Everyday Life in the Northeast Kingdom

In need of a salve for your soul in these depressing times?  Zip, zip, take a trip to the Northeast Kingdom. Fellow New Englanders know this means heading up to the tip top of Vermont to hug the Canadian border (which will feel good in and of itself). You’ll feel FAR, FAR away from urban madness and start to wonder just why it is that you MUST live in a city.

misc Northeast Kingdom shrunk11

My son and I pondered the reason why  eggs would be cheaper on Wednesday. We spent the better part of an hour discussing the possibilities.

 

OK, I said zip, zip, but if you’re reading this soon after I’ve posted it, in November, Vermont’s “bleak season” wait til summer or fall, which is when these trips were made.

I had the good fortune of being called up to the Northeast Kingdom this summer to mount an exhibition at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury. I packed my car and drove up there on the most auspicious of dates: the solar eclipse. After  a seamless day of installation (interrupted by a dash up the hill to the Fairbanks Museum for the eclipse viewing party), Catamount gallery director extraordinaire, Katherine French said, “Come let’s have dinner and then I’m going to take you to a little museum I  think you’ll like.” Given that we were finishing up as the sun was setting, I was a little doubtful that she could make good on her enticing promise. What museum would be open after 7PM? “You’ll see”, she said.  I was still worried as our lovely, leisurely dinner pushed past the hour that ANY museum would still be open. “Ok, let’s go!” And off into the starry night we drove further north and west to Glover. We pulled off the road onto a pitch black driveway. Ha! We had arrived at The Museum of Everyday Life.

Every Day Life shrunk40

I knew right then and there I was going to have to return the next day to photograph in daylight. Here’s what I hadn’t been able to see as we approached at night:

Every Day Life shrunk47Every Day Life shrunk49

Katherine fumbled for the lights just inside the entrance

Every Day Life shrunk44          Every Day Life shrunk43

and we found ourselves in the Raymond Roussel Vestibule

Every Day Life shrunk1

where there was a nice little introductory assemblage of quotidian objects which set the stage for what lay ahead.

Every Day Life shrunk34  Every Day Life shrunk36  Every Day Life shrunk35

Even though I have made a career of celebrating the cast away  stuff of our over stuffed world I was unprepared for the depths that are plumbed in the six or so exhibits in the Museum of Everyday Life. The museum is the brainchild of Intensive Care RN and Crankie enthusiast, Clare Dolan, who I had the pleasure of meeting the next morning when I came back for my daylight photos. She was racing around her yard mowing at a faster pace than I’ve ever witnessed.

“Let me go ahead'” Katherine French said as she opened the (beautifully adorned) door that lead from the vestibule to the museum and found the next set of lights.

Every Day Life shrunk57.jpg     Every Day Life shrunk59

We were greeted by a curious and pleasing little tinkle of bells which continued tinkling  for our entire visit,  a sonic version of the starry night outside.

Every Day Life shrunk16

You can’t be a reader of this blog and not know that I was utterly enthralled.

Every Day Life shrunk10

Pencils to toothbrushes

Every Day Life shrunk5

Every Day Life shrunk4

If you’re going to feature toothbrushes, you gotta throw in Toothpaste.

Toothbrushes to safety pins

Every Day Life shrunk13

Every Day Life shrunk12

Safety pins to matches

Every Day Life shrunk11

Violin, made by a musical prisoner,  entirely out of wooden matchsticks

Matchsticks to—wait for it—DUST! By far my favorite exhibit! I thought I had intimate knowledge of dust. (I can practically name the individual dust bunnies that live under my bed). But, no, apparently until now I had only the barest sprinkling of knowledge. Here is a bit of the  stupendous Dust display with accompanying label information:

Every Day Life shrunk6

“Hanging for 10 years directly above the kitchen stove in the Chicken Hut in Brooklyn, This ornament is crusted in layers of grease-adhered dusts of all kinds. On loan courtesy of Gregory Henderson”

Every Day Life shrunk66

“Cosmic dust from NASA’s ultra clean Cosmic Dust Laboratory, established in 1981 to handle particles one tenth the diameter of a human hair. The Laboratory curates thousands of cosmic dust particles… Cosmic dust grains…contain material in the same condition as when the solar system began to form…” And being NASA, the explanatory label went on for another three paragraphs.

Every Day Life shrunk68

I was clever enough to photograph the label, so you can read it yourself.

Every Day Life shrunk9

same ilk as the Chicken Hut grease/dust encrusted kitchen ornament above, this is a single paddle from a fan blade.

After seeing this exhibit your response will either be to vacuum the minute you get home, or never vacuum again! I just checked under the bed. The bunnies have multiplied, well, like rabbits. I am feeding them and they are happy.

Every Day Life shrunk8

I reached the back of the museum and finally discovered the source of the tinkling bells. This were the very last display in the Bells and Whistles exhibit:

Every Day Life shrunk23

I was too enchanted to remember the video function on my cell phone, and I really think it would be a spoiler to explain how this tinkling at the back of the museum was precipitated by turning on the lights at the front. I am sure by now you are clicking on your calendars and mapping out your visit. You’ll see for yourself.

misc Northeast Kingdom shrunk16

Stay here if you go: Rodgers Family Farm, Glover

misc Northeast Kingdom shrunk15

And get up just before sunrise to walk to  the beaver pond just a quarter mile down the road. I don’t like getting up that early either, but it was worth it!

misc Northeast Kingdom shrunk29

PS I foolishly thought I would cover every magical thing I saw during my three visits this summer and fall to Glover and environs, but I’ve barely scratched the surface. Stay tuned for Bread and Puppet, Red Sky, and other marvels in the Northeast Kingdom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back Roads Bonanza

With a little extra time on my hands after installing my exhibition in Athis de L’Orne, France this summer I was able to tool around the under-traveled, inland, and completely charming  Basse Normandie region.  I know I’m not the only one with the strategy of traveling the back roads if you want to increase your chances of stumbling upon interesting oddities.  This post confirms the wisdom of the circuitous meander.

DSC_0186_smaller

My hostess and co-director of ArtTerritoire, Domique Delomez,  called this my “butterfly map”. Butterflies! I like that: a far more poetic description of the post-its I stick on my road map to mark stop-worthy curiosities.

My hosts recommended the addition of a new butterfly to my map: a magical, microscopic chapel tucked in the woods: the Ste. Genevieve Chapel. They didn’t say why I would like it but they felt certain I would. So off we went, choosing our route by following our “butterfly” landings.

The first omen we had that this would be a good day came as we entered La Sauvagère,  designated as “un ville fleuri” by the Normandy Tourist Bureau. The flowers  on every stoop and portal were lovely indeed, but what got us to screech on the brakes was this fellow:

IMG_5073

and then as we got out of the car and looked up the street we saw a beckoning line up of chain saw carvings:

IMG_5082  IMG_5074

IMG_5077  IMG_5075

IMG_5083  IMG_5084

IMG_5087

Turns out La Sauvagère hosts a chain saw carving contest every year.  Nice! Won’t be long til there’s as many chainsaw sculptures as flower pots. Then La Sauvagère can be re-designated as “Ville Sculpté”.

Tucked away on the back side of La Sauvagère lies another treasure–a lovely roadside grotto.

IMG_5443

Those of you who are followers of my blog will know that I’m a fan of this curious genre of roadside art.

IMG_5437  IMG_5446

Onward on the twisty turny roads we travel, hoping to find the neolithic dolmen “La Table au Diable” that is marked with a little symbol on our Michelin map.  After taking this wrong turn and that wrong turn and traversing a couple fields twice over we found this awesome 5,000 year old burial chamber! IMG_5295

IMG_5303

IMG_5299

IMG_5298

Named “Table au Diable”” by those wishing to give the only  possible 18th century explanation for how this gigantic stone could have been moved into place–surely the work of the devil.  I gotta admit–it IS hard to imagine regular humans achieving this feat

We press on in search of even more fertile grounds…

Juvigny-sous-Andaine

As enigmatic as the “Table de Diable” is so too is the La Tour de Bonvouloir. A cryptic reference in a tourist pamphlet to the phallic nature of this 15th century tower was enough to get us to drive the winding road to the community of Juvuigny-sur-Andaine.

Legend has it that the 15th century Lord Hugues was forced to abandon his ancient, exhausted horse at this spot in the forest. When Hugues returned the next day he found his steed, who had quenched his thirst in the nearby spring, completely recovered. Intrigued by his stallion’s miraculous transformation, Lord Hugues jumped into the spring . He, too, emerged astoundingly rejuvenated. Feeling his oats, off he went to present himself  to the Lady of Bonvouloir. (Translate: Lady of “Goodwill” !) She accepted his hand and together they produced a large and handsome crop of offspring.  Lord Hugues left his mark on the land by erecting la Tour de Bonvouloir ,  a symbol of his potency. Oy!

We thought we’d have La Tour de Bonvouloir to ourselves , but to our surprise and delight we found the grounds around the phallic tower hopping with dancers in a lively celebration of Norman culture.

IMG_5331  IMG_5360

IMG_5378

We could see on our map that our ultimate destination, La Chapelle de Ste Geneviève was less than a kilometer away if one dared to cut through the woods, but we couldn’t risk  bush whacking at sunset, so we climbed back in the car to continue our circuitous route.

In the middle of a peaceful stretch of forest a teeny weeny chapel emerged by the side of the road.

IMG_5391\

The little structure looked more like a gnome’s home than a chapel, with impish carvings all around.

IMG_20170611_181104754_HDR

IMG_5417

I wanted to slip inside this magical little space, but the door was locked tight so I had to content myself with peering through the grill.

IMG_5396

IMG_5401

Here is Abbot Honoré Derouet the last pastor of the nearby St Front church, who took it upon himself to restore this 1856 chapel  which had been toppled by a tornado in 1923.

L'abbé Derouet à Sainte-Geneviève auprès du calvaire Saint-Hubert.

Derouet carefully cobbled together the original stone blocks,  added his own carvings outside and in, and dedicated the chapel to “his” saint, Ste. Geneviève,  the patron saint of peace– an apt choice for the Abbot who had spent a few miserable years as prisoner of war in Germany during WWII.

IMG_5410

To keep himself sane in prison, Derouet took up carving, sculpting whatever bits of wood he could lay his hands on. In his life time Derouet carved over twenty calvaries. He joked he would present these sculptures at the gates of heaven and demand entry.

Abbot Derouet dreamed of making the Chapelle Ste Geneviève a serene gathering place for his fellow prisoners of war as well as a tourist destination. To this end he cleared the trees in front of the chapel to expose a beautiful view of the countryside and added carved benches, tables, and sculptures. He even added a restaurant, creperie, and children’s amusements.

IMG_5413 IMG_5412

This old postcard shows that the site was once indeed a popular attraction.

Today the restaurant and  creperie have disappeared, the forest has grown back up, the vista has been obscured, but the magic and peacefulness of the place that Abbot Derouet created remains.

IMG_5416

 

In the last hour of sunlight we hop back in the car deciding it’s time to point ourselves back to a Michelin “red” route to make a speedier return. But then,  just as we turn the last bend of our “yellow” road,  Surprise! Up pops this friendly face to bid us bonjour  and adieu.

IMG_5434

IMG_5435

We look on the map. Ha! We find our new green friend lives in the speck of a village named “Etoile”– “Star” in English. And indeed, he is the star of our back roads day.


 

 

TransAtlantic

I don’t usually write about my own work on this blog, but a recent opportunity to install a large scale installation of my sculpture in a church in Normandy, France

IMG_20170614_175025804

was sufficiently quirky for me to make an exception.

First and foremost this is a tale of collegiality and why artists can be , should be and ARE each others’ best allies. And so I start this post with a big THANK YOU to German artist Ulli Boehmelmann

IMG_2241-smaller

who reached across the Atlantic to make a connection and offer a recommendation to an American artist she barely knew.

I was lucky enough to meet Ulli through Boston Sculptors Gallery when she came to Boston from her home in Cologne to install her work as part of a collaborative exhibition that several members of Boston Sculptors participated in with German artists. Her Boston hosts invited her to tour their studios and were nice enough to include me on the tour.  Ulli was a super great visitor–interested in my work, interested in well, EVERYTHING. It was a short little visit, but we really hit it off–then I had the good fortune of being able to visit with Ulli in Germany a few months later on an adventure with fellow Boston Sculptors artist, Hannah Verlin, to visit medieval crypts. (and now you get to go back to my very first post–this is the trip that launched this blog “Quirk”. If you’re spending three weeks underground in Europe with skeletons the very least you owe the folks back home is some kind of accounting of yourself.)

As Hannah and I mapped out our route we discovered that one of our prize destinations, the Crypt at St. Ursula’s, was in Cologne, the hometown of Ulli Boehmelmann.  Any chance we might visit, Ulli? Yes! Ulli not only met us at the crypt, she did a fine job of translating the unbelievably intricate, (and I hope it’s not too judgmental to say)–bizarre story of St. Ursula and why this poor martyr is now surrounded by hundreds of artistically arranged bones. Two days with Ulli in Cologne and I think it’s fair to say we moved beyond artist colleagues to become friends.

The following year, one more artistic opportunity brought Ulli to Boston to give a talk at the TransCultural conference. Once again Ulli came to visit my studio where I was in the final stages of preparing for my upcoming exhibition, “Uh Oh!”  at Boston Sculptors Gallery.

Uh_Oh_Blimp_installation_email

Ulli noticed the freshly minted pile of catalogs of my work that I had swung for (it’s a lot of $$ to put one of those glossy things together, and one always wonders if it’s worth the financial outlay) and asked if she could take one back with her to show the curator in France where she was going to be exhibiting her work that coming summer. There’s only one possible answer to that question: “Sure!” But, truly I thought it was just a nicety. Nothing ever comes of  unsolicited hand-outs of catalogs to curators. And so I promptly forgot about it.  Then one day, about eight months later, I’m jolted out of my doldrums by a  splendid email from France, from one Benoit Delomez, Director of “Vaertigo”,

IMG_5460just Benoit

inviting me to spend a month in Normandy creating  a site specific installation for the 7th iteration of ArTerritoire  in the summer of 2017. Yow! I come up with a million reasons to say yes and a million reasons to say no. Basically I go down the freak out path of  indecision.

Reasons to say “no” :

  1. the WHOLE month of June?!? I’m a fanatical vegetable gardener and June is the most important month in the garden!IMG_2507_smaller
  2. I’m a control freak when it comes to my sculpture. I like to know that I’ve dotted all my i’s and crossed all my t’s before I show–There will be so many unknowns–how can I feel confident that I can really pull a large scale installation together over yonder?
  3. This is a tricky, tricky space that is being offered to me–a church with uneven, multi-leveled  floors, a high vaulted ceiling and a stone wall behind the plaster–what do I know about attaching things to those surfaces?
  4. Sure, I’ll get to make the most critical pieces ahead of time and ship them but what if they don’t arrive–and yikes the expense of overseas shipping!

Reasons to say yes:

1: Hmmm, maybe June is NOT the most important month in the garden. Maybe May is, and I could work like crazy to get everything planted before I go. And, Oh! I won’t exactly be suffering from garden withdrawal if I go as the directors of “Vaertigo” also happen to be gardeners extraordinaire and proprietors of “Le Jardin Interieur de Ciel Ouvert” one of the most beautiful and creative gardens in Normandy!

IMG_5058  IMG_20170628_094102408  IMG_20170605_181827877

IMG_6073    IMG_5067  IMG_5061

 

2. How can I say no to an opportunity to spend a month in France: a chance to be an “internationally exhibiting artist” in my mother’s homeland–a country I adore! A chance to speak French! Yay! I mean–Uh Oh! I mean–yay?

3. And read the fine print, you nay-sayer:  a stone cottage to stay in,IMG_5447

a car to toodle around in, and a charming village with everything I will NEED like croissants and Camembert–yes–this is Camembert country–OK, OK, so the answer is OUI! J’accepte!

IMG_20170618_213350527_HDR_camembert

But before I accept the invitation– I must clinch the idea for a new body of work. Usually I need to ponder and pace for weeks, but this time the idea comes to me like lightning. Here’s what I’m struck by: It’s election season and though I feel absolutely secure that He Who Will Not BE Named won’t be elected (ya, I know, I’ll revisit that thought a little later) , it’s been a down right depressing election season, filled with xenophobic, nationalistic rhetoric. If I’m about to traverse the ocean to one of America’s oldest, strongest allies I want to go forth with my own declaration of allegiance. I will present a piece about the long history of friendship between France and the USA. I know immediately that I want to cover the floor with a coast to coast map : east coast USA to west coast of Europe, separated by the great expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.  I can see in my mind’s eye the iconic monuments I’ll sculpt for critical moments of allied support each nation gifted to the other: General Lafayette tipping the scales in America’s favor in our struggle for independence, France’s love affair with Ben Franklin, the first American diplomat, whose democratic ideals helped paved the way for the French Revolution, the magnificent gift France made to America of the Statue of Liberty–what better symbol do we have of the America I want to live in?

IMG_20170624_121809653

— the reinforcements that the US sent to France during World War One that helped turn the tide of the first “Great War”, and ultimately the enormous involvement of Americans in France in World War II which began with the debarkment in Normandy in which my father took part, his march into Paris with Eisenhower, and his serendipitous meeting of a French student–my mother .

OK, so I’ve got my idea–and then OH NO!  The Elections! The unthinkable happens: He Who Shall Not Be Named (fondly referred to by the French as “Agent Orange”) wins. He will be the American President as I set out to be an art ambassador. I am ashamed!  I resolve to strip away any images from my artwork that smack of his “America first”  and “military might” rhetoric. So no battleships landing in Normandy, no military anything.  I pare down my idea to the most personal part of my story:  My mother and grandmother reaching across the ocean to keep themselves tied together. Their allegiance will be the stand-in for the allegiance of nations that brought my parents together, that helped keep France French, that helped birth the democracy that is America.

As I get down to work, my first concern is my  quest for the perfect map. I want to find a map with the graphics of the 1940’s. It must show both coasts. It must be available online, open source, so I can print it out myself. And most importantly it must be of a super, super high resolution so I don’t end up with a pixelated mess. I search for days. There are zillions of maps–none of which fit all my criteria. I complain to my son, Isaiah, who gallantly takes on this needle-in-a-haystack challenge with supreme confidence in his superior googling ability.

IMG_4840_smaller

And Bingo–in one hour he comes up with a map made collaboratively in 1938 by the American and British armies for their joint efforts in WWII. The map is currently owned and digitized at a crazy high resolution  by the University of Texas, Austin and open all to reprint. (The resolution is so high that the tiny village where I install the work–Athis de L’Orne, popoulation 2,000, is clearly written on the map. That’s exciting!) Well, it turns out practically the whole world is available to print out except for two copyrighted countries: Spain and Canada, a mystery which I never solved and which took days more of sleuthing to find good alternate maps of these countries. Pictured above with my son is my husband, David (also gallant), who offered up his Photoshop wizardry to retro fit the Spain and Canada sections to fit the rest of the map.

IMG_20170614_104315164_HDR               IMG_20170617_200215734

But that’s not all that needs to be accomplished in this daunting task. All the Mercator lines (the pesky curves that the longitude and latitude lines take as they wrap around around a sphere) need to be straightened as my Atlantic Ocean will be FLAT.

This is the look on your face you get when your ship reaches the edge of the flat Earth and you know you’re going to fall off with the next puff of wind:IMG_20170619_144212522

Besides flattening the globe I need a system for organizing the hundreds of map quadrants I’m going to be printing out . For this I have my faithful “tech guy”, Rick:  Rick lighting Scrap

I turn three rooms of our home over to the map project: Isaiah’s room becomes Canada, Nora’s is the USA, the study is Europe, and the ocean, well, no room for the ocean–it’s relegated to a stack which gets higher, and higher, and higher. I work on the map every evening and weekend, all winter.  I go through a zillion cartridges of ink. I get friendly with the Epson help center in India. I dream in 13″ x 13″ grids. And when I need a break from all that blue, I scan and print the envelopes my grandmother and mother saved from their life time correspondence:transatlantic_life_boats

During the week I’m in my studio in Somerville, MA constructing and carving the iconic symbols of our two countries, the Statue of Liberty and the Tour Eiffel.

IMG_20170615_124504433

I’m also making airplanes to fly overhead but, not military planes. They will be passenger planes, each one carrying a letter my mother wrote to her mother describing her new life in America.

IMG_5777

And instead of battleships I will put in the Queen Elizabeth Ocean liner (which played an important role in the WWII efforts when it was commandeered by the British Navy) that my grandmother took the one summer she came to visit. It will trail life boats carrying her letters to us.

IMG_20170624_121404634

All these components, the ocean liner, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the hundreds of maps squares I will ship ahead of time. I decide to go with an international art shipping company rather than risking Fed Ex–I’ve heard stories that make me decide I better spend the money and really be sure my work arrives at its destination.   So what still keeps me tossing and turning at night is the puzzle of how to hang the planes from the high,  vaulted, stone ceiling and what to do about the uneven, multi-leveled stone floor. I know one way or another I’ll have to build out a new wood floor to apply the map to–that notion alone is enough to drive me to sign up for weekly French tutoring sessions where I spend the weeks translating my various neurotic emails as well as trying to get a handle on lumberyard terminology. I mean, really you can’t go in a French lumberyard and say I’d like ten 2×4’s please. First of all–everything is in centimeters and who the heck knows what the standards are there. Furthermore, if you look up the word for stud in the English-French dictionary you come up with either a horse or a sexy man, and that is not what I want to be asking for in the lumberyard. I spend every Wednesday morning with my tutor, Christine, laughing. I never do re-master the subjunctive, but, hey, when I have dinner with my French cousins in Paris they say they cannot believe how much my French has improved!

I need (note the word need instead of want) one more thing: my reliable partner in crime, my artist friend and colleague, Abbie Read, to accompany me.

.IMG_20170619_143658102

She agrees to eat the aforementioned croissants and camembert with me every day AND help me install the work! Besides being a gluer extraordinaire, Abbie painted beautiful cloud friezes for my planes to fly in front of.

IMG_5596

IMG_20170624_121831097

 

You can tell by these images that despite my worries the piece worked out.

I arrived in Athis de lOrne:

IMG_20170604_170758357

Found my crate waiting for me   IMG_20170605_093355291

at the beautiful home of Dominique and Benoit Delomez:IMG_20170605_132441497_HDR

Met my church, Le Temple Protestant:

IMG_20170605_155835331

Discovered their politics were exactly in sync with my own:

IMG_20170613_092022047

 

Got the floor built:

:IMG_20170612_101225364   IMG_20170612_100948793   IMG_20170612_171629510_HDR

gave the parishioners an ocean to walk on:IMG_20170619_182732223

IMG_20170619_143113781_HDR

Got the planes hung (giant c-clamps around the gothic arches):

IMG_20170622_172313457

IMG_20170622_112943480

IMG_5608

Posed in front of the roadside publicity which made me even more nervous about the opening:

IMG_20170630_175750300

 

Took deep breaths and  tried NOT to over anticipate my artist’s talk In French:

artistes3_smaller

These are the other  two artists in ArTerritoire 2017–Vincent  Bredif and Anne-Lise Dehee, both from Paris, who shared our stone cottage and a lot of laughs as they struggled to get me up to speed with more correct and current French. On the right is the wonderful Domique Delomez, co-director of Vaertigo who spoke so eloquently and poetically about the endeavor of bringing contemporary art to rural Normandy.

The last thing I did before the opening of my installation, “TransAtlantic”, was to hang  this amazing photo of my mother:

Clo_merge_smallerIt’s a photo my sister’s family discovered after my parents died. It appeared in Yank Magazine, published by the military for the benefit of the soldiers to keep them updated on the war effort. It’s the Victory Day issue. My father had sent it to his father back in Erie telling him that the girl looking at the camera was a girl he had fallen in love with. And that is both the beginning and end of my story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Underground

My last post featured three quirky cave environments in France. You might think that would complete my postings on the French underground, but two more visits must be described: both with top ratings on the quirk-o-meter.

The tiny village of  Dénézé-sous-Doué , a village in the Loire region for which Wikipedia can find nothing to say except; “Its church and the attached cemetery have the distinction of being away from the village.” Really, the entry is just this one sentence! I have never been so disappointed by Wikipedia and Geez–are they ever missing something!  Dénézé-sous-Doué is home to one of France’s most intriguing mysteries: La Cave aux Sculptures. After poking around a bit we found the non-descript entrance leading to steps down, down, down, deep under sleepy Dénézé-sous-Doué.

IMG_2821

This is only sign of business I saw in Dénézé-sous-Doué. Things are not exactly hopping in Dénézé-sous-Doué, at least not above ground!

IMG_2863

In front of us a 24 meter long, multi- chambered cave revealed itself , carved every inch with hundreds of bas-relief figures emerging from the walls.

IMG_2843

 

 

IMG_2847

IMG_2832

Despite serious archaeological efforts, no definitive explanation or even dating of these carvings has been agreed on. There are no other examples of similarly carved caves in Europe so no clues can be found elsewhere. Clothing , hairstyles and musical instruments typical of the Renaissance era

IMG_2831

This lady is playing a medieval bagpipe

help date the sculptures to the 1500’s. One of the archaeologists dated the sculptures based on his observation that some of the female characters are wearing underwear (!!), the  practice of which did not take occur until the 1500’s. Oh, for close archaeological scrutiny! I did not discern any underwear but I don’t know if that tells you more about my observational skills or about the keen eye of the French archaeologist. I can tell you one thing though; given that the French word for “bra” is “soutien gorge”, which translates as  “throat supporter”, I would say there’s a cultural divide between the American and French understanding of underwear.

It is generally agreed that these three figures:

IMG_2828

are a blasphemous representation of King Henri II (in the middle) with his wife, Catherine de Medici (depicted scandalously with her breasts exposed–no soutien gorge for her!) on the left, holding hands with Henri’s mistress, Diane de Poitier, on the right. This is not the only scandalous bit of carving.

IMG_2857

I might add, besides love-making couples there is at least one depiction of self-pleasuring. I have spared you the full frontal, but here’s the fellow caught in the act:

IMG_2824

There are several screamers such as this breastfeeding mom:

IMG_2858  IMG_2862

And several heads with no bodies and limbs strewn about and some devilish monsters that I was unable to photograph for lack of lighting. Incredibly there is even a sculpture of a Native American– the first known depiction of a Native American in Europe! Apparently there is documentation of a Native American who was brought to live in Anjou, France in the 1500’s so finding his likeness in this cave is not so far-fetched a notion.

IMG_2837

There’s plenty of Christian references, but they are loaded with parody. The customary figures in the sculpted Pieta– Mary, Joseph, Jesus– have been replaced by Catherine de Medici as Mary, holding her son, Francois II as Christ and the Cardinal of Guise sits in for Joseph. Mary Stuart as Ste Jeanne, looks on. It makes my head hurt to try to untangle the unseemly relationship between the French royals and the church during this period of the Religious Wars. If you’re determined to try to wind your way through this Gordian Knot, here’s a good synopsis that will help you.

IMG_2846

All this was enough to get the cave sealed off in 1633 by a priest who felt his flock might be led astray by  images of debauchery and blasphemy. Hmmm, the cave closure, according to another account was perhaps in 1740. Well, what’s a hundred years between archaeologists?  Whatever the case, La Cave aux Sculptures was completely forgotten until 1956 when–you guessed it–village children, playing in the fields, stumbled upon the underground passage.  The site was opened to the public in 1973. Here’s a terrific video shot with much better lighting than I had at my disposal. (Don’t worry about the French subtitles–the images are excellent.) There remain passageways blocked with debris which hold the promise of countless more figures to be discovered.  Much research still needs to be done to determine the meaning of this work.  Current theories include:  a work of political satire, a site for pagan rituals, a holy site of miracles and cures, a meeting place for initiation rites for the fraternal order of stone masons (there’s a few ram sculptures, the medieval symbol of the stone mason), a 3D illustration of Rabelais’s tales of devilry (he came from the neighboring village and made references to the demons of this region)

After dwelling in the ancient subterranean world of La Cave aux Sculptures my visit to the nearby site, l’Hélice Terrestre felt like futuristic travel to another planet. However l’Hélice Terrestre is just a few a few kilometers away in the village of Saint-Georges-des-Sept-Voies.  As one would expect in troglodyte country, l’Hélice Terrestre (translation: Earth Helix) is underground, except, well, the part that’s NOT underground! Here’s a view from the highest point of the helix.

L'Hélice Terrestre © B. Alberti

And like any good troglodyte helix should, this helix spirals its way down, reaching deep into the bowels of the earth.

IMG_2878  IMG_2881

IMG_2879  IMG_2882

IMG_2864  IMG_2866.JPG

IMG_2865  IMG_2885

IMG_2871  IMG_2893

As I tunneled my way down the light receded til I was in pitch dark, feeling my way down by inching my feet forward and running my hands along the damp, mossy walls. I was only able to see the carved forms for the split second of the flash of my camera. ( I must admit that when we visited there was no one (except one black cat) at the site. I’m not entirely sure we were supposed to be wandering around l’Hélice Terrestre on our own. If you have the good fortune of visiting you will hopefully have your path more illuminated than I did.)

IMG_2876  IMG_2889

IMG_2869.JPG IMG_2873

IMG_2872  IMG_2877

L’Hélice Terrestre  is the work of Polish sculptor, Jacques Warminski  who had spent some of his childhood vacations in nearby  l’Orbière, one of the last remaining Troglodyte villages in France. L’Orbière was completely abandonned in 1950, but kept alive in Warminksi’s imagination. It served as the inspiration for his life’s culminating work.  Warminski created this mind boggling sculpture in four years time in the early 1990’s. It doesn’t seem possible that stone carving of this intricacy on this scale could have been accomplished just in four years, but unlike La Caves aux Sculptures, the dates for L’Hélice Terrestre are not in dispute. Jacques Warminski died in 1996 at the age of 50, just two years after completing L’Hélice Terrestre.

Currently l’Hélice Terrestre is being maintained and kept open by Warminski’s widow, Bernadette Alberti and is  used as a site for comtemporary art performances.

Troglodytes

I had no idea what to expect as I criss-crossed the small town of Doué la Fontaine in search of the remarkable home of  Bernard Roux.  Doué la Fontaine is in the Pays de la Loire region of France, in the heart of troglodyte country, and I just happen to be a fan of all things troglodyte. So before setting off for Doué la Fontaine, I spent the better part of the day in the troglodyte village of Rochemenier, just ten minutes away.

IMG_2806

Now a museum which preserves twenty of the dwellings, Rochemenier was an village built underground by burrowing into the soft tufa stone of this region. Like all caves these dwellings had the advantage of constant temperature–warm(ish) in the winter, and cool in the summer. It was amazing how cozy these cave dwellings felt.

IMG_2801  IMG_2805

When a family was expecting a new baby, a room would be added by tunneling deeper into the stone at the back of the house. No zoning or building permits required! In fact the troglodyte family sold the stone they quarried as they dug the next room, so they actually made money as they expanded their home!

IMG_2942

IMG_2811

Passageways in Rochemenier connect one building to the next, so villagers didn’t not need to venture outdoors on a nasty winter day. Several communal chambers served the whole village for their shared endeavors such as wine and cheese making and even a room where women gathered to chat as they did their textile work.

IMG_2812     IMG_2796

The most remarkable structure in the village is the cave cathedral built in the 13th century and which stayed in use until the 1930’s. A little tough to photograph, but here’s an image of the vaulted ceiling–an underground spire, of sorts.

IMG_2815

 

IMG_2816

supporting columns for Cathedral spire

My favorite postcard from Rochemenier is of this avant garde woman, one of the last generation Rochemenier troglodytes driving her locally made automobile.

Rochemenier Troglodyte smaller

Now, onward to Bernard Roux’s. After several false turns,  we spotted a little garage that looked different from the surrounding neighbors. Could this be Monsieur Roux’s home? I didn’t really think so as nothing else seemed out of the ordinary.  Then stepping out of the car and venturing towards the garage I could see I was standing at the precipice of a cavernous space, filled with, well, filled with what? It wasn’t clear from this angle.

IMG_2944

We rang the doorbell at the side of the garage and waited. And waited. And waited. Sigh. No one home. We’d have to be content with this glimpse from on high. We took a few photos and started to walk back to the car when suddenly an elderly gentleman appeared at the gate. How did he get there???

“Bonjour, Monsieur. Nous cherchons Monsieur Roux. ”  “C’est moi. Bienvenu.” And we followed him down the tiled steps into his wonderland.

IMG_2950

Built in the hollowed out cavity of an old quarry, Bernard Roux has injected a quirky twist to the eons-old troglodyte tradition.

IMG_2959      IMG_2967

This is the front door to his cave dwelling. (well, it’s probably the only door as caves homes don’t have back doors)  Monsieur Roux, with the indulgence of his wife, has transformed the quarry into a fantasy courtyard that’s part Disney

IMG_2965

and part, well, a window onto Monsieur Roux’s rich imagination where dinosaurs are allowed to roam in the Garden of Eden.

IMG_2958

IMG_2968

Monsieur Roux pointed out his homages to great French architecture: The Chateau de Chaumont and the Cathedral de Chenille.

IMG_2956

 

IMG_2955

This wall of tools serves as a testament to Bernard Roux’s days as a laborer, in the trades of builder, butcher, baker, and mason.

IMG_2966

So happy we could meet this delightful gentleman who has taken troglodyte living to new heights.

IMG_2960

Oh, there’s more tales to tale from the land of troglodytes. It will take another post. But, may I advise you, if you’re in this region, especially in Saumur–eat mushrooms. Here’s where most of France’s mushrooms are grown. Remember those constant cave temperatures?Perfect for champignons:

IMG_2939   IMG_2930

IMG_2929   IMG_2927

YUM!

For the Glory of…

Just beyond the heavily touristed French town of St Malo (Brittany) lies the less frequented Sculpted Rocks of Rotheneuf . If I were in charge of compiling the Seven Wonders of Europe list, I’d secure a spot for this astonishing site!

IMG_3197

I had seen images of “Les Roches Sculptes” (where the heck are the accent marks on American computers?) in a wonderful book on visionary environments which I found decades ago in a second hand book store in San Francisco: Les Batisseurs du Reve.   This book has served as the cornerstone for my now extensive collection of  outsider art books. Turns out it’s a much more notable book than I have realized over all these years. Believe it or not, I just discovered yesterday, when I was taking this photo of the book below, that the lovely hand-written French inscription  inside the front cover is a note to Niki  deSt Phalle (whose work is pictured on the cover) from the book’s photographer. (“Niki, mon coeur est toujours a ta maison. Michael”) Geez–there must be a story of how this special copy of the book ended up in California. Niki, I beseech you, speak to me from the Netherworld–tell me what happened between you and Michael.

IMG_20170317_130825867_smaller         IMG_20170317_130952344_smaller

You can imagine how excited I was when I realized my post grad school trip to France would allow me to check off two major sites in this book.  Les Rochers Sculptes on the Brittany coast and Le Palais Ideal in the Drome valley would anchor the northern and southern most points of our loop. Well, to make a long story short, I never made it to Les Rochers Sculptes that summer because, feather brained twenty-something year old that I was, I left my wallet on the bus and didn’t discover this til I was pitching my tent that evening.  Instead of hopping another bus the next morning to Rotheneuf, I spent the day tracking down my wallet. If you are old enough to picture accomplishing this feat in the days before cell phones, you will marvel over my ability to overcome the inscrutability of French payphones to converse with an operator who could find the number of the public bus service, track down the name of the actual bus-driver, call him during his dinner time (a major faux pas!) and arrange a meet up at the bus stop to retrieve my wallet. You will marvel over the miracle that reconnected my wallet to me and commend me for my stoicism about not getting to check off numero uno on my bucket list. But oh! It would be another THIRTY years til I made it back to this part of France!  Reading all this you will understand why my heart was going pitter patter when I finally arrived at the entry gate of  Les Rochers Sculptes, with wallet firmly in pocket and camera ready at hand to shoot my first encounter with one man’s inexplicable, obsessive, magnificent work.

 

IMG_3220

IMG_3190

For thirteen years, from 1894 to 1907 (which does not seem like nearly enough time to accomplish this work), Adolphe Julien Fourere (later changed to Foure) chipped away, day after day to tell a tale which made no sense what-so-ever. it made so little sense that I double checked in my French/English dictionary every irksome word in the little explanatory pamphlet I got for 4 Euros at the entry gate.

IMG_3203       IMG_3202

This jumble of rogues and monsters

IMG_3209

supposedly is an account of the notorious band of pirates and privateers who laid claim to this section of the French coast in the 16th century.  I don’t believe that for a minute, nor do I believe that the sculptor, the Abbot Foure carved this part of coast after  he could no longer carry out the duties of the priesthood due to a crippling stroke.

IMG_20170319_151948326_HDR_smaller

Really?!? Too weak to give a sermon so what the heck, I’ll just get me a hammer and chisel and start carving granite day and night for 13 years. I don’t think so. In fact further digging on the web turns up  much more believable biographical info on the Abbot Foure than that untrustworthy little tourist pamphlet. Historian Joelle Jouneau has been doing her best to debunk the notion that Foure was a stroke-weakened, pirate-obsessed priest released from his duties by a benevolent church. More likely the pirate figures and monsters are stand-ins for local characters. Maybe these caricatures were Foure’s way to whack at the powers that be who threw him out of his parish for his social activism. Jouneau has been fantasizing creating a Foure museum for which she’s been amassing Foure memorabilia. So maybe we’ll eventually get to the bottom of his story. Meanwhile, enjoy what one determined man with time on his hands can do with a hammer and chisel:

IMG_3192     IMG_3195

IMG_3213   IMG_3228

IMG_3196

IMG_3222     IMG_3200

 

I cannot find one mention anywhere of the mysterious rectangular foundation-like shape that we see through the clear blue of the ocean:

IMG_3227

We stay long enough to see this stone rectangle emerge completely as the tide goes down. What, oh what were you thinking Abbe Foure?

IMG_3224

A dieu…

IMG_3231

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken and Beautiful

Hooray! An invitation to create and install a site specific piece this coming summer in Normandy, France will bring me back to a region I had tromped around in several years ago on a quest to visit all the Outsider Art  environments in that area. There are many. I figure this is a good opportunity to tour them with you on “Quirk”.  And hopefully I’ll be able to revisit a few this summer.

I’ve often been asked how I find all the fantastic places I visit. Of course , it’s way, way easier now that there’s a lot of interest in Outsider Art and there’s easy access to info on the web. I no longer need to rely solely on my brimming book shelves, magazine clippings, and conversations with kindred enthusiasts,  although these are still often where my interest in a particular site is first tweaked. Now there are a number of comprehensive websites where one can locate wondrous, quirky sites. For this Normandy trip, which I am going to highlight in this and subsequent posts, I relied heavily on the magnificent Dutch blog, “Outsider  Environments Europe”  to find new sites to add to my bucket list for France.  After pinpointing the location of each site with Google Maps,  I used my tried and true strategy of sticking on bits of tape and post-its onto a good paper road map (Michelin, of course)  for every single site. With all these markers on the map it’s easy to start plotting a route, looking for the greatest concentration of sites in one drive-able area. France has so many outsider art environments, it’s best to choose one region at a time, and TAKE YOUR TIME–these quirky sites will lead you down less traveled country roads. In three weeks of back roads, my friend Abbie and I visited 17 sites–that was an ambitious trip!

france-map-post-its_smaller

One of my favorite outsider art environments sites in Normandy is “la Maison  a Vaiselle Cassee”, the mosaic-ed home of Robert Vasseur in the town of Louviers.

img_3367

I had learned that the Vasseur home was still “en famille”, lived in and cared for by Robert Vasseur’s son, Claude.  Since I knew there was way more to the site than one could see from the sidewalk I decided to try to contact Claude Vasseur by phone the night before we planned to drive to Louviers. Amazingly, I was able to find Monsieur Vasseur’s number in the hotel phonebook. I practiced my lame French introduction,  took several deep breaths in an attempt to overcome my phone phobia, and dialed the number. Monsieur Vasseur picked up the phone after just a couple rings. He seemed to understand my French, and I understood his so I figured we were on the right track. Would it be possible I asked, gathering my courage, for us to visit tomorrow? His reply? “Non, ce n’est pas possible.” The house was in a state of  disrepair and he couldn’t allow visitors.  I responded the only way I could think of : with complete desperation.  My unrehearsed plea stated with the vocabulary of a third grader must have been truly pathetic: “Helas! We have crossed the Atlantic Ocean to see your home” . ( I am blushing just remembering that I actually said this! Who would say such a thing to a complete stranger??) But, Helas, indeed, Monsieur Vasseur appeared unmoved by my plea. I regained some modicum of maturity and remembered I should thank him before I hung up, and then made one last ditch effort: “May we park in front of your house and look from the sidewalk?” (Also a totally ridiculous thing to say).  “Of course,” he replied, and “Bonne nuit.”

Monsieur Vasseur’s “non” sounded pretty decisive, so we drove to Louviers with heavy hearts–but what the heck–we were so close!

It wasn’t hard to spot the “la Maison  a Vaiselle Cassee” from  the street.

img_3420

And –surprise! No sooner had we gotten out of the car and snapped a couple photos of the sidewalk wall

img_3346 img_3347

than Monsiuer Vasseur popped out.  (Had he been posted at his window to watch for our arrival?) “Etes vous les Americaines?”  We braced ourselves for the in-person rejection. Instead he threw open the gate saying “Entrez!”

img_3416

We were greeted by Robert Vassuer’s dazzling creation.

img_3358

img_3357

img_3359    img_3353

The mosaic covering did not stop with the Vasseur house, but continued out  into the garden which is replete with fancifully built structures and sculptures, large and small.

 

 

img_3368

img_3363

img_3364

img_3400

img_3395

 

How’s this for a dog house?

img_3408

By the time we had finished touring the garden, Monsieur Vasseur seemed to have completely forgotten that he had said “non” to me about four different ways just 12 hours earlier. He beckoned us inside his home.”There is more'” he said, “quite a bit more.”

img_3360  img_3372

img_3383

img_3382  img_3384

Most touching of all was the little corner of the home that Claude Vasseur had set up as a sort of shrine to his parents. Here, his mother’s knitting ( a similar palette to her husband’s , no?) spread out on the divan in front of a heavily mosaic-ed corner:

img_3379

and behind the divan, a lovely photograph of his parents:

img_3381

Robert Vasseur had been a milk delivery man. He lived from 1908 to 2002. His work began on a whim one day after he broke a crock. He liked the effect of the little mosaic he created so much that he continued to mosaic for the next 50 years. His neighbors apparently liked the effect as well and began contributing material for his work–their broken dinnerware plus shells, bottle caps and little cast off objets d’art.

img_3411

img_3412

Butterfly images appear here and there, referencing Robert Vasseur’s radio code name “Butterfly 27”.

img_3354

img_3370

 

img_3418

 

His faithful son, Claude, is a town cartographer. I could not help but be struck by the mosaic patterened look of his drawings! Beautiful!

img_3377

Claude was clearly fond and proud of his parents, but overwhelmed, nevertheless, by the daunting task of maintaining this delicate treasure of a home. I am so grateful he opened the gates to us and welcomed us with open arms. It was in fact the truth that we had crossed the Atlantic to see his home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hubcap Ranch

This post ends with a story of how a good deed turned into an art environment. If you’re impatient to find out how this could be, skip to the end, but you’ll be missing some pretty cool art along the way.

A recent trip to California to visit family and  to tour the fabulous new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art turned into a glorious road-trip. In just three days the Bay area and surrounding countryside offered  up the most glorious array of artistic diversity.

img_4832

The undulating SFMOMA is now my favorite renovation of the myriad of museum upgrades that have swept the country in the last decade (shout out to Deputy Director Ruth Berson,  for her incredible leadership in this project).

img_4820

I really loved the little display of idea “sketches” for the museum renovation presented by the architectural firm, Snohetta:

img_20160925_110020849_hdr              img_20160925_105943827_hdr

img_20160925_110006076_hdr              img_20160925_105902213_hdr

img_20160925_105844869_hdr              img_20160925_105829302_hdr

img_20160925_105951780_hdr              img_20160925_105959503_hdr

Across the street from the SFMOMA is the wonderful Yerba Buena Art Center which–jackpot!– was showcasing at the time of my visit one of my very favorite artists, Tom Sachs.

img_4849

Whacking together unbelievably complex and massive sculptures with little more than packing tape, cardboard and soda bottles, Sachs has constructed his visionary “Europa”, as part of his ongoing fixation with NASA’s space program. He has thought of “everything the astronauts will need to successfully complete their mission to Jupiter’s icy moon” including the all important outhouse which bears an uncanny and satisfying resemblance to a jet plane’s lavatory.

img_4852         img_4853

img_4854

Ruth Berson also introduced us to her beloved “Creativity Explored”, a studio workshop  and gallery for artists with intellectual disabilities.

img_4890     img_4889

img_4885      img_4886

We loved it so much we went back for a second visit on Monday and saw the studio buzzing with productivity.img_4887

I doubt you’ll find another group of artists anywhere more intent on their work than here.

With the couple extra days I had  to tool around in California I headed up to Napa Valley. The drive through Napa Valley vineyards

20130220_154652

is a visual feast in and of itself. But we went to drink in a couple other sites. Our first stop: the Di Rosa Museum. A San Francisco friend had brought me there a couple years ago and I wanted to revisit with my son, who has inherited my penchant for all things quirky.

Situated on the shore of Winery Lake, the Di Rosa Museum houses the estate collection of the vineyard owning,  art collecting, bon vivants Veronica and Rene Di Rosa.img_20160923_121014687

One has the feeling as one tours the estate (and one can only see the DiRosa collection as part of a museum tour–don’t just show up there unannounced), that collecting art served as a great excuse to the Di Rosas for non-stop partying. It’s a wild ride following the twists and turns of the DiRosa’s art tastes.

img_20160923_102200950

Art car master, David Best retooled this Cadillac for Veronica Di Rosa.

img_20160923_101820055

20130220_142455

And Rene jumped into the act of art making with this one creation of his own:

20130220_144638

Well, his hanging car may  not be great art, but just about everything else in his collection is top notch–some of my favorite  artists and so many great artists new to me, all hailing from  northern California.:

Viola Frey :

20130220_135005            20130220_154102

These next two are Sandow Birk’s. Though created many years ago, they were apt viewing during our miserable campaign and election season.

20130220_142743

20130220_143716

And this is Chester Arnold. Where have you been all my life, Chester?

img_20160923_105043352

And Mildred Howard’s luminescent Bottle House:

img_20160923_102405350_hdr

OK, finally! The real destination of this trip through Napa Valley (you will now be rewarded for slogging through this post to get to the bait tangled on the hook of the first sentence).  Litto’s Hubcap Ranch!  

img_4774 Located just one hour’s drive north of San Francisco, in Pope Valley, Hubcap Ranch was the retirement home of Emanuele “Litto” Damonte.  Litto,  came to California from Genoa, Italy in the early 1900’s. His father passed on his stone mason trade to him which provided Litto  with lucrative work, including marble carving for the William Randolf Hearst mansion.

A smooth ribbon of a road now passes by the ranch but at the time that Litto settled in Pope Valley the rough and winding dirt road was pitted with potholes which tended to pop the hubcaps off  passing automobiles. Litto thought he’d do a good turn by collecting the hubcaps and affixing them to his property fence.

img_4778

img_4780

He assumed that folks who had lost them would pick them up the next time they drove by. Apparently nobody came to reclaim their hubcaps and soon the collection grew to the point where passers by thought Litto just LOVED hubcaps, so they started dropping off contributions for his “collection”. These too, he affixed to the front fence til that was full. He then extended the collection to the barbed wired that looped around the ranch.

img_4786

Before Litto knew it he had become a hubcap connoisseur. He singled out the most select examples for special placement on his out buildings and his home.

img_4770

img_4777

No one’s got an exact count, but it’s said there may be as many as 5,000 hubcaps catching the rays on Hubcap Ranch.

Two years after Litto’s death, Hubcap Ranch received the official designation of  California Historic Landmark.

img_4799

Hubcap Ranch is currently the residence of Litto’s grandson, Mike Damonte, who does his best to maintain the property

img_4759

in all its quirky glory.

img_4775

 

 

 

 

 

Portals to Paradise

A recent post on this blog , “To Hell in a Handbasket”, invited you, dear viewer, to explore  Hieronymus Bosch’s  deliciously illustrated depictions of debauchery which line the slippery  slope to  eternal damnation.   I thought it only fair to give equal time to the alternate path…to Paradise.

Churches throughout the Western world have long employed artists to get their message out to the masses. So powerful a tool was the Churches’s use of the “Poor Man’s Bible” (illustrated versions of the bible on church walls for the benefit of the illiterate masses) that since the the Middle Ages, Churches were happy to fork over the dough to hire the most credentialed artists of their time and region.

No finer examples of this kind of biblical story-telling through paint can be found anywhere in the world than in the Byzantine monasteries and churches in northeastern Romania. Hmmm, this is making me think I should really do a separate post on Romania which has a treasure trove of unheralded, untrampled, UNESCO heritage sites.To whet your appetite, here is the exuberantly fresco-ed Eastern Orthodox monastery church in the Bucovina region of Moldavia, Romania. The inside is similarly covered, walls and ceiling!

Image result for Romanian churches of Bucovina

But this post is about an even rarer phenomenon: Churches that serve as a palettes for the work of the untrained, “outsider”, or folk artist.

I had my first introduction of a modern day folk art church in Somerville, Georgia when I visited the renowned visionary artist Howard Finster‘s Paradise Garden back in 1990. Finster was still alive at the time of our visit, but alas, had taken to  sleeping during the day and working at night. So as we walked about the Garden  enthralled, Howard Finster was snoring away in some hidden corner of Paradise.

appalachia091

Originally an itinerant tent revival preacher,

appalachia084

Finster turned to painting, sculpting and building as a better way to spread the gospel. A self-described “Messenger of God” and “Man of Visions”, Finster spent roughly thirty years creating his “Paradise Garden”  with his “Folk Art Church” as a centerpiece. Though all of his small works of art that could possibly be pried off the sides of his church and other surfaces throughout the garden have now been dispersed, at the time of our visit the church was filled inside and out with works such is this one which showed Finster’s zeal and humor.

appalachia093

appalachia092

 

Though I could describe the folk art church in the Guatemalan highlands region near Xela as more traditional than Finster’s sanctuary, traditional would not be a descriptor usually applied to this incredibly exuberant village church.

img_0710

 

 

Located in the wool-dying village of San Andres Xecul

img_0748

img_0757

the exuberant yellow folk art church shows off not only the Guatemalan love of colors but also a joyous mix of Catholic and Mayan iconography.

Poking out between the archangel’s legs is the Mayan jaguar.img_0725

And twin jaguars, the embodiment of Mayan dualities (life/death, day/night, sun/moon) appear at the tip  top of the church just above Jesus.

img_0713img_0719img_0718

 

img_0723

The beautiful dome in the back of the church:img_0769

And up the hill, at the top of the village, another chapel, clearly a more modest cousin to the riotous main church:

img_0739

 

The anonymous Guatemalan artist of San Andres Xecul had a kindred spirit in the 19th century French priest, Victor Paysant, who went on a painting spree on the facade of his own church in the village of Menil-Gondouin, Normandy, France.

img_3658

Paysant called his creation the “Living and Speaking Church” and hoped his artwork would beckon parishioners to the righteous path.

img_3640

Covering all his bases, he put out the word in French, Latin, and Hebrew                                    img_3644

img_3655

I cannot find any accounts of how his flock felt about him, but I have deduced that they weren’t so keen on the spectacle that the abbot made of their sanctuary. No sooner had he passed on (in 1921) than the church facade was whitewashed, his decorated statuary inside the church was buried and Paysant’s entire creation was sadly obliterated.  However, by the 1980’s the whitewash started chipping away, revealing the hidden treasure to a more receptive public. Thanks to the initiative of Menil-Gondouin’s mayor, Guy Bechet, restoration of the “L’Eglise  Vivante et Parlante” was begun in 2004.  Now that’s a mayor I could vote for! With the aid of postcards and the excellent memory of a 100 year old resident of Menil-Gondouin,  the talented muralist, Hugues Sineux, was able to restore Paysant’s creation.  By 2006, with  the restoration work was complete, Victor Paysant lives and speaks again.

img_3651

Hallelujah!

img_3639_cropped

 

 

 

 

 

Newfoundland Outports

The Newfoundland outports I recently visited meet the gold standard of quirky plus beautiful that I’ve set for  this blog. Or as some of my friends now say, they’re ” Quirk worthy.”

IMG_4133

The simple definition of an outport is a small coastal community in the  province of Newfoundland and Labrador. They are some of the oldest European settlements in Canada, dating back as early as the 1600’s, and and now they are on the verge of extinction. One by one each of these isolated villages have opted for the government’s resettlement option, even if very reluctantly. Resettlement is not a new phenomenon for Newfoundland. Beginning in 1954, under the leadership of the controversial first prime minister of Newfoundland, Joey Smallwood,

IMG_4677 the  provincial government began offering the residents of the outports resettlement money (currently the offer is up to $270,000 per landowner) if 90% of the  population agreed to shut down the village and move. Poignant photos hanging in several heritage museums show fishermen towing their homes across the water to their new communities after the first resettlement deals were struck. Though most of the resettlements transpired between 1954 and 1975, the provincial government has made  new pushes for resettlement after the cod moratorium in 1992.

Today only a small number of  outports remain and I was determined to visit a few before they disappear forever.
We just had a week for Newfoundland this time and so chose two tiny communities in the  central region to serve as our home bases for exploring. I was excited to fly into Gander, the tiny international airport where my mother’s plane touched down to refuel on her first flight to North  America when she emigrated to the US after WWII. She had described her awe at seeing virgin wilderness for the first time. And awesome it was! As the plane crossed over the land mass of Central Newfoundland I did not see one house or road across the great expanse of spongy land.
IMG_4757
IMG_4758_smaller
A three hour drive brought us to to our first destination, the tiny community of Coffee Cove, a half  hour beyond the “big” town of Springdale (population 2,900). The three ring info binder we found in our lodging described Springdale as having  “everything we could possibly need”. We could not tell if that was said in seriousness or jest. Our first test of this statement came as we went hunting for food supplies to bring to our lodging. We had unwittingly arrived on Canada Day and the two grocery stores in Springdale were closed. So we shopped for dinner at the gas station. We had been told we could get home made pizza there, which sounded promising enough. When we discovered the one pizza on offer was bologna pizza we settled instead for the last dozen eggs in the fridge and and a box of crackers. A trip to Newfoundland can serve as a healthy reminder of the difference between “need” and “want”.
Four or five homes grace Coffee Cove. We were super lucky to have secured lodging in the beautifully renovated 150 year old “Baker House“, which we thought was the perfect size for the two of us.
IMG_4435
We spent a lot of time pondering the Baker’s sleeping arrangements when we learned they had populated this house (without the back addition) in the 1800’s with 11 of the own children plus another adopted two.
Our next door neighbors, besides Nola and Paul, the lovely , lovely owners of  the Baker House and the Coffee Cove Retreat was a mini sheep and goat farm:
IMG_4426
and this house, which I was partial to for its choice of  lamp in the yard, a little nod to Paris:
IMG_4432
We arrived the first week of July, the last pretty reliable week for iceberg viewing. The annual parade of ice sculptures makes its way down to Newfoundland from Greenland along what’s called “iceberg alley” the north east coast of the province. We caught a ride in the boat of  King’s Point fire chief and back country outfitter, Barry Strickland, to get a close up look at a couple bergs that had grounded nearby.
IMG_4196
Soaring 30 feet into the air:
IMG_4212
The bright blue stripes are veins of compacted ice, not cracks:
IMG_4180
Barry cut the motor as we got close so we could listen up for the warning crack or boom that signaled a “calving” which meant “SCRAM!” Barry showed Dave how to run the boat in case he was thrown overboard with the ensuing tidal wave. Hmmm. I doubted very much that we’d be the ones left on board.
IMG_4166
Finding a small berg that was  safe enough to mosey up to Barry “harvested” a chunk of the 10,000 year old compacted ice.
IMG_4238
 You can nurse  a drink an entire evening with one very slow melting chunk.
IMG_20140817_201314980
From the boat Barry pointed out Joshua Tom’s General Store in the settlement of Rattling Brook.  He recommended a visit there to meet Dulcie, who has a gift of the gab.
IMG_4337
You have to look carefully to appreciate the dying art form of hand-painted signage that can still been found in Newfoundland:
IMG_4303
Dulcie, now in her 90’s, I believe, has been stocking shelves and running Joshua Tom’s (her deceased husband) store for nearly 70 years.
IMG_4316
Dulcie is particularly proud of her supply of fabric.IMG_4307
I was most intrigued by the prevalence of Christmas supplies that can be found throughout the store.
IMG_4311.JPG
IMG_4314
IMG_4309
I could not decide if this meant that the Christmas paraphernalia was the most or least sought after of her supplies.
If Canada is looking for someone who embodies  optimism, warmth, and open-mindedness, a symbol for Newfoundland’s resilience, I nominate Dulcie!
IMG_4336
Dulcie was very excited by the unlimited minutes on her phone plan and offered to call us once we got home to see how the trip went.
IMG_4331
The Baie Verte Peninsula is ringed with tiny outport communities. Blustery wet weather only allowed visits to a few, and we started to question the wisdom of even those few as we bumped along long dirt roads crossing paths with no other vehicles. (Our Budget rental car will not break down, right?) Luckily we were told in advance not to even think about taking a vehicle down the treacherous descent into Round Harbor (not to be confused with  Harbor Round on the northwest side of the same peninsula).
IMG_4394.JPG
The gravel plummets to the cove and then that’s the end of roads for Round Harbor. Homes are accessed either by paths or by water.
IMG_4406
IMG_4413
IMG_4411
We saw one house in Round Harbor which appeared to still be inhabited. Probably one of the Fudges, the last family in Round Harbor.
Signs of a recent fire in Round Harbor were particularly distressing to see as it is obvious that once a fire breaks out in such a forsaken outport, there’s no one who can come to help contain it. IMG_4418
I understand that Mr. Fudge was a crab fisherman. Sadly we saw crab traps in among the fire debris.
If this is possible, an even more desolate spot is to be found a couple dirt roads over: the nearly abandoned settlement of Tilt Cove. Unlike every other settlement we visited whose history was tied to fishing, Tilt Cove was a copper mining town, which in its “boom “days, had a population of 2,000. When Tilt Cove faced its second and final mine closure in 1967, all but 50 residents moved away.
We couldn’t have picked a drearier day to visit. As we traveled the last stretch of the long mud and gravel road into town we had the impression of descending into a crater.
A few barely standing houses stood at the edge of a perfectly circular and very black pond. (We later learned that this little pond used to be a beautiful but deadly brilliant turquoise from the copper slag.)
IMG_4367
IMG_4360
At first we saw no signs of life. But then half way around the pond we saw a flag hanging limply at one well kept home with a little shed beside it marked, “The Way We Were Museum”. Within seconds of stopping our car Margaret Collins popped out of her home to greet us.
IMG_4351
Turns out that Margaret, besides being the town clerk and wife of the town’s mayor, is the great, great, great granddaughter of the founder of Tilt Cove, George Winsor. Most importantly, Margaret Collins is keeper of the flame of Tilt Cove. She has saved and organized every image and scrap of information on Tilt Cove.  For years she and her husband harbored hopes that Tilt Cove would rise from its ashes. She pointed to a photograph of a crowd of RV’s surrounding the town pond for a Tilt Cove Reunion about fifteen years ago. It suggested to her and her husband that folks did really want to come back. But, in truth they never did come back and one by one the town’s population has dwindled to the current population of four.
With Margaret’s wistfulness weighing heavily upon us we drove out of the Tilt Cove crater and down another long, muddy road to the slightly less abandoned settlement of Shoe Cove.
IMG_4380
IMG_4377
A few of the old houses with boat-only access which typify original outport dwellings still stand in Shoe Cove.
IMG_4373
IMG_4374
One can still see the community bread oven which sits in a tiny enclosure at the edge of the cove:
IMG_4390
From here we clamored up the beautifully maintained and historic trail which leads to dramatic views of the cove:
IMG_4392
Our final destination this trip: Little Bay Islands which I had read about a couple years ago in my search for Newfoundland island communities still serviced by government ferries.
IMG_4465
 Little Bay Islands, with a year-round population of 47, has been in the midst of a contentious resettlement vote for the past couple years. I came to understand that if I wanted to visit, it had to be NOW as the town’s future is jeopardy. The most recent vote, last November, brought the percentage in favor of resettlement to 89.47%. That’s just one vote short of what’s required–a 90% vote– to approve the shut down of the town. It’s a  contentious and painful situation to be sure. The irony is how much the residents love Little Bay Islands.  And there’s much to love, first and foremost the serenity and natural beauty.
IMG_4699
IMG_4599IMG_4580
IMG_4664
But there’s no denying it–it’s hard to make a go of it in a community that has no commerce of any kind–no stores, no gas stations–just a tiny little self serve laundromat with a jar to tuck your dollars in for the use of the washer and dryer. Oh yeah–you can throw in a couple of Loonies or Toonies for a bag of potato chips and a soda–and wait for it–iceberg chips if someone’s gone harvesting!
IMG_4723
The fish processing plant closed a few years ago–a death knell for the island, for sure.
IMG_4733
IMG_4738
Well actually, there’s still one business on the island: the  incredibly wonderful accommodations where we stayed– Aunt Edna’s Boarding House:
IMG_4491
Run by the indomitable, fun and very funny Sharlene Hinz
IMG_4722
who turned a sow’s ear into a silk purse  when her full house of guests got stranded on the island. Sharlene dug down deep into her freezer reserves to feed us and broke out the “Screech” to loosen the table talk. To make our meal complete one of the  island’s year-round residents donated the  very last jar of pickles that she had squirreled away in her pantry. That’s the outport way–  share what you have and make do.
What got us stranded? Well first a cable broke on the ferry’s on/off ramp, grounding the ferry for a day. No problem–we had an extra day built into our schedule before our flight home . (You never know, I had said–it’s a island after all…)  Then the next day a Nor’easter whipped up. On the ferry’s first run after the cable had been replaced  she crashed into the dock tearing a hole in her hull despite this generous lineup of tire bumpers.
IMG_4442
 Ouch! There went our extra day in our itinerary as each scheduled run of the ferry was cancelled.
As it became apparent to the entire island that the guests at Aunt Edna’s weren’t going anywhere, the island ladies extended an invitation to us to join their “Circle of Friends”, the weekly sewing and gab fest. (Sorry, husbands–ladies only). We happily trotted off to the school which gets far more use from the Circle of Friends group than it does from students. (Sadly, there is currently only one student who attends Strong Academy, the Little Bay Islands school. His teacher takes the ferry each day and  arrives at school at 10 AM .)
IMG_4703
IMG_4704

Gloria’s first hooked rug showing a very accurate image of her Little Bay Islands home and her boat, “Chummy T’ing”. The day before the Nor’easter swept in we hopped on board “Chummy T’ing” to circumnavigate the islands under the helmsmanship of Gloria’s husband, Maurice.

IMG_4707
 As the Circle of friends was wrapping up, Doris (in lavender, above, who, BTW, was  the donor of the  precious dinner pickles) asked if  the “foreigners” had signed the Circle log book. I didn’t blink an eye at this, but Eileen who hailed from Vancouver, whispered to me, “Well, that’s the first time I’ve been called a foreigner in my own country!” But truly, in the outport of Little Bay Islands we were all what’s know in Newfoundland as “come from aways”, which is really the same as foreigners. And having just bathed in the warmth of this wonderful Circle of Friends, we knew this was Newfoundland humor rather than a barb.
We arrived back at Aunt Edna’s  to learn that the ferry hull had been repaired but that she (yes, all boats are female in Newfoundland) couldn’t take any passengers until the inspector could get there the next morning  to witness a “dry” (??) run. Oy!
Sharlene served us the biggest breakfast in the history of B and B’s the next morning. No doubt she had a theory that calories would quell our nerves. Our window of time to get to the Gander airport was narrowing.  If they could just complete that damn dry run before 10 AM we could conceivably get to Gander for our afternoon flight. And as long as there was even a remote possibility of this, by golly, Sharlene was going to exert all her powers to make that happen. She  turned her kitchen into ground control. She got on the phone and quickly made her way  up the chain of command with the ferry authorities. I was half expecting her to dial Prime Minister Trudeau and tell him to get on down to the dock and inspect the vessel himself.
 Meanwhile the other guests, who could see the writing on the wall as clearly as we could, that we were going to miss our flights, whipped out their laptops and tablets and started putting together intricate new travel itineraries for us.IMG_4718
Our return home was complicated by the fact that Dave had intended to fly the next day to a conference in Colorado.   (Eileen, if you’re reading this: we used the itinerary you put together for us and Dave made it to the conference in Colorado with an hour to spare–Bravo!)
By the time we boarded the ferry around noon, Dave and I were resigned not only to having missed our flights but to incurring an additional cost of $1200 to book our new flights. We arrived at the Gander airport an hour after our original flight departed–no surprise there. BUT, you can imagine our delight when the nice, nice  Air Canada representative at the ticket counter said, “no charge” as he re-booked our flights to depart the next morning. When I told him I’d been quoted $1200 by the Air Canada agent on the phone he furrowed his brow and then broke into a smile, replying, “Well, that’s not the Newfoundland way!” The hole in the ferry hull wasn’t your fault, why would you have to pay for that, he asked.
In case you need any more enticements for flying in and out of the Gander airport, besides their awesome ticket counter guy, how ’bout this rush hour image of the Gander security line.
IMG_4755
Made me understand why both the hotel clerk and the cab driver looked quizzically at us when we said we needed to arrive at the airport two hours before our international flight. “One hour in advance should be more than enough”, they counseled. Ah…ya!  I’d say that 15 minutes would be perfectly safe.
IMG_4752
IMG_4753
PS If  you need a little something uplifting and inspiring in your week of dreadful news stories (and who doesn’t?), click onto this link for the wonderful story of how the entire town on Gander came to the rescue stranded air travelers on 9/11/2001.