Illustration by Elizabeth Cannon
An ongoing series about uprooting our lives in America and moving to France. For what's happened before, see previous Jours of Our Lives entries here.
I’M HAPPY NO one knows where we are. It’s not like people can’t call or email, but now that we’re out of Paris and in the countryside, it feels like we’re not so in touch. All the hard news comes from the States, and we need a rest after the intensity of the last six weeks. Chasing Matisse is our passion, but starting a new life here is made harder by the fact that our house hasn’t sold—that beautiful house that delighted everyone who walked through its door. Everyone on this side of the Atlantic who sees pictures is wowed by it. I have to believe that its failure to sell is due to some cosmic reason that we don’t yet understand. Whoever has the excellent fortune to buy 501 Holly (pictured on right) will find it filled with good energy--a happy and remarkable home.
When we arrived at the village of St. Quentin, in Picardie, we didn’t have a hotel reservation. We didn’t even know if we would stay in St. Quentin or drive on to one of the smaller towns where Matisse was born and grew up. But after touring the centre ville, we decided to use St. Quentin as our base. Plus, the Hotel des Cannoniers called to us as we drove by it. As we now know, Monsieur and Madame Michels bought their classical manor in sad disrepair and spent four years renovating it—making it into a stunning home as well as a lovely hotel. Our first room was really a suite with a well-turned-out kitchenette on the top floor. Very writerly, we thought, and a fine place to work. We later had to change rooms to accommodate a longstanding reservation. Our second room was elegant with a perfect view of the garden. Oh, joy! Oh, perfection! We have exited the city without reservations and landed here! The nomads did well. And, even better, we did well for a good price.
Next morning Jim couldn’t find the car keys. After breakfast, we visited the local police station to see if anyone had turned them in. The friendly gendarme pulled out a huge box of lost keys, but none were ours. We’d planned to drive to Matisse’s birthplace that morning, but instead found ourselves with a forced day off. Back at the hotel, we took our third French lesson on CD since arriving in France. We got CNN at the hotel, the first time we’d seen it since being in France. It was good to hear the news in English—for a short time. But I didn’t really want to know what was going on in the world. I wanted to deal with my life day to day. I wanted to chase Matisse without politics.
We prepared a lunch of good cheeses and hummus and crispy whole wheat rolls. Afterwards, I was lying on the bed reading when Jim suddenly said, “Here’s the extra key!” It was stuck in an obscure slot of his briefcase. We stepped out to the automobile we’d had for two days to search for the vital master key with clicker to lock and unlock the doors. They weren’t there, but we almost didn’t care. At least we could drive the car.
The beautiful staircase in the hotel
Now Jim dug though his briefcase once more. This time he sheepishly held up the missing keys. There’s no question: The lost keys just didn’t want to be found. We have so many bags and sacks, Jim has so many pockets, it was easy for them to hide. Plus with our minds spinning in so many directions, it’s hard to keep up with where we put what. But at this point we were sticking to our plan—to lie down for a nap. It’s a treat to be in such a pleasant place and allow ourselves this rare luxury—a day of rest.
The next day was big—we were headed for Le Cateau-Cambresis, the small village where the Musee Matisse had recently opened after being closed for many years. Matisse was born in this village, then his family moved to Bohain a few kilometers away. The Picardie sky was gray as we drove through miles of beet fields. Hard to believe the painter known for his color came from land like this.
What a surprise the museum was! Quite grand for this tiny place, with a huge and lovely garden in back. We were lucky to arrive during a special exhibition of the famous French editor Teriade, who enticed his talented and famous friends—Bonnard, Chagall, Giacometti, Gris, Le Corbusier, Leger, Matisse, Miro, Picasso, Rouault, and many others—to paint, draw, and write for his publication, Verve. In the permanent Matisse exhibit, we came across classes of schoolchildren huddled on the floor with paper and pencils. They studied Matisse’s brilliant work and drew their own versions. What a privilege for these children, what vision on the part of the museum and teachers. How might this visit change their ability to see the world?
The first time I accepted calling myself an artist was on our six-week trip to France in 1998. I felt an admiration for artists here, and I identified with the thread that binds creative people together: the language that we use to speak about our work—the conception, construction, and the end result. Now, at this Matisse museum, I was filled with the sensation of these men (and they all were, I think), these artists, creating their impression of their worlds. They put down on paper whatever childish, mysterious, beautiful, humorous, or dark images that they saw in their inner and outer eyes, the ones that spoke to them—and now to us. They were compelled and not afraid for their visions to be exposed, their voices to be heard. This inspired me and reaffirmed my feeling about my own work. It makes me want to free myself, to express myself with abandon. Not to worry about the demands of fitting into a pigeon-hole, a mold of expectation (which I don’t until rejection makes me doubt myself). It’s the daring to be true to yourself—to be authentic—that is essential, no matter what form your art takes.
This is what all real artists face.
January 26, 2003
Unless otherwise indicated, photos by Beth Arnold.
Beth Arnold lives and writes in Paris, where she produces her "Letter From Paris" new media project.
For more on artist (and couturier) Elizabeth Cannon, click here.