Saturday, July 30, 2016

News and Terroir

Hay bales at Castelbon, Betchat, France 11 x 14 oil on board.
Sitting in a park in Paris, France, reading the news and it sure looks bad. They won’t give peace a chance, that was just a dream some of us had. - Joni Mitchell, from Blue

The news is bad lately, especially from France; my heart hurts from the atrocities and suffering. Following another horrific attack, a U.S. presidential nominee tweeted that “France is no longer France.” I am back on the blog to report that this is not true. France is very much still France.

I recently returned from a sojourn in France to visit my friend Noelle at her lovely artist residency, Bordeneuve. Each year she welcomes painters, composers, writers, film makers and other artists to stay and create in a spectacularly peaceful and enriching environment. I’ve been painting in France since 2001, and this was my 5th year at Bordeneuve. Arriving there is like coming home.

Trout before dinner - caught fresh from the river near
Niaux by my friend and wine expert Jerome Garcia.
The scenery – the greenery, coming from drought-stricken Southern California – is gorgeous, the rain delightful, even when it keeps me from painting en plein air. Bordeneuve is surrounded by forest and field; bird song in the morning is loud enough to be irritating, especially pre-dawn. Being there is transformative, as I become the painter I need to be, free of external distractions, nourished by the surroundings and the people I’ve come to know, and the local cheeses, produce, meats and wines.

A  perfect melon, 14 x 11" oil on board.
The French have a term, terroir, familiar to wine connoisseurs, to describe the environmental and climate conditions specific to a place that influence what grows or is produced there. For me, a painting is a product of terroir as well, influenced by the place it is created. What I learn when I paint there accompanies me home and continues to influence my work and my life. Many of my favorite painters were French – Monet, Manet, Matisse, Cezanne, Chardin, Fantin la Tour; others, like Sargent and Van Gogh, spent many years there. Over the years I have stood in their studios, wandered through the places they lived and painted, tried to soak up the essence of places that spoke to them.

At the Saturday market in St. Girons, I select produce based on beauty so I can paint it before I eat it. I believe that people are also part of terroir. The farmer asks which day you plan to eat a melon, so she can select one that will be perfectly ripe on that day. I buy chèvre from the cheese monger I first met 5 years ago, and the same goes for the pâté and saucisson. Running into friends, we exchange bises (kisses on both cheeks) and conversation (this year, much on Brexit). Every day I read, walk, paint, nap, do yoga; eat, sleep, repeat. C’est parfait.

Quick 6 x 8" oil on canvas sketch at
Niaux, in the Pyrenees.
Ann Raver, the former garden writer at the New York Times, once wrote that when the ancients were sick, they walked among trees and plants and breathed the fresh air to soothe their pain. For me, travel is a balm for the soul as well, and visiting Bordeneuve is a restorative antidote to bad news in the world.

I read this week that fewer tourists are travelling to France out of fear. I think about it every time I board a plane; perhaps it will be my last trip. But the thought of not going is far more dreadful; and beyond that, the thought of allowing other horrible people to succeed in making me afraid is anathema. That includes one current U.S. presidential nominee.

Girolles et Artichauds (chanterelles & artichokes)
11 x 14" oil on board, as delicious as it was beautiful!
Joni Mitchell sings that France is “too old, and cold, and settled in its ways,” as she longed for her home in California. I long for France from my home in California, so coming home I have to ask: “Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man? California, I'm coming home.” 

Here I am, home again, but with France in my heart, hoping for better news, looking forward to the next time. Vive la France.