Monday, October 25, 2010

Week 22: Getting Cozy

We had our first fire downstairs. During the coldest months of the year, this fireplace is aglow throughout the day. This week we had our first light frost. When I woke up and looked out the window to my favorite view over green hills, there was a light powdering of white. Still, days were mostly gloriously bright and sunny and not cold at all. The fireplace in the salon was lit only in the evenings for clients who took dinner with us three nights this week.

We had two rooms occupied. A charming young couple from Marseille were traveling through and stopped for one night, but Marie-Claude and her husband (just plain) Claude, from Blois, stayed on for several days to explore our area in detail, so we've gotten to know them rather well. They did what I want to call "deep sightseeing," and we had the pleasure of hearing about their adventures and discoveries at both ends of the days. Claude is a retired archeologist and Marie-Claude is from a family of historians. They are very knowledgeable about all kinds of things, the kind of knowledge that makes you appreciate and understand the world around you. For instance they told us that our church in Montmirail and many other churches in the area are constructed in "the English style." Since parts of the church were built as early as the 11th century, clearly English influence in the area has been long-standing. When William the Conquerer set sail, not so far from here, and claimed the crown of England for himself in 1066 the two countries became one. That's continued to be big news, as I can remember having to memorize that date when I was a child in the U.S. Of course William himself was from Viking stock, so all these European countries became mixed up with one another from earliest time and the idea of "country" is rather a modern contrivance. In those days it was about kingdoms.


I have posted perhaps far too many photos on my blog of the view from our windows. But I can hardly stop myself from trying to capture all the personalities that are presented to us through the glass. The big sky, the pristine landscape without an ugly thing in the picture to mar the view. These days the sunrises continue to thrill, but it is the sunsets, casting a long golden glow over the green fields that have particularly caught my eye this week.

I never seem to get bored with this very same vision day after day. Of course, the light constantly alters the scene, the trees and fields change color with the seasons and clouds come and go making bold abstract paintings in the sky. A small piece of this view is particularly charming to me because of the way the sun kisses it so warmly.

It looks like a painting.

Another enjoyable part of fall days are elongated shadows.


Even though we continue to be busy at the Maison Conti, our rhythm of life is definitely more leisurely. It has been weeks since we've seen Anne. She goes back and forth to Paris and the last several weeks we have had little opportunity for even a quick greeting on the Place. This week we were able to sit down with her on the terrace in the sun and share a cup of coffee and some irresistible locally handmade chocolate after lunch.


I spent some time in the atelier this week. I've been working on more leaf prints as I keep finding wonderful samples at my feet. This one, from the lime tree in front of our house was so huge, I couldn't help giving it it's very own page.

I also am working on a few book projects, inspired by our week with Gail. This is a monoprint I made this week which will be cut into a cover for a book I'm making, using some of the leaf prints.

The book itself is finished, an accordion fold star book with a little leaf print on each page.

I also pasted some stamps in a little triangle book I made last week.


Going to Paris at the very end of the week was extremely pleasant. Not only is the scenery breathtaking this time of year, but the end of the drive brings us to Quinn´s house.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Week 21: Wonder Wander

Journal of Possibilities by Gail Rieke, made from cards and recycled bits of paper

It's been a bee hive of activity at Maison Conti this week. Gail Rieke, collage-assemblage artist and journal maker extraordinaire was in residence, giving her workshop: Wonder Wander, a Journal of Possibilities

I met Gail several years ago at The San Francisco Center for the Book. Not only did I find her extremely talented and creative, but warm and friendly as well. I started dreaming about how to entice her to France. It took us a couple of years and many emails winging back and forth across oceans to organize and finally realize our plan to present one of her journal making courses here in Montmirail. 

It was a lively and intimate week. There were four participants: 

Nathalie, from Belgium, in her professional life is a doctor. She is in every other available waking hour a committed journal maker. She considers her journaling essential to her well being. She brought her daughter Margot and husband Fabricio along with her to the workshop.

Paula, from England, has just completed her Masters degree in fine book making. She is a very talented assemblage and book works artist, paper maker and seamstress. Be sure to visit her website (linked to her name.) She brought her husband Peter, who is a naturalist.

Janine lives and works in Singapore, although she was born in South Africa. She was at Maison Conti in January for a printmaking workshop. She travels to France frequently for her job as a publisher. She had not done much book making before this week.

Babette is a novelist from Houston, Texas. She was in France doing research for her next book about concentration camps in France during WWII. Who knew there had been any? She had never done any bookmaking at all before and considers herself a word person. She brought her husband Hale.

Margot was a wonderful addition to the week. This was her first big adventure, as she was born in June! She allowed her mother lots of time for work and very rarely cried. She has been sleeping twelve hours a night since the second week of her life. I've never even heard of that! Fabricio took her on walks and entertained her all day while mom was busy.

I had a slightly insane idea before the week began that I might be able to participate in the workshop. However with nine guests and three meals a day to provide, cooking and clean-up became the primary activities. I must say, however, that Rick was a huge help in getting food on the table. 

Lunch is my favorite meal to put together, and I only make it when we host a workshop here.

The wandering part of the workshop involved daily strolls around the village and countryside. The weather was cooperative, staying bright and sunny the entire time. Rick led the first walk and was surprised to discover that the goal wasn't exercise so much as observation. He turned around and discovered that all his charges were lost in various contemplations. They collected leaves and scraps of paper, seeds, interesting stones and any other bits and pieces which they incorporated into their journals. They took rubbings, photographs and sketched. Rick had to adjust to a different pace than his usual full speed ahead.

Once back in the studio the mementos were incorporated into the journal in various ways. The book which Gail proposed is a very flexible form. It allows for pages to go in and out without rebinding. There are pockets and envelopes to stash various treasures. Papers can be of different sizes, shapes and weights. The more variety, the better.
One of Gail's beautiful travel journals

 Janine brought lovely Asian papers to use in her journal

A half page with a quote tucked into a bottom pocket which obscures part of a page of found seed pods

 Paula's title page created by layering handmade papers and held in place with a button

 Maps and sketches are incorporated into the journal

Work went on in the studio for three days, punctuated by our walks and meals. People always tend to become bonded during the time we're together, adding to the pleasure of the adventure. We had many good talks, travel stories and jokes.

I took the group on what was known as "the rust walk." We photographed one another from either side of the street down by the boulangerie. Zack amazed and impressed me when he was able to find a most beautiful piece of very thin rusted metal, which he took back home to mount on his "rust wall." He knows how to see these items that I have probably walked right past day after day. In his studio in New Mexico he is patiently creating an entire wall of various found rusted pieces. I can only imagine how gorgeous that must be!

Gail loves reflections and often incorporates them into her work. This is one she pointed out to us. We all snapped away. It does make a beautiful abstract design.

Some of my favorite patterns are created by fallen leaves and bits of forest detritus.

The husbands joined us for meals, which were very convivial. During the workshop they took walks, read or did writing of their own. Peter took several tours of the village and met many of the locals, as he is a very friendly and warm character. He also identified many of our local birds for me. I love our wildlife but frankly don't have much knowledge about it, so I particularly enjoyed having some bird wisdom imparted to me. 

Peter pointed out a couple of juvenile morning doves. They were sitting in the tree outside the house. I would not have known that they were young ones, but once I did, I was able to understand a poignant drama that was unfolding before my eyes. The two young birds were born earlier in the season in the wisteria vine which climbs up our front wall. We heard and saw the family nesting there during warm months. Now the parents have gone on, leaving the two children by themselves. The two flew back and forth between the tree and wisteria for several days waiting for their parent's return. They walked along the rain gutters peering into our house in hopes of getting a glimpse of mom and dad. In the end, of course, they will have to fly off and fend for themselves.

The workshop ended too soon and all the participants left for the four corners. I was able to take away a lot of wonderful ideas and inspirations which will last through the coming cold months. I have lots of ideas cooking on the back burner. Thank you Gail!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Week 20: Indian Summer in Montmirail

It's summer again in Montmirail...or at least it seems like it. We served our clients breakfast on the terrace this weekend. The sun was brilliant and the temperatures high. Last week it was jackets and rain coats, this week shirt sleeves and sun glasses.

I had a certain amount of time in the studio this week and I enjoyed trying out a monoprint technique I'd read about on one of my European Etsy companion's blogs way back in April. Basically you press leaves or other flat organic material onto wet watercolor paper which has been brushed with areas of color. You put weight over the leaves and allow the paint and paper to dry for several hours. Once you remove the weights and leaves, your print is revealed. It's not easy to control and you won't really know what you have until the end.

I found the result interesting but not as delicate I was hoping for. I then began painting the leaves, instead and placing them onto the wet paper. I was much happier with the images I was able to create in that way. I became enamored of the whole process and couldn't stop myself from searching the entire village for interesting shaped leaves. I had a lot of fun. I also thought I might be able to use the prints in the book project we will be doing here next week with Gail Rieke.

Water color is very gratifying as long as the colors don't blend together to create mud. I tried putting on the painted leaves and then spritzing them with water to create a soft halo of color.

I also tried splattering paint over the leaves once they had been placed on the paper.


This week brought Quinn and his family to the Maison Conti. Jos was performing his one-man show, The Art of Laughter near Le Mans, and it gave everyone a good excuse to come stay with us for a few days.

Quinn is at that wonderful age when everything is a discovery. I get a thrill out of his interest in drawing. He can be very concentrated. He hasn't really learned yet to make deliberate marks (after all, he won't be two until the end of January), but he does enjoy making random squiggles with different colors. Of course I have dreams of long days in the studio with him in a not too distant future!

He is interested in just about everything, and his ability to manipulate objects and focus on activities has developed each time I see him again. He calls the Brio train (which I've saved in a plastic tub since James stopped playing with it about twenty years ago) "toot-toot." Cars on the other hand are referred to as "beep-beep." It's wonderful and amazing at what an early age children start imagining and creating stories. Quinn "feeds" his little animals, animates and talks to his toys and clearly is creating
his own imaginary worlds.

Quinn enjoyed tasting some of the last produce of the season. The delicious purple grapes which hang invitingly from walls throughout the village,

and cherry tomatoes from our garden.

Emily, who is a much more adventurous cook than I am, managed to make us a fabulous dish with some beets and carrots. And I don't even like beets.

The morning after Jos' show dawned gloriously warm. It was so idyllic that we all decided it was absolutely necessary to take a family outing. None of us had a care in the world for all the live-long day. Emily and Jos had never been to the gardens of Chaumont-sur-Loire, so we decided to make that our destination. It was a day full of lazy pleasures. Rick and I enjoyed seeing how much the gardens had changed in a just few short weeks.

Quinn enjoyed swinging around the poles in a wonderful structure located in the experimental garden.

On the way home we chanced upon an open air market in the small town of Onzain, so we snagged three dozen fresh oysters, a loaf of pain de campagne (rustic, crusty bread), and directions to the local vintner where we tasted several excellent Loire sauvignons, chenins and gamays. We were particularly taken by his sparkling red aperitif. The trunk of the car was fully loaded for the trip back.


We have been cleaning, ironing, menu planning and shopping in preparation for our workshop next week. And now Gail and her husband Zack have arrived! Be sure to come back next Monday for the full report.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Week 19: Dawn and Other Awakenings

Crows watching the sun rise over Montmirail

What glorious sunrises we've been having! One morning this week I woke up to see a group of crows on the rooftop across the Place sitting meditatively in a row, enjoying the spectacle, faces turned towards the rising sun. 

It turns out that beautiful dawn colors are seasonal.  I've been noticing them so much more frequently. It's also true that sunrise is more than an hour later these September/October mornings than it was in mid-summer, so I'm actually up in time to enjoy it! While sipping my morning coffee, like the crows, I sit and watch the sun.

Our clean air and abundant clouds apparently also play a role in the beauty of our dawns and dusks. According to the link above, the idea that polluted air makes for better colors is a myth.

One of our clients this summer, a professional photographer, showed me a simple trick for capturing the colors of dawn with an ordinary camera. And it works really well. You simply wave your hand quickly in front of the lens while taking the shot.


I must put in an appreciative word here for crows. They don't have the best reputation in the bird kingdom, but really, they're fascinating and nice to have around town. The crows here stay all year long. During the winter they keep the village lively. In the summer they seem to disappear, but that is actually due to the fact that in the warm months they become solitary while they are building their familial nests, breeding and raising their young. Once the weather turns snappy, and the hatchlings have become young adults, they gather together into huge swarms again of hundreds or even thousands of individuals. They are very social during this period of the year. Who has not enjoyed the marvelous sight of a flock of crows raising from a field in one mass and flying away together in loose formation? Crows turn around our church spire all day long and perch at the highest points. Unlike morning doves, numerous in the village during the summer, crows seem quite clean in their habits.

The swifts, whose evocative cry fills summer evenings, have all left town by now. The song birds have mostly flown south as well.

As if in strict observance of the calendar, autumn this week has made its presence felt. Various changes in life accompany the turning of the season. Certainly the palette of colors is radically altered. Our Virginia Creeper is already beginning to turn its beautiful red shade. The hills around are a deep green.

View from the dining room

There is no question that the temperature has dropped dramatically too. After a rather cool summer in California, my friends and family there have suffered temperatures well over 100° this week. For us things are quite a bit different than that. Days are still mild, but nights are chilly.

 We had our first evening fire

In the woods, the colors reflect the season.  Leaves cover the pathways, beginning to create a brown carpet. It seems that both winter and summer last a long time and things stay relatively constant. In fall, (and spring for that matter) each day brings noticeable changes.

Even after a few days, much changes. Chestnuts litter the ground. Blackberries go from plump and red, to deep violet and if unpicked, wither, turn black and fall. Color comes over the forest in a wave, first one tree turns, then another. Each time I take a walk there is more to notice.

For the first time in months I heard the wind in the branches as I took my usual walk through the forest. Acorns fell from oaks and bonked me on the head. A steady stream of little brown leaves detached themselves from branches and swirled around like butterflies.

A recent walk yielded a basket full of forest produce. I think one could live on the seasonal products offered in our little wood. Rose hips, berries and grapes on offer today.


Besides tangerines, which are all of a sudden available again in our local stores, another sign of the season is publicity and critiques for all the new events and shows being launched in Paris. Monet is  celebrated in several venues this fall. There is a lot of brouhaha surrounding the painting that is credited with naming the Impressionist Movement, Impression of a Sunrise, painted in 1872. A journalist, derisively named Monet and his friends Impressionists, after viewing this painting. The Musée d'Orsay, which is mounting a huge Monet show at the Grand Palais on the right bank, has managed to get all the major museums and collectors in the world to loan many of their Monet's to this comprehensive exhibition. Of course they wanted this very important painting as well, but the small Marmottan Museum, also located in Paris, which owns it, refused. They said that they too were hanging a special Monet show this year and needed the painting themselves. It's being characterized in the media as a David and Goliath fight.

Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression of Sunrise) 

By the way, if you appreciate Paris, be sure to read the wonderful article, Letter from France, Why I Love Paris in Autumn, by David Downey, author of Paris Paris, Journey into the City of Light (My all time favorite Paris guide book.)


Another friend David, from Lafayette, California, where we lived before moving to France, has a house in Brittany. He comes to visit, however, only very occasionally and stays only briefly when he does. He is an architect. This week he was in residence, after two years. He invited us to come visit. It wasn't entirely easy to get away as we still have clients much of the week, but we didn't want to miss the opportunity of seeing him and managed to find a twenty-four hour period completely free.

David's house was built in 1671, although it has certainly gone through some modifications since then. It's built of granite. Each area of France has their individual architectural style and building materials. Local stone was quarried to construct local housing, so a palette of colors was established in each area. In Brittany you have either this sandy brown stone or gray. Blue is the preferred color to paint shutters in the area, so David's house is not typical.

Even if we stayed only a brief time, we wanted a glimpse of the ocean before coming back home. David accompanied us, stopping over at Maison Conti before his flight back to California. The three of us hopped into the car and on our way back eastwards, swung past a few of David's preferred coastal locales. La Trinité-sur-Mer is a base camp for international sailboat racing. The port was full of huge trimarans. Personally, I prefer the old-fashioned sailing vessels, of which there were also plenty,

Down the coast a short ways we got a look at the open Atlantic and waved to all our friends and family across the wide sea.


It rained the entire time we were in Brittany. I was gratified to return home to clear skies and another beautiful sunset.

Twilight comes early these evenings--it's dark by 8:30.