They make it exceedingly difficult to write these blogs. How am I supposed to put into words the experience that we are having here. Sure, I can explain it to any one of the people here, but how is it possible to convey something so incredible to someone who isn’t here experiencing it?
We aren’t really on Proctor’s European Art Classroom. We are on the world’s European art experience. We discussed a comparable situation this week in literature class with Jen through the writings of Calvin Trillin. We read an excerpt from his book Travels With Alice where Trillin discusses the dilemma of going on the expected “Grand Tour” of a country, or straying off the beaten path to truly experience a country. Trillin takes his family to stay in the small village of Uzès in Provence, opting to live like the French rather than running around to every site and snapping a picture.
We haven’t even set foot on a path. Instead we are in the process of creating a painting, and every place we go, every thing we do, is adding a new block of color or refining an existing part of the masterpiece that we will be left with by the time we get on the plane home.
Though we are doing our best to experience France rather than go on the “Grand Tour” this doesn’t mean we aren’t seeing the important sites. This past Tuesday we visited the studio of the great Cézanne. Having skillfully avoided a large tour group we made our way up the stairs that Cézanne walked up so many times. The worn red tiled stairs brought us to the high ceilinged studio itself, filled with large windows allowing sunlight to constantly be spilling through.
Our guide for the day was a tall bald guy named Dave, who had already been our guide a few times in the past. He took us on a great tour of the studio, and we left filled with learning and inspiration. From the studio we went to the boulangerie Paul to grab some sandwiches, and then to the Terrain des Peintres.
The Terrain des Peintres is the place from which Cézanne painted his 76 paintings of Mt. Ste. Victoire, so we set up our easels and delved into a day of successful plein air painting. We completed our day with a visit to the Barrage de Bimont, a massive dam built at the base of Mt. Ste. Victoire. The water is tinted an incredible blue-green by the limestone of the mountain creating an absolutely awe-inspiring spectacle.
Our Thursday excursion took us to the temporary home of another great artist. Van Gogh stayed at St. Rémy after cutting off his ear and generally finding himself in a bad mental state. The mental hospital served as the creative ground for many of his most famous paintings, including his sunflowers, and “Starry Night.” The resemblance can be seen in the above painting of Van Gogh's and the photograph of Max painting below. The mountain on the right of Van Gogh's painting happens to be the same one over Max's left shoulder, though Max chose to paint a different seen our presence at this incredible place inspired us all to paint through the eyes of a master.
We took that creativity flowing through the tall grass and gnarled olive trees and transferred it to our own canvasses with another bout of plein air painting.
We did also look at what had been Van Gogh’s room while he was a patient at the hospital, but it wasn’t particularly exciting. His supposed bed is still there, but everything else has since been replaced. The main draw is the inspiration of walking in the same place a man so great (and a little bit crazy) once walked and painted.
Max and I really took our time capturing the scene, and four hours later we departed from St. Rémy and wound our way through breathtaking green countryside dotted with limestone outcroppings causing us to keep our heads on a constant swivel in order to take it all in. We were snapped out of our reverie as we pulled into a vineyard and piled out of the van for a wine tasting. Though the vineyard was technically five minutes from closing time the woman in the office insisted that we try nearly the whole stock, and after a wide array of whites, rosés, and reds, we finally made some decisions.
On the way home we stopped to pick up some pizzas we had called in from “Mr. Californie.” “Mr. Californie” is the friendly neighborhood pizza truck guy who is really itching to move to California where his friend also has a pizza truck. His name is not actually “Mr. Californie”, but he really enjoys the nickname so it’s going to stick.
The pizzas left us fulfilled and happy, especially Ceilidh, since it happened to be her birthday.
The rest of the week has been filled with our typical mornings of art history, café literature classes, and lunches at cafés. We continue to be immersed in French life as citizens of Aix-en-Provence. We aren’t tourists here, we are a part of the community. Even at the grocery store the cashiers recognize us (most likely because we spend the most money of anyone all week). Even though we are seeing the important sites, we aren’t just going on a tour and snapping pictures for fleeting memories. We are here setting down building blocks for the rest of our lives, an experience beyond words that will be with us forever as a solid memory and experience, a painting more beautiful than any great artist can ever make.