Welcome back to Chez Nous.
Good news - as the renovation of my atelier d’art is progressing slowly but steadily, I have managed to reclaim my number one metier, painting. And for once I am not talking about painting walls, but painting as in fine art and illustration. Although the emphasis of this blog has been on the renovation and restoration of our house here in Mazamet, I feel it is time to come clean about my artistic endeavours also, as I am currently embarking on a painting project about Chez Nous and more widely, the region I am lucky to live in.
Getting back on my vocation full time has been both weird and wonderful after focussing on other projects for nearly six months. On top of that, the last time I set out to paint a coherent body of work to be exhibited together was for my degree show, back in Edinburgh College of Art in the Auld Reekie in 2014! To best explain what I plan to establish by painting a series of pieces about my own dwelling, I better start from the beginning… of what my art is all about in the first place:
Some of my earlier paintings from 2006 to 2010
Some people see themselves as artists primarily, but I have always been a painter. Working towards perfecting my trade through mastering different materials, repeated sketching or meticulous base-work such as priming my own canvasses is very important to me. It has been a long road to find out what my preferred subjects are, from early works inspired by art nouveau and surrealism to brash portraits of objects commanding to be gazed at, but at this point of my career I am most inspired by different materials and patterns, iconic brands and cherished things. Acknowledging the weight of the history of art so far, as well as the significance of colour in two dimensional art, I still want my pieces to be playful. The concept of nostalgia, too, plays a huge part in my way of painting things and wanting to inspire the viewer to start paying attention to the beauty found in everyday: how we dress ourselves, the products we consume, advertisement, signage, décor… I firmly believe most things around us deserve a second look and by elevating mundane subjects into art by painting them in larger than life scale on canvas, is my way of doing so.
Some of my most recent, pattern based pieces
But leaving my artists manifesto aside, by choosing to paint my house, my home, and exhibit the pieces for all the world to see, is my way of documenting what is here and paying tribute to the people who built this lovely house as their home over a century ago. This house is a treasure chest of ideas for a pattern-obsessed painter and a history buff: The wallpapers alone would keep me busy for years in the studio, not to mention the intricate tilework and the plaster details with their hidden symbols. And there are many homes just like mine on this street alone, some occupied, but many waiting for a fool of a renovator to take them on and love them again.
Mazamet used to be one of the richest regional towns in France with more gold stored in its banks than in the branches of Paris. The textile, leather and pelt-industries created a steady stream of wealth making it possible for merchants of all classes, including the cheesemongers who set up shop in Chez Nous, to build beautiful houses, using the most fashionable materials and decorating them stylishly following the latest trends. It looked like the economic growth was never ending; even the wars did not stop the production in the Montagne Noire - if anything the war effort meant more business for the local mills producing textiles and gear for the military. But come 1970’s and the rules of commerce had changed: The local producers could no longer keep up with the competition once the cheap imports started flooding in from Asia, China in particular. Today hardly anything is left from the glory days of the industrial dominance of this region, except the hollow shells of the factories scattered along the waterways tricking down from the mountain.
Old postcards of Mazamet showing the town centre, processing of pelts - a key industry for the region and one of the now abandoned factories.
With no work and mounting social problems, people that grew up here were forced to look for their fortunes elsewhere, leaving homes built by their ancestors behind. These properties soon lost their value and small townhouses as well as the grand villas of the factory owners were left to decay. Investment and with it, new residents, are returning to Mazamet, though, have been for some time now. The agreeable climate together with affordable properties and its authentic small town-feel makes this a popular spot for the English expats. I have hear Tarn, our department, being describes as the best value for money in the whole of France by friends who invest in property here. Due to spectacularly cheap rents for businesses, manufacturing and commerce are making a comeback too. Just the other week I read about somebody setting up an artisanal sake distillery nearby and the town centre is been re-fitted as we speak to attract more shopkeepers and restaurateurs. Our mayor has a real interest in encouraging all kinds of businesses and under his schemes especially young entrepreneurs have had a change to start-up businesses in Mazamet.
Not quite the renaissance of the Montagne Noire just yet, but things are improving. People’s attitudes towards historic homes on the other hand, not so much. We have been able to buy and re-claim so many materials such as tiles so easily because there seems to be very little interest in preserving the old. From every one person I know who is interested in respectful renovation of their old house, there seems to be dozens who would rather skip the painstaking restoration process and cover everything with plasterboard and laminate. Their home and their rules, of course, but surely there is no harm in giving the old another change?
Small watercolour and pencil sketches inspired by the patterns of our wonderful encaustic cement tiles
By choosing to paint my tiles, the weather beaten front door of ours or 60’s floral wallpaper is not to say this is art – it is to encourage the viewer, you, to look again after something has been elevated into art. What people take from my work is of course subjective, but if it inspires at least one person to start looking for the beauty of the everyday in their own lives, job well jobbed.
Tile sketches in blush pink, carmine and burgundy
Art does not need to be this monster that only lurks in museums, knobby galleries and hipster bars – it is all around us, where we choose to see beauty.
Painting is my way to engage with the world around me. It is a way to document my life and my feelings, but also a way to make a living, thus curated for an audience. My work at its most truthful lies somewhere between these parameters. By creating art inspired by my own home I am turning something very private into something professional, but in a way, this is what I am already doing by writing this blog. These little watercolours illustrating my thoughts in this post will serve as a template to start working on canvas – canvasses that may one day be hung in somebody else’s home. The idea of that is both thought provoking as well as bizarre.
My front door.
Once the day comes to exhibit my creations out in the big wide world, I will naturally be starting local. During my time here I have noticed it is often those that are the closest that can truly be the blindest when it comes to valuing our surroundings. And as it is everywhere else, it often takes an appreciative stranger to convince the locals that it’s not all just doom and gloom here. Mazamet really deserves to be loved again and through my work, I want to be the one carrying her torch.