Painting with Passion in Southern France
by Sharon Lloyd Spence
"I wish that life should not be cheap, but sacred.
I wish the days to be as centuries, loaded, fragrant."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
I think Emerson would have approved of our current occupation. Our easels stand in a field of sunflowers stretching to the horizon, their yellow faces smiling skyward, nodding encouragement in the soft summer breeze. Broad-brimmed straw hats fending off the sun, we concentrate on our palettes, which are pools of burnt sienna, chrome yellow, and cobalt blue. "Put the energy of what you see on your canvas," Carole calls out. "Hear the birds, feel the sun, paint from your soul."
For two weeks, I felt like I had entered the world of Matisse, Monet, and Van Gogh as part of the Live Art workshops run by Carole Rae Watanabe. In her sessions, Watanabe wants students to "release their creative spirits and live life as an art form." And she has found the ideal locale for nurturing art and beauty--the medieval village of Soreze, in the Languedoc region of Southern France.
Most of us have never painted before, but by lunchtime canvases explode with color. Randi, a California marketing executive, has layered yellow and orange paint into sunflowers waving under a cranberry mountain. A pale figure flying over spinach-colored fields emerges from Delisa, a San Francisco gallery owner. Over our picnic lunch we discuss the morning's work, reclining in thick beds of wildflowers as we dine on cheese, fresh baguettes, salad, and apple tarts. "Is this Art Heaven or what?" laughs Carole.
Each day we paint in a different French environment: gardens, picturesque villages, alongside waterfalls, in the Live Art studio. "Painting is learning how to see, both outwardly and inwardly. It's very seductive," says Susan Dorf, one of our painting teachers.
Afternoons we fling our bodies into motion, led by dance instructor Lisa Alpine, whose approach is "let your body move its own way." We whirl, twist, spin, gyrate to African and Caribbean music. Inhibitions gone, we perform spontaneous dances for each other. "My body is a metaphor for my spirit," says Evelyn, an English teacher from California. "Dance helps me focus physically on my center. That helps me paint with abandon."
In between art and dance classes, we write essays and poetry. Kathleen, a New York lawyer, gives herself a French name, "Etoile-Marie, because I am becoming a new person, being reborn here in France." Her poetry mirrors our exhilaration:
May this day which is more than halfway gone
Open open open me to
breathe in your tender aroma.
The sky so beautiful, air so clear,
food so rich.
My desires so deep, so omnipresent.
Since the artistic journey is intense, Carole encourages us to change pace. Some of us hike into the mountains; others browse village groceries for pate and chocolate, or exchange life stories over coffee.
Sabine L'Hoste, our doting concierge, shares her pathway to art. "I was oblivious to color until I met Carole," she laughs. "I only wore black and white. But after studying with her, at 50-plus, I discovered a joy that was hidden all my life. When I paint, I'm flying." Sabine is now a professional artist, painting both in France and the United States, and helps Carole manage Live Art in Soreze.
In between conversations, painting, dancing, day trips, and sumptuous meals, I luxuriate in lavender bubble baths. I notice Carole's handwriting on the tiles over my bathtub: "Art is nothing anyone can teach you. You already have it inside. Close your eyes and envision your feelings in form and color. Paint your passion."
Carole has had a lifelong passion for art. A graduate of La Jolla Art Institute and California College of Arts and Crafts, she founded the first nationally recognized Gallery for the Fiber
Arts in San Francisco in 1975. She lived in Kyoto, studying Japanese textiles, hand-made paper, and tea ceremony. "Spending five hours making a cup of tea taught me about humility and respect," she recalls. "I learned to be there for every moment, like a ritualized dance."
Today her tapestries, handmade paper works, and paintings are in private and public collections throughout the world. She founded Live Art in 1993.
The art retreat in Soreze occupies two 400-year-old stone houses where each room pays homage to a renowned artist. The Matisse Bedroom re-creates his whimsical 1924 painting, "Interieur au phonographe." Walls are a mix of striped, floral and geometric patterns, with a bearded Matisse peeking mischievously from behind a curtain. A table resembling the one from his painting is there in the corner, encouraging quiet hours of journal writing or daydreaming.
Hallways and dining and living rooms are also magical. Masks adorn ceiling pipes. Broken dishes are reborn as colorful wall mosaics. Alcoves display statues of Buddha, Madonna, and whimsical red horses. Vases of sunflowers beam from every corner. Votives on the dining room wall flicker as "art altars."
Each day overflows with painting, writing, and dance, yet we find time to enjoy a local mime performance of Siddhartha. On Saturday, we shop the Farmer's Market in nearby Revel, bringing home gauzy floral dresses, fragrant soaps, and juicy white peaches. There are days off from painting, exploring the medieval walled city of Carcassonne, or dramatic gorges in the Pyrenees Mountains.
Of course, eating is an art in France and our chef, Nese Pelt, unveils daily feasts: home-baked baguettes, garden vegetable salads, lasagna with bechamel sauce, garlic gratine, fresh fish. We are unable to resist her chocolate mousse ice cream or fresh peach tarts.
"Artists need incredible nurturing to keep their creative wheels moving," smiles Carole. "Beautiful food, stimulating activities, a soothing environment. To live an artful life, you must take care of the creative fire."
Delisa Heiman, a six-foot beauty, shared one of her paintings/poems with us:
"I realized I haven't wanted to take up space in the world because I am so tall. I inhabit small spaces as not to intrude. Now I want to love all of who I am. I am too precious not to. I want to dance ecstatically and feel my heart spring open."
Two weeks in France at Live Art, and we have all sprung open.
Contact Global Live Art, 736 Pine Crest Avenue, Sebastopol, California 95472. Phone: (707) 823-9663; Fax: (707) 823-8202; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.artfully.com.
For information about other tour operators and programs, see the Activity Index under "Painting."