Monday, 22 May 2017

Inspiration, Now - painting and drawing Chez Nous

Welcome back to Chez Nous.

Good news - as the renovation of my atelier d’art is progressing slowly but steadily, I have managed to reclaim my number one metier, painting.  And for once I am not talking about painting walls, but painting as in fine art and illustration.  Although the emphasis of this blog has been on the renovation and restoration of our house here in Mazamet, I feel it is time to come clean about my artistic endeavours also, as I am currently embarking on a painting project about Chez Nous and more widely, the region I am lucky to live in.

Getting back on my vocation full time has been both weird and wonderful after focussing on other projects for nearly six months.  On top of that, the last time I set out to paint a coherent body of work to be exhibited together was for my degree show, back in Edinburgh College of Art in the Auld Reekie in 2014!  To best explain what I plan to establish by painting a series of pieces about my own dwelling, I better start from the beginning… of what my art is all about in the first place:

Some of my earlier paintings from 2006 to 2010

Some people see themselves as artists primarily, but I have always been a painter.  Working towards perfecting my trade through mastering different materials, repeated sketching or meticulous base-work such as priming my own canvasses is very important to me.  It has been a long road to find out what my preferred subjects are, from early works inspired by art nouveau and surrealism to brash portraits of objects commanding to be gazed at, but at this point of my career I am most inspired by different materials and patterns, iconic brands and cherished things.  Acknowledging the weight of the history of art so far, as well as the significance of colour in two dimensional art, I still want my pieces to be playful.  The concept of nostalgia, too, plays a huge part in my way of painting things and wanting to inspire the viewer to start paying attention to the beauty found in everyday: how we dress ourselves, the products we consume, advertisement, signage, décor…  I firmly believe most things around us deserve a second look and by elevating mundane subjects into art by painting them in larger than life scale on canvas, is my way of doing so.

Some of my most recent, pattern based pieces

But leaving my artists manifesto aside, by choosing to paint my house, my home, and exhibit the pieces for all the world to see, is my way of documenting what is here and paying tribute to the people who built this lovely house as their home over a century ago.  This house is a treasure chest of ideas for a pattern-obsessed painter and a history buff:  The wallpapers alone would keep me busy for years in the studio, not to mention the intricate tilework and the plaster details with their hidden symbols.  And there are many homes just like mine on this street alone, some occupied, but many waiting for a fool of a renovator to take them on and love them again. 

Mazamet used to be one of the richest regional towns in France with more gold stored in its banks than in the branches of Paris.  The textile, leather and pelt-industries created a steady stream of wealth making it possible for merchants of all classes, including the cheesemongers who set up shop in Chez Nous, to build beautiful houses, using the most fashionable materials and decorating them stylishly following the latest trends.  It looked like the economic growth was never ending; even the wars did not stop the production in the Montagne Noire - if anything the war effort meant more business for the local mills producing textiles and gear for the military.  But come 1970’s and the rules of commerce had changed:  The local producers could no longer keep up with the competition once the cheap imports started flooding in from Asia, China in particular.  Today hardly anything is left from the glory days of the industrial dominance of this region, except the hollow shells of the factories scattered along the waterways tricking down from the mountain. 

Old postcards of Mazamet showing the town centre, processing of pelts - a key industry for the region and one of the now abandoned factories.  

With no work and mounting social problems, people that grew up here were forced to look for their fortunes elsewhere, leaving homes built by their ancestors behind.  These properties soon lost their value and small townhouses as well as the grand villas of the factory owners were left to decay.  Investment and with it, new residents, are returning to Mazamet, though, have been for some time now.  The agreeable climate together with affordable properties and its authentic small town-feel makes this a popular spot for the English expats.  I have hear Tarn, our department, being describes as the best value for money in the whole of France by friends who invest in property here.  Due to spectacularly cheap rents for businesses, manufacturing and commerce are making a comeback too.  Just the other week I read about somebody setting up an artisanal sake distillery nearby and the town centre is been re-fitted as we speak to attract more shopkeepers and restaurateurs.  Our mayor has a real interest in encouraging all kinds of businesses and under his schemes especially young entrepreneurs have had a change to start-up businesses in Mazamet.

Not quite the renaissance of the Montagne Noire just yet, but things are improving.  People’s attitudes towards historic homes on the other hand, not so much.  We have been able to buy and re-claim so many materials such as tiles so easily because there seems to be very little interest in preserving the old.  From every one person I know who is interested in respectful renovation of their old house, there seems to be dozens who would rather skip the painstaking restoration process and cover everything with plasterboard and laminate.  Their home and their rules, of course, but surely there is no harm in giving the old another change? 

Small watercolour and pencil sketches inspired by the patterns of our wonderful encaustic cement tiles

By choosing to paint my tiles, the weather beaten front door of ours or 60’s floral wallpaper is not to say this is art – it is to encourage the viewer, you, to look again after something has been elevated into art.  What people take from my work is of course subjective, but if it inspires at least one person to start looking for the beauty of the everyday in their own lives, job well jobbed.

Tile sketches in blush pink, carmine and burgundy

Art does not need to be this monster that only lurks in museums, knobby galleries and hipster bars – it is all around us, where we choose to see beauty. 

Painting is my way to engage with the world around me.  It is a way to document my life and my feelings, but also a way to make a living, thus curated for an audience.  My work at its most truthful lies somewhere between these parameters.  By creating art inspired by my own home I am turning something very private into something professional, but in a way, this is what I am already doing by writing this blog.  These little watercolours illustrating my thoughts in this post will serve as a template to start working on canvas – canvasses that may one day be hung in somebody else’s home.  The idea of that is both thought provoking as well as bizarre. 

My front door.

Once the day comes to exhibit my creations out in the big wide world, I will naturally be starting local.  During my time here I have noticed it is often those that are the closest that can truly be the blindest when it comes to valuing our surroundings.  And as it is everywhere else, it often takes an appreciative stranger to convince the locals that it’s not all just doom and gloom here.  Mazamet really deserves to be loved again and through my work, I want to be the one carrying her torch. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

Le Grand Balcon - Setting up outdoor space for the summer

It all started with a catalogue.  You know, one of those supermarket add-magazines soliciting variety packs of Walkers and the best deals on Birds Eye frozen macaroni bites.  We get a fair bit of those here in France, in fact they drop semiregularly into our mailbox, once or twice a week, from all of the major supermarkets in the area.  First I thought about putting a stop to it by attaching a small “pas de pub” note on the door like before, but as a homeowner, I thought why not give the catalogues a try.

Who knows, they may even have coupons, I remember thinking.

Little did I know that a mag from Casino was going to change the way we would use our balcony, a leaky, smelly and callous place, which at that juncture mostly served as a place to dump smelly bin bags.  Like a good little wife I browsed through each leaflet full of special offers and multi-buys, occasionally setting a few aside featuring decent beer offerings or a tasty coupon.  From this pile of domestic misery, James spotted a set of patio furniture, a modular sofa, armchair and a tea-table-combo, for a price too good to miss.  As the weather was warming up, we wanted somewhere nice to sit outside with our G&T’s and made a trip to the Géant Casino in Castres the very next weekend.

The near impossible-to-assemble patio set with our riggity old table and chairs.

As you would expect, the furniture was a real bitch to put together.  Made of composite plastic in charcoal-black and casted to look woven in, these sets are fairly commonplace.  We were attracted to this particular combination, not just for its price, but because of the modular nature of it.  The furniture is lightweight and can be made to suit various situations: it’s not ridiculously opulent for the two of us and in the fair occasions we have company, you can seat up to five people comfortably.  The detail I was not expecting to be pleased about were the cushions, which turned out to be nice and fluffy, machine washable and moisture repellent. 

While James was putting the pieces together in a drunken rage, I contributed by removing the cushions from their protective film and complained about certain men’s inability to read instructions.  Happy times.

Having sorted out the seating as well as a pesky hole in the fugly-but-functional fiberglass roofing, our little terrace was coming together nicely.  We chose to prioritise other projects for the summer to come, therefore it made sense to repair rather than remove the corrugated fiberglass sheets keeping the balcony dry from the rain.  You see, the water had previously found its way through the concrete base of the terrace, all the way to downstairs and the only way to start managing this was to make sure the floor was staying dry.  Installed sometime over ten years ago, the fiberglass sheets were in a proper state, but seemed to be holding on fine enough.  After James replaced a missing sheet and bolted it in place, this issue was solved. 

This corrigated fiberglass had weathered so badly that on the first glimpse James and I both thought it was asbestos.

With relatively little direct sunlight filtering thought the dirty fiberglass into this north facing sitting area, we get to enjoy our stunning view without being burned to crisp - something I truly appreciate as a perma-pale Finn.  Sure, the roofing will go as early as we have the time and the money to replace it properly, but in the meantime, the situation could be a lot grimmer.

Our current collection of herbs and flowers.

The concrete base will also get dug up and replaced.  For the time being we are thinking about terracotta tiles, perhaps re-using some already in this house, but in the interim the cracked concrete was covered up with a “rug” of synthetic grass.  We used to have this stuff covering a few problem areas in our old gallery-rental and we both liked the playful nature of the material.  Our garden, still a bit of a project, as is everything else in this house, does not have any grass and likely never will, so putting down a piece of artificial lawn felt like a fun thing to do.

Rest of the apparent décor, the little table and chairs, the herbs and the accessories migrated into this place almost on their own.  A north facing balcony is not the best place to grow herbs, I know, but so far so good.  They add a certain je ne sais quoi to the place and grow close to the kitchen where they are needed.  My favourite of all things in the balcony is probably the large ceramic statue of a stork, given to us as a wedding present by a friend and made by her elderly mother who was quite of an artist back in her day.  The garland of LEF-bulbs is also wedding related: it was bought from a Scandinavian household-all-rounder Class Uhlson to light up the stage in our wedding venue.

Setting all things and furnishings aside, I am in love with that view.  How could you not!  In a clear day you can see the rooftops of Mazamet, over the valley and all the way to the forests of Sidobre.  You can sit comfortably under a blanket and spy how the weather here changes in seconds and when the night comes, you may sit back and admire the stars.  It never stops to amaze me how one view alone can be so engaging.  Hopefully we will manage to extend this panorama even further by opening up the left side of the patio by reducing the height of the concrete wall that luckily is not part of the supporting structure for the roof. 

A room with a view...

Having a balcony that functions as it should has improved our social life too as here in France, it seems, everybody smokes.  Now, even when it rains, our friends can enjoy their fag-brakes without having to trek downstairs to the garden.  And of course, eating out in our place really means eating out now.  Even with the occasional bats, wasps and ants, it’s a great place so sit down and relax with a hearty G&T.

There is a one last person in the family that is yet to embrace the transformation of our terrace: Rusty the pupper.  He seems to find the confined outdoors a bit of a drag and much prefers the comfort of his own bed.  Well, you can’t please everyone they say… but at least the humans of our unit love the transformation. 


Friday, 12 May 2017

Easy DIY Bunting Tutorial

Life at N°21 is not just blocking holes in the ceilings and endless scrubbing you know – I spend an awful lot of time just pissing about, too.  Between work, reno-work and my vibrant social life (hah – as if) I like to craft.  Twee, I know, but very relaxing.  Last week we had the pleasure to host a friend’s birthday party and what a wonderful excuse that was to make a ton of bunting.  I don’t want this blog to be just about dirty old floors and a bunch of dead folk that built my house so let’s forget about the history of Chez Nous for a minute and relax:  

Ready, steady… CRAFT!   

You there, yeah, you - why not engage in some serious buntin’ today with these easy-piecy instructions?  You could very well harness your kids on it, as long as they are old enough to hold a pair of scissors safely, or embrace your inner homemaker-goddess/god and fix yourself a smashing garland.  Because life doesn’t need to be so damn serious all the time.

All you need is:

…plenty of pretty paper – this could be scrapbooking paper, wallpaper, etc… whatever you fancy as long as it is big enough for your bunting.  I used several 30x30cm sheets of square scrapping paper that was patterned on both sides, but standard A4 sheet would work too.

 …paper cutter or scissors.

 …twine or string.

 …a hole punch.

First choose your paper.  I went with double sided square sheets of card with a nice floral- and purple background, 30x30cm in size.  Fold and cut the paper in half.  You should be left with two rectangles half as wide as they are tall, 15x30cm in my case.  One rectangle like this will make one “triangle” of finished bunting. 

Don’t worry if your chosen paper is not square – just create rectangles that are half as wide as they are tall and you are good to go:  i.e. 10x20cm, 20x40cm and so on, depending how big you want your “triangles” to be.  

Next, fold your rectangles in half, into little tents and make a small mark on the bottom centre.  Cut them into triangles by starting from the top corners and aiming to the middle bottom mark.  Cut both sides.  Use a hole-punch to make a set of holes on the top of your triangles, going through both sides of your tent-triangles.

Almost done now…

The last step is to thread your bunting.  I used rustic packaging string made from raw linen, but yarn or any old string or thin ribbon would do.  You can make the bunting as long as you want, with as many triangles as you want.  

Have fun trying out different papers and threads and enjoy the buntin’! 

This was really a "Happy Birthday"-bunting with the message spelled out using scrap pieces of the same patterned paper, but after the celebrations I simply reversed the garland and kept it on the wall with the blank side forward.  Re-think, re-use and re-cycle guys!

So here it is - simple bunting tutorial for craft-virgins.  Some people draw mandalas, bake or go jogging, but this is what I do to take my mind off
work.  Plus I like this old house to look pretty.  Escapism perhaps, but who is going to pay attention to holes on the walls when there’s a bit of bunting up?

I will be back with more regular updates on our little renovation project Chez Nous in a bit, after spending time with my hubby and our wee dog, as life, especially in the South of France, should never be too serious.  In the meantime, what would you like to hear more about?  Is it the renovation and history of this old house you fancy or tales on the life in France in general?  Did my bunting really get you going?  Let me know in the comments or drop me a message and we’ll see what I can do. 

I love writing this blog but lately I’ve felt it’s been a bit of a burden.  To be honest, keeping it fun for me, as well as you dear reader, has been a struggle.  If staying interested in this project means less updates in favour of better content, so be it.   

With these words I bid you happy crafting.  Don’t let the stress-bugs bite.   

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Making of.. L'Atelier d'Art Part 1 - The Floor

With all this pesky home improvement I have seriously neglected my awesome day job: being an artist.  I don't normally take time off my work like this, but we needed to get this old house liveable, move our gallery into new premises Chez Nous, and get married in Finland.  The house is in order now, somewhat, and we are hitched, so it was about time to get the studio sorted out.

Luckily, as most of you know by now, N°21 used to be a crèmerie and has a neat little boutique downstairs, just itching to be turned into an atelier d'art.  We loved our old rental atelier artichoc which had enough space for a big studio space and a huge gallery but those premises had serious downfalls: even after we got proper lighting installed, there were never enough wall sockets, no heating nor hot water.  All rather essential for an all-year-round event- and work space.  Even with a great landlord and good visibility, we felt like it was time to move on.

Before setting up shop Chez Nous, there was this teeny-tiny little detail to fix: a floor full of gorgeous turn of the century cement tiles dirtier than a loo at a lorry stop.  Dominantly white cement tiles.  Oh boy.  After the closure of the crèmerie, sometime in the late 50’s to early 60’s, the shop front was used as a garage.  Neglected and barely sealed, the porous tiles absorbed all the grease, grime and dirt for decades and were in a pretty grim condition when we got here.  

We came to view this house on a warm autumn day and the light filtering though the frosted glass was just amazing.  Even under a layer of dirt and grime, these century old encaustic tiles steal the show. 

Normally, antique cement tiles would not be my material of choice for an artist studio for an array of reasons: they stain easily, are incredibly expensive to replace if damaged and difficult to keep clean if not sealed properly.  But frankly, they were here before me, and if restoring and keeping these tiles would mean needing to take better care while working... so be it.  Paint spills and drips are a daily occurrence in a working studio, but with a proper sealant and a never ending supply of wet-wipes, I should be able to manage any destructive bursts of creativity. 

Having had next to no bother cleaning and sealing the other encaustic tiles in this house, I thought sorting this room would be a piece of cake.

Remind me never to be so naïve again.

These types of cement tiles do not really loose colour due to wear and tear as the pigment sits in the cement itself, but they do, however, loose their protective finish.  After the sealant is lost, the porous cement is receptive to dirt that can be incredibly difficult to lift by using your regular household products.  Take my word for it, Mr. Propre was a complete waste of time.  In fact, any off-the-shelf cleaning product, no matter how specialised, had little to no effect on the greasy marks embedded deep in the pores of these concrete tiles.

Heck, even the old de-greasing agent made no visible progress, although it clearly got rid of something as all I was left after a good couple hours of serious scrubbin' was a pair of matching blisters on both palms and water as dirty as a sailors smile.  The clearest results were visible on the border tiles that still had their original sealant.  The centre tiles with a nice burgundy and grey pattern on cream white background remained stained and dull. 

The tiles after a somewhat unsuccessful attempt in de-greasing them: the border tiles on the left cleaned out a bit whereas the tiles on the right did not react much at all to the scrubbing nor the de-greasing cleaner. 

This is where a lesser (to be read: smart) home improver would call the professionals, but not me.  No.  I did, however, bully James to call a few friends for advice and soon had another product to try: a professional grade cleaner for cement tiles and marble.  This stuff was PH neutral, smelled like lemons and came in a reassuringly boring plastic jug.  By design, you were to brush the product on with water, creating a soapy foam that would sit on the tiles without drying for 10-20 minutes.  In that time the foam would penetrate the pores of the tiles and lift up any dirt and grease before being brushed up and rinsed with plenty of water.

In reality this meant half an hour of intense brushing, letting the stuff sink in from anything between 30 to 60 minutes, followed by more rage-brushing, tears, and some more brushing and rinsing.  I repeated the treatment twice and hated every single second of it.  Although I could see the foam turn into a satisfying shade of Yuk! on each rinse, the achieved difference was near invisible to the naked eye after each wash.  Needless to say, I may have been a bit underwhelmed.

I did spy some results once the floor had dried.  The weather, although nice and mild for most parts of the year was not quite so warm and dry as it is now, thus prolonging the time it took for everything to stabilise.  It seemed I had managed to remove some of the worst stains as well as parts of the old sealant that had yellowed over time.  And this is where I decided to call it.  More brushing was only going to start damaging these tiles and the dirty ones were clearly beyond rescuing, so I went to my local hardware store and bought myself a big bad roll of wood-effect vinyl.

Kidding.  God… just kidding!  

I decided to live with it.  These tiles have been in place since 1910 and I don’t really need them to look now.  A few are cracked slightly and others still bare the marks of the space being used as a garage… but that is fine.  I never wanted this floor to look new, just less grotty and this is exactly what I think I have achieved here.  After three coats of fresh sealant, my studio tiles certainly have got their mojo back, and in a way, so have I.  After all, what is a cowboy without their horse, an artist without a studio?

These tiles are not new but they got a century's worth of character to compensate.  

TO BE CONTINUED… Next time on the same atelier time, on the same atelier channel, I’ll be ranting on about painting ceilings as a shorty, French neighbours and dog hair.