On this day in 2013… my first (but hopefully not last) art retreat

Seven years ago this month, I was in France. Specifically, a teeny tiny village in the mountains of southern France, staying in a renovated 12th-century manor with about seven strangers, bunking in a room named Urania after the muse of astronomy.

My home base back then was Baltimore, where I lived while I did my graduate degree in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts, and during the summer of 2013 I was attempting to get my poetry thesis into shape. I found an ad for a place called La Muse Inn, a writer’s and artist’s retreat, run by an American and Irish writer couple in Labastide-Esparbairenque.

Nearly every step of the process was a new experience for me, from deciding how long to stay (three full weeks!) to finding a service to convert my money to euros and wire transfer it to the retreat, to dealing with just about every possible obstacle on my way there. I endured a cancelled flight, being stranded overnight in Pennsylvania, and having to take an extra flight through Germany on my way to France, after the attendant who rebooked my original flight apparently forgot that overnight flights arrive a day AFTER they leave the US. I’m pretty certain that’s the most exhausted I’ve ever been, having gotten no sleep in the hotel room they booked me. I didn’t actually get TO the room until nearly 2am, and the only shuttle back to the airport the next morning left at something like 7am. I had a day to kill wandering around Philadelphia airport before my 4pm flight; I don’t remember a thing about that airport now.

After all that frustration and a wasted day in limbo, I finally arrived in one of the most idyllic places I’ve ever stayed. On the tour of the village the next morning, John, one half of the La Muse founders, talked about how Cezanne went there to paint because he liked the natural light so much. The sunlight there was extraordinary, especially given that it was summer. Probably not something I ever would have thought about before going.

The streets and the buildings were all built right into the mountains, with winding paths through the trees, a secluded park with benches by a stream, figs that you could just pick yourself and a fresh spring where you could fill your water bottles with cold water. You could perch up on a cliff and look over to the next village, Roquefare, which had a small outdoor patio restaurant surrounded by flowers and run by an older French couple (and of course the food was delicious).

Watercolor painting I did of Roquefare in 2014/2015 from one of my many photos.

The first few days I spent recovering from my jet lag and figuring out a routine; my room was big enough for a low table and a writing desk, and I brought some book-making supplies with me along with notebooks and pencils. I would love, love, love to go back now on an artist’s retreat with my watercolors. They had space in a converted studio/barn for painters; one woman there was a lawyer from Australia who basically took a year off from her job to travel, and at the time I was there, she was spending a month painting. I wish now of course that I’d kept in touch with her afterward, but at this point I don’t even remember her last name. In any case it was also a wonderful spot for a writer; the manor had a library and a stone terrace overlooking a wooded valley and most days several of us gathered there for lunch or dinner. I developed a taste for tomatoes, red wine, and dark chocolate while I was there (I’d always loved bread and pastries, so that didn’t change). My meager French skills were stretched nearly to their breaking point but everyone at the retreat spoke English, and some of them (like the lawyer I mentioned) told some pretty great stories of their adventures and travels.

I wanted to reflect on this trip I think in part because most of the rest of the world is closed off to American travelers right now, and Jake and I just got our passports renewed late last year in anticipation of an international trip in 2020. Despite our cozy house in our pleasant Midwestern town, I’ve been feeling especially cooped up as summer goes on. We took a trip to Chicago a couple weekends ago and while it was wonderful to get away, the energy there was definitely off. Everything felt a little on edge, a little uneasy. Chicago of course has been dealing with ongoing rioting and protesting in addition to being a former COVID-19 hot spot, and a lot of the businesses even in the Loop were clearly still feeling the effects of both. It was also really sad to see landmarks like the Chicago Theater dark. We still managed to have some delicious food, visit the American Writer’s Museum, and stock up on goodies from Blick (well, I did; Jake’s not really an art supplies kind of guy), and the change of scenery was refreshing.

Still in progress, of course. Possibly a future painting?

Fortunately I’ve been pretty good at taking lots of pictures of my travels over the years. Perhaps it’s time to revisit them for some more art projects. Here’s one I drew from my most recent Chicago pictures.

Is anyone else feeling the wanderlust? It’s pretty much a theme of my life, though I’ve been pretty distracted by Fairy Tree Studios over the last year or so. If you are, how are you coping?

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