Some of you may know that I have been in France for the past few weeks on a writer’s residency in a magical chateau-turned-artist-residency not far from France’s Champagne region.
If you’re imagining that the lord of the manor behind this ambitious enterprise is a noble Frenchman who struts around in a velvet waistcoat twirling his goatee and quoting passages from Diderot and Voltaire, you couldn’t be farther from the truth. The man behind the vision is Israeli-born American artist and entrepreneur Ziggy Attias, whose duties include Goat wrangler, Plumber, Lawn Maintenance, and Janitor. Ziggy’s long-term dream reaches beyond the grounds of the gorgeous Chateau Orquevaux to the sleepy (and largely abandoned) little village of Orquevaux nestled at the foot of the chateau.
The grounds here are truly magnificent. From the steps of the chateau you see cows grazing in the distance, a church spire rising up to the clouds, forests that once held plentiful boar and deer and a gushing river spanned by wrought iron bridges. There are several smaller buildings in various stages of repair – gatehouses, goat house, boat house, fantastic old stables, etc. I can’t really do justice to the ambiance and beauty of a French chateau so I’ll resort to a few additional images and you can always check out more on my instagram.
I managed to tear myself away from the natural beauty of the French countryside to dig into my second novel, and I did a number of small studies and sketches including a live model session by the banks of the river. I felt like I was living inside Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass!
Now, lest you think that one can go through life without the good AND the bad, I will wrap up this post with the unhappy news that amidst all this beauty and natural wonder, I contracted COVID. Yep, I’m fully vaccinated. I am writing this in isolation at the chateau. Four of us tested positive and like an ant hill that someone kicked over, everyone who tested negative fled the scene to return to their respective domiciles. So four of us have been left to recover here in the chateau, wandering the grounds and doing our best to overcome the symptoms – no picnic, I assure you. Ziggy and his partner, Beulah, are doing a great job of looking after us from a distance but it’s a really bizarre and emotional experience to say the least. It can be looked at as a blessing, or equated to the unnerving scenes from The Shining with Jack Nicolson!! Hopefully I fly back home soon. Fingers crossed!
It’s a great feeling when all the different influences and inspirational threads from one’s time at a residency come together. That’s what happened when I created Through my window (above). I felt like I had captured the colors and the intense heat, as well as my weeks-long view from the window of my atelier here at LMStudio Residency in Hyères.
I produced quite a few studies and works during my time here, allowing the inspiration of the moment to guide me. Here are a few examples:
My portrait (below) of the local personality, Michel, always drew a small crowd outside the gallery.
Michel is an unforgettable character and he taught me a thing or two – his motto in life is ‘Pourquoi pas?’ (Why not?) Why not indeed. Why do we have to conform or answer to anyone but ourselves?
I did a series of prints with abstracted windows/shutters that are so typical of France, and this area in particular. The shutters keep out the intense sun and provide privacy so coveted by the French. The rabbit is an image from a local poster about town advertising a wine festival. In the original poster the rabbit ears were cleverly composed of wine bottle silhouettes.
Watercolor sketching is not my forte but it’s just so satisfying and relaxing. Here I am sketching on the picturesque island of Porquerolles.
The beach is a GREAT place to sketch – all those free, unsuspecting models!!!
Other new works created during my residency will be on exhibit in September here in Hyères at the beautiful gallery, ARTDANH, run by artist/sculptor Annie Denis.
My final act on the last night was to eat a madeleine (below) while reading the famous excerpt written by Marcel Proust about this sweet French treat.
In his iconic book Remembrance of Things Past (a novel in seven parts, published in the early 20th century), a madeleine crumb triggers memories of Proust’s childhood. The excerpt is famous for its legendary wordiness and pomposity. It is often used as a literary example of how to really milk an idea! Just for the hell of it, I have included an English translation of the madeleine excerpt. Eating one while reading may make it more pleasurable…
Many years had elapsed during which nothing of
Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre
and the drama of my going to bed there, had any
existence for me, when one day in winter, as I came
home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered
me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I
declined at first, and then, for no particular reason,
changed my mind. She sent out for one of those
short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’
which look as though they had been moulded in the
fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon,
mechanically, weary after a dull day with the
prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips
a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel
of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the
crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran
through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon
the extraordinary changes that were taking place.
An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but
individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.
And at once the vicissitudes of life had become
indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity
illusory–this new sensation having had on me the
effect which love has of filling me with a precious
essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it
was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre,
accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to
me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was
connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it
infinitely transcended those savours, could not,
indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did
it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon
and define it?
I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing
more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather
less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is
losing its magic. It is plain that the object of my
quest, the truth, lies not in the cup but in myself. The
tea has called up in me, but does not itself
understand, and can only repeat indefinitely with a
gradual loss of strength, the same testimony; which
I, too, cannot interpret, though I hope at least to be
able to call upon the tea for it again and to find it
there presently, intact and at my disposal, for my
final enlightenment. I put down my cup and examine
my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But
how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the
mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond
its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the
dark region through which it must go seeking, where
all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More
than that: create. It is face to face with something
which does not so far exist, to which it alone can
give reality and substance, which it alone can bring
into the light of day.
And I begin again to ask myself what it could have
been, this unremembered state which brought with it
no logical proof of its existence, but only the sense
that it was a happy, that it was a real state in whose
presence other states of consciousness melted and
vanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I
retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank
the first spoonful of tea. I find again the same state,
illumined by no fresh light. I compel my mind to
make one further effort, to follow and recapture
once again the fleeting sensation. And that nothing
may interrupt it in its course I shut out every
obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and
inhibit all attention to the sounds which come from
the next room. And then, feeling that my mind is
growing fatigued without having any success to
report, I compel it for a change to enjoy that
distraction which I have just denied it, to think of
other things, to rest and refresh itself before the
supreme attempt. And then for the second time I
clear an empty space in front of it. I place in position
before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that
first mouthful, and I feel something start within me,
something that leaves its resting-place and attempts
to rise, something that has been embedded like an
anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is,
but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the
resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces
Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of
my being must be the image, the visual memory
which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it
into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far
off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the
colourless reflection in which are blended the
uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I
cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the
one possible interpreter, to translate to me the
evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable
paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot
ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in
question, of what period in my past life.
Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my
consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment
which the magnetism of an identical moment has
travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up
out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell.
Now that I feel nothing, it has stopped, has perhaps
gone down again into its darkness, from which who
can say whether it will ever rise? Ten times over I
must essay the task, must lean down over the
abyss. And each time the natural laziness which
deters us from every difficult enterprise, every work
of importance, has urged me to leave the thing
alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the
worries of to-day and of my hopes for to-morrow,
which let themselves be pondered over without
effort or distress of mind.
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was
that of the little crumb of madeleine which on
Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those
mornings I did not go out before church-time), when
I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my
aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her
own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of
the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind
before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often
seen such things in the interval, without tasting
them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that
their image had dissociated itself from those
Combray days to take its place among others more
recent; perhaps because of those memories, so
long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now
survived, everything was scattered; the forms of
things, including that of the little scallop-shell of
pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious
folds, were either obliterated or had been so long
dormant as to have lost the power of expansion
which would have allowed them to resume their
place in my consciousness. But when from a longdistant past nothing subsists, after the people are
dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still,
alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more
unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the
smell and taste of things remain poised a long time,
like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping
for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and
bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable
drop of their essence, the vast structure of
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of
madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers
which my aunt used to give me (although I did not
yet know and must long postpone the discovery of
why this memory made me so happy) immediately
the old grey house upon the street, where her room
was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach
itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden,
which had been built out behind it for my parents
(the isolated panel which until that moment had
been all that I could see); and with the house the
town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the
Square where I was sent before luncheon, the
streets along which I used to run errands, the
country roads we took when it was fine. And just as
the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a
porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little
crumbs of paper which until then are without
character or form, but, the moment they become
wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour
and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or
people, permanent and recognisable, so in that
moment all the flowers in our garden and in M.
Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne
and the good folk of the village and their little
dwellings and the parish church and the whole of
Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper
shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town
and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.
Two weeks ago, I had no idea where Auvillar was, but thanks to an unexpected artist residency at VCCA’s Moulin à Nef, here I am, writing this blog post from a spacious studio looking out over a French farmhouse and listening to the crows of a very boisterous rooster. Auvillar is in the southwest of France, about 45 minutes ride from Toulouse. Two facts worth noting – it is a stop for pilgrims making their way along the St-Jacques de Compostelle trail through the Pyrenees and into Spain, and it also has the honor of being included in the hundred most picturesque villages in France. I can vouch for that – there is a picture worthy scene at every turn.
Auvillar city wall
Although my main goal for this residency is to make a dent in my book, I cannot resist the temptation to create art when surrounded by such beauty. I used origami paper to create these two scenes below.
Village scene, origami paper
Landscape, origami paper
One of the most important things to expect from a residency is the unexpected. Like today, for instance. I was all set to go out on a walk by the river when I happened upon a beautiful bird. Unfortunately, it was lying at my feet, dead. I immediately scooped it up and ran back to my studio to immortalize it in paint. I used a new technique I have been wanting to try for a while, using the crusty residue of my paper palettes as the foundation for a new painting. I rather like it!
I hope to be posting one or two more blogs about the residency experience in Auvillar. Comments welcome!