My last post, “Creating an Ocean…” brought you just outside the city of Chartres, France. And surely if you are just outside Chartres you will continue on into Chartres. And surely you will visit the famous, famous Chartres Cathedral.
And I know, because you are a “Quirk” reader, you will not simply finish with the cathedral, go to a cafe, then hop back on the next train to find the next cathedral in the next town. You will go to “Maison Picassiette“, a reasonable walk from the cathedral and one of France’s most famous quirky sites.
you will enter the neighborhood where Raymond Isadore and his wife Adrienne Dousset made their home. Isadore, a cemetery sweeper, built his house in 1930, cozy enough, but nothing that would have stood out in his ordinary surroundings. On a walk one day his eye was attracted to a pretty shard of broken pottery which he picked up and brought home. And so, it is said, began his collecting habit. Soon he was frequenting rubbish dumps, actively seeking out cast away crockery. With the little pile he had amassed in his garden Isadore began a modest mosaic project on the wall of his home.
Pleased with the effect, Isadore carried on.
In fact he didn’t stop until twenty four years later, when he had covered every surface of his house, inside and out.
From walls to floors to ceilings
interspersed here and there with his folkloric paintings.
With his wife’s approval, when all the structural surfaces were covered, Raymond Isadore tackled the furniture.
An autodidact, Isadore paid homage to great artists and monuments, including these mosaic portraits of French cathedrals adorning the garden wall. And in the center–a throne for his Madame and himself to rest a spell and admire his work.
Word of his marvel spread, and in 1954 Pablo Picasso paid a visit. Some say that the “Pic” in “Picassiette”, the nickname given to Isadore by neighbors, refers to Picasso. Assiette is the french work for plate. But most translations converge on “scrounger” or “scavenger”. Whatever the case, the word “picassiette” coined for Raymond Isadore has entered the French lexicon, interchangeable with the term for mosaic-ing. Come to think of it, we’d be well served to use “picassiette” as I see spell check does not approve of mosaic-ing or mosaicing, or mosaicking.
Raymond Isadore completed his ouevre in 1962, two years and one day before he turned 65. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he was a happy man.
If you are itching to see more and don’t have a trip to France in your back pocket here’s a nice walk-through video.
Since the theme of these last couple of years has been TransAtlantic, I’m going to zip from this side of the pond where I’ve located the last few posts over to the other side, to the lovely and lightly trodden Sarthe department of the Pays de la Loire, France. A few years ago I had mapped out a route through Pays de la Loire (the region where my mother was born) and Normandy visiting the myriad of outsider art sites along the way. YES, there are many. And yes, I too have wondered why. Of all cultures, the French are known the world over for being proper. And yet, AND YET, France has the highest concentration of wacky built environments. Sitting alongside their deep sense propriety is a simultaneous undercurrent of “pourquoi pas?”, maybe more commonly thought of as Joie de Vivre! I can hardly think of two more apt phrases to describe “Le Jardin Humoristique” that I visited in the Alençon suburb, Fyé. This roadside environment had been on my bucket list since I found this book , “Bonjour aux Promeneurs”, in 1996. If ever there was a character beckoning to me from a book cover, this was my man!
By the time I made it to Le Jardin Humoristique this jolly fellow felt like an old friend AND I saw, as I stepped out of the car, he had gotten a face lift and had sprouted hair!
Fernand Chartelain, a one time baker and subsequent farmer, built this roadside attraction in his retirement for his own and passerby’s amusement. He sculpted a welcome sign, “Bonjours aux Promeneurs” and affixed it front and center to the modest fence that bordered his property on Route 138.
Knowing that drivers would be jamming on their brakes he added admonitions such as “Be careful not to have an accident” and later more whimsical advice, “Only roll downhill”.
Chatelain drew his first inspiration from a dictionary illustration of a centaur.
But as he grew more confident he let his imagination go wild, and wild was his imagination!
Though most reports suggest Chatelain’s creations were enjoyed by the public, his work also suffered from periodic vandalism. But despair and discouragement were not in Chatelain’s wheelhouse. With the assistance of his wife, Marie Louise, he repaired and re-painted, his work constantly evolving. Finally after 23 years creating his Jardin Humoristique, Chatelain was forced by age to abandon his work in 1988. For 20 years forces of nature took their toll on this whimsical roadside attraction until at nearly the last minute a group of art brut admirers formed “The Friends of Fernand Chatelain” in 2005 and got to work to restore the sculptures. Though there have been detractors to the shockingly vibrant new paint applied to the reconstructed concrete surfaces, I really don’t think Monsieur Chatelain would have minded at all. In fact I’m quite certain he is broadly smiling from above or below.
The twenty or so exquisitely crafted handbags, boxes, and other vaguely utilitarian objects are on loan from Roxbury collector, Antonio Inniss who first saw one of these creations as a boy when family members received two bags as gifts from an incarcerated friend.
His enthusiasm for these objects encouraged more gifts of bags to Antoinio Inniss. Eventually his appreciation evolved into a passion and his passion evolved into a collection. The works shown here span from the 1930’s to the 1970’s.
Look closely at the lyrical abstract patterns to discover the source of the materials:
Cigarette wrappers and cartons!
When smoking was banned in prisons, stamps found their way into the craft:
There’s more to see–but I’m telling you–just GO!
OK, now in the “ya never know when you’ll meet someone interesting” department:
As we were oohing and aahing over the weaves and patterns, into the gallery popped a man with a sparkle in his eye who offered up some insight into the collection. I could tell he knew a thing or two not just about the about the museum, but about LIFE. It was Ras Ben Tau, who has been Artist in Residence (and museum caretaker) at the Center for Afro-American Artists for over 30 years! I asked if we could see his work and he happily brought us downstairs to see several of his creations which ranged from metal work:
to abstract painting:
to this magnificent portrait of Haile Selassie:
We learned many things from Ras Ben Tau, including the existence of PurBlack, which I assumed, when peering into his little jar, was a paint pigment. True to its name I had never seen a blacker black! I thought I was being shown the richest black known to man, a wonderous, light absorbing material to coat a canvas or sculpture. But no! Ben scooped out about a 1/4 teaspoon and swirled it into his teacup to drink. And as he sipped he recounted the most amazing stories of PurBlack’s restorative powers along with his own story of near death experiences and rebirths. One sniff of PurBlack (a rare mineral pitch found on trees in the Himalayas!) was enough to convince me of its powers.
I know, Part 2 was a long time coming, but on this dank and dreary November day, what better place to visit than Newfoundland (again!) where art is made from a gray day.
Walk the paths of Keels and you’ll surely discover the poetic sculpture of John Hofstetter, tucked here and there, in and of the landscape.
The little settlement of Keels (around 60 year round residents) is just down the road from Duntara where I spent two weeks last summer at Two Rooms Artist Residency.
Before this summer I had never heard of Keels, but interestingly enough I had already seen Keels on the big screen the previous year in one of my recent favorite movies, “Maudie”. “Maudie” is a wonderful accounting of the true life Nova Scotia folk artist, Maude Dowley Lewis. When the first rugged scenes rolled onto the screen I turned to my husband and said, “That’s not Nova Scotia. That’s Newfoundland! ”
Indeed, when the film makers went looking for a setting that would feel like Marshaltown, Nova Scotia of the 1930’s they turned to lovely, unspoiled Keels. So when I pulled into Keels I saw a familiar site– the general store which had played a major role in the movie.
The store, shuttered prior to the filming, has now been rejuvenated and re-opened by Selby Mesh who has nicely combined the movie props with everyday essentials. Hannah, my art partner, and I set about shopping for our dinner. We got right to dinner planning:
When we brought our supplies (including that lone bag of dates on the upper right–what a find!) to the cashier, she studied us very carefully and asked, “You’re not by chance, Hannah and Jessica, are you?” How did she know???? She turned and pointed to the bulletin board where we found our mug shots hanging. Nice!
Turns out Keels has a lot to offer beyond the charming general store. Folks drive a LONG way to order up Clayton’s hand cut fries at his cheerful Chip Truck. Never mind that our fingers were freezing as we sat in the 40 degree (sorry, Canada–that’s Fahrenheit) drizzle—mmm, mmm, mmm! Those fries were GOOD!
As we finished up, Clayton invited us to tour his lovingly restored home, one of the crown jewels in Keels.
Long, long ago Satan emerged from the sea and walked through Keels. His cloven hoof prints can be followed along the shore.
We took Satan’s path and found astonishing geology along the coast. Underfoot and forming walls to our sides were richly textured surfaces of slate.
Our slate trail grew narrower and narrower til it ended at a “V” at the edge of the sea.
I think we found the crevice from which Satan emerged!
And who knew? Slate comes in gray AND RED!
Lured by Keel’s craggy landscape I came back the next day to try my first “Float”. I had been assembling a big Tyvek map in my studio shed in Duntara. I had just lifted the Newfoundland section of the map and levitated it over the rest of its watery surroundings.
Now I wanted to let it be carried by the real tides–its fate up to the whims of the ocean, as Newfoundland’s fate has always been.
My tentative first attempt with a test section was encouragingly successful.
The Tyvek floated perfectly! The ink didn’t run! It didn’t need to be a attached by strings!
So back to the shed I went to fetch a larger section. I had fretted over this work and here it was floating in this beautiful austerity–visual poetry! The map undulated in the gently lapping water like a jellyfish.
How would it take to the surf?
Well… like Newfoundland itself: Fragile but scrappy and RESILIENT!
Before I bid farewell to summer I am crawling back onto my blogging wagon (oh it is easy to slip off the back side of that wagon!) to recount how this summer unfolded its beautiful self for me.
I first visited Newfoundland in 2014 and vowed to return every year . So far I’ve been doing pretty well keeping that vow.
I knew I wanted to find a way to spend more significant time in Newfoundland beyond what the usual scope of a tourist trip affords so I started digging into the possibility of an artist residency. I stumbled upon the Kickstarter video for the Two Rooms Residency on the Bonavista Penninsula the year after their campaign successfully wrapped up and they were beginning their first season. I checked in periodically on Two Rooms via FB and started formulating a Newfoundland project that I hoped to propose for my own residency there. This past fall I sent my application in, held my breath through the winter and Hurray, Hurrah! I got an email from Director Catherine Beaudette inviting me to be an Artist in Residence at Two Rooms!
Each time I have visited I have been struck by Newfoundlanders’ sardonic take on the world, a very particular blend of pragmatism, irony, and humor. They have had a long history of bearing up under the crushing weight of their circumstances. This residency would afford me the opportunity to plumb the questions closest to my heart. How do we proceed in this confusing mess of our beautiful world? How do we as global citizens face adversarial shifts without communities losing cultural integrity and individuals losing their souls?
At Two Rooms I began a new body of work which I refer to as “Float”. It’s an ongoing project with twists and turns. I aim to reflect the coupled traits of fragility and resilience that I feel so strongly in Newfoundland.
But, oh! A trip to Newfoundland is not all seriousness. So I hummed my way through the spring in anticipation of the fun to be had. I threw myself into readying my vegetable garden for my June absence. Newfoundland icebergs here I come!
Here’s what awaited us (I shared my residency with fellow Quirk traveler, Hannah Verlin, who had the good sense, unlike me, to pack Long Johns) on the Bonavista Penninsula:
We wound our way up the west coast of the Bonavista Peninsula to the village of Duntara and soon spotted the lovely tri-colored heritage home I recognized from the two Rooms Facebook page.
Locked with a padlock! Hmmm, time to dig out the printed out directions. Ah! this was the Two Rooms gallery. We needed to head over to Bog Lane, and there we’d find the mustard colored house with the names of the Kickstarter backers calligraphied on the side–our home for the next two weeks.
Even more exciting for me was the perfect red fisherman’s shed across the street that would serve as my studio.
Over the next fourteen days I assembled and draped this sometimes cozy, sometimes drafty space with a segmented map that stretched from the North Pole to Boston.
And then I started to play around with the map which you will see in subsequent posts.
When the weather was good we set aside half the day for exploring. If you are a regular follower of this blog you know that besides seeking out natural beauty (there is no shortage of that is Newfoundland!) I am always on the look out for offbeat surprises. Turns out our closest neighboring communities were all we needed for deep satisfaction in both departments. Choosing our first day’s destination solely on its appealing name we headed out to Tickle Cove vowing to take in the sites of Open Hall and Red Cliff on our way back. We parked our car beside the beckoning boardwalk at the top of this post but chose the equally alluring path in the opposite direction
through an otherworldly landscape
that led to a tiny soulful cemetery.
But the best surprise of the day lay at the base of the path, not far from our parked car. Whoa–what are all those colors?!
As we were gingerly walked around this marvel out rolled the artist, Molly Turbin, coming from her house to fetch firewood. We needn’t have worried about trespassing. Molly immediately lit up at the prospect of visitors and we were soon posing with her on Quilt Rock
and following her powerful wheelchair up the steep path to her home.
And Oh! Molly’s home! Stuffed to the gills with family photos and her painted treasures:
We were treated to steaming cups of sweet tea and muffins while Molly told us the origin story of Quilt Rock. Like most Newfoundlanders of her generation, Molly’s life had revolved around the fishing industry. When she lost her leg as a result of an industrial accident at the fish plant, Molly could feel herself slipping into a dark place. She set herself a goal to remain positive and conceived of an ambitious project that would give her days purpose and brightness. Pulling herself in and out of her wheelchair to scramble over the thinly covered ledge in her back yard, Molly began scraping away the sod to reveal her “canvas”. Her painting project is never done, Molly explained to us. Every year she repaints the Quilt which an ever-changing palette. She also repaints all the figures that line the walks to her home. Her playful juxtapositions and wacky color choices left Hannah and me in a good mood for the rest of the day.
We took Molly’s advice and followed her gnomes back to the road
and scampered up these lovely steps
to see Tickle Cove’s most famous site, the Sea Arch, where we met this Mennonite missionary and his family.
Well, even with the long daylight hours of June we ran out of time for the boardwalk around the town lake and for the intriguing sites we passed along the way in Red Hall and Open Cliff. Next outing, next blog post. Stay tuned…
The directions to get to the Bread and Puppet Museum in Glover, Vermont from nearby Barton were simple enough. Still I managed to take a wrong turn which I noticed only after I had my first Bread and Puppet sighting:
Even without the identifier painted above the windshield, I would have recognized a Bread and Puppet bus anywhere. In this case the bus was in for a little TLC at the local mechanic. Wrong turn or not I knew I couldn’t be too far away. I turned myself 180 degrees around and headed properly towards Glover. My little unplanned detours took me past some lovely hand painted signage–something I’m always on the lookout for.
and this very enticing motel
with seven rooms to choose from. (I’d like the Aardvark’s Attic please!)
I know if I don’t stick this excellent, excellent sign I saw in Lyndonville now I’m going to miss the opportunity to show it to you altogether.
OK, on to Glover! On this, the first of three visits to Bread and Puppet, I pulled into the uncongested parking lot
I slipped right in beside the B and P vehicle that was not paying a visit to the mechanic:
crossed the street to the BIG barn
adorned with the signature Bread and Puppet signage
and found a hive of activity in the yard. It was the Friday before the last Sunday performance of the season and there was still paper-mache-ing to be done!
I chatted awhile with this fellow and headed up the wooden stairs to the upper floor of the barn which houses five decades of puppets from Bread and Puppet performances around the globe. I’ve visited the museum four times now, but each time when I reach the top of the stairs and catch my first site of the collection it takes my breath away.
Here I am in the converted dairy barn, given to Bread and Puppet visionary , Peter Schumann and his wife Elka, by Elka’s parents, the last farmers on this property in Glover, Vermont. The barn, now known as the Bread and Puppet Museum, houses, as Peter describes his creations, “the retired warriors from the battles against the tides.” There is no shortage of causes that Peter and his ever-changing cast of puppeteers have taken on over the decades and so the barn is stuffed to overflowing with every manner of puppet who has fought the good fight. Every inch of floor except the central walkway,
every inch of the walls,
and every plank between the ceiling rafters is covered.
One recognizes familiar heroes here and there. Our founding fathers:
(Our memory of elementary school history lessons is jogged by proper museum signage)
I see an understandably doleful Abe Lincoln:
And over there, isn’t that Oscar Romero?!?!
We are awed by the mythical beings of gigantic proportions
several soaring to the rafters to look down upon the little folk populating the earth at their feet.
there are deities, demons and demigogues
There are victims and perpetrators.
and grandmothers who have seen it all
Royalty (Let them eat cake”) :
Impresarios (or perhaps our elected officials):
And beasts–let us not forget the noble beasts:
And reminders here are there of the impermanence of the collection:
Suspended through-out the museum are globes which simply cannot contain and sustain the burden assigned to our humble sphere, Earth.
There are little drawings lined up like storyboards.
This one, a one word poem:
And everywhere, everywhere images of fire:
Contained in the Bread and Puppet Museum:
I return to Bread and Puppet in October and have a happy encounter with Peter Schumann. With Peter leading the way I will visit the Memory Forest and Paper Mache Cathedral in my next post…
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.
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 “une village 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:
and then as we got out of the car and looked up the street we saw a beckoning line up of chain saw carvings:
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 “Village Sculptée”.
Tucked away on the back side of La Sauvagère lies another treasure–a lovely roadside grotto.
Those of you who are followers of my blog will know that I’m a fan of this curious genre of roadside art.
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!
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…
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.
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.
The little structure looked more like a gnome’s home than a chapel, with impish carvings all around.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Passageways in Rochemenier connect one building to the next, so villagers didn’t 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Built in the hollowed out cavity of an old quarry, Bernard Roux has injected a quirky twist to the eons-old troglodyte tradition.
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
and part, well, a window onto Monsieur Roux’s rich imagination where dinosaurs are allowed to roam in the Garden of Eden.
Monsieur Roux pointed out his homages to great French architecture: The Chateau de Chaumont and the Cathedral de Chenille.
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.
So happy we could meet this delightful gentleman who has taken troglodyte living to new heights.
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:
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!
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.
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.
And –surprise! No sooner had we gotten out of the car and snapped a couple photos of the sidewalk wall
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!”
We were greeted by Robert Vassuer’s dazzling creation.
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.
How’s this for a dog house?
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.”
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:
and behind the divan, a lovely photograph of his parents:
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.
Butterfly images appear here and there, referencing Robert Vasseur’s radio code name “Butterfly 27”.
His faithful son, Claude, is a town cartographer. I could not help but be struck by the mosaic patterened look of his drawings! Beautiful!
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.
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!
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.
Originally an itinerant tent revival preacher,
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.
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.
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.
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.
The beautiful dome in the back of the church:
And up the hill, at the top of the village, another chapel, clearly a more modest cousin to the riotous main church:
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.
Paysant called his creation the “Living and Speaking Church” and hoped his artwork would beckon parishioners to the righteous path.
Covering all his bases, he put out the word in French, Latin, and Hebrew
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.