Creative Life News Blog

Life Imitates Art: Artist En Route in Provence, France

Arrival in Provence: Greeted by Cézanne

Arriving in Provence is like walking into a painting. It is so appealing-- to all the senses. Taste and smells, as well as sights, are abundantly pleasurable in this region. Olive groves, vineyards, orchards, lavender, and herbes de Provence. It's tough land to plough with so many rocks in its ochre-rich soils of varied colours. A multitude of green trees and shrubs, now changing to autumn hues, softly merge with deep red to yellow-red earth and amazingly blue skies

Cézanne altered portrait by Janet Strayer
Cézanne's Welcome, altered portrait by Janet Strayer

It is early autumn, and the light is remarkable. How to describe light? It's not just its clarity, given the dry air and open skies. Such different skies and light than in Vancouver rain-forest home. The light now has a quality of softness that imparts a warm, golden glow. Everything is penetrated and sculpted by it, without hard edge. Compared to the brilliantly sharp light of southern Spain and Greece, the light here seems to caress forms rather than chisel or outline them. It insinuates shadows that seem to slide into, rather than cut, the ground. It illuminates in and around the subtly colored foreground planes and unifies them with harmonious backgrounds.... just like in a magnificent painting. I wish I could capture this in photos (shown below, late afternoon in our backyard at Solar de Provence, our rented cottage, no filters or alterations). I tried, but photos just don't give the sense of being surrounded by this extraordinary golden light.

We've settled for several months in a very nice cottage near the old village of Rognes, not far from Aix-en-Provence, home of Cézanne. He is my constant neighbor, whose round bald pate I love, and in tribute to whom I've made the Bienvenue digitally altered montage portrait shown here. Not only did Cézanne love and never leave Provence for long, but he saw it as few before him ever had. I now see the reality of Mont Ste. Victoire, just as he painted it again and again: planes of broken color that abut and define different blocks of mass that change with the light.

Mont Sainte Victoire

During several visits to Provence across the years, I've climbed this iconic mountain along many different rocky, steep paths, reaching its summit with a sense of pilgrimage. Many years ago, we lived in the village of Puyloubier, sitting right on the toes of Ste. Victoire. Some of its oldest houses used the mountain as a back wall. You can also find trails marked in ancient Roman times. The mountain is very rocky, parts of it quite steep, and there is no water along the way to the summit. Taking the trail from Puyloubier, the small St. Ser hermitage chapel is a stopping point before the final push to the summit. Walking along the stony summit ridge, you can see all the land around. It's a rewarding, fairly horizontal walk to the cross marking the peak. Below is a video montage of snaps of this fabled mountain taken now and during my climbing years.


Life Inside a Painting

Having lured artists here for centuries and been the subject of so many famous paintings, it's no wonder that walking into the actual landscape makes you think that life imitates art!

Visual art has a way of teaching us to look more keenly, see in different ways, and perhaps see more than expected. Cézanne's Mont Ste. Victoire is not just a mountain. It's a changing field of colored planes, a template for a new way of looking and of seeing, an icon in art history, a symbol of a place and of a devotion. This is what it's like to live inside a painting. I start seeing the hills around me as Cézanne-hills, the sparks and swirls of light at different times of day as Van Gogh painted them, and the scenic moments in the landscape as Monet-like impressions or as polymorphous possibilities for Cubist forms.


Picasso chose to live his later years near Mt. Ste. Victoire, on the opposite side of the one I've photographed. The chateau he lived in is located in a basin valley in the village of Vauvenargues. I can only imagine the treasures and life lived inside.

Inspiration is Everywhere

Inspiration is everywhere. It's in the abundance of nature, in pace of agricultural rhythms, in the sensory variety of the sights, sounds, smells, and textures that weave through daily life. It's in the vineyards, olive groves, the now spent fields of lavender, the red and ochre earth you walk upon. The natural palette is gorgeously harmonious. The ground varies from luscious red-browns to an eye-dazzling range of rich yellows, set in perfect contrasts of deep and diminished sap-greens that slide into silvery olive tones, and blues to break your heart. All the natural pigments could make you as delirious as they might have made Van Gogh.

Art is Everywhere

Art is everywhere and is part of everyday cultural life. It isn't set apart as a culture-snob event. And it ranges in affordability from free to pricey. Local museums seem to crop up everywhere. There are weekly announcements for exhibitions of visual arts, music, dance, recitations, theatre, acrobatics, performance art, and fairs celebrating all manner of crafts. The local butcher asks if I've seen the new exhibition in the museum nearby. A neighbour recommends a show at a local winery. A friend recommends a dance recital, but it's sold out. I wish every home town had as much access to the arts and as much local appreciation for them.

Roussillon: an Adventure in Pigment

The nearby town of Roussillon, perched atop on of the largest ochre deposits in the world, is famous for its natural pigments, used by painters for centuries... and now I've picked up some too. The town, itself, embodies the pigments of its soil.

These pigments range from deep browns, reds and yellow to bright oranges, pinks, reds, and sun-burnt yellows favored by artists throughout history, as far back as the amazing cave paintings in France. Although synthetic pigments have long since taken over, and the once thriving ochre industry has all but disappeared, the natural pigments for umbers, siennas, and yellow ochres are still available for purchase here.

Even more impressive are the walking trails within the former ochre quarries. The terrain has been structured for visitors, with sculpted landforms and colors all around and under your feet. You can always dip your finger into the earth and smudge some pigment onto paper or, as the urge hit me and many others, onto yourself. Beware: this non-toxic pigment really lasts (as prehistoric cave paintings show us).

The Gastronomic Palate

"One does not live by bread alone." So true. But if one had to, this is the place to do it. For me, France has the BEST bread (all its varieties) in the world. And Cheese, too. I especially love the varieties of brébis or sheep cheeses, having become digestively intolerant of many cow-cheeses. Food presentation is a "thing" in all of France, of course, so the food on the plate looks as good as it tastes. This display occurs even in the open-air markets as well as the less expensive restaurants. "Making a palette for the palate" is the pun I couldn't resist. Wine.... oh yes, you know, one could go on an on about that. Bottom line: it's abundantly good, abundantly available, and abundantly affordable. The rosé varieties are particularly good here in the Bouche du Rhone.

Living History

The endurance of ways of life here have persisted across centuries of turmoil and war. You come across ancient ruins in almost every village and stonework dating back before the Caesars. The past is alive, along with the present. History is apparent even in street names in Aix, like Rue Verrerie/Anciano Carriero de la Jutarie, written in both modern French and older Provençal (or Occitan). It's in the many fairs and local festivals marking regional traditions and products. History lives also in the daily life of people who value living well: the well-prepared meal, the stylistic presentation, the attentively tended market stalls, the butcher who tells us not to miss the art show at the chateau. It's in the famous paintings depicting this region that still invite you into it, up close and personal.

Ordinary Life Becomes Extraordinary

Ordinary life becomes extraordinary for visitors here. Take shopping for daily goods as an example. It's so different here than my home routine of driving to big supermarkets and stocking up on a maximum of goods in a minimal amount of time and trips. Here, going to market is still a pleasure for our local neighbours, as well as ourselves. One explores and learns which particular market days are best for certain products in nearby towns. Local vineyards and cheese-producing farms invite sampling their products. Food, clothes, household goods, are all available at outdoor markets Of course, there are also large department stores and supermarkets, and of course they are useful. But they don't seem to detract from the importance of local markets to daily life. These make even routine shopping seem less a chore and more an artful excursion. Such customs break us out of our too-familiar routines.

Life Becomes Art

Art does something similar. It makes us look -- and to see things a bit differently. It adds to our interest by taking us away from our habitual, accustomed ways of seeing when it shows us an apple like we've never seen it before. Certainly, thousands of apples have been depicted across thousands of paintings. But a good painting of an apple is one that makes you take notice of it, shows you something different or special about it. Similarly, consciously or mindfully living in a new location intensifies and differentiates experience, pulling it out of the ordinary lull. Most things become familiar yet new or different: driving new routes, shopping, exploring local places, listening to a different language, etc. Learning how to go about things taken-for-granted back home become adventures in daily living. Such sharpening of one's attention is bound to influence how one sees things: teaching us how we need actively to explore where we are, look carefully, listen, take a moment.. This practice changes one's perspectives by offering several different ways of looking at the same thing. Seeing multiple perspectives is not the easiest position for those needing to maintain confident or long-held opinions. Still, it's a reflectively open position that's quite valuable for life as well as art.

Art Becomes Life

I'm impressed by the attention given to public art and exhibitions everywhere I go. Art here is just another aspect of an attentive, creative way of living. Even my town (not an art centre) has a local vernissage every few months. The nearby village of Lourmarin, with only about 1,000 dwellers, boasts more than a dozen independent, active art galleries. This focus on art, so evident in the entire Provence region, seems to go along with a taste for reading and writing. Even in tiniest villages, you find busy independent bookstores and papeteries with their assortments of writing implements (lovely fountain pens!) and a selection of papers, the tangibles of a literate culture. Vintage books and pens are also displayed traditionally in weekly open-air market stalls.

The cultural support on all levels for art as part of life is abundantly clear here and adds to enjoyment.

Thinking of all the visual art I continue to enjoy, I realise I've collected an internal, private museum for myself over the years. It's based on all the artworks I've seen that have made some impression on me at different times in my life. The featured items change with time. I've tried to express this idea in the works below (click far right of image to slide). Is this so for you too?


Making Your Mark as an Artist in France

I've visited so many nearby places, different galleries and events, and spoken with many people here, including art students, teachers, and local gallerists, that I'm convinced this region maintains a vital cultural connection to the arts. Art centres and interests abound not only in the central city of Aix-en-Provence, long known for its artistic and cultural life, but also in many tiny Provençal communities that have their art spaces and avid enthusiasts. Even so, emerging artists still typically take a long time to emerge.


Some time ago, I interviewed Philippe, a mid-career artist/instructor in a workshop I attended. He gave me his overview of some challenges facing a painter who wants to make a living and gain recognition solely by art. His views turned to be not so different from the challenges facing Canadian artists. He said the smaller galleries don't do enough to promote their artists and the larger ones are business conglomerates that deal only with known artists or decide in common which few new ones to promote. Although Philippe shows his paintings in local galleries, the best promotion, he thought, was to have them in the big art fairs that cost a big chunk of money but also attract the big gallerists. In contrast, "no problem" was the answer I got when asking the same question of younger Max, a fairly recent multimedia graduate of L'Ecole Superieure d'Art in Aix, who was then showing his intricate computer graphics at a group show promoted by the school. Max said he showed his work in all sorts of venues (not just galleries) in Belgium, France, and London, as well as having an internet presence with his abstract music. Aside from their artwork, is it their relative life positions or reference points for "success" that account for the different views of these two full-time artists?

Geography is Destiny?

We all absorb and are affected by the mainstream culture and different sub-cultures we live in, whether conscious of this or not. Even the contemporary "culture" of painting tells us what's hot and what's not. But, on a more concrete or earthy level, how much is the content and style of what visual artists paint related to their physical setting?


For plein-air artists, it certainly must be. But what about studio-based artists, abstract painters, or those who work from a more conceptual or imaginative base? My own experience tells me it's still true (for me, at least). Here's an example. My first visit to Provence occurred just after I'd finished a satisfying show of semi-abstract paintings back home in Canada. I was eager to continue onward with abstract painting while in Provence. But after arriving here, Abundance is the first painting I made (subsequently sold). I felt impelled to make it just by enjoying life in Provence and by Cézanne's palpable imminence, even in still life paintings. It was my way of showing homage to my experience of this place. Fact is, I couldn't get to work on anything else until I'd done this painting and a couple more like it.

 still life painting by Janet Strayer
Abundance by Janet Strayer

Field-Dependence/Independence

Thinking about the psychological reasons for this impact of geographical setting on one's work, I recalled an interesting distinction between field-dependent versus field-independent persons. This psychological dimension pertains to our perceptual-cognitive styles: the extent to which we're influenced by the external context (the "field" dependent) versus being guided by more internal, proprioceptive cues (field independent). There are advantages to both. What impressed me, as a generally field-independent person, is the extent to which this flipped in response to the rich and inviting external cues of this Provençal environment.


One technical point for painters: working in acrylics here is very different from places like Vancouver. Because the climate is so much drier here, the paint dries almost immediately, so you have to adapt: use more media, lay out a smaller palette (even a wet one), paint more quickly and decisively, work wet-into-wet, do less in each painting session.


I found that creating collages best fit my current intent to capture a rush of events I'd just experienced. Shown below (click far right to slide images), these included a visit to an exhibition on Edvard Munch at one of my favorite large art museums, the d'Orsay in Paris. The second is based upon reading a great issue of Le Figaro on Proust. The last three are passing thoughts and sights.




Geography may not be destiny, but it sure affects how you live and what you can choose to do and to make or create.

Aix-en-Provence

Entire books are devoted to Provence, a region that includes multiple micro-climates and cultural influences from Celtic and Roman to Catalonian and North African. Aix-en-Provence, its capital, is one of its handsomest towns, with its majestic Cours Mirabeau main street, one of largest and most recognizable fountains in France, and its trendy people-watchers sitting in posh cafés dating back to 1792. The Deux Garçons is one of the oldest, and most famous, having been the one of choice for Piaff, Cocteau, even Churchill, as well as more current celebrities and local folk, past and present. We often snacked at the Deux G (it has an especially nice interior), but it's boarded up now (hopefully, under renovation)

I'm fond of Aix, this ancient and youthful town that welcomes foreigners but keeps its traditions alive. Like other towns in this region, Aix seems to have a historic ability, despite changes of fortune, to embrace l'art de vivre. Of the many photos I'd like to share with you from Provence here's one I took in Aix in November,1995, just after the terrorist shooting at a crowded club in Paris. Rather than shut down in mourning, the town chose to put on this celebration -- a defiant affirmation of local life, here celebrating in traditional costume an old Provençal dance with fife and drum.


Á bientôt, for now. Keep tuned to Creative Life News for further columns. You can also see more photos and notes posted weekly by clicking under "About" > "Instagram" on my site's menu.

Hope you enjoy all you can en-route!






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