I was going to introduce Anthony and Amanda by way of a salute to the Pyreneen Death March* that we unwittingly dragged them on during their stay with us, but I’ve thought better of it. What I would rather say to start, is that these two are quite simply, remarkable people. They have a mix of unpretentiousness and optimism that is refreshing and rare.
Amanda Johnson is Lecturer in Creative Writingat the University of Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of the novel Eugene Falls and the poetry collection, The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street. Anthony Lynch is founder and Publisher of Whitmore Press and the author of Redfin, a widely acclaimed collection of short stories as well as Night Train a collection of poetry that I find myself regularly dipping into. I would highly recommend all of these if you can get your hands on them. Here is their account of their month-long stay at Bordeneuve:
We spent 25 peaceful and productive days at Bordeneuve during which we enjoyed the most sustained period of writing we had had in months if not years. Amanda worked on a postcolonial historical novel dealing with one of the first women to journey by boat from France to Van Diemen’s Land (later, Tasmania), Anthony on a collection of interconnected short stories engaging with notions of ‘home’.
Bordeneuve proved an ideal (and idyllic!) setting for writing. We quickly established a routine of writing in the morning, breaking for morning coffee and then lunch garnered from organic treats bought at the St Girons market, continuing writing (or revising) in the afternoon, and come evening enjoying a meal with our hosts Noelle and Karl, who night after night provided magnificent dinners and warm, intelligent company.
The accommodation proved perfect. The huge upstairs bedroom cum writing space with its natural light, long, generous desk – room enough to spread out books, laptops, coffee cups and still have a football field of elbow room to either side of us – was exactly what we needed. Roomy enough to feel we each had our own working space (literally and metaphorically), but with enough proximity to be able to say: ‘Can you listen to this? Does this work? ‘No, it doesn’t.’ ‘Great, thanks.’
And, we had only to walk a few metres to be out on the balcony, usually accompanied by one or two cats dozing in the sun, to read or revise a draft. Alternatively, we could make our way out to the back of the ‘barn’ (a name that doesn’t quite do the centuries-old structure justice) and sit at a table and chairs to work, surrounded by Noelle’s veggie patch, her two chickens pecking at the earth.
The quiet and the lush green of the immediate, forested surroundings and the blue-grey of the distant Pyrenees will stay with us. When we needed unchaining from the page or screen we would walk the long, stony driveway that led to and from Bordeneuve. Or we took a path off to the side, through a field and forest and around the perimeter of the neighbouring castle (it’s not often in Australia you have a neighbouring castle). Sometimes this let us ruminate on any impasse we might have reached in our writing.
Throughout our visit, Noelle and Karl were brilliant hosts. Attentive, generous, and taking us with them on forays into neighbouring towns and villages. Yet giving us quiet and space to work. We miss them, and Bordeneuve. We hope one day to come back.
– Anthony Lynch and Amanda Frances Johnson (Victoria, Australia)
And here is a poem, graciously shared by Anthony:
We sold our plot, our huddle of goats.
A man took and counted our money
and we became that prohibited order.
We left at night. The boat
was small and made of wood,
our amenity a plastic bucket.
The crew spat and pointed,
the sea grew wide
and in this way we progressed.
We fed on small things:
a weevil of rice, a bone of bread.
We moaned ourselves
to half-sleep. We saw
too much and too little
of water. Our craft
assumed strange angles
to day and night.
Bits of us broke
off and fell into the ocean.
One woman wept nightly for her husband, searched the chopped sea
for his severed
hands. After 15 days the heartbeat
of engine gave out and we were tossed by silence.
After 20 days one of us
jumped and swam for land.
The sea moved in. Our eyes
scratched the horizon for a miracle.
A current locked us in its arm.
They found us open-eyed,
mute and shadowy. Laid out,
some of us tread the air
as if we might walk on water.
*It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I opened the email containing Amanda and Anthony’s blog contribution. I was certain, dead certain, that they would mention the walk. The Walk. After having read it (and not a word of The Walk!) I almost feel it is unjust. So I must give a brief account, a tribute to Anthony and Amanda’s adventurous and courageous sensibilities: Our little mountain meander was meant to be just that…a picnic surrounded by beautiful peaks, maybe a token dusting of snow, a handful of the last myrtille of the season. “The guide books says its difficult, but they always exaggerate” I pronounced, expert for 10 seconds on guide books “I’m sure we’ll be fine.” What followed was the steepest, most unrelenting, grueling climb we had ever done - we ran into many a hiker who abandoned the cause mid-route. Nary a plateau, not even a little jog downwards. Up, up, relentlessly up. You get the idea. I think it was at the top that we decided that the official name for this hike should have “Death March” somewhere in the title. We didn’t even complete the last leg, as it seemed to require swinging, Tarzan-like, down a chain to a lake, with no apparent solution for getting back up the chain. We settled for a high grassy patch, in lieu of the lake, for our picnic. We were unexpectedly much higher than most of the surrounding peaks. In fact, we were looking down quite a few of them. We spent a blissful, lazy hour munching blueberries and wild raspberries, smearing ripe goat’s cheese on nut bread and watching kites wheel above us. We finally summoned the courage to lurch downhill and ended the day with a toast to courage and tenaciousness at a little mountain auberge.
Edith & Blanchette, Rebecca Stebbins, 2013
Poor Edith and Blanchette. Life is rough for our two chickens when it rains non-stop for days on end. They shelter either under the solar panels or on the terrace of the barn, but in neither place do they look happy. When it gets really wet, or snows, they just stay in their henhouse, peeking out every few minutes to see if the sky is still falling.
The Wood Store, by Shoshanna Ahart, 2013
But cheer up girls, our guests LOVE you. Bordeneuve wouldn’t be Bordeneuve with the two of you. Look at the art you elicit, the adoration, the special treats, heck, Rebecca was hand-feeding you after a few days. No one considers a stay here complete without a bunch of photos of you two buxom birds. People write and inquire about -your- health before even mentioning the cats, or us measly humans. You’re not destined for the dinner plate. All we ask is that you each lay one gorgeous egg a day – and hey, if you want to eat the flea beetles that ravage the arugula, so much the better.
Late Afternoon Bordeneuve by Shoshanna Ahart
Edith and Blanchette came in our lives here when Sara, a flute pupil of mine, moved with her husband to the other side of France. Sara was fun to teach, not just because she was a hard-working student, but because she loved to cook Indian food. She would arrive at the end of my monstrously long working day, aromas of cumin, ginger and coriander wafting around her. By the end of her lesson, my stomach would growl uncontrollably, and I would race home thinking of curries and chutneys that I could make. One day she brought me the most amazing eggs. They were so big they didn’t fit in the eggbox properly. They had enormous, silken golden yolks and whites that beat up to astonishing heights. After that first dozen, I couldn’t imagine ever cooking with any other eggs. Then out of the blue, she asked if I would take her hens when she relocated with her husband. A few weeks later, she showed up on my doorstep with a big cardboard box. Inside were the two fattest Sussex chickens I had ever seen.
“The third one died from overeating, hopefully you won’t indulge them so much” she told me. Blanchette is appropriately named for her color, and Edith is named for her comb that flops over like a famous French rock star named Edith. They hid in the bamboo for a few days and then began investigating their new home as seriously free, seriously ranging birds. With over an acre to peck and scratch, you wouldn’t think they’d be hungry, but they always come running at 6pm when their favourite crumble is scattered near the house. A few scraps from evening dinner parties never go uneaten either.
They lay faithfully, Blanchette’s eggs are twice the size of Edith’s. But Edith’s eggs are prettier, a light speckled brown with a tell-tale dimple at one end. And my favourite thing about them? They are lunar hens. They stop laying on the fall equinox, moult and grumble for a month or two, then, on the winter solstice, out pop two golden eggs.
Do dinosaurs love flowers? We think that in this case, we have proof. Andreas Karlstetter a hyper-talented technical artist draws dinosaurs for the Jura Museum in Eichstaett, Germany. His drawings captivate and transport you to another world, but the one thing he loves even more than dinosaurs is his incredibly talented wife, Shoshanna. Shoshanna moved from Washington DC to Eichstaett to marry Andreas ten years ago. Shoshanna works in pastel and does beautifully textured landscapes and flower paintings. Her work is vibrant, it shimmers, like a memory of the perfect summer day. The pastels are so thick and tactile that one could be forgiven for thinking they are oils. Shoshanna and Andreas worked steadily for several weeks here at Bordeneuve this summer and here is a selection of their artwork, as well as some reflections on time spent in an artist retreat. Shoshanna’s work can be viewed more extensively at her website: www.ah-art.com. She and Andreas have upcoming shows in Germany and more information can be found on her site as well as on the Jura Museum site: www.Jura-Museum.de.
The Barn, Shoshanna Ahart, 2013.
Why, people often ask, would one go out of one’s way – sometimes thousands of miles — to do what one can do “at home”? Still others ask why one would want to “work” on vacation.
For me and my husband, our “work” is our passion. In our daily lives, like many artists, we do not have the time to truly concentrate on our craft because of other constraints. So an artist residency is a break from daily chores that demand our energy and sap our concentration for our work. It is…a gift of TIME.
There are many types of residencies, some with a lot of participants or requirements for interaction, but Bordeneuve is not one of these. Bordeneuve is unique because it is like visiting friends who are interested in you, but make absolutely no demands for your time. Everything is, as you like. It is a completely individualized residency, which caters to one’s own needs and best practices for one’s work. It IS a gift of time: time to contemplate; to seek new ideas, new inspiration, to be inspired by or commune with nature. It is also the gift of solitude, of being alone to challenge oneself…to indulge oneself…to question one’s self. It is the time and privacy to explore new ideas, new possibilities without criticism in a quiet, peaceful, and beautiful environment.
Noelle’s House, Shoshanna Ahart,2013.
My work is based on my response and my interaction with my environment. I fell in love with Bordeneuve! Everywhere I turned I saw another painting. Places are like people and through the act of painting, the character of places is revealed to me. The light, the colors, the atmosphere of Bordeneuve and its landscape were all so inspiring. I spent 6 to 7 hours a day outdoors painting with chalk pastels. I felt that I couldn’t paint fast enough to capture this wonderful place. My husband, Andreas worked indoors upstairs in the huge atelier space on a new series in preparation for an exhibition at the Jura Museum in Eichstaett, Germany. Featured in his scientific reconstructions — incredibly detailed pencil drawings — are the maniraptora, a group of medium sized predatory and plant eating dinosaurs, from which modern birds evolved.
Bordeneuve is lovingly cared for and nurtured by Noelle. That sense of care is evident everywhere: the flowers attracting a myriad of butterflies, which are planted around the grounds; the vegetable garden from which she creates wonderful meals for her guests; the attention to detail in the barn atelier/accommodations; and, of course the love she gives to her beautiful cats. All of this creates an atmosphere conducive to relaxation, contemplation and creativity. Noelle and Karl take wonderful care of you. And you are left to pursue your creative endeavours.
Andreas and Shoshanna
Shoshanna Ahart and Andreas Karlstetter
Rebecca Stebbins in Maine
We once again had the pleasure of hosting Californian landscape painter Rebecca Stebbins. Rebecca is a woman that one can’t help but admire: smart, a bit sassy, very articulate, focused and able to live fully in the moment. We loved her paintings last year and we loved her paintings this year. The following is from her blog, Rebecca’s Perspectives, where she writes about art and the creative spirit. It is well worth your time. http://rebeccastebbins.blogspot.com/
Leaving Bordeneuve (some thoughts on an artist residency)
Fields near Bordeneuve by Rebecca Stebbins, 2013
Bordeneuve is a place that is hard to come to and harder to leave. It’s hard to come because of what you have to leave behind: basically, everything that isn’t in that small space where creativity resides. Spouses, children, friends, and all the accoutrements: laundry, for example, or cooking, cleaning, yard work. Animals to be fed and walked and loved. Bills to be paid and paperwork that piles up and supplies that need to be restocked and messes to be cleaned up and is there gas in the car? And do I have everything? You travel.
You arrive at Boussens on the crowded little train and step out into the Midi and voilà. There you are, with just your bag, your baggage, and yourself. And there is Noelle, who grabs your
very heavy bag and heaves it into the back of her trusty Peugeot and you are off through the winding roads of the Ariège.
You pass farm fields and tiny villages, some with stately little homes and others with crumbly old barns, up hills and around pastures with sheep or goats, or little herds of cows in all of the colors that cows come. She turns in to a rocky track, and if you look back you’ll see the snow on the Pyrénées in the distance. You bounce down a luminous green tunnel of trees and vines and finally you pull in to a clearing with a house to the left and a barn to the right. That place on the right hardly qualifies as a barn: it is lovely, spacious, and filled with just what you need. Food, silence, books, a deep bath and a wide balcony, places to sit, to draw, to paint, to play, to dance – yes, even enough room to dance. Indoor space and outdoor space. And no clutter. You make a mental note: less clutter.
Pyrenees at the end of the track, Rebecca Stebbins 2013
The first evening is jovial and calm – a lovely meal, a nice bottle of rosé, conversation that isn’t dull but isn’t deep – not yet. Later in the week the topics will grow weightier, perhaps. Tonight you are still shedding the old skin. Tomorrow you will wake up in a new skin, bright and shiny like the green garden snakes I’ve never seen there.
The first day you will still be decelerating. You will wander and sketch, flip through books of poetry, unpack. But then something funny happens: just as you begin to accept the slowness, and the quiet, you start to hear all the noise there. For Bordeneuve can be a very noisy place, especially between the birds and the insects and the very loud cow a few fields away who bellows from time to time, and the distance village bells you catch once in a while. And that small space where creativity resides? Like the heart of the Grinch, it grows. And grows, until it takes up all the space of all the other stuff you left behind.
And as you slow down, matching your speed to the rhythms of real life, you realize you have hit your stride, and you work. With a passion, until you are tired and have to stop, and then it’s time for a nap, or a meal, or a walk, or a bath. The choices are few, and so they are easy to make. Easy choices reserve brain space for your creative pursuits, you think. You’re not wasting precious time on TV, or idle chitchat, or wondering what to tackle next. Your time feels more pure.
You wake up, and it happens again: simplicity. Except now there’s a complication: oh! There are chickens outside the door, and perhaps they would like a little treat. You go to look at all the different flowers in the garden and you see dinner there too, ready for picking. You come back inside and there’s a cat – and somehow, not by the markings but more by the attitude, you know which cat of the four has come to visit. You are settling in.
And one day it happens: you have to leave. And it is hard, and you are already starting to think about arriving on the train in Boussens and the long drive down that rocky track to come back.
We had the tremendous pleasure of sharing Merna Hecht and Rob Crawford’s company for several weeks this spring. We loved their stories about life on a blueberry farm in Washington as well as learning about what experiences made them both who they are today. Both Merna and Rob have participated on a number of writer’s retreats and I asked them to share their reflections about the value of ‘time out’ and how the process works for them.
Merna: In retrospect, after two weeks at Bordeneuve , I understand the importance of leaving the press of the familiar behind. The new landscape widened my thinking and nourished my work as nothing else could. I knew I wanted time and space to write an essay and that I wanted to pose difficult, provocative questions within it. I also felt a longing to get back to my own work as a poet. I imagined that leaving home for a completely different setting and rhythm to my days would allow me to turn to my writing and rekindle my ability to focus and concentrate. Even though we live on a sweet little blueberry farm on an island in Puget Sound outside of Seattle, work life, family life and social life were over-full and far too busy; I was yearning for a time and place of rediscovery and renewal.
Now, back home, I realize how essential it is that after arrival at Bordeneuve one must immediately learn to befriend long periods of solitude and learn to treasure them. The idea is to take full advantage of the deep quiet and to go into it with the awareness that you will live with yourself and your work in a different way. It seems important not to have expectations of what solitude will ask of you, but to trust that a balance will emerge that becomes as essential as the need to go into yourself and your work. There were many aspects of the retreat that provided a lovely pattern that both Rob and I learned to embroider into our days. After the quiet of a work day, always punctuated by a walk or bicycle ride, there was the evening and with it came a glass of wine, an aperitif, and often a beautiful shared meal with rich, enlivening conversations with Noelle and Karl.
Both Rob and I are writing about challenging topics. The expansive workspaces and surrounding beauty helped us settle into a willingness to take on the difficult subjects of our respective work—mine about working with young refugees and other young people who have experienced loss and trauma and about the failure of public schools in the U.S. to provide children with meaningful and applicable education as it relates to our complex world. Rob’s work is about human rights abuses and he also researches and writes about political ideologies that promote war—all toward understanding how we might possibly resolve conflicts and achieve peace. Though our topics were indeed somber, every once in a while a poem would surface which was a delight. I also returned to the pleasure of writing in my journal or drawing the contours of a nearby pebble beach where the stream swept in like the arc in the middle of a fairy tale. I heartily recommend to any and all residents that they take the time for journaling or sketching. Rob wisely took time out from his writing to search for the Golden Oriole and play his jazz piano and a few times with Karl on saxophone.
Rob: I imagined and hoped for a place in an uncommonly beautiful setting, where I could stay put, write for five to six hours on a daily basis and then go into the countryside and discover a new environment. From previous experience I knew and expected that a writing retreat would be a refuge from the daily demands of our house and our small farm and all the rest. I hoped the space would provide individual solitude and a good work space. Bordeneuve exceeded all of these expectations, with the additional surprise of our generous and kind hosts—and free ranging conversation. Noelle and Karl are exceptional and I have every intention of returning to this unique place and part of the world. I feel deep gratitude for my time here.
A few recommendations: Eat a late dinner; savor the wine, don’t expect to work later in the evening, get up early for work; rise with the dawn for the birdsong and go outside as soon as possible.
Merna: Finally, I think it’s of utmost importance to mention and Rob agrees wholeheartedly, that the retreat does not end upon one’s return. Therein lies both the gift of Bordeneuve and a great challenge because it is easy to slip back into routines and old, established patterns. Yet, it is far more compelling and energizing to be as mindful as possible about holding onto what was gained during the residency and to keep insights fresh and change in motion as best as one can.