Monday, November 29, 2010

Week 27: A Week of Extremes

the studio window

The week began with sun and bright skies. It was a welcome change after days of gray. The angle of light accentuated colors and cast intense, interesting shadows. It was a great pleasure to work in the studio in the morning, and an even greater pleasure to walk around the village. We rested for several minutes with our backs against the toasty castle wall and let the sun bathe our faces in delicious warmth.

The church had its doors painted last summer, so they are fresh and vivid, especially against the crystal blue of the sky. The little stooped woman who arranges flowers each morning drives her Deux Chevaux from the bottom of the village. It looks good parked in front.

The church of Montmirail, just outside our gates

In our terrace the sun played upon the walls, and the last valiant rose opened in the light.

The Virginia creeper has lost all its bright red leaves by now

A white tree rose in the terrace garden doesn't seem to know it's winter

The bones of the lime trees show up starkly against the winter sky.  Gilles will arrive in January and prune them back to their knobby stubs, but first he will festoon them with Christmas lights.

One of the four lime trees on the Place de l'Eglise

After a very pleasant reminder of September and October days, the sky clouded over, hinting that the weather was about to change.

Clouds roll in

And change it has! We woke up mid-week to find our view obscured and to discover that the first snow had fallen overnight. The castle grounds out the back window look magical.

The castle grounds

Our morning view

In watching the evening news, I see the long S curve that represents the jet stream, so I'm aware that most of Europe and even corners of North American are experiencing this dramatic plunge in temperatures. In Scotland it is minus 14° and one of the coldest Novembers on record. Apparently we can expect the cold to continue for a few weeks. It's a bit early to be this chilly! In our big house, especially when we have so few clients, we can't keep everything warm and toasty, so we have our comfortable zones, (the studio, the bedroom, the office) which we hustle between. In some parts of England people are receiving an emergency subsidy to cover extra fuel costs. Alas, that is not the case over here, so we keep the fires burning and the furnace low.

We always have a book we are reading aloud to each other, and currently it is The Eternal Frontier, by Tim Flannery, subtitled An Ecological History of North America and its Peoples. It starts out with a fascinating and graphic description of the meteorite that plowed into the earth 65 million years ago, creating the Gulf of Mexico and causing the extinction of not only the dinosaurs but of many other life forms, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, in the protracted winter that ensued. Since then, the continents have floated here and there and the temperatures have varied crazily. Did you know that once upon a time, just a few million years ago, North America was a lot like the Serengeti of Africa, with elephants, rhinos, hippos and other such creatures roaming the savannah? The point is, of course, that the climate does change on earth and natural events do occur which can have profound effects on life. Man, however, never before had the power to influence these events. Thomas Friedman likes to call it "Global Weirding," rather than "Global Warming," since the climate change we're causing does more than just warm up the planet, it sends unexpected storms and extremes of every kind. Each year I feel I note the effects more and more profoundly.

Next week we travel to London to visit James and celebrate a belated Thanksgiving. I will have  photos to share and adventures to relate if the Eurostar doesn't break down in the cold, as it did last year. However, I won't be back before the beginning of next week, so my post will be a day or two late. See you then!

Beautiful but frigid

Monday, November 22, 2010

Week 26: Mostly Gray

This week has brought rainy, gray weather. The leaves have fallen, the temperature has continued to drop, and fog hides the landscape most mornings. Days are short, clients scarce, and responsibilities self-imposed. I have never appreciated the winter so much before moving to Montmirail. After all, my days spread out in front of me, there is a cozy fire in the studio, and spending all day painting, drawing, etching or just dreaming up new ideas seems a profound luxury. I have hardly ventured out the front door this week, and I've enjoyed every minute. I wake up each morning excited to discover what I can make of the day.

We did have clients on the weekend, but they were the kind who are so easy that we hardly knew they were there before they had left again. We glimpsed blue skies and the sun peeking out from behind clouds from time to time, but those moments too were fleeting. We ripped hungrily into various projects, as if we had been starving for just such uninterrupted free days. Before Christmas we have two more trips abroad planned, one to England and one to Germany, so this quiet week was greatly appreciated.

Rick did find time to visit the garden. He began to put it to bed for the winter.  Nothing more was growing except for the last heroic dahlias. What generous plants these are! Giving copiously and constantly between July and November. Last year we mulched the bulbs and left them in the ground, against the advice of Michel and Jonathan. The winter was particularly harsh and we assumed we had lost them all, but in fact most survived. We will probably chance it again this year, even though cold and snow are predicted.

Tomato plants dead and gone

The bare bones of the garden

We cut the last blooms for our weekend clients


One project I have had in mind since last summer is painting a series of cloud images. I have taken numerous photos as the year has gone along. It has been a year of particular cloud appreciation. When we were in Le Havre we saw an entire long wall covered with small canvases of cloud studies. I found them so charming I wanted to make a series myself. Finally, I've had the chance to begin. I painted these on masonite with oils. We mounted them on the wall as they will take several weeks to dry and I need the room on my table for other projects.


During our visit to Chaumont-sur-Loire a few weeks ago, we discovered a small shop with a sign "Atelier de Gravure". We were compelled to enter. Inside we found a small room with a small woman sitting next to a wood stove, cutting paper chains with a tiny pair of scissors. All around the four walls were hundreds of etchings, tacked up. The paper cut outs, which she also produces, were pasted to the windows. It turns out the artist lives and works in this minute space with a very small press right in the middle of the room. There was barely space to move around for all the supplies and books. Her work table was under the front window. Since her studio is small, her images are the same, some not more than an inch or two square. She makes little drawings of people, animals and the castle, quite naive, but charming. I was fascinated by the size of her plates, which she showed me. She doesn't bother to protect them with talc or wrap them in paper and plastic. They all just sit in a box, jumbled on top of one another. She told me that she buys her plates at Charbonnel in Paris and cuts them up herself. I had never seen such thin copper. Charbonnel, located on the left bank across from Notre Dame, makes the highest quality etching inks. I hadn't purchased copper from them before, so last time we were in the city, I went there to have a look. I was very pleased with the thin and inexpensive small plates and bought several to experiment with. In the studio this week, I had my first chance to use them. They are about 2" x 4". I have been trying to work bigger, but in fact small is more natural to me. I like to work quickly, without too much agonizing over details.

Wren and Cedars

Girl and Cat

Chair by the Window

They're so fast to ink and print and one doesn't feel nervous about experimenting. If it all goes wrong, it's not as if you've destroyed a large precious copper plate.


I also began a series of illustrations for a story Emily is writing, The Very Big Something.

Edith Eagans was busy baking bread like any other day

Sadie Stevens was counting chicken eggs like any other day


For obvious reasons, I cannot post photos of some of the Christmas projects we have worked on this week, but I did make some package tags which I will continue creating this week. I plan to put them into my Etsy shop. They are cut out of antique postcards, of which I have a huge number.


Driving home through the countryside one evening we were treated to an exquisite sunset. It was mesmerizing as the colors, at first brilliant, darkened and clouds floated into ever-changing forms. At first we exclaimed to each other about its beauty and stopped to snap photos. In the end we were speechless and simply enjoyed the show, which we were able to appreciate from start to finish.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Week 25: Amsterdam

Emily's husband Jos has been in Amsterdam for several weeks directing Palazzo, a circus/cabaret dinner show which officially opens soon. During the past week there have been previews each evening, and we were invited to attend one. How could we resist? Neither Rick nor I have been to Amsterdam in years. The size of  Europe makes it easy to travel. The drive to Amsterdam from Paris takes less time than going from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.

We drove with Emily and Quinn and arranged to stay at the same hotel as Jos, a little south of the city limits. There was a happy reunion between Emily, Jos and Quinn when we reached the circus tent, where Jos was busy working. It is is very glamorous.

Another reason we were so delighted to go to Amsterdam was that it would allow us the opportunity to see our Dutch friends Eric and Karin. Eric is a clown and has worked with Jos for many years. We met him at Emily and Jos' wedding for the first time and became friends with them ourselves. We have visited them once and they have stayed with us several times, but we hadn't seen one another in a few years. Since Jos had to stay and work, and our reservation at Palazzo was for the following night, we were free to have dinner with our friends and their beautiful daughter Rachel. They took us into the heart of Amsterdam where we had a fabulous meal at a very authentic Chinese restaurant. It's rather difficult to find good Chinese food in France, so we were thrilled.


We spent our days exploring Amsterdam. It is a very pretty city - walkable, exciting, bustling and full of things to see and do.

I loved the floating flower markets, where they sell every kind of bulb I'd ever heard of, and quite a few I hadn't. I only wished that I had a big garden to fill up, as the prices were incredibly reasonable.

Top on the list of the things to see is the Rijksmuseum, where there is a stunning collection of Dutch masters from the Golden Age, including Rembrandt, Vermeer and Frans Hals. It was a bit disheartening to discover a huge line waiting to enter. After standing in the queue for just a few minutes, someone came and escorted us to the front of the line. Quinn, in his stroller, was our ticket to VIP entry.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but frankly I get museum fatigue very quickly. I simply find all those works of art overwhelming. Because of this, I generally enter with a very fixed idea of what I want to see and go straight to those specific works and let most of the rest go. In this case, I was intent on focusing my attention on the Vermeers, particularly The Milkmaid. Luckily Rick isn't so one-pointed as I am when it comes to viewing art and he explored the unknown works much more closely than I did. He insisted I have a look at a painting called Still Life with Gilt Cup by Willem Heda, a relatively obscure Dutch painter from the 17th century. It is an astonishing piece of virtuosity. Of course the Rembrandts were also a highlight, particularly The Night Watch which fills an entire room.

Afterward we went to the Van Gogh Museum, which is a few steps away. There is a huge collection of his work. Another guilty admission: I don't really care so much for his painting. The museum was even more crowded than the Rijks and Emily was getting a little claustrophobic. We were about to leave when we realized we hadn't seen the temporary show entitled Illusions of Reality

The museum likes to put together works from other artists who had some relationship to Van Gogh or his work. This one was about the naturalist school. Van Gogh was one of the first artists who used common people with ugly features, dirty fingernails and tattered clothing as subject matter. 

During the time of the Impressionists there was a school of artists that were greatly influenced by Emile Zola, who wrote novels about ordinary folk and their difficult lives. This was a time when the industrial revolution was just underway. Artists also were just beginning to have access to photographs, which greatly influenced the way some worked. 

The show was full of monumental canvasses, life-sized and larger, depicting scenes of peasants, workers and gritty urban situations. Zola thought that painting should be didactic and actually teach lessons. When cinema first got started in France, filmakers were mostly inspired by this same group of artists and created stories like the ones depicted on canvas or in Zola novels. The show had paintings, photographs and early films displayed together. 

Of course, modernism reacted against the idea of art as social critic or as an instrument to teach. As a result, a whole movement in art has had little recognition, since it fell so far out of favor. The Impressionists got the attention in the fine art world and the Naturalists were largely forgotten. We enjoyed this exhibition tremendously. In fact, I could hardly sleep that night for thinking about it. Art is not produced to be hung in museums, and to see endless rooms of paintings out of their original context is generally uninspiring to me. A show like this, however, that can illuminate an entire period of history is very exciting.


One of the most enjoyable things to do in Amsterdam is just walk around and enjoy the old world charm and the endless canals.


It was Rick's birthday on Friday night, so Jos arranged front row seats for us at Palazzo. The show is wonderfully exciting with clowns, cabaret numbers, magic and acrobatics. Even the food, which was incredible, produced by the most famous celebrity chef in Holland, Herman Den Blijker, arrived with flair. There is a director just for the waiters, as the service in entirely choreographed and integrates with the show. 

I was delighted and amazed when a clown came to our table and had me hold three small balls which turned into about ten in my hand. He took those and put them into Rick's hand and had them turn into one huge ball. The performers interacted with the audience, which became more and more lubricated as the evening went along.

The performers are from all over the world and are highly skilled. The show is arranged to begin with the subtle and comic and to finish with the dramatic and extraordinary (due, Jos tells us, to the aforementioned tendency of the audience to get loud and a bit unfocused as the evening progresses). It's a difficult balance. 

The musical director was named Cesar and he turns out to be from the San Francisco Bay Area. He was totally bemused to learn from Jos that we were from Walnut Creek and looked forward to meeting us. He was great fun. We had breakfast with him every morning and enjoyed his company very much.


We found out from Cesar that Rembrandt's house is also a museum and displays his etchings in an upstairs gallery. There are also demonstrations of his etching techniques given right in his studio. That became a real must-see for us.

Rembrandt's bedroom

The etching studio

Inking up station

We saw this plate inked and printed

All of Rembrandt's 290 etchings are owned by the museum. Photographic plates, like the one pictured above on the press bed, have been made from some of his original plates. Prints made from them are available in the museum shop for a very reasonable price. If you want an "almost Rembrandt" to hang in your house, you can purchase one online.

Rembrandt's painting studio was also in the house and we watched an interesting demonstration about the technique used for making paints from natural pigments.

Photographs were allowed in the house and gallery, which was not true in the other museums we visited. The etching below was one of my favorites.


Shopping and stopping in cafes along the canal is also a favored activity in Amsterdam. We spent several hours one late afternoon discovering one of the more charming sections of the city, Haarlem. Harlem, Brooklyn and Hoboken are all Dutch names and of course New York was originally New Amsterdam. 

The sun set slowly over the canals.

Emily liked the big spaces in the cafes. In Paris the cafes are small.

Quinn enjoys some apple juice

Peeking in the window at a cheese and wine shop

Beautiful baked goods

At a letterpress card shop, the set up for a row of Amsterdam houses


On our last night in town Jos invited us to have a glimpse backstage before the show and meet some of the performers.

Peter Shub, the top billed comedian entertains Quinn with a balloon.

dinner preparation


Meeting Jos' interesting friends and colleagues is a real joy for us. The theater world is full of fascinating and charming individuals. The work is so intensive that often bonds become quite close and special. Jos, Cesar, and Scott, the creative director of the show, all stayed at a modern and very comfortable hotel near the tent. Breakfast each morning was a feast. The hostess who greets the guests each morning became a close friend to the three of them as they spent several weeks in residence. When Quinn arrived, he quickly won her heart. Mara, who was born in Aruba has lived in Amsterdam for thirty years. She fell in love with him, and the feeling was mutual. It was hard to say goodbye at the end of our stay.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Week 24: I Love Paris in the Fall

Our family visit continued into a new week. Betsy's daughter Abby, her husband Terry and their baby (9 month old) Pippin joined us as well. Emily and Quinn also arrived, so we had a full house. We even had a couple of clients on one of the nights. The two babies, almost exactly a year apart, were really adorable together.

The family enjoyed some walks in the woods. Terry is a fairly serious birder and it was another golden opportunity for me to try to get a handle on a few of the bird species we share our lives with over here. Terry said that our birds seem particularly shy. He did agree that one of the species that seems to spend a great deal of time among the vines that grow on our house is the little brown European wren. I think they'll be staying with us all winter.

Before they flew back to Oregon, where the family live far from the big city, we accompanied them to Paris for a couple of days. As we were driving through our local forest en route to the freeway we came upon a most amazing sight, a parade of about 15 wild boar scampering across the road in single file. I have only once seen a sanglier (as they are called in French), and that was in the south. If I ever doubted that we had them here (and I did), I was proven very wrong. They seem almost prehistoric to me, so hairy, lumpy and wild looking. I didn't have my wits about me in time to take a photo, so I've borrowed this image.


I am more of a country girl myself, but I can't help feeling a real thrill whenever I go to Paris. Betsy, Terry and Abby had never been, so it seemed essential to introduce them to what I think of as the most beautiful city in the world. Such a perfect time of the year to visit! I keep thinking the fall is over, but then there seems to be just one more week in full glory. Paris had on its most beautiful colors!

Betsy's family lodged at a hotel in the heart of Saint Germain des Prés, on the left bank. We stayed with Emily and Quinn. Jos has been in Amsterdam for several weeks directing a circus performance, so Emily and Quinn were glad for the company.

We met one another at the Louvre in the morning. The weather was Paris gray, but it didn't rain and was not cold. I love the I.M. Pei pyramid, which looks so majestic in the courtyard of the ancient palace. Here is a short online video which describes its conception. The Parisians at first had some difficulty in accepting it. But then, the Eiffel Tower had few supporters in the city when it was first constructed either. One thing I love about Paris is the harmony achieved between protecting the past and embracing the future.

Terry fed the pigeons while the babies looked on with real interest. Quinn, with coaxing, offered bits of bread too, but he didn't like having those beaks come so close to his little fingers.


It's not entirely necessary to visit the Eiffel Tower when you come to Paris, but it is quite spectacular, being considerably bigger than one would imagine. It's also a beautiful brown color, rather than black. Le Champ de Mars is the park that stretches between the Tower and the Ecole Militaire It is also very lovely and used all year round by the locals for strolling, running, walking the dog, picnicking, or just sitting. And even if the Eiffel Tower is the most visited place in the world, the neighborhood around it, is residential and authentically French, unlike some of the neighborhoods closer to the center of town. Few of the tourists even walk through the park, let alone wander into the streets adjacent. We lived just two blocks from the Eiffel Tower for a few years, so we have a great sense of nostalgia about most everything in this area of Paris. I had a French teacher who told me once that the Eiffel Tower is the Parisian's favorite monument and Montmartre is the one most scorned by the locals.

This time of year the park is particularly charming.

One of the main reasons we took Betsy and family to the Eiffel Tower neighborhood was to see the beautiful vertical garden at the Musée Branly. This building is covered with a membrane which holds a little bit of earth and plants of different sizes, textures and colors are planted right on the walls. There is a watering system built in. This gardening style was developed by Patrick Blanc, a French gardener.

Another site we wanted to visit in the neighborhood was the Art Nouveau facade on the Avenue Rapp.


At the end of the last afternoon in Paris, we visited the Jardin du Luxembourg, the largest public park in Paris. The French senate meets in the Luxembourg Palace. The park itself offers a huge variety of activities, the favorite of which has got to be simply sitting and watching the world go by. There is even a special style of chair designed just for this garden.

The flowers, planted in large stone pots, are extravagant, and this time of year match the colors of the trees.

There is a large pond where children can launch their sailing vessels.

The sailboat vendor was just closing up shop when we passed.

There are stands throughout the park where one can buy snacks, cups of hot chocolate and crepes.

And in all weathers there are numerous pairs of chess players who challenge one another.

John got into the act and looked right at home reading his paper amongst the fallen leaves.

Pony rides for the children are popular.


Before the family left we went out to our favorite Parisian restaurant, located not far from where Emily lives, in the extreme north of the city. Le Baratin is located far away from the center of town. It is in Belleville (as in The Triplets of...). One on-line review says:

A secret blown by every food writer in the past year, Le Baratin’s location still keeps tourists away. Local place that draws cross-town chefs on their day off. 

The food is simple and unpretentious, but delicious. The atmosphere is friendly. I couldn't resist taking a photo of this couple at the table next to us under the beautiful painting. They looked so attractive.

We enjoyed a really memorable last evening together. Pippin is one of the most pacific babies I've ever met. He rarely cries. Quinn slept through out the meal and Pippin feel asleep as well.

As we walked back to the car we were able to look out over Paris spread below us.