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.

Signs of Spring

This week our hemisphere celebrated the spring equinox. Spring, of course, represents new beginnings and marks the moment when the earth tilts back towards the sun.

Who can ignore the poetic significance of this time of year? Well, probably most of us. Still, nature doesn’t seem to care how glum we might feel about the world, it answers us with delicate wildflowers and numerous shades of green.

Here, where we live, the hours of daylight change dramatically from one season to the next. Already, in this first week of spring, morning comes a couple of hours earlier than it did just a few months ago and evening falls much later too. The birds are migrating in and singing us awake in the morning. Their enthusiasm and lust for life are inspirational.

The countryside around us bursts with new life these days. You really do have to be half asleep not to notice it and quite hardhearted not to feel something stirring in the breast.

At the moment, taking a ride through the Perche countryside is about all that is required to put me in a very jolly mood.

Artist as traveler

In early October we had a workshop with the inimitable Gail Rieke. She is a collage and assemblage artist who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her Suitcase Wall is so famous that once while she was visiting us a few years ago, and we went together to a shop not far away, the shop owner recognized it from the photo on the business card she gave him. Her home/studio is her biggest installation.

Gail Rieke’s studio as featured on this month’s front and back covers of Where Women Create magazine

I first met Gail almost twenty years ago in San Francisco when I took one of her classes at the San Francisco Center for the book. Later, when we moved to France, I invited her to give a workshop in our atelier. Since then she has come five times. It is always such a pleasure for me to welcome Gail and with her the very interesting students she attracts.

Having a house full of talented and creative people is a wonderful inspiration to me for months afterwards. I am still feeling the after-glow. In the mornings Gail gave us instructions and projects that generally were designed to make us see things from a fresh perspective, and in the afternoons we worked on our individual creations which Gail supported and encouraged but did not dictate. It is always difficult to describe exactly what a course with Gail is like, because she never has a prefigured product that we are all meant to imitate. She wants instead for us each to find our own way as she has always done. I used the adjective inimitable to describe Gail very deliberately. Although I think there are some who might try to imitate her work, I don’t think it is quite possible. She is a true original.

The other women who came, two from England, two from the U.S. and one from France, were also very talented and accomplished artists from various disciplines. Ann, from eastern England, had some ideas that really tickled my fancy. She likes to write secret and revealing stories on bits of paper which she then distresses to the point where even though expressed, the sentiments are not revealed. She also inspired me with stories of her travel journal pages, which she purposefully stains with food, drink, soil and even rain from the places she visits to literally capture the place.

My good friend Nelly is a teacher and graphic artist of some renown in France. She has published several children’s books. She is also a collector and very generous sharer of old papers, documents, maps and other treasures which she puts to good effect in her collage work. She brought many pages to share from early last century when official papers were hand written.

I was very delighted to meet Jen, Ann’s English travel companion. She does eco-dyeing, and, being an accomplished gardener, was able to give me lots of advice about plant varieties and best practices when it comes to extracting color from leaves. I have done a lot of reading on this subject, since discovering it last year, but Jen was the first actual human I’d ever met with some experience in this process that I currently find so intriguing.

We all shared ideas and techniques, Many of us enjoyed making a book form that does not require any sewing or gluing.

For this particular workshop we added an extra day to allow us to have a field trip. Luckily the weather was beautiful all week. We did walk through the village and adjacent forest collecting various natural materials all week long, but on the last day, we piled into cars and went a bit further afield, into the Parc Naturel du Perche. We lunched at an extremely kitsch restaurant in the charming village of La Perrière.

We stopped at Le Manior du Lormarin, a beautiful old property with a lovely brocante (antique store) attached. Almost everyone found something to take home.

It was a fitting ending to a week of creative discovery and fun.