flood the tiny streets and turn our sleepy town into a 48 hour reenactment of the Middle Ages, albeit with amplified music, something the Middle Ages did quite well without.

Saturday morning dawned idyllic, promising weather neither too sweltering, like the first year we were here, nor rainy like the succeeding two. At the Maison, we were full with exhibitors, a journalist and another couple who had come all the way from Australia to attend! Apparently they are Medieval buffs who celebrate their own festival at home and like to see how others do it. Australia was well represented this week at Maison Conti.

It's difficult to recreate the Middle Ages in our time and place, even when our place is a village scarcely changed since. I don't think we can really imagine how differently people during that epoch of history experienced reality. They lived in a world without electric light, without clocks, or easy communication. A  typical medieval peasant had little experience beyond his own village for his entire rather short life. The bells of the church defined his daily routine and his seasons were governed by nature. Church doctrine, interpreted for him by a priest, defined his views of life and death. Of course he neither read nor wrote and couldn't have gotten information in written form anyway. There was little scope for individual thought. It was commerce, the ability to make and sell things, that released him from slave-like feudal commitment to an overlord. That was one of the most significant corners western culture ever turned. I suppose it's appropriate then that the fete gives so much space to vendors.

Most of the commerce represented authentic Medieval crafts and often the artisans gave fascinating demonstrations. These are folks whose job is to travel from fair to fair. Other stands offered things never seen in the Middle Ages but which were at least finely crafted handmade items. There was one rogue seller who seemed not to have been properly vetted. A rotund man installed himself right outside our gates on Saturday afternoon, set up a boom-box on a wooden folding chair and proceeded to demonstrate the making of brightly colored plastic rope while his CD looped a French song from the 40's about a little fat man. His repetitive music was in direct competition with the Medieval pipes and drums being played over the loudspeakers (which were attached to our house, just outside our windows). The man was dressed in a floppy red hat and did a touch-shuffle, touch-shuffle step in time to his anachronistic music as he wound his plastic rope. None of us could quite understand where he had come from, but his indomitable spirit kept him touch-shuffling long after most of the other vendors had shut down for the night.

Images from the festival:

model castle maker

sausages anyone?

Place du Château, products of every description

stone cutting


armor maker

 medieval costumes

 juggler and musicians

 (my favorite) stained-glass artisan showing how shapes were "cut" using a heated tool to crack the glass

The most anticipated part of the festival is the "Embrasement du Château" (the illumination of the castle), basically fireworks, which are arranged to look as if the castle is under attack. It is one of the most beautiful, and definitely the closest display I've ever witnessed. It goes on for about 15 minutes with wonderfully atmospheric music and a short narration to accompany the booms and flashes.


Village calm has been reestablished in Montmirail. All the tourists have gone back home. We anticipate another busy week of full rooms and happy vacationers from around the globe. France, Canada, England and the U.S. will all be represented.

Golden glowing sunset over the castle of Montmirail


  1. Fun..Fun..Fun...I love your posts, they are like mini books of deliciousness! I really adore the last photo of the castle and beautiful yellow house.
    Janet xox

  2. I love your description of your workshop. I can just imagine trying to organize all of the various people who turned up there to do etching...and in a different language! They look like they were taking their work very seriously. You are busy making more happy printmakers!
    Thanks for all the great photos and writing!

  3. I have just subscribed to your posts so I can keep up with your journal of 52 weeks in a French village. I love it . . . transports me your beautiful countryside. I went back and read the past weeks. Can't wait until next Monday!