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.

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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:

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

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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.

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

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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

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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…

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


 

 

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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

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

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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.

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

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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:

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YUM!

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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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!”

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We were greeted by Robert Vassuer’s dazzling creation.

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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.

 

 

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How’s this for a dog house?

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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.”

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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:

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

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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.

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

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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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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.

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Originally an itinerant tent revival preacher,

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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.

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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.

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Located in the wool-dying village of San Andres Xecul

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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.

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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:

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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.

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

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

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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.

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Hallelujah!

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