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.

Shadows and Reflections

Fog • rain • snow • sun…we experienced them all this week. The saying around these parts is “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes.” It’s true that weather plays a big part in our lives here, whereas in California it was rarely a topic of conversation at all.

This time of year I really notice the changing light. The situation of our house, the decorative grills on the windows, the many mirrored surfaces and the low sun throughout the day, create interesting visual moments.

I notice the reflections and shadows as I move through our rooms. I find them very pleasing and, being a visual person, little pleasant visions are like candy to me. It makes for sweet days.

Reflecting in a more metaphorical sense is also a favored pastime at this time of year. Looking back, looking forward, taking stock, making resolutions, trying new things, planning adventures.

Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind. – Nathaniel Hawthorne

The rhythm of our year at Maison Conti follows seasonal cycles, which has allowed me to be more aware of the passage of time and of the cadence of life. Certainly most of us long to feel a part of the natural world, but with the constant noise, the electronic devices, the demands and deadlines, it is difficult to find time, and time is so rarely dedicated to actual quiet and contemplation.

Time is what we want most, but…what we use worst.  –William Penn

At this moment in our year, we are more or less forced, or at least invited, to spend quite a lot of time in quiet and contemplation. Speaking only for myself, I can say I feel tremendously grateful for that.

Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend. – Theophrastus

Wintery Visits

Today I received a gardening catalogue in the mail with a message written across the front page in big red letters: “Préparez le printemps dès aujourd’hui.” Get ready for spring time today. Wait a minute! It’s been winter for only a few days! Let’s take it one season at a time…I intend to enjoy myself this winter, savor the calm, warm myself by the fire, and forget all about gardening.

One of the pleasures of this time of year is visits with family. Rick’s youngest son Darwin and his wife Alex came from San Francisco to stay with us for a week in the countryside of northern France. It was their first time at the maison. We took a drive down to the Loire Valley to show them some sites.

Lavardin is one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages (most beautiful French villages) of which there are 156 throughout the country, chosen and named by a private organization. This was our first stop, only about a 35 minute drive from home. There is a ruined 11th century castle on the hill overlooking the town which is extremely picturesque, but my favorite site, of which I never tire, is the church with it’s 12th century frescoes which were uncovered during restoration some time ago underneath a layer of whitewash which had been there since the 17th century when the naive art of the Middle Ages fell out of fashion. Luckily it’s back in now.

On our walk to the chapel, Darwin discovered a Chinese Lantern flower in its winter incarnation. I grow them in our garden, but I always pick them and dry them in the autumn rather than leaving them to transform themselves. I never understood why they are often called Love in a Cage, but now it’s obvious.

Amboise is the city where Leonardo da Vinci died. His patron, François I, king of France from 1515-1547, lived in the beautiful Château of Amboise, which rises like a wedding cake on the banks of the Loire river. We passed through here on our way to Chenonceau, our favorite Loire Valley Château.

I wanted Darwin to see Chenonceau because of its extravagant floral arrangements. He owns an upscale flower shop in Walnut Creek and is a master floral designer. Unfortunately all the arrangements were Christmas decorations, rather than the typical displays. They seemed a bit tacky to me. I had imagined that there would be far fewer people there on a winter day, but I was completely wrong about that too. It was more jammed than at any time we’d been there.

Despite all that I enjoyed the details, like the disintegrating tile floors in the foyer, and the beautiful leaded glass windows.

In one of the upstairs rooms, which is painted all black, Darwin took a gorgeous photo of Alex which he made into a very nice photo etching the next day.

photo by Darwin Harrison

We are wishing all our friends and family a very happy new year.