The Big Adventure

Last Sunday we took a long drive in the countryside around our village. For the first phase of the opening up here in France, we are permitted to travel 100km, as the crow flies, from home. We packed up a lunch and chose a direction, which happened to be south, and just started driving down little roads that are innumerable in our corner of the world. The day was perfect, the sky deep blue, the temperature warm but not hot and the roads sparsely populated. We had a vague idea of finding a trail and taking a walk, but the main object was just to see the world beyond town. I had not sat in our car since February. It all seemed very daring.

The first thing I noticed was how fecund the world is at the moment. How many shades of green are there? From the intense yellow green of the newly sprouted corn fields, to the deep forest green of the oak trees, I couldn’t begin to count. I have never had allergies, but my eyes began to water as we made our way along. It was as if the air was swirling with new life.

Just about the time we began to feel a bit hungry, we passed a sign for The Château de Courtanvaux. Although the castle itself was closed, the grounds were open and we headed down the forested drive to the parking lot. We had been here several times before but never fully explored the grounds. It made a perfect place for our picnic. We found a bench in the shade of some trees and enjoyed the serenity with a few other families who were also there.

The 168 acre grounds are open all year, free of charge, for walking and picnicking. There are forested hiking trails, formal and informal gardens and a lake with a path all the way around.

Enjoy the sound of the French countryside!

A pleasant water course leads from the château itself to the lake and beyond. The water tumbles down in steps.

In other times we have seen wedding parties taking photographs here. The grounds are very photogenic, as you can see. The bridge is a favorite spot for the bride, in her flowing white gown to pose with her new husband, dressed in black. I could picture them there.

The formal rose garden is on the castle level, which we didn’t visit this time. Instead we enjoyed the field of wild flowers and native grasses.

We took a nice long walk all through the grounds of Courtanvaux before traveling on.

A few iconic sights greeted us as we zoomed past, including this two layered ghost sign on the side of a building and these incredible stupa-like structures built by an artist outside a town we pass through from time to time. We have never seen the artist at work, but each time, they multiply and change. They are located right on the roadside and visitors are welcome to stroll among them.

We were gone from home for less than five hours, and our walk was more a stroll than a hike. Even so, at the end of the day I was so exhausted that I could hardly keep upright. I suppose I was just a bit overstimulated!

Finding Beauty in Confinement

We take our afternoon tea on the terrace.

For me, this week has passed much like the week before and no doubt similar to the week ahead. Still the natural world outside our gates is not standing still or waiting for us to rejoin it. The pace there has accelerated. I don’t think nature misses us much. It actually gives me great pleasure to hear about how the animals are returning to reclaim empty streets of cities, how the air and water are recovering, how it is noted that even bird songs are louder this year as the avian population is not so stressed by human activity. What have we done to our world that our absence is not only not regretted, but actually celebrated? Less than a hundred years ago the earth was 66% wilderness. Today it is barely 25% and shrinking yearly. Every environmentalist that I have heard speak about this pandemic points out that it is the natural consequence of the way we are using our world. These few weeks of human pause seem very precious to me. It is far from certain that we will abandon our unsustainable ways as a result of being temporarily stopped in our tracks, but some things will change. Nature has a point of view and is perhaps trying to send us a powerful message. It makes sense to try to hear it.

In the thirteen years we’ve lived here, we have never actually had our house to ourselves except during the darkest days of winter. What a pleasure it has been to have these wonderful warm days and spend our time as we choose, without having guests to accommodate. Rick has time in his schedule, which is rare. He decided he wanted to start doing some woodblock cutting, I was really thrilled. I am working on a new print of a clematis branch and I was certainly happy to allow him to do the carving for it. He is really a much better craftsman than I am, more patient and meticulous.

The weeds have gone wild both inside and outside our gate. But if you’re an attractive weed, we give you free rein.

At the big garden the bee balm and brunnera are in glorious bloom. These plants too are volunteers, but I welcome them both wholeheartedly.

A friend from California sent us California poppy seeds a few years ago. They seem quite happy in our garden, they come back each year and in ever greater numbers.

The last tulips are enjoying their final days in the garden, playing their part in the cycle of life.

The side of the shed, weathered by years of sun and rain, makes a beautiful natural abstract painting.

In our large garden irises came and went a couple of weeks ago, but in the terrace, they are just beginning.

In the fields around the village, horses and other farm creatures are romping about in the sunshine.

Our entry which has always served our clients has been made more cozy by removing one of the two couches we had there. We had a difficult time deciding where to put the extra one until we came up with the idea of having it just outside the atelier, in a little hallway that has served as a storage area.

It has turned out to be a very pleasant place to sit, as long as we remember to take off our inky smocks first.

Inside the atelier itself, I am always moving things around to find better arrangements. Birds and boxes feature prominently on one of the storage cupboards.

Last but not least, this week, I have a simple recipe to share with you. We have begun to make a Chinese style vegetable fritter which is quite delicious and super easy to make. You cut a leek, a zucchini, a carrot, an onion, some scallions, a hot pepper and a mushrooms to make 1/2 match stick sized pieces. Put 2 1/2 cups of the sliced vegetables in a bowl, add 3/4 cup flour, 1t salt and 3/4 water. Still together. Cook in a generous amount of oil until browned and loose on one side (a few minutes), flip and brown the second side. Serve with a dipping sauce of 1T soya sauce mixed with 2t rice wine vinegar. Float a few sesame seeds and red pepper flakes on top of the sauce.

The safflower fields are all bloomed out, but the view is still a pleasant alternative to television.

Flower Power

While I am making prints of late summer flowers in the studio, outside spring flowers are coming into glorious bloom. At our garden, a few minutes walk from home, the cherry blossoms are promising an abundance of fruit in a couple of months.

Although we both long for a car trip, or a visit to the sea, in the meantime it is not so bad to have such an expansive view from our living room windows, especially now. I look forward every year to the all too temporary safflower, electric yellow.

In our terrace garden, life has returned and with it, an embarrassment of flower glory. The wisteria is not only beautiful to behold, but it scents the air with a subtle sweetness.

At the same moment our clematis is carpeted with attractive pink blooms.

And as if that were not enough, the yellow rose, below the wisteria is popping into bloom as well. The weather has been exceptionally warm and the songbirds have returned to the village. The sparrows are busy making nests in our honeysuckle vines as the swallows swoop through the air. The blackbird, with his clever repertoire of songs, sits on the wall outside our window and entertains us from early to late. We continue in place until the middle of May, as required here, all the while enjoying these pleasant days together.

Small Pleasures

Sunset”, a reduction print in 4 colors.

After two weeks of “le confinement,” the French government just announced a two week extension. Regulations are stricter and the local police have been cruising the village checking papers and asking about any activity outside the home. We’re no longer supposed to ride our bikes or even spend the afternoon in our garden, since it is not attached to the house. One hour is the maximum allotted time per day to be out and about. For me, this continues to be fairly easy to accomplish. I am not getting bored or stir-crazy as others may be, but I am beginning to have disaster dreams.

As always, I have lots of art projects to focus on. I continue to experiment with the reduction printmaking technique. I am very fond of the work of painter Nicholas Wilton who has an active YouTube channel where he talks about his process. I have been tempted into trying some abstract painting following his well-articulated principles, but I’m finding that it’s a lot harder than it looks! I enjoy it anyway. I am also meeting Quinn and Zinnie twice a week on FaceTime to do art together. Not to mention all the friends I am enjoying virtual communications with.

The advantage of a big old maison, is that the house work is never done. We have started dragging furniture out, cleaning and waxing floors and rearranging the rooms. Something about that kind of work has always brought me a lot of joy. When the two week extension was announced I thought it presented the perfect opportunity to repaint! Unfortunately, the paint stores are not open, perhaps to Rick’s relief.

Last, but hardly least, is the pleasure of eating. Rick does the shopping once a week. I find some new recipes and write an organized grocery list. On this last week’s menu was a Moroccan Lamb Pie. Delicious! One was enough for both of us, so we froze the other for future consumption.

And then of course we have the spring weather to enjoy, at least from the window.

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.

Design Challenge

This week was my daughter Emily’s birthday. The last time we saw her she mentioned that she would like to have some kind of art work for the wall above her bed. To surprise her, I got to work on something to fill the bill. I decided to make a wall hanging from linen with cyanotyped birds. The weather has been so beautiful the last couple of weeks that conditions were excellent to create lots of blue birds. I could print all morning long for days at a time without a cloud passing by to obscure the sun processing.

I printed out various sizes and varieties of birds onto transparency to use as my negatives. I also made positive versions as well, so that I could make white birds on a dark ground and dark birds on a white ground. I discovered quickly that photographic images of birds were not as pleasing as simple abstract bird shapes, so I colored in all the bird details with a sharpie.

I also tried tea dying some of the cyanotyped images, which I never really attempted before. It involves mordanting the cyanotype in sodium bicarbonate and then soaking the cloth in a strong tea bath. It worked very well.

But I decided I wanted the finished piece to be monochrome. I made lots of various images and then tried to piece them together in a pleasing way. I didn’t have an ultimate plan. It was a process of moving things around until the individual images came together in some kind of cohesive or logical whole. At last I came up with a design that seemed to work for me, although it’s really hard to look at something on a table which is ultimately destined to be on a wall. I never feel fully confident with my choices.

I arranged the cyanotyped bird images on top of some hand dyed blue cotton fabric which I sewed together on the machine. It was much easier to look at the collage on a blue background than on the white paper template I had begun with. I decided to sew the birds to the blue cotton, allowing the background to show through in spots. I pinned it all down and sewed the birds by hand.

Once it was all together I began to think about doing some sashiko stitching on top to dress it up, but ultimately decided it would detract rather than add to the total. I also tried placing a few spots of color here and there, but determined that the blue was better on its own. So even if I was still a little uncertain, we made stretcher bars and stapled the finished piece on to them. The wall hanging is about 5′ X 1.5′. Once it was all completed, I felt disappointed. Something about it just bothered my eye.

I decided that it had something to do with the placement of the large while rectangles. I tried adding a few scraps and very soon found a simple solution that seemed much more pleasing to my eye. By adding just two small blue pieces, the design suddenly seemed much better to me.

Of course stitching those two pieces on was quite difficult since it was already stretched onto the wooden frame. Rick and I had to stand one on each side and pass the needle through one stitch at a time.

There must be a design principle here, but I couldn’t articulate it.

In other news, we have begun doing our spring cleaning… spring really does seem to have arrived here. These days it’s like being in Portugal or California in mid-February, completely unusual for our part of France. Rick helped me hang my basket collection from the downstairs kitchen ceiling, something I have wanted to do since 1983 when I saw a photograph of Martha Stewart’s restored Connecticut Farmhouse kitchen in Entertaining.