The welcome at the gallery was tremendous. We arrived on the first morning of the installation to be offered coffee, then lunch, then extremely gracious help by members of the Association Art Point de Vue, the group (mainly volunteers) running the gallery in conjunction with the town hall.
Lauzerte itself is a beautiful little medieval village on the Compostelle trail. It is located on a little mound, which affords a 360º view of the surrounding countryside. We placed Jess’s cows by the window, which we liked to prop open so they could be in the fields. This resulted in my tree pictures being shaken by the wind, as branches do.
The opening night was extremely friendly and all in attendance looked carefully at the art displayed. This genuine interest carried on throughout the month as visitors, locals or from further afield, really spent time engaging with the art.
For Jess and I though, the finished pieces are only a small part of the story. What matters more to some extent is the creative process for this is where the learning and the engagement with the world takes place. This is part of what we would like to share and the reason why my photographs documenting Jess’s work and models are shown alongside her scupltures.
Following Roger Keyes’ opening words in his poem Hokusai says,
Hokusai says look carefully
He says pay attention, notice,
He says keep looking, stay curious,
He says there is no end to seeing.
it all begins with looking.
As Jess, alongside her trusted border-collie Tess, showed me how to look, I realised that an artistic process didn’t need to be very different from a scientific one (which is my educational background). The observation is as keen.
Jess’s deep and graceful respect for her subjects taught me to approach animals in an entirely different way, less conceptual, more empathetic, and together, we are extending this approach to the rest of the natural world, vegetal with trees and mineral with standing stones.
So in Lauzerte, we were also looking for ways of sharing our approach, and the catalogues and articles we had left for people to read alongside the artwork were not attractive enough. Luckily, however, our stay coincided with the journées du patrimoine in France (these are ‘heritage days’, held over a week-end) and we were invited to take part.
Jess offered an adult workshop on sculpting animals in clay. We were generously hosted by a local artist in her studio. She also provided lunch, which we shared in the sunshine on tables that had been set on the street. The following afternoon, we ran a drop-in clay workshop for children, who were terribly enthusiastic, immensely creative and mostly knew what they wanted to do.
I offered a storytelling evening on the topic of trees for alongside being outside photographing and drawing trees, I take an interest in myths, folktales, botany, and biology.
The process of looking is ongoing, I am merely scratching the surface, yet I can feel how my understanding is shifting. Whilst in southern France, Jess and I stole five days away to hike in the Haut-Languedoc. I didn’t know this area at all and hadn’t expected most of the walks to be alongside forestry tracks. It was a real gift to meet so many trees, and to feel the change in atmosphere when crossing from conifer plantations, to beech woods or oak forests. I might not have noticed anything had I not begun to look, had our companion donkey not slowed our pace.
Back in Lauzerte, our favourite times were when school kids visited the gallery. They were thrilled to be allowed to touch the sculptures and play with Tess and the pigs. They didn’t know what bronze was, thought it could be mixed with clay, and were ready to believe that Tess herself had done horse drawings. I think that Jess got the best possible review from ten-year old Marylou who had a perfect understanding of her work:
“Les animaux en argil et en bronze sont si magnifique qu’on aurait dit qu’ils étaient vivants et qu’ils attendaient le bon moment pour sortir de leur position et vous suivre.”
‘The animals in clay and bronze are so magnificent that one would believe they were alive and only waiting for the right moment to shift from their positions and follow you,’ she wrote in the guest book.
Jess and I are extremely grateful for the tremendous hospitality we received from the town and the art community in Lauzerte, with particular thanks to Sandra Clerbois. We are also very humbled by the faultless welcome of my parents, without whom our stay in France wouldn’t have been possible, let alone nearly so pleasurable.