Wednesday, January 29, 2014

To Paris and Back Again

Wintery skies

We took a long weekend in Paris, where we enjoyed several delightful cultural activities, on which I report here. First, though, it has to be said that visiting the grandchildren was the primary objective.

Breakfast at Emily's. All one needs on the table: fresh flowers, a bowl of fruit, coffee, bongo drums and Zinnie.

Quinn turned five this week and Zinnie will be two early next month.

One thing I always enjoy doing while we're at Emily's house is visiting the local farmer's market in Le Pré Saint Gervais. It's open several times a week and consistently has the best seasonal produce available, as well as excellent cheese, good fresh fish and deli meats.

Cheese counter

As much as I like life in the country, it does seem a big treat and adventure to travel in to the capital where there is so much to do, see and buy.

Organic vegetable stand

While we did some shopping, Jos took the kids to the playground next door.  The weather here is still very mild.

Beautiful buildings surround the children's play area

Jos is in a new show in Paris. We were given a couple of tickets and very much enjoyed going to see Walden, playing in Gambetta, a part of Paris I had never explored before. It is a short bus ride from Emily's house. The show is a multimedia event, live music and imagery with readings from Thoreau. At the beginning of the evening, photos taken of Walden pond over an entire year, from a camera mounted on a tripod in a fixed location, are projected onto the back wall of the stage, and they very slowly cycle through all the seasons. It was somewhat mesmerizing.

A scene from Walden

On Sunday we were invited to lunch at our friend Nelly's beautiful apartment in Saint Germain des Prés.We took Quinn with us. Emily and Zinnie joined us afterwards. Nelly lives in my favorite part of Paris, and from her apartment, which is on a very quiet dead-end street with a charming park at the end, you can walk to all the major museums, the Jardin de Luxembourg and the river. People who know Paris well divide themselves into Left or Right Bank enthusiasts. I count myself as a definite Left-Banker.

Rick, Nelly and me in her library. Nelly is an art teacher and has an enviable collection of art reference books

Nelly wanted an excuse to visit a museum... we happily obliged. We decided on a show of Etruscan artifacts at the nearby Musee Maillol.

Maillol museum, one of our favorites in Paris

With Zinnie needing a nap, and Quinn stuck at knee-level, unable to see into the display cases, it was probably not the best choice. We enjoyed it a lot, but only as we raced past.

The biggest cultural event of our very cultural week was a concert at the Salle Pleyel, Paris' main venue for symphonic music. Jos and Emily had given Rick tickets for his birthday last November for a very special event, which we have been anticipating ever since. They went along with us, as well as a large group of their friends and creative acquaintances. Among them was Daniel Pennac, one of the most successful contemporary French authors. He's a very nice guy. Currently an animation made from one of his books, Ernest and Celestine is up for an Oscar. Enjoy the trailer:

The concert was The Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. It is a Venezuelan youth orchestra with graduates of El Sistema, the incredible free musical educational program created in 1975 by José Abreu. The musicians are between the ages of 17 and 27. Dudamel, who is also currently the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a graduate of the program and has been their conductor since he was 18. He is one of the most famous conductors in the world and is only 32.

By some fortunate chance, we sat right in the midst of the Venezuelan embassy personnel and the great man himself, José Abreu.

José Abreu, founder of El Sistema

If you do not know about this program, which offers free musical training and instruments to Venezuelan barrio children, you are, in my opinion, missing one of the most hopeful stories of our times.

The orchestra played four encores to enthusiastic standing ovations

These are kids, but the music is of the highest professional quality. Take a few minutes to enjoy this video taken in London a few years ago. You get a little history along with your music:

Friday, January 17, 2014

Start the day in kindness

January view from our walled garden


2014 has begun with a burst of energy. Days have flown by, leaving the holidays a pleasant but receding memory. I have been working very hard in the atelier and have only just come up for a little air and a tardy visit to my blog.

I did think of you when I heard a wonderful poem on Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac podcast:


Why I Wake Early

by Mary Oliver

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety—

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness. 

The entryway in morning light

 Winter light is magical at the Maison Conti. Sitting high above the countryside, I look out our front windows to glorious sunrises every morning and from the back to magnificent sunsets at the end of these shorter days. In between, the low angle of the sun bathes the house in golden light, reflecting off mirrors, illuminating objects and casting wonderful shadows.

Main staircase to the ground floor

Of course, winter time is much quieter in our business, though it must be said, not completely dead. Still, we do have days of long lazy mornings, languid afternoons and cozy nights by the fireplace.

Rick at breakfast in a sunny window / mirror collection

So far, this winter has been extremely mild. No polar vortex here. We anticipate a bit more cold to come (last year it was colder at Easter than at Christmas), but even so, when the sun comes out, which it does surprisingly often, the house stays comfortable.

Stairway to our apartment

We have spent more than two solid weeks, working from morning to evening, repainting and reorganizing the atelier. It took much longer than I could have anticipated, but I am very pleased with the results and it is certainly clean from top to bottom. It is a very pleasant place to work.

Old yellow walls are now white. Much better!

We actually have lots more to accomplished before the job is entirely done, as we have not yet started work in the press room or the acid room, and Rick still intends to build me some shelves for the studio. I thought this would be just one of several redecorating jobs for the season, but it may turn out to be the only one.

Organized and ready for a happy new year

These mild days beg for walks to the garden and around the town. Winters like this one offer many delights. 

The road to our garden


I wanted to let you know that Michael and Victoria Copeland will be offering two watercolor workshops at the Maison Conti in September/October 2014. The first session is already full, but there is still space for the second one.

Detailed information can be found on their website

Be sure to visit their website for more information or to sign up for this course. We are really looking forward to hosting the Copeland's and their students! Visit: sketchbook tours

Michael is a talented semi-abstract painter, represented in the U.S. by several galleries, but the course will focus on more realistic landscape watercolor painting. As you can see from his work, he has lots of color-singing techniques to teach you!

Images by Michael Copeland


I hope the new year is looking promising to you. Please come visit again. Next time I will report on our extended visit to wintery Paris.

Berries on the wrought iron fence of the Chateau

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Long and winding road

The countryside around Montmirail

I generally greet the new year with good cheer. I'm mostly an optimist, or at least I view the troubles of the world as not entirely implacable. The road leading on into 2014 is uncertain, yet the energy that is available at the start of a new year, with a collective acceptance that we are transitioning between an end and a new beginning, is invigorating. I like goals and resolutions. Let it all unfold. We'll do our best to keep up.


Christmas is the one time of year that my whole family comes together. In over thirty years, there is only one holiday season which we didn't spend all together. We have our traditions, but we  also evolve in our methods of celebrating. We seem much more interested in projects and activities than in actually giving gifts, though, of course, that occurs as well.

With the addition of two little people into the mix, the focus definitely has shifted. Quinn is all on board, and Zinnie is old enough this year to begin to get the picture.

Quinn will be 5 in January, Zinnie will be 2 in February

One thing Zinnie enjoys is eating, and Christmas affords many opportunities for that. It seems to me that we spend most of our time in the kitchen, either cooking, cleaning up or  consuming delectable dishes that one or the other of us just has to share with the family. We seem to save up all our best recipes for this one holiday. This year one of our clients gave us a pheasant he had just bagged in the woods close to our house. The bird was a real beauty. We sang "Alouette, gentille alouette, alouette, je te plumerai" as we plucked him of his bright red and brown feathers.

Baby bird?

Quinn put on some shows. He is becoming quite interested in clowning, acting and story telling. Hmmm, I wonder where that comes from?

Puppet theater / activity in the atelier

Jos tells a story & Quinn provides the sound effects

I introduced an activity this year that involved giving everyone something we had discovered during the previous year. From me it was a tool called a brush pen, and I just adore the marks you can make with it. James gave us each a video called Stories We Tell (a very fascinating true family tale) and challenged us for next Christmas to discover some kind of previously unexplored history story to share with the family. Emily used her sewing machine to deck us all in her handmade creations.

Emily and James try out the brush pen

It was really nice to have James visiting. He is on his way to England in a few days to defend his thesis for a Ph.D. from Warwick University. Meanwhile, he and Quinn flew a few paper airplanes.

Quinn flies his paper airplane

The weather over the holidays went from balmy and bright to blustery and gray. We took advantage of one of the more pleasant days to take a walk in the forest of Vibraye. We had it all to ourselves on the afternoon of Christmas.

Forest of Vibraye

We made a gingerbread house.

The Maison Conti is quite cozy this time of year.

Maison Conti


Emily, Jos and the kids left the day after Christmas to visit the other half of their family in Belgium. James stayed on. Before the new year, we took the opportunity to have a bit of an adventure not far from home, wandering some of the back roads and seeking out a few landmarks, many of which we had never seen before.

In Montdoubleau is this ruin of a castle which we have often passed, but never stopped to explore. It was built in the 11th century. In the 19th century it began to tumble down when a brick making factory was erected nearby, undermining the hill on which it sits. This bit, which is leaning precipitously is the last standing fragment. I found it rather magical.

Chatêau of Montdoubleau

Another spot we have wanted to visit was the church of Saint Pierre in the nearby and unremarkable town of Souday. Nestled between a filling station and a hairdresser, you find one of the oldest standing churches in all of France, or so we've been told. Parts of the structure go back to the 9th century. This was the period in history when Charlemagne was alive and when the Vikings were still terrorizing England and mainland Europe.

Chapel of the church of Souday

The church, of course, has been expanded and rebuilt in the 12 centuries since its establishment, but we could easily identify some of the most ancient brick work.

The painted ceiling in the chapel of the four major apostles of Jesus is quite charming

A large stone plaque which was carved centuries ago, and worn down by hundreds of years of foot traffic is on display in the chapel.

This little church has seen quite a lot of history. It was rebuilt in the 11th century, destroyed by the Huguenots in the 16th century and struck by lightening in the 19th century.

After Souday, we took James to our favorite church in Lavardin, which is considered one of the 156 prettiest villages in all of France. It calls itself "the most French of the French villages." That is a bold claim, but apparently this area is thought to be quintessential French, in accent, cuisine and landscape.

Lavardin residence

Even in winter, everywhere your eyes alight in this little town, you have a beautiful view.

Lavardin city hall

I have certainly put many photos of the church of Saint Genest up on this blog. We visit this lovely village every few months, yet I continue to take photos of it whenever I am there and it never ceases to charm.

The frescos which were painted in the Middle Ages by local artisans, were covered over when they went out of fashion. They were only rediscovered in the late twentieth century when the walls were being cleaned. They are among the most lovely frescoes I have seen. The colors are surprisingly vibrant after all these hundreds of years.

We were particularly interested in visiting a place we heard about last fall, a significant 3rd century Roman site. This small Roman town, which covers several acres of land, was discovered in the 1970s. It sits in the middle of farm land south of Le Mans. It includes an amphitheater,

baths with an aqueduct,

and a temple site with a reflecting pool.

The day proved to be a fantastic voyage through the past, an appropriate activity, it seemed to me, as we zoom into the unknown future.

May the year ahead bring you love and laughter! One thing I learned this week is that the earth is closest to the sun on January 3rd. It seems counter-intuitive, but there you have it.

Castle of Montmirail, with a sliver of a moon. "2014" is written in lights over the door to the city hall