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French Experience
 
Charmaine Haines
French Experience
    
In July 2006, my husband Martin, daughter, Emma and I set off to spend a year in France. We left on the 4th July for the not-so-unknown however. We had been to this area of France before when Martin surfed in the World Longboard Surf Championships in Biarritz in 1992. We returned again in 2001 for the same event, this time surfing in San Sebastian on the Spanish coast about ten minutes across the border from France. The region, also referred to as the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, forms part of the Aquitaine region of South West France. It is widely recognised for its beautiful coastline and for some of the best surf spots in Europe. It also boasts the spectacular Pyrénées mountain range which forms a natural border between Spain and France.

In 2006, however, because of schooling, we decided not to settle at the coast itself but near the City of Pau where Emma could attend the International School of Bearn. We set up home in the petite village of Espéchède and were welcomed by the locals who were quite fascinated that people from exotic Africa had come to settle in their village. We are often asked 'why Espéchède ?' as if they have been trying to escape it all their lives. We have found that the French don't travel much out of their own country. They go mainly to Spain if they do go anywhere because of its proximity and many can speak the language.

We arrived in France with two suitcases and a surfboard. We had in mind to find furnished accommodation, possibly a gite as they refer to it here but soon realized that we would need a larger space suitable for a studio as well. Our arrival in peak season wasn't perhaps the best choice but we wanted to settle in before the school year started and of course the opportunity to escape the cold, Nieu Bethesda winter was very attractive. We eventually found a typical old Béarnaise farmhouse with plenty of space and outbuildings. In fact when we first viewed it we thought it too large and difficult to heat throughout winter but soon realized that it was actually perfect for us, allowing lots of creative activity and it was also close to the school. We have however felt at times that we are living in a boarding house. Two of the rooms measure nearly 50 m2 each. We were able successfully to turn one of these rooms which has a beautiful inlaid patterned tile floor, into a Gallery space.

Our being part of the International School community assisted us in establishing an immediate network of friends with various business contacts. It allowed us also to connect with both the English and French communities in and around Pau.
Starting a studio from scratch again and accessing the European market with our ceramics has been an interesting journey and an enormously challenging one to say the least. Registering one’s activity is rather complex however. France is very regulated and people seldom like to volunteer advice in this regard, simply because the system is so complicated and because quite frankly, they are often not sure themselves. You simply plod along trying to uncover some secret code till eventually you work it out and then move onto the next mound of paperwork. Of course not having the language sets one back and one relies on different friends to assist one on the way. Here I must add that the French have been extremely generous and welcoming.

After much deliberation, we finally settled on an electric kiln originally made in Stoke-on-Trent and sold through our local Ceramic supplier. It’s common here for most potters to do reduction firings, using both gas and wood burning kilns.
When setting up the studio we had to negotiate a 3 phase connection with the electricity department which turned out to be an afternoon we’d never forget. The meeting lasted three hours with our neighbour, a farmer assisting us with translation. During the course of the afternoon, the price changed several times but fortunately for us, after a few phone calls, we eventually arrived at a reasonable figure. When all was said and done, our neighbour then turned to us with great gesturing of the hands and repeatedly said ‘This is France! ’

We had waited two months to have this meeting and a further two months for the actual installation. When the day finally came it was rather impressive seeing the mechanized equipment that arrived to do what we thought was a rather simple job. When our kiln arrived, it was delivered by a single driver with a fork lift connection attached to the back of his van. There is a piece of mechanised equipment here for every job and people just get on with it.

Raw materials have been easy to access and are of the finest quality. We have a major ceramic supplier Ceradel Socor in Toulouse which is an hour and a half from where we stay. Most of the white clays originate from Limoges including the slip cast mixture which we buy in powder form and to which we add paper . Most of my slab forms are hand built using cast paper clay slabs. Many of the forms are also slip cast or hand built using the extended pinch method. I have limited the surface finish by using mainly oxides with part glazed areas and using earthenware temperatures.

The area in which we live is quite humid and working with the paper clay, did prove problematic in the beginning. We experienced a lot of cracking in the first firings but soon learnt how to dry out the work by building racks around our wood burner in the lounge and preheating the work before firing.

The Basque area where we live and which forms part of the Aquitaine region, is steeped in history and individuality and embodies a certain richness of ancient culture and tradition. The Basque have a strong identity of associated colours such as rouge, green patina, shades of blue and turquoise. I believe this has had a direct influence on my use of glaze colours.

Since arriving here, I’ve tended to use less glaze in my work because we have sensed that glazed ware, because of its strong traditional utility associations, is regarded as more domestic and somehow less valuable than unglazed sculptural work.

In the last few years, besides developing a range of his own Martin has worked very closely with me as a ceramic technician. His experience in this regard has proved very valuable when adapting to new materials and conditions and finding compatibility with the techniques we have become used to. He has also been inspired to work in other artistic mediums besides clay. He has been busy with various concepts incorporating wood and metal which he will pursue on our return.

By now you’ve probably guessed that with this kind of commitment, we just had to stay longer than a year. Our work in France had only just begun and the emotional and financial investment was too great for us to return prematurely.
By December 2006 we were in full production. In May 2007, I held my first solo exhibition entitled ‘Birdman’ assisted by incredible support from friends and locals. Various people offered their expertise in translating my website into French as well as graphic design work for invitations, posters, publicity, marketing etc. I guess if you project a positive energy people soon wish to be part of it. In the days leading up to the opening, flowers arrived from neighbours and ‘foie gras’ was sponsored for the occasion. The villagers were very proud of this event and enjoyed hearing their sleepy village being mentioned in newspapers and on the radio. They see South Africa as a far away place. They are passionate about their rugby, and we are therefore seen as ‘the springboks’ which we prefer, rather than being called ‘roast beef’! Our being in France for the World Cup Rugby and then winning in the end, made us very proud. We were thankful however that it wasn’t the Springboks who put France out of the competition. This gave us many French supporters in the end.

The French language is both beautiful and fascinating. So many words that we use in English are derivatives of the French language. Pronunciation is so important and gesturing as you speak goes a long way. Martin is totally uninhibited when it comes to speaking the language and is able to communicate quite fluently in French. I have found that my not being fluent in the language is rather disempowering professionally especially when talking about one’s work to potential clients. ‘ Let the work speak for itself’ has often been the easiest option more so now than ever.

The reaction to my work has been very positive. The French have a long association with primitive art and have found the influences of Africa and ancient civilizations, bordering on the avant-garde, evident in the work, very interesting.
In 1984 I had work accepted on the Biennale Ceramique Exposition in Vallauris, France with three works forming part of the collection of the Musee de Vallauris. This has been looked upon favourably by the French who regard Vallauris as a sacred ceramic place since this was where Picasso made most of his ceramic work. I didn’t realize then that this would carry some weight in my present situation all these years later.

My work is now represented in several galleries throughout France. France also has a vast infrastructure of potters’ markets with an incredible standard of mainly functional work. We did attend a few of these and found it a great way to meet other potters, exchange ideas and of course a fantastic way to see the country. Most of the chosen venues for these markets occur within Bastide villages or at ancient ceramic sites all steeped in history.
It is traditional for the potters participating, to bring food typical of their region for a shared lunch which ends up being a mighty feast accompanied by local wines. This turns the afternoon session of trading into a rather long one. During this time, stalls of pots are completely abandoned whilst potters gather under a shady tree close by. Even the public are nowhere to be seen. After all it is lunch time and this is France ! The markets are held over two days and most of the potters are housed by people from the village. Evening meals are provided by a local caterer and are shared in traditional style accompanied by music, often by local musicians. We’ve always had such a jolly time on these occasions that we’ve often forgotten the real purpose of the event of selling pots !

France is made up of many villages, there’s one around every corner, each with its own church revealing something unique. Our own village has a church with its clock striking every half hour which is something we shall miss. Of course when it’s lunch time it lets out a few more joyous rings. At two o’clock when the siesta is over it lets out two more long solemn chimes. The architecture has also inspired and influenced us with its adornments, embellishments, stonework and textures.

We have, however, recently switched our focus to exposing the work in other
major centres throughout Europe. I am presently participating in an exhibition, entitled “Talents from a European Journey.” at the Rufford Art Centre in Nottinghamshire in the UK. I also have a solo exhibition in Barcelona, Spain presently on the go at the Associació Ceramistes de Catalunya, gallery, from 23April-23 May.

We have sensed a kind of paranoia throughout Europe because of the ‘foreign invasion’; a closing of ranks, favouring local artists This was especially evident in the UK.

Because of Emma’s schooling we’ have had limited time in which to travel but do manage to during every school break. Living so close to the Pyrenees we have easy access to Spain which is 60km away through a mountain route close to where we live. Pau has an International airport which has afforded us the opportunity to use the cheap flights available in Europe to travel quite freely to other countries with London just an hour’s flight away. The TGV train also comes through Pau so one can be in Paris within 5 hours.

When asked what we miss about South Africa and the Eastern Cape we have to say it is the Karoo landscape – with its wide-open, desert-like spaces. Every patch of land in France is inhabited or farmed; nothing is left untouched. It is beautiful but one longs for that ruggedness which one can still find in Spain. We miss the dryness of the Karoo. Here we seldom have any wind but do have a lot of rain. We miss the vibrancy of South Africa and its colourful characters. As South Africans we are very good at joking and laughing at ourselves – we miss this kind of banter. It’s not easy to pull off a joke though, in a foreign language.

France is known for its cuisine and we have feasted well! Here we must just add, that nothing beats ‘Karoo Lamb’. The area around Pau is known for its gastronomy, with the specialty being Canard - French for duck. Eating duck in its various forms has become a favourite with us. We have been spoilt with the variety of available fresh seafood and cheeses and do enjoy the long summer evenings with ‘mussel hotpots’ and freshly grilled sardines on the braai.
What we shall miss most about France and Europe will be the ‘freedom that comes with living within a safe environment’ …… the freedom to walk into the mountains and along never-ending beaches without fear.

This experience however, has given us new inspiration for our work and a renewed perspective on life. Distancing oneself from the familiar, forces one to look at and to see things differently. Such an experience affords one the opportunity of gaining new inspiration, a time for work introspection, a time to move on to other things. One is also exposed to different cultures and how others perceive one’s work. It can have the added effect of vulnerability, exposing oneself to a completely new market. All of this is both challenging and invigorating and requires enormous energy.

This experience has also given us a renewed perspective on our own country.
Yes, we’ve come to understand a lot about ourselves as South Africans. It has revealed once more who we are; a nation full of energy. We have come to the conclusion that ‘Africa’ is very much part of who we are. Its vibrancy and unpredictability with all its uncertainties keeps us reinventing ourselves. It’s true we are a nation of survivors and entrepreneurs at heart. We need space to grow and seize opportunities which we can do so well. Let us not forget the weather. Oh yes, that winter sun!

We have enjoyed our stay and feel privileged that we were able to follow our hearts and do this at an age when we could take what we’ve gained into the next phase of our lives, positively.

Even with all the shedding that’s taking place right now - ‘darkest Africa’ has its way of calling one back!

Publication. National Ceramics Quarterly. Winter 2008 edition.
South Africa




1 rue Clement Bergez. Espechede. France.