The View From Here

This week the village has come back to life. Our phone has been ringing and we’ve hosted our first guest. The Place in front of the maison is now full of cars. People are coming and going. For myself, I haven’t yet ventured outside our gates and haven’t felt desperate to do so. I have my nice chaise longue on the terrace and a beautiful view from our apartment windows. These make me feel much less restricted. Tomorrow, however, we intend to take a nice long drive and stop for a walk in the countryside. I haven’t been in the car since March.

I did some oil painting this week. I really wanted to do some abstract work but I find I don’t know how. I push the paint around and never have any idea what to do with it. I decided that I would try to make some abstract figurative images, which are popular at the moment and I have seen some fabulous examples, loose and expressive. However when I started painting I didn’t feel quite confident enough. Instead I came up with something semi-realistic. I decided to try using a limited palette, just four colors (two sets of compliments) and white. I don’t think I’m quite done, but for the moment I am putting it aside.

I also got back to finishing a couple of etchings which I began weeks ago. The first version of this one was a plain line etching. It improved when I added a little texture, with little etched marks, although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the result.

I decided to add some aquatint, which is a technique a lot like half-tone, used in old photography. Resin is adhered to the plate and when put into the acid, allows grays to be added to an etched image. It brings it to life.

Winter at the Maison

Monotype Landscape #1

Winter this year so far has been extremely mild. Global warming has come to Montmirail. In our front garden we currently have a rose in bloom, and our Daphne plant, (which usually blooms first, but closer to the beginning of March) is in full bloom. Unless something changes soon, I think we will see Spring long before expected. Of course since it was significantly warmer in Antarctica this week than in our village, it’s clear that we can’t count on much these days.

One thing, however, that hasn’t changed, is the Maison Conti is currently very quiet. We have our days mostly to ourselves. I do appreciate being able to begin the new year with lots of time to experiment and indulge myself in my atelier. It sustains me for the year. A little winter hibernation is not a bad thing.

I have returned to printmaking experimentation. I spent a lot of time several years ago exploring monotypes. The process basically involves painting an image on a plate and printing it as a one-off. 9 out of 10 times I wasn’t so happy with the results, but the ones that did turn out well were very pleasing to me indeed. It’s a process with a lot of surprises.

Monotype Landscape #2

I have done many fewer etchings over the last few years than I did when we first set up the atelier at Maison Conti. I hope to get back to more of that as the year goes on. I finished my first effort in early January.

Chez Nous”, a line etching

I have also begun working on some relief prints. The difference between intaglio, like an etching, and relief, like linoleum or wood block printing, is that in a relief the part that is not meant to print is cut away, leaving the surface to be inked and printed. In Intaglio, the lines are incised into metal, using acid. The plate is inked but then wiped clean, leaving the ink only in the lines which print under the pressure of the press and the dampness of the paper. I have done very little relief printing in my life. The results are less detailed and fine, but can be lovely in their own way.

“Black Bird,” relief print cut from wood blocks, one block for each color.

“Versailles”, one color wood block print

Our little village is calm at this time of the year, but there are lots of ideas in the air to improve and grow the town. We have a new restaurant being planned, perhaps a bike rental and brewery, we have some crafts people moving in to town to open up their studios for visits, we have a new gift shop and many cultural events in the coming seasons.

Gathering (and printing) plants

We have had some Australian artist friends/clients staying with us during the last week. They have been coming every two years since we first opened the Maison Conti in 2008. Wendy is a very clever illustrator, who has made some wonderful etchings over the years in our atelier. Margot encourages, critiques and runs the press for Wendy’s creations. They make a good team. We always have a lot of fun with them when they come.

On one of the days of their stay we took them on a tour of the Perche, which they had never visited. It was a glorious day with extravagant spring flowers and green fields of many shades to delight the eyes.

Such outings always give me itchy fingers, and I couldn’t help myself from collecting a few leaves and flowers along the way to bring back home to my eco-dyeing station. I was happy with my results. The color that is extracted from the plants is often such a surprise. A deep purple tulip I gathered from our own garden turned turquoise blue and a bright yellow and orange gaillardia made a deep blue impression.

We had a happy week in and out of the atelier.

Wendy and Margot admiring a typical French country shop.

May Flowers

Inspired by the season and the garden, I’m back to etching. We have an entire wall of pink clematis in extravagant bloom at the moment, as well as a lavendar wisteria which covers the front of the house. Yellow roses are in bloom and the climbing roses are budded up and waiting for their moment. Peonys and Iris’ punctuate their corners of the landscape.

After enjoying an enormous bouquet of soft violet colored lilacs in our entry, as the blooms began to fade, this branch was eco-dyed and gave a soft blue shade

May has brought some rain, wind and cold, following a glorious and sunny April.

Practical Boro and Sashiko

When I made this self-portrait in 2008, the robe I am wearing in the etching was already ten years old. I bought it at Nordstrom and it was the best robe I had ever owned. It is blue plush cotton velour, warm, soft and comfortable. But even the best clothing begins to fall apart after a certain moment. By the time of this image, the robe had a big hole in one of the pockets and one at the hem line.

For Christmas I was given a new robe. I tried to be grateful, but the truth was, it just wasn’t nearly as nice as the one I already had. It was then that I embraced Boro, although it would be years later that I first heard this term. I decided, as I returned the nice new robe to the store where it was purchased, that I would never ever buy a new robe, because there never ever could be one that compared to the one I have. I bought some felt in a similar blue color and patched the two large holes.

Since then I learned that the Japanese call their patchwork Boro. Originally a garment that begins to tatter and fray was patched for the simple reason that the family could not afford to purchase a new one. But, as with many things, the Japanese turned this ordinary activity into a high art.

This beautiful jacket is over 100 years old. I was given permission to publish it by a company in Japan that will sell it to you. Ironically, this fisherman’s tattered and torn coat is now worth well over $1000.

I have recently had a few more holes to patch on my own robe. Perhaps someday it will turn into a object of folk art, but for now it’s just my practical way to keep my garment alive and functioning.

This time when I mended the worn out parts I didn’t try to hide them. I like using felt as the patch, as it is very strong and does not unravel at the edges. They aren’t as decorative as the fisherman’s coat, but they serve their practical purpose.

During the last year I have made a certain number of wall hangings created from pieces of my eco-dyed fabric. Once they are sewn together, which is all done by hand, I add some decorative stitches.


My daughter, Emily, introduced me to another Japanese textile art form called Sashiko. It too was begun as a kind of practical mending stitch, but has developed into decorative and very formalized patterns used to embellish. I found an on-line class at Creativebug.com which taught me the basics.

Traditionally sashiko is done with white thread on blue fabric. It is very beautiful. More recently it has been adapted to moreĀ  eclectic western tastes.