The Art of Imperfection

I have written about dealing with imperfection in the past, but I think it can always stand revisiting. For myself, I have spent a good part of my life pursuing perfection—in myself and in my art. It’s exhausting. When I was a teen, I had to deal with the awful fact that I was never going to look like Natalie Wood. Big disappointment! However, we did have something in common. I can honestly say that we were the same height. Unfortunately, Natalie is gone and imperfect me is, thankfully, still here.

I will never write the great American novel, especially since I specialize in memoir, short story, poetry and picture books for children. Another youthful dream laid to rest. I’ve also come to grips with the fact that none of my paintings are likely to hang in a really prestigious museum. I’m OK with that. I am content to be a medium size fish in a rather small pond. It’s a lovely pond. Sonoma County is chock full of creative people and I get to swim around with them. My writing and painting endeavors have attracted a few admirers. Best of all, I enjoy what I’m doing. I haven’t given up on perfecting my craft, but I have learned to lighten up. So, I thought I’d share a few pieces of my art that were transformed by their imperfections.

Nature Nymph

Many years ago, I took an art class for teachers. I made a great wolf puppet out of paper mâché and fabric that still makes an appearance in my classroom whenever I do my Little Red Riding Hood unit. I also sculpted a small clay nude. She was never intended to grace my classroom, but I was rather proud of her. The instructor promised to do a first firing of all the student pieces. At the next class, we would be able to glaze our work. Then everything would go back into the kiln for a second firing. I was very excited at the prospect of experimenting with glazes. Alas, it was not to be. I returned to class to find my little nude sitting with a large hole in her chest. Sitting next to her on the counter were her breasts. They could be re-attached with glue, but that would preclude any possibility of her going back into the kiln. What to do? I could have tossed her away, but I didn’t. I reattached those perky breasts and I painted her. When I put on a clear gloss topcoat, she looked like porcelain. The crack didn’t even show.  A bird’s nest went on top of her head, a butterfly on one hand, and her other arm now sprouts a tree branch complete with small leaves. I formed them out of florist tape. Without her little accident she probably would have been quite boring—not nearly as much fun.

When my sons were boys, they used to beg me to take her off the dining table when their friends came to dinner. They are quite fond of her now. She has been a part of our family for more than thirty years. I decorate her with a tiny string of faux lights at Christmas. She holds a sprig of red berries in the fall, flowers in the spring.

Is she perfect? No. One arm is a little longer than the other and, if you really look closely, you might be able to see the crack. But, after all these years, she still makes me smile.

A Hole Where Her Heart Used to Be

At one time I was a gourd artist. I loved working with gourds. I’m not sure why I stopped. I have boxes of gourds in my storage shed waiting for the day when I rediscover my passion. To tell the truth, I sold a lot of my creations. However, there is one I will never sell. I found that gourd, at The Caning Shop in Berkeley. I was there doing a workshop when I spied it in a back room—the largest gourd I had ever seen. It was the perfect shape for a figure. There was only one problem. The gourd sported a large crack and a small hole. It was not perfect. Still, I looked at it longingly.

“Do you want it?” the proprietor asked me. “I can’t sell it. It’s damaged.”

Indeed, I did! I took it home, repaired the crack and enlarged the hole. I attached a life mask of myself, added paint, fabric, and paper mâché. A figure emerged—me, pensive and in symbolic blue. I had just ended a relationship with a man I loved. I called the piece A Hole Where Her Heart Used to Be. It was cathartic.

If that gourd had been perfect, I might never have even seen it. Someone else would probably have purchased it. And it was the crack and that hole that inspired me.

I’m so grateful for that imperfect gourd. It has been shown in several galleries, juried into a rather prestigious show, and won a blue ribbon. Today, she occupies a special place in my living room, a gentle reminder of a past love. She is still blue, but I am not.

 

 

 

 

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Good-bye to France and Studio Faire

Exactly one week ago I returned from France where I spent twenty-five days, twenty-one of them at Studio Faire, my artist residency in Nérac. This week has given me time to process my journey.

There seems to be some confusion as to the nature of an artist residency—what it is; what it is not. Many people assumed I was enrolled in art lessons. Not so. For those of you who asked, “Exactly what do you do at an artist residency?” here is the definitive answer posted by Julia Douglas on her Instagram account. In it she quotes abstract artist Elspeth Pratt, “From my own personal experience and my many years of teaching, I have learned that giving advice is not a good idea. The truly important task is to provide the stimulus and opportunities for people to develop and follow their own line of inquiry.” That’s exactly what Julia and her husband, Colin Usher, provide at Studio Faire. There was an expectation that I would work on my project, but no pressure and no suggestions as to how to go about it.

While the intent of every artist residency program is similar, I’m sure that each one has its own unique atmosphere. Studio Faire’s is intimate, hosting three “creatives” at any one time—three people from diverse countries, following diverse creative paths.

Naomi Washer, a beautiful young poet/essayist from Chicago, and I arrived on the same day. Colin picked us up at the Agen train station and whisked us to Studio Faire where we met Julia and Johanna Naukkarinen, a lovely, young  photographer from Finland. A somewhat older me was there to illustrate my alphabet book for children.

Johanna left us after one week. Tears all around. And, then, Thérèse Rafter arrived, another young photographer—this time from Ireland. Different ages, different backgrounds, different mediums but, despite the differences, friendships took root, bonds were forged. From two to four weeks, we lived in an alternate universe, together, where our primary goal was to follow our muse without the day-to-day diversions of our regular lives. Each one of us stepped seamlessly into life at Studio Faire. Slipping out again was bittersweet. Someone else filled the spot we vacated, just as it should be, and yet…

As we bade good-bye to Johanna, I announced that I wasn‘t much of a crier and was not likely to cry when my departure time arrived. How wrong I was. On the day of my departure, I cried. In fact, I cried at the drop of a hat for the next twenty-four hours.

An alternate universe was my reality for three weeks. I met people who became friends and whom I will likely never meet again. Still, life is full of surprises. Never say never.  I am put in mind of the famous poem, Friends for a Reason, A Season, A Lifetime. The friends I made in Nérac may be friends who came into my life—briefly—for a reason, but I will remember each and every one for a lifetime. Merci beaucoup, Studio Faire!

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig

After a hair-raising trip home (no details here). I am safely back in what I would formerly have described as my “real” world. However, I  now realize that every life experience is real while we are in it.  So, new description—I am back in my California world.

Nérac, with its surrounding villages and scenery, is beautiful. In fact, “It’s so beautiful,” became my mantra every time I took in a new vista, Now that I’ve returned, I realize that Sonoma County is beautiful, too, in its own way. While it does not have castles and chateaus, it does have redwood trees, the Pacific Ocean and vineyards.

I am back in my own home, my little kingdom, where I can create savory dishes in the kitchen with ingredients not available in France. I planned ahead and returned to a clean house with fresh sheets on my bed. So welcoming! My plants are blooming. I have the luxury of my own space. I live alone and I’ve always said I like it that way. Nevertheless, it feels a little emptier here than it did before.

The new school year is about to begin. And for those of you who keep saying, “I thought you retired,” I have not. I’m ready to take on a new bunch of little guys with special needs.  Instead of writing the great American novel (an early dream ), I’ve been working for over thirty years. with kids that fall outside the educational norm. It’s been a privilege and I’m not done, not yet.

Life goes on. I continue to work on my book, to support the Cloverdale Gallery, to paint, to teach, to spend times with my friends and family. And, oh, yes, I am researching artist residencies for summer 2020.

On La Baïse

By Tuesday, my time in Nérac was drawing to a close, but there was still time to create a few more memories. What could be more memorable than a trip down the tranquil La Baïse? Colin, Terese, Naomi and I set out on a two-hour ride down the river—or maybe we were going up. No matter, the river was so tranquil the trip became a meditative experience.  However, when it was time to manage a lock, we hustled.  Talk about memorable. It’s a strange feeling waiting for the gates to open, boating in, and watching the gates close behind you. We were in an enclosed area, endeavoring to keep the boat stationary as the water rose and rose. Finally, the gates at the other end opened and we drove through. It requires a key to open the gates, so we had to pull over and allow Colin to jump out and manage the lock. That left Terese, Naomi and me to navigate through the lock without Colin at the helm. Intrepid Terese drove the boat. We all pitched in holding the boat stationary whenever necessary—it’s called “grab and hold and hold.”  If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words are these pictures worth?…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Colin at the helm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Therese takes over

 

 

 

 

 

A scenic shot

 

 

 

 

 

 

The abandoned building we explored on foot several weeks ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Naomi on the river

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the lock

 

 

 

 

 

Hanging on

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My art shot

 

 

 

 

Second lock, but we turned around at this point. I believe that’s my finger in the shot. The only photo of me–sort of–on the river.

 

 

 

 

 

Back to civilization

 

We saw beautiful homes, historic sites, ancient ruins, kingfishers, butterflies and what we think was an otter, although Colin prefers beaver. A lovely day, and we still had Tuesday Night Market to look forward to. But first, a nap. Zzzzzzzzz

 

 

 

 

 

Trying to Stay In the Moment When It’s Almost Time to Leave

 

Three weeks sounds like a long time—as in, “I will be spending three weeks in Nérac, France.It turns out that three weeks is not long at all. My stay here has been flying by, and I am not ready to leave. However, ready or not, I will be leaving my artist residency this Thursday. There’s really only two days left. Today is almost over. Thursday will be a dreaded travel day—toting luggage, making connections. It’s a bit challenging when one doesn’t speak the language. I have been taking French lessons while I’ve been here—twice a week in fact, but I still don’t know much.

I want to be present every moment that I’m here. Tomorrow the entire Studio Faire family is boating on La Baïse, all five of us.  The river is breathtaking, and we’ll be going up several locks. Look for photos! In the evening, we’ll be going to Saturday Night Market, an event that is difficult to describe. It feels as if the whole town has gathered together (which it pretty much has) to eat, drink and be merry..  Food vendors sell amazing cuisine— Naomi and I have made a pact to finally try the escargot. Wine merchants ply us with their remarkable local vin. There is always a band or two. Best of all, there is table hopping and conversation galore—in French and English thanks to a sizable ex-pat community here. Nérac is a well-kept secret, but it has an allure that pulls people in.  Just ask, “How did you find Nérac?” Everyone has a story. Usually they were passing through on their way to somewhere else, became captivated, and stayed.

So, here’s my dilemma. While wanting to be in the moment, my mind is ticking off the seconds. I don’t go shopping for groceries at the Intermarche Super anymore. I am now trying to use up what I’ve already purchased there, as well as all the great produce I purchased at the weekly Saturday market. (Oh, no, that was my last Saturday market!) I’d like to paint a few more illustrations, but I realize that, shortly, I’m going to have to organize all my art materials for travel. I will enjoy tomorrow’s Tuesday Night Market but, in the back of my mind, there will be the ongoing realization that there won’t be another. Fini! I will see people there that I’ve come to know and care about, and who I will probably never see again.

Soon, I will need to decide what clothes I’ll be wearing during my last two days in France—no dressing from the bottom of the suitcase. Plan ahead.  On my way home, I will have one night in Toulouse and one in Paris, but all I will really see are hotels (although I hope to see a bit of Toulouse).

I am going to miss Nérac, mostly because of the people. I will miss my hosts, Colin and Julia, who open their home to artists of all genres and make them all feel like part of the family. I have been missing Johanna, the photographer, who was here with me for two weeks and is now back in Finland. I am going to miss Naomi, the essayist, poet, editor from Chicago.  We’ve been together here for almost three weeks. She’ll be staying another week while I am moving on. (Above, Julia, Colin, Naomi and Johanna on a night out at neighboring Lectoure. )

Therese, a photographer from Ireland, arrived this past Thursday. Now she feels like part of the family. One more person to miss. She’s the reason I swapped out “skunk” for a “sloth” in my alphabet book. She convinced me that Sloths are more engaging. Now I’ll think of Therese every time I look at the “S” page.

I am going to miss the historic beauty of this town and the surrounding area, not to mention the laid-back lifestyle here. Can you imagine a U.S.A. where everything shuts down from twelve to two so people are able to lunch with their families?” If a Frenchman had to eat in his car (God forbid!) he would have a tablecloth and a bottle of wine with him, and he would find a scenic spot to park.

Is France perfect? Of course, not. Every place has problems. But I like the slower pace (I’m not in Paris), and the deep connection the French have with family and friends. There is universal healthcare here and everyone I talked to is happy with it—no one loses their home because of a catastrophic illness. The education system is excellent, and a university education is affordable. The young are not saddled with huge student loan debt. In addition, there is also something to be said for living in a country where one is surrounded by history.

I will be happy to see my own family and my many friends at home. My own little bed will be lovely I am sure. But I would be delighted to stay in France a “wee bit longer” as my Scottish hosts would say. I hope to come back, if not to Nérac, at least to France. I have my eye on another residency in another part of the country. And yet, part of me hopes that I will see Nérac again. In the meantime, I will do my best to enjoy my remaining time here without ticking off the seconds. Viva La France!

Last Night’s Beer Festival was Incroyable!

It seemed as if all Nérac turned out to celebrate la bière. Hundreds of us sat at long tables on a street in the center of town.  Overhead, trees were strung with lights. A rock band played in the background and, for just 17 euros, we were served a four-course dinner. Terese’s veggie meal, including beer, was just 10 euros—the same price as a kid’s meal! You can see that my host, Colin, is having a great time! So did we all…

Angeline and the Cats of La Romieu

The village of La Romieu, located in SW France, is a Gothic jewel. It is home to the magnificent 14th century cloister, Collegiate Saint-Pierre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Although visitors are captivated by La Romieu’s beauty and charm, one of the main tourist attractions is the abundance of cats found throughout the village. They sun themselves on ledges and peer out of windows, but they are not real. They are the work of sculptor Maurice Serreau who retired to the village in the early 1990’s and became captivated, as I was, by the legend of Angeline.

Angeline was born in 1338. While she was very young, both of her parents died. Her father, a woodcutter, was crushed by a tree. His heartbroken wife died several months later. Little Angeline was taken in by neighbors and raised as their own.

Angeline loved animals and had a special affection for cats. There were always several following her around. Unfortunately, in 1342 and the two years that followed, there was a great famine in the area. Due to severe weather conditions, the crops failed. Finally, when the townspeople had nothing to eat, the village cats began to disappear into stewpots.

Angelina’s adoptive parents knew how much she loved her cats. She had already lost so much, how could they take away her cats? They allowed her to hide two of them in the attic. She let them out to hunt at night but kept them hidden in the day. Meanwhile, Angeline and her family barely survived by collecting roots and occasional mushrooms from the forest. Finally, more clement times arrived, and the villagers were able to plant and harvest their crops.  Then, a second catastrophe struck. Because the village cats had disappeared, the rats proliferated to a point that they were threatening the crops. Luckily, Angeline’s two cats had thrived. She now had 20 cats living in the attic. She released them to the townspeople on the condition that they care for them as they deserved. “Cat” was no longer on the menu.

According to  legend, the rats disappeared, and with the passing of time, Angeline’s face began to look more and more feline. It is even said that her ears transformed into cat ears.

Today cats can be found everywhere in La Romieu—stone cats, live cats, and assorted cat statues and trinkets in the local shops. Look carefully, and you will find a bust of Angeline, very cat-like, looking down from her perch on one of the buildings.

France and the Appreciation of Wabi-Sabi

Wabi Sabi: “A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting, peacefully, the natural cycles of growth and decay.” It is rooted in Zen Buddhism, especially the tea ceremony. I was first introduced to the concept in a mixed-media art class. The point was to let the paints and inks flow—to let the process guide the brush without a preconceived notion of how things ought to look. “Accidents” often turned into happy surprises and the final results, though not perfect, were often incredibly beautiful.

Today, I am in Nérac, France, not Japan, but I have been thinking about wabi-sabi. I believe that the French understand it much better than their American counterparts. It is about character, age, weathering and utility. How very French!

The town of Nérac is incredibly beautiful. It also does not not fit the traditional U.S. ideal. The sidewalks are uneven. Shutters need paint—or do they? There are cracks in walls. The town is old, but it has chateaus and a castle, loads of charm, an abundance of flowers, character and a sense of history.

If all the cracks were filled, all the shutters repainted and all the sidewalks repaved, would the town be more lovely? I fear not. No gentrification needed. It is perfect just as it is. Every walk through town is a celebration of both past and present—an appreciation of times passage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am staying at a lovely French farmhouse. The front of the building faces the street, the back opens onto an expansive garden. Tres jolie!  There are some who would criticize Studio Faire for not being “perfect.” It is gently being loved back into its former glory by my hosts, Julia Douglas and Colin Usher. It’s a work in progress. But, “Oh,” those magnificent doors, those endless chimneys, those charming shutters that open onto the garden. I love that there is a sense of the past, that the floors creak, that the stairs demand my attention, and that the thick walls have made temperatures of 105+ degrees bearable. I have everything I need. I would not change a thing.  It’s wabi-sabi.

When I was a child, I lived in a house that was 250 years old. It originally, belonged to relatives of Abraham Lincoln. “Ah, yes,” town-elders would say. “The old Lincoln estate.”

I loved that house, but it wasn’t perfect by modern standards. The second floor was a renovator’s nightmare. You had to walk through one of the bedrooms to get to the only bathroom. Young couples looking for the perfect home would likely exclaim, “That’s a total gut-job!” I didn’t think so. It was wabi-sabi. The building itself was a magnificent, two-story, white stucco edifice. It had handblown glass windows, pegged (not nailed) floors, and a fireplace in the kitchen that was so large I could almost walk into it.

It is gone now.  When my father’s job took us to another state, my parents had to sell. The members of the neighboring Catholic Church offered to buy our property. They wanted it for a meeting house. Within a few years they decided that a parking lot was more useful than an old house that needed endless upkeep. No one tried to block the destruction of the second oldest home in town—one with historic roots. The town fathers probably never heard of wabi-sabi. The French don‘t turn historic houses into parking lots.

Wabi-sabi asks us to appreciate the process of aging—in people, as well as houses and other transient objects. Nothing lasts forever. Accepting transience as well as imperfection is part of wabi-sabi. I’m  handling imperfection—still working on transience.

What Do You Do In France When It’s 44 Degrees Celsius?

First, if you’re from the States, you wrap your head around the idea that that’s 111.2 degrees fahrenheit. The next thing you do is stay inside. Loyal lab, Dougie Douglas, has the right idea. Stay low and as immobile as possible. Actually, inside Studio Faire wasn’t that uncomfortable. I got a lot of work done today—four pages of my book roughed in. But, wait, I’m in France. Should I play it safe and stay inside? Definitely not!!!

Naomi, another artist resident and I, arranged to meet up with our hosts, Julia and Colin, at a local café. There’s a birthday party. I know no one, except Julia, Colin and Naomi, but it doesn‘t matter—everyone is so friendly. Drinks all around. I make friends with Daniel and Renee. Daniel, an architect, is originally from South Africa. Renee is a retired  gynecologist from Holland. They are a lovely couple who live here now. We will meet again later.

It is so hot in the café. Sweat is running down my face. Even my hair is wet.  Why does everyone else look more refreshed than I do?

Outside at last and on the way to the Tuesday night market. We meet a French photographer who is having a 3-D photo exhibit here in Nérac tomorrow night and on Thursday as well. He is wonderfully outrageous, and we will certainly go. I can’t remember his name. Too much in-put, but it’s all wonderful.

The market is packed with people, but I understand it is less well attended than usual because of the heat. I can’t imagine a regular night. We buy a bottle4 of wine—and, later, someone buys another and another. The band is great and eventually we begin to move to the music. Our birthday friend shows up. Daniel and Renee arrive. I’m invited for a drink at their home on another day. They live on the river. Can’t wait.

Nérac is a not so well-kept secret.  People from all corners of the world have moved here. Tonight, alone, I meet folks from Scotland, England, Iraq, Argentina, South Africa, Holland and the USA.  Have I mentioned, I want to live here, too?

At midnight, we decide to walk home. The temperature is a bearable 94 degrees. It’s all relative.

I met so many lovely people tonight, ate chips, drank too much wine, and had a truly memorable night. If I hadn’t had that last glass of champagne, I probably wouldn’t have tripped on that crack in the sidewalk. In France, you are supposed to look where you walk. You don’t get to sue anyone for forgetting to place a large yellow stripe on that uneven spot on the walkway, or for not hiring a grinder to file it down.  I am bloody, but unbowed. Viva La France!