Special Places


Dear Artist,

Several times I’ve been back to a place in southern France — an old farm-home converted into self-contained suites. “Mas Peychonnier,” with a commanding view and under the eye of a mysterious Cathar castle, presides over its grapefields.

At first I didn’t find much of interest. I rambled the area on foot, drove my Alfa here and there on the tiny, wandering roads. The highlands around are barren, windswept. Villages of stone and masonry as well as severe, compact farms are scattered in the valley grapelands. The wine industry in France works on the system of appellation — grapes from each vineyard go to the same bottle, same name. Neighbors here produce unique marques, using guarded family secrets and ancient privilege. Even the grape-carts must not be moved from one farm to another for fear of contamination. Here, ancient, broken-wheeled grape-carts were dumped and deserted in hedges and farmyards in the same way that North Americans abandon their cars. These horse-drawn carts, while of a style, are all a bit different. One by one I paint them where they sit.

A new environment is a tonic for the eyes. We bring to it less than the regular baggage. This area is a triumph of ochre and umber. Even the villages have little color. But the carts are bright — professionally painted, striped and limned, their bodies often a remarkable light blue. These farmers are surprised that I find such a thing worthy of paint. I have come to realize that the locals are hardly aware of the carts — their familiarity and commonality has erased them from generations of sight.


“Sea Viewed from the Heights of Dieppe” 1852
by Eugene Delacroix

Best regards,


PS “One must learn to be grateful for one’s own findings.” (Eugene Delacroix)

Esoterica: The principle of “Microcosm” takes vivid form in Life with Picasso by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake. In this candid book we get an idea of the kind of serial obsession that drove Picasso. A firing-cap for an explosion of productivity is to grab something and explore it.


Holy place
by B. L. Sands

I was in a place like that and there was absolutely nothing around that I could use. Then, after a few days of thinking that we had to move on, I discovered a type of spider’s hole where the entrance is sewed into a little tunnel—all very decorative but also different. I photographed these, some with their proprietors at the entrances, while the kids played in the pool and my wife thought it was her vacation.


Innocent beauty
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada

While I was living in Nice and going to art school there, I went out on a Sunday to do some sketching. I felt forlorn. Nice is a fairly concrete city with little green gardens here and there. The city empties on the weekends. The neighborhood, as was typical, was devoid of people except for some Afro-French children playing in the park. I wasn’t terribly inspired. The children at play, was the only thing of beauty I could see. I sat on a bench and started to sketch them. Shyly they approached me to see what I was doing. They were fascinated and embarrassed to see themselves as subjects. Eventually, they each wanted a chance to show their ability as an artist and I let them each have a turn with charcoal and paper. I forgot all about the incident until I came across the sketches recently. They are not great, but I’m glad I kept them. The children were like the farmers you speak of Robert, they were innocent of their innate beauty and surprised that someone else would find it there.


More sex
by Paula Sue Butts, Folsom, California, USA

Painting is like great sex. Once you get a real taste of the beauty within it, you hunger for more. Practice is the act of refining a style on any artistic level. The outcome is the practice is a time consuming process that is effortless for the driven ones. The performance of the artist be it a dancer commanding a standing ovation, or a musician playing an instrument for a audience, singing for an audience, or the exhibition of a painting is the rewards of a fleeting quenching of hunger. Then the hunger starts all over again. What wonder the mystery of artistic expression is and how it keeps us experiencing the beauty over and over again.


New visual inventory
by Cassandra James, Texas, USA

The best part of traveling is the availability of a new visual inventory. Unfamiliar colors and forms stimulate new ways of seeing and working. I’m more relaxed about drawing in the sketchbook — even in a moving car — and wish I could bring that immediacy and freshness to the studio work.


Best on foot
by Frank Scott

Often what is important takes a while to sink in. That’s why it’s valuable not to be always moving on. Or if you must move do it on foot. You will notice that areas you cover on foot last much longer in the minds-eye and have a more prolonged effect on the imagination.


Foreigner’s eyes
by Carol Hama Chang, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Re your painterly grape carts in France: It IS amazing how strangers will find beauty in something that the locals have all but overlooked. I can wager that their artists can tromp all the way to our home towns and find beauty …Isn’t that always the case? The trick is to view our hometowns through the… eyes of foreigners


Independent mind
by L.L. Loeb, Berlin

Embedded in all of your letters, and in many of the responses, is the implication that a prerequisite of the creative nature is that you must have an independent mind. Without this ability the artist is lost. An artist simply must self-educate to develop the capability to stand apart from the crowd and open his or her mind to the possibilities around. So much of our education and life experience would lead us in the opposite direction.


Ambushed by the Mistress
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas

The “special places” can be sometimes be very small and close at hand. Recently, opening the door to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I was ambushed by my car keys, a scattering of coins, my wallet and a role of toilet paper. Not only do these items outrank your grape carts in the category of commonplace sights by several orders of magnitude, but I have never been a still life painter. I wasn’t looking for a still life. At first I thought of Husserl’s “the things themselves,” and that gave me some rational excuse for taking this image seriously.

The next the night — having left everything exactly where it lay on the countertop beside the lavatory — I blocked the hallway with a portable easel and started the painting. Over the next few days similar ambushes occurred — a glass of water in the kitchen, a couple of empty cups in front of a digital clock, etc. — until I had a half dozen small paintings and one large one going on simultaneously. (I had to work fast because people kept tripping over my easel or moving my “set ups”! “You ATE that banana?!”) These images were unplanned and unpremeditated: I had to discover them. I was suddenly obsessed with exactly what it was that made glass look like glass, or metal look metallic, etc. — and to somehow make the paint not just describe these objects but reveal those mysteries. In a million Churchill years I might figure that last one out. Later I realized it wasn’t the things themselves that were important, but the relationships between the things, and their presence in a certain place, in a certain time, in a certain light. The surprise attacks usually occurred at night, after most of the lights had been turned off. Another even more unusual thing for me was that these pictures had no narratives attached to them — at least none that I’m aware of. They seem purely existential.

However, I now understand that these still life’s have one thing in common with my other paintings — the element of surprise which initiated them. This goes back your letter about “the Mistress.” We bring to her all the inadequacies you mentioned, but we should never say no to her, no matter how outlandish — or commonplace — the disguise she shows up in.


You may be interested to know that artists from 75 countries have visited these sites since December 1, 2000.

That includes Francis Pratt of Castlenau de Montmiral, Tarn, France, whose Caladrius bird, a creation of the imagination found in medieval bestiaries, was said to have special powers, including the ability to help people with sight problems through the mediation of its droppings. More generally, it could restore people’s sense of well-being by ingesting their troubles through its eye beams, flying up to the sun and regurgitating them into the all-consuming solar fire.

And also Shirley Erskine of Mississauga, Ontario, who asks, “If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?”



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