PARIS PORTRAITS: The Act of Looking

Still life objects and snacks (caisse-croutes)

Dana Wyse, a Canadian conceptual artist friend of mine who lives in Paris, has a very interesting practice. She makes pills that cure the perceived ills of the world. You can find her artistic apothecary in contemporary art exhibitions, and at a regular spot in the bookshop at the Palais de Tokyo.

Understand Public Sculpture (Dana Wyse)
Speak French Instantly (Dana Wyse)
Palais de Tokyo bookshop, Paris. Dana Wyse artworks on display.

Dana graciously set up an opportunity for me to give a drawing lesson to some of her friends, with the agreement that they would sit for me to draw their portraits. On a Saturday afternoon shortly before 2pm, I showed up at her studio apartment in the northern edge of Paris. The complex she lives in, La Maladrerie (which seems to translate as “the Leper Colony”), has an interesting cultural mix of artists and immigrants, with streets named after painters, such as Allee Gustav Courbet and Allee Matisse. It is a bit of a labyrinth, so Dana met me at a stone wall near Allee Georges Braque and shepherded me in to her spacious modernist flat that also serves as her studio.

Soon her guests arrived with snacks to contribute to the table. Dana has all kinds of cool and odd things she collects and displays in her apartment.

I chose as our main still life subject a taxidermy fox which seemed to be leaking saw-dust. Dana added a baseball, a plastic rose, and a miniature faux bourgeois armchair to the arrangement.

One of the three guests was Mélissa Laveaux, who is a talented musician with roots in Canada and Haiti. I wish I had a jpeg of the awesome drawing she did of the fox’s fierce-looking head, but you will just have to imagine it. The other two visitors, Sarah, who is a bit of a poet and a bit mysterious, and Stella, a cinematographer, made some nice work too.

The following day I received an enthusiastic email from Dana saying they all had had a great time, and that Mélissa wanted another lesson. Meanwhile we also received some complimentary tickets to Mélissa’s upcoming sold-out concert.

It was a treat to have the opportunity to see and hear her perform. She arrived on stage bearing a striking yellow electric guitar and a bright flower in her beautiful dark dreadlocks. Mélissa charmed us with her self-deprecating wit, skillful playing, and sensuous voice. After the concert we went for a drink with her and Pauline, a young painter at a low-key bar within walking distance of the theatre.

They mostly spoke French and I was a bit mystified about what was being said. I think since Dana is fluent they may have assumed at first that all Canadians know French. I can speak like a five-year old more or less. Dana apparently sounds like a Californian to her French-speaking friends.

Pauline joined us at the next drawing lesson I gave Mélissa, which we did at Melissa’s apartment in Belleville. We then went to the nearby park on a hill, and sat on the concrete steps overlooking Paris:

Mélissa has a lot on the go with her performing and song-writing, and asked if she could do some admin on her smartphone while I made the pencil drawing of her in my Moleskine, and Pauline just hung out with us.

Mélissa Laveaux, 2017, pencil in Moleskine sketchbook

The next week Pauline N’Gouala and I met at the Parc aux Buttes Chaumont and had a lovely walk and chat while she told me a bit about herself and her artwork. A wonderful afternoon with a warm, beautiful person.

Sarah, a soft-spoken young American woman who has been living in Paris for a while now, hosted me at her then Bois de Boulogne loft apartment. She shared her courtyard garden with a neighbour and friend, another Sara, who represents photographers.

Here is Julien, who I met briefly at a café, who stood shyly for only 20 minutes for me and then disappeared.

There’s something really special about sharing time and space with a person who makes herself vulnerable to being looked at. This experience is very different from working from a photograph, it is much more energetically charged, there is a sense of urgency, an awareness that this moment is fleeting. You have to focus more intensely.

Which brings me to my announcement that I am hosting a new in-person painting workshop, “Empathy and Embodiment” in a large new studio on the weekend of August 15 and 16, great for social distance learning. If you have been living your life online for the past several months, and are craving social interaction, this will be a safe and inspiring way to do that! I would love to see you there.

Check it out and let me know as soon as possible if you’d like to join in, as it may be quite popular. 🙂

I’m also starting to teach painting and drawing classes one-on-one and small groups online. and as many as three people in-person in my airy studio. I can tailor a class to your specific needs. Shoot me an email and we can set something up! val@valnelson.ca 778-865-2650

Paris: Modern Life

Paris café terrace on June 2, 2020 (photo credit : BBC)

‘We are going to get back our way of life, our taste for freedom – in other words, we are going to rediscover France fully again’. According to the June 14, 2020 news from The Independant, French president Emmanuel Macron made this statement, which means the famous bar and café culture so treasured by the French can officially restart fully, with Paris declared a “green zone” of safety as the pandemic relaxes its hold on the world.

This is thrilling news, sending a signal to all of us that things will always eventually get better. Pour moi, I feel good just imagining the relief and (albeit cautious) optimism Parisian citizens must feel upon re-emerging from their strict two-month lock-down. For many in the City of Light, the café is an extension of their home living spaces, which tend to be small and confining.

The café is where creative ideas are born, where people meet before and after work to socialize, and where a delicious, relaxing lunch in a neighbourhood restaurant may be taken before heading back to the office. This is the beautiful rhythm of day-to-day living so important to one’s joie de vivre (zest for life) .

When something has been taken away, it feels more precious when you get it back.

That April three years ago, when I woke up in my little 11th arrondissement flat on the first day of a five-week Parisian soujourn., I was repeatedly amazed and grateful to actually be there. All of my senses were super-heightened: tastes, colours, sounds. It was like I too had just emerged from lock-down and could experience more fully the joy of life once again while I continued to heal.

This is the spot where I often started my day, enjoying a to-die-for croissant aux chocolat et aux amandes––do the French know what to do with butter and sugar or what? And sipping a café créme, which is basically a flat white, while watching the locals go about their day.

Boulangerie Gaia, Boulevard Voltaire, 11th arrondissement

One day while I was sitting in my usual window spot, I watched a young mother walking her little son to school. They paused in front of my window so that she could take a hairbrush out of her bag, smooth his disarrayed coiffe and apply HAIR SPRAY before heading out. In France, aesthetics are très important!

The thing you must do for sure when you visit Paris: just walk around and notice what comes across your path. The city is meant to be savored on foot. This is known as flânerie, a term which became widely used in 19th century Paris. A flâneur or flâneuse is a stroller or wanderer with enough means that allows her to walk the city with no particular purpose besides pleasure.

“The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude,

amid the ebb and flow of movement,

in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world,

and yet to remain hidden from the world.

Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life”, 1863

Gustave Caillebotte: Raboteurs de parquet, 1875 oil on canvas
Paris, France ©photo Musée d’Orsay

The Impressionists and other emerging French painters of the 19th century were at the zeitgeist of the explosion of changes to industrial society with their keen observations of modern life. In their brave move away from the academy-approved history and allegorical painting, they created a new kind of painting, a more subjective expression of human experience of their time.

Edouard Manet depicted family and friends in this ambitious painting of crowds of bourgeois Parisians relaxing out-of-doors. If you look closely you can find Baudelaire and a self-portrait of the artist.

Manet, Music in the Tuilieries, Musée D’orsay, Paris

Manet famously did not idealise what he observed around him, which got him into trouble with the Academy at times. Here is his Bar at the Folies Bérgère (above), which he painted in 1882 . The objects are seductively rendered in thick gestural paint––the glowing liqueur and beer bottles, fruits and glassware, and the beautiful bar-maid with vacant expression who is also an object for the consumption of the crowd reflected in the mirror behind her, and for us.

Here is Cécile Laforest, the bartender at L’Eventail where I would sometimes stop for a snack. She was so kind to me as I practiced my French. She would diplomatically switch to fluent English to tell me about herself. She is an actress, a comédienne, and sometimes model. You can check out her Instagram page to see what she’s up to now. Très sympathique, et très talenteuex!

We’ll talk some more about the act of looking in my next blog.

In the meantime, enjoy being more free to wander around your neighbourhood as most of us are feeling safer to get out there, go to a café, bar, or restaurant, and enjoy the summer.

A bientôt!

Val

Paris and Anticipation

I was supposed to be in Paris with my sweetie in March this year, but we had to postpone our trip almost at the last moment when the global pandemic developed with such surprising speed. Since we won’t be going anywhere for a while, I’ve decided to share with you some events from my five week dream stay in Paris in 2017.

What made the trip extraordinary was that there was a very real chance it could never happen.

In late summer of 2016 I made my plan: I’d wake up in Paris on April 1 (my birthday), live six weeks in Paris “like a Parisian”, then move on to teach a two-week painting workshop in Tuscany. Then I’d wrap up my trip by meeting a friend to see the Venice Biennale. Très excitant!

Everything was on track: I had ramped up my entrepeneurial chops by meeting my financial goals through selling my art; my Tuscan painting holiday was close to fully booked; I had bought my air ticket to Paris, and booked an AirBnB for a really great price.

Ooh la la, I was stoked. I was so amazed that I was making this dream a reality. But I was a bit tired from all this activity. So I took a little break in California to get some sunshine. This is me practicing plein air in Palm Desert on November 29.

On November 30 came the car crash.

Oops.

Rush Hour 3

The next several months I spent convalescing. I had a concussion, a broken clavicle (my painting arm), major whiplash, and for a while I had difficulty walking. And I couldn’t paint. Argh. I lay awake unable to know what to do. Should I cancel my trip?

Self-portrait with broken clavicle

It was my dark night of the soul. Since I couldn’t be in the studio, and I love making the most of my time, I thought it would be a good idea to work on my “art career”. When I began working with two different life coaches, it became obvious that what I really needed to address was some deep stuff within myself. So I spent the winter in meditation, and began sorting it all out.

Bubble

By mid-March, even though I couldn’t yet lift my suitcase, my doctors and physiotherapists deemed me well enough to go to Europe. Hurray! I could spend some of my convalescence in Paris––pas mal, non? I figured sitting in some cafés, looking at art, and maybe making a few drawings should be fine, and I would likely be much stronger by the time I got to do the working portion of my “holiday” in Italy, so things were looking pretty rosy.

Then, the vertigo kicked in. Or what I later learned is actually something called “disequilibrium”. But more on that later.

At any rate, I was still able to leave for France only two weeks later than planned.

Charles de Gaulle airport

When I arrived on a sunny mid-April afternoon and found my new home in the 11th arrondissement, I remembered that I had booked my accommodation the previous fall knowing full-well that there was no elevator. And my suite was on the sixth floor. That’s one of the reasons it was so cheap!

Although I usually like to travel light, my suitcase this time was extra large because of the length of my stay, and the fact that I had brought along art supplies for my upcoming painting workshop. Because I had been in “business” mode for four months, I also had foolishly brought along office supplies, including a stapler that must have weighed nearly half a pound! What was I thinking? Okay, I’ll give myself some slack, I was after all recovering from a concussion.

Needless to say, there was no way I was going to be able to get my stuff up there the normal way. So I treated the ground floor like base camp, and gradually decanted things up the long spiralling staircase over several stages.

The place was pretty tiny, and obviously they’d got most of their decor from Ikea. But I was in Paris!

Stay tuned for more Parisian adventures in my next installment. Meanwhile, I thought I’d pass along a tip on a très charmant online show I’ve been escaping into lately during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s called Little Paris Kitchen, hosted by Rachel Khoo, a young British Cordon-Blue trained chef who demystifies French cooking for us in her tiny Paris flat. She turns her little place into a restaurant at night that can only seat two people at a time! You can find it on CBC Gems and watch it for free.

A bientôt!

Talking objects

Below are images of a work shown in progress through to completion, of the Porcelain Dining Room in the Chateau de Versailles. It’s a commission I’ve enjoyed making for a private home near Toronto.  The wide panoramic format was pieced together from individual photographs I took from a trip in France a number of years ago. I remember going through the chateau twice, the second pass offered a satisfying, golden afternoon light. The composition reminds me of the forced perspective one observes on the virtual tours of museum websites.

Porcelainpanorama-studioshotinprogress

Porcelainpanorama in progress
Day 3, Porcelain Panorama (working title), 36 x 72 inches, oil on canvas

Blocking in always begins with big brushes, to locate everything and establish colour family and main values. The next step in the painting is to use smaller brushes and go in for specifics of detail, sharpening edges and creating stronger focal points. I want the viewer to feel immersed in the space, with lots to encourage the eye to keep meandering, discovering new subtleties and maybe even surprises. It’s important to me that a painting unfold for the viewer slowly, to withstand the test of time.

In the final session something happened that wasn’t planned. Here’s the finished piece with its new title, Mantlepiece with Talking Objects (Versailles).

Mantlepiece-with-talking-objects(Versailles)-FINAL
Mantelpiece with talking objects (Versailles), 36 x 72 inches, oil on canvas, 2016

Working with the warm colors of the parquet flooring, gilding, and marble, really helped energize the gray days of winter.

porcelainpanorama-palette

 

 

Optimistic Pursuits has moved!

valnelson-view-from-notre-dame-in-pink-green-and-grey-website
View from Notre Dame in Pink, Green, and Grey

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The illustrated woman

Maira Kalman
Maira Kalman

In her heart-warming book, The Principles of Uncertainty, Maira Kalman reveals emotional depth and a quirky wit. In an excerpt posted on the New York times website, she suggests ways to ponder the pursuit of happiness.

An illustrator, author, and designer, Kalman is widely known and loved for her children’s books such as Ooh La La, Max in Love, and her brilliant illustrated update of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Hear Maira talk about her life and work in a video from the public speaking series Ted Talks:

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/maira_kalman_the_illustrated_woman.html