Entering Dreamland

At the end of the summer, I had the pleasure of hosting the young writer, Heidi Hamalainen, who set herself the enormous task of seriously advancing her first novel while here. This is a copy of the post that Heidi put up later on her blog, UrbanJungleBird. Heidi is not only a talented writer but a gifted photographer as well. Many thanks to her for letting me use some of the photos that she took while here.

I Entered a Dreamland

The dreamland was called Bordeneuve Retreat, a rustic barn dwelling in the Midi-Pyrénées nestled in the south of France and not too far from the Spanish border. Cocks crowed, wine flowed and flowers bloomed in colourful glory, butterflies drifted like chimeric fairies and bees hummed a chorus that was caught on the bars of the gentle summer breeze. It was here I reacquainted with a long lost friend, my novel.

Bordeneuve is a retreat available to writers, artists and musicians by application. I had applied toward the end of last year and was grateful and excited to be accepted to spend two weeks working on material I had long neglected. Four months of travel was booked in beforehand to gather my thoughts and absorb inspiration from all of the new places I was to visit in Europe, but, as the time of the retreat inevitably approached I was struck with an underlying sense of foreboding. What if I no longer knew how to write or tell my story, or what if I simply didn’t care about it any more? The week leading up to my flight to France was panic-inducing as I became increasingly anxious. I even considered cancelling my stay. So long deposit. So long novel. But I did what I always do in these situations and forced my rational brain to kick in. If I got there and decided I was no longer interested in my work I still had a new destination to explore. I love travel after all. But as it happened, I was able to do both.

Before arriving at Bordeneuve I could no longer visualise finishing my story. I had an ending but the plot was lacking those vital parts in the middle that connects your protagonist with all of the occurring events and characters that are meant to tell a story. She, my main character, was floating in a fuzzy lit-space with no gravity to pull her down to earth. However, as soon as I was greeted by Noelle, the retreats simultaneously energetic and peacefully calming owner who picked me up from the train station, I knew I had made the right decision. After a short drive through some pretty hay-bale-and-apple-pie countryside, we drove down (or rather, Noelle expertly maneuvered) a winding and fantastically overgrown drive to her house—a quaint centuries old abode with the retreat a separate dwelling beside it. I was shown into the barn where I was to stay, a gorgeous two-story eco-friendly structure with all the amenities you could need downstairs, and a studio to work in on the second level. I spent most of my time out on the veranda that opened from the studio upstairs, working and taking in every moment of this truly magical place, and wondering how I’d had the luck to fall down a rabbit-hole and land there. My protagonist is now well-grounded with purpose, and I look forward to finishing my studies this year so I can throw myself back into my work.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to find somewhere to completely and absolutely let go of the outside world and any daily preoccupations, to allow time and space to focus on yourself and your passions. Granted not everyone can just skip off to a piece of French heaven to do this (I won’t lie, it helps if you have the means), so even if it’s in your own home and you find a quiet corner at a certain time of the day or week where you know you won’t be disturbed, mark it as your time and guard your precious sanctuary.

Her rampant imagination

In April every year, Irina Pivavorova sneaks silently out the door, leaving her daughters in the care of her husband, the snow to melt in the cool Moscow light and her TV shows (she is one of the most sought after screenwriters in Russia) to take care of themselves. She arrives here at Bordeneuve, spreads her drawing and writing tools out on the big worktable upstairs and spends two weeks dreaming, crafting, teasing the bedtime stories she tells to her children, into life. I’m so grateful to her for allowing me to share these exquisite drawings with you. Irina is a writer by trade but as you can see, she is also uniquely gifted artist with a wild, delightful imagination. You can see more of her work on Instagram. All images are copyrighted to Irina Pivavarova.


The Lost Art of Silverpoint

Mombretia Maze, Jeannine Cook

Mombretia Maze, Jeannine Cook

When Jeannine Cook first contacted me about a residency, I had to look up the term ‘silverpoint’ to find out what it even meant. After a bit of Googling around and a long appreciative look at Jeannine’s beautiful website, I was hooked. Jeannine practices an art that dates back over a millenia and is practiced by only a few dozen artists today. Spending time with Jeannine is an exercise in seeing the world anew: she finds inspiration in the most miniscule of details, beauty in the arc of a leaf’s veins, the swirl of mica in a stone, the cracked seedhead of last year’s flowers. Read on to learn more about this elegant, austere artform as well as about her time at Bordeneuve.

Traces IV-V-VI by Jeannine Cook

Traces IV-V-VI by Jeannine Cook

Few people have the experience of seeing the lustrous shimmer of silver, gold, platinum or copper drawings on prepared paper. When viewers learn of metalpoint drawing’s rich heritage, with eclipses and renaissances undulating through its thirteen-century life, they are captivated.

 My passion has long been to share these drawings’ diverse beauties with the public.  I find metalpoint to be addictive, meditative, and disarmingly humble in its technical requirements.  Yes, you cannot erase marks made on a prepared surface, but otherwise, a stylus, smooth prepared paper or vellum, good light and time are the only other requirements.

 Metalpoint allows a great delicacy of line and subtle tonality. A white ground suits botanical studies, landscapes, portraits… Recently I have also been using a black ground for very different results, “abstracts” from tree bark, details of stones, etc.  Silver is the preferred metal for a white ground while gold, silver and copper behave totally differently on a black ground.  Both forms of metalpoint are intimate in their shimmer, totally permanent and amazingly contemporary in feel.

Cedar Lines, gold and silverpoint by Jeannine Cook

Cedar Lines, gold and silverpoint by Jeannine Cook

The silence is gentle and all-pervasive.  The tracery of bare branches is filigree lace against the azure of clean-washed skies.   The sense of ancient time is almost palpable, traced by the shiny stones laid down the track to Bordeneuve so many aeons ago. The early inhabitants of Betchat, Ariège, walked this way long before this village was even founded.  Links to the past are centering, renewing.

This is the magical place to come to gather one’s thoughts and energies, then to create art and allow oneself to venture into new voices in one’s work.   Meals are not only delicious; they are also a time of stimulating, thoughtful explorations of subjects large and small.

I savour of each day here, as I try to draw my lustrous but discreet metalpoint drawings. They are sufficiently demanding of execution that the quiet peace here is hugely helpful. Even the stones that I have gathered down by the bustling river below us offer a fascination and sense of connection as I draw them in silver and gold, weaving their characteristics into work that is seemingly abstract but realistic in fact.  These stones speak of the amazing geologically diversity of these ancient Pyrenees mountains that punctuate this world’s horizons with their snowy peaks. I like the sense of unity that is so perceptible here.

Bordenueve is one of those magical places to which one promptly wants to return, even before one has left…

Huitres de Chablis by Jeannine Cook

Huitres de Chablis by Jeannine Cook

Enduring Elegance by Jeannine Cook

Enduring Elegance by Jeannine Cook

Shifting Skies

From the Lane by Claire Thorson


Retreat indeed. The beautiful stone barn in its tucked away surroundings was a sanctuary. It was luxury to wake up to such thorough quietude.  The depth of green, the hidden movements of wildlife, the flow of time unimpeded by schedules and deadlines, were triggers to a deeper experience of place. I extended this connection with place by resuming a practice both familiar and forgotten–landscape painting.

With a portable easel and folding gardener’s chair, I walked the surrounding cornfields and woodlands, to apprehend views of hills, fields, and distant mountains. My spouse accompanied me, making use of the time to observe birds, plants, and other wild life. The weather was stormy and the sky was perpetually in flux. Clouds loomed and subsided, obscured and revealed the features of the land.  The greens were almost interminable.

From the Castle by Claire Thorson

To sit and observe the landscape is simple act, which invokes formal challenges of composition, color mixing, reduction to pattern and texture, manipulation of edge, and control of surface quality. I used gouache and painted on some panels purchased in Paris. I worked in small formats; sometimes I felt like I was painting in miniature! In the humid weather, the gouache was not unlike oils, re-workable, dense in color, rich in tone, with a capacity for surface variation.

Gouache has matte quality which some artists dislike but which I love. When I started painting seriously so many years ago now, I painted with gouache. I had a basic set of paint in pans, then moved on to tubes, using mat board scraps as my supports.  It was a portable and inexpensive medium.  So my work at Bordeneuve was an echo of origins. In striving to represent, I was presented with the questions that are always active in painting. What makes these elements and features important? What do I include or leave out? How does the painting as a whole transcend the ordinary?
On some days the rain did come and outdoor painting with water-base media wasn’t possible.  Noelle Thompson, inimitable host and director of Bordeneuve, kindly arranged to have a few of her friends come sit for me in the barn.

Genevieve by Claire Thorson

Saskia, age 12, was such an eager artist that I was obliged to trade off easel time with her.  We alternated sitting for each other for 20 minutes at a time.  Saskia was a good sitter, but her interest in making was clear; she was as ferocious going after an image as she was fearless in the mixed-media experiment. I felt wistful when she left–it was so easy to imagine a continued relationship.

On another day, other friends, Gerard and Genevieve, were willing to be models only. As artists, they both had a supportive understanding of creative focus and the uncertainty of resolving anything in a short time frame. They each sat for over an hour, a very generous offering. The painting of Gerard was done inside, with limited light, and has a decidedly muted, interior feeling.  By the time Genevieve posed, the sun was out again so we sat on the balcony. The strong directional light brought out warm and strident colors. Conversation with each of them enriched the time we spent together.  And lunch in the garden afterward (with hats!) was the perfect conclusion.


From the Field by Claire Thorson.

On that note, I must mention Noelle’s remarkable cooking. Her knowledge of food and wine, reliance on mostly local ingredients, and her exceptional hand with pastry, enriched and heightened the whole experience of the residency. Evening meals with Noelle and Karl, in the garden or under the protective awning of the barn’s balcony when it was raining, were a delight to the senses and intellect. We miss those meals and free-ranging conversations most of all.

The paintings I completed at Bordeneuve, strike me as quite humble, spare in conceptual trappings, especially when I compare them to the large oil on canvas abstracts that I’m currently working on in my studio.  So I hold them in reserve, with an introspective eye to how formal practice might influence ideas and generate pathways to abstraction.  My intentions were to work observationally while at the residency, to refresh the source from which image making is often derived–and circumstances conspired to hold me to the bargain.

Seeing the landscape again where I live in Elkhorn, California, I am freshly aware of its particulars: color, pattern, light and reflected light, the intersection of farmland and slough. I reconsider the small format for both landscape and figure painting– for its intimacy and the valuable urgency of completing a painting in one session. I feel the tug of “place”, both near and far, and know that my work will be permeable to it.

Claire painting in the field above the house

–Claire Thorson



Health and Guidance


On a sunny morning at Bordeneuve, there is a good chance that you would find yourself curled up in a wicker chair on the balcony, soaking in the sun and birdsong. If you were to glance up from your book, coffee, or writing pad, you would see a rectangular panel in a soft, blond wood. Tweaking your neck around and maybe squinting a bit, you would read the words “Health and Guidance.” Elegant capital letters, carved into the wood by a talented hand.

Health and Guidance. They are very mysterious words to me, especially in that combination. I suppose, were I a person of deep faith, it might have more resonance. Health, yes. I can go on for hours about health, but Guidance less. Strange that those words came from a man who didn’t overtly accept guidance and his health was not enviable.

The man who carved those words sat in that very spot ten years ago. Andy was an angry, volatile German who had lived in East London for most of his adult life. Andy was in turns gruff, moribund, full of rage and then full of extreme tenderness, especially when he talking about his young daughter, Morgan.  His body wracked by MS since he was a young man, Andy came across as a man angry at the world, at God, at many things. And yet, this man who growled his way through the English language, who would have worn a hook or a pegleg honorably, planted his East London balcony full of sunflowers. He also lent my husband the last 5000 pounds he needed to buy the house, counting his visits as interest on the lump sum that we eventually repaid.

When Andy drove down every year in his MS adapted estate car, he would haul himself out, survey the progress we made, grunt his approval and then make himself as useful as his mobility allowed. He never accepted help, he just did what his body allowed him to do.  He had a strong artistic streak and enjoyed arranging clay tiles destined for the roof in a sunburst shape around the base of tree. Other times he would haul stones around, or fix things that he knew how to fix. On his last trip, his health had blatantly declined. He struggled to climb the staircase to sit on the balcony but he had a project in mind. We had recently finished laying a poplar floor in the barn and Andy claimed a few scraps and started carving in the morning sun.

First, an echinacea flower emerged from his remarkably steady hand, as a test. Then came Health and Guidance.  That night we handed him the money owed and we toasted many things. He said that he probably wouldn’t be able to come back, due to poor health, and that as a last gesture, he would like us to hang that plaque somewhere as a tribute to him. When asked what it meant to him, he just grunted and flapped away our words, burying his nose in a glass of wine.

Andy’s tiles


I only met Andy six or seven times, although we spoke regularly on the phone. A few years later,  late one night, his ex-wife rang to say that Andy had died. She had another call coming in and she signed off, saying she would call back. She never did.  David spent days phoning around Andy’s neighborhood trying to get information on a funeral or a wake that we might attend. The number we had for his ex was no longer in service and all trails led to a dead end. We were so sad that we weren’t able to properly say goodbye to Andy.


All these years later the echinacea flower is still there, though faded and hard to see. Health and Guidance is more prominent. It is a phrase that evokes mystery and sadness in me. Maybe for Andy, those were the two things that he would have like to have had in his life. Having lived what I have lived in the last years, I know how precious health is. The sign always reminds me to feel gratitude for such a precious gift. When guests ask me what it means, I like to flap my hands at them, grunt and then offer them a glass of wine.


Andy and his daughter Morgan