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I made a recent trip to France, taking with me a small 5″ x 7″ spiral bound Nature Sketch book, a tin of (mostly) Koh-i-Noor acquarelles and my trusty fountain pen. For the first eight days I was ensconced at a retreat center at Villefavard (near Limoges), six of that on a silent retreat with Natalie Goldberg. Mornings passed in a routine of sitting and walking meditations and writing practice and in the evenings we were back in class again. In the afternoons we had lunch, optional writing groups and free time for walking, swimming in the lake, writing, reading — whatever we could do in silence with no conversation or interactions with other humans. I swam almost everyday, wrote with a group of four, sketched and painted.

I made my first sketch in the courtyard at La Ferme de Villefavard, a working farm until 1968, focusing on an old wooden door set in a stone wall. This particular door showed wear and happened to have a plant growing in front of it and an empty terra cotta pot next to it. I like it that you see the leaves of the plant and an empty pot, rather than seeing where the plant grows from. I enjoyed capturing the details of the worn wood, metal hasps, ornamental brick. I am particularly fond of the vibrant blue against the red-orange bricks and the rusty shadings.

I painted a bouquet of flowers in the zendo. I painted a view of the local Protestant church as seen from the dock of the lake. I painted my first portrait from life, my friend Dorotea, seen across the courtyard, wrapped in her sarong. I made sketches of the barn door and studies of a square stool.

When I moved to Paris for the next week, something shifted. I made a few acquarelle sketches of my room at L’Hotel du Quai Voltaire. One day, I was following an itinerary suggested by Natalie, a pilgrimage to Shakespeare and Company and to a couple of cafes in St. Germain de Pres where Hemingway had written: Cafe Les Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore.

By the time I reached Shakespeare and Company I had been walking for a long time, stopping only to have a picnic lunch outside of Notre Dame. I took photos on the first floor of a grotto where people throw coins beneath a sign that says, “Feed the Starving Writers.” I asked someone to take pictures of me on the red staircase leading to the second floor.

Then I reached the second floor reading room where no photography is permitted. I sat on a cushion on a wooden bench (not so different from a zendo) and looked at an old typewriter on a wooden table, a vase of lilies, mostly white, an open casement window, shelves of books. Because I couldn’t photograph it, I took out my sketchbook and my pen and did my best to capture it in lines: the hexagonal tiles of the floor, the scrollwork at the window, a chair in front of the bookshelves. I did three sketches in the main room. I sat and wrote as well.

Every time I tried to leave, I would see some other wonderful sight: an arched window in the passageway, an armchair tucked into a corner. I did a total of five sketches at Shakespeare and Co, the most I did in any one place while I was in France. I went on to do a sketch apiece at each cafe. Then I did another sketch of my temporary bedroom. A few days later I sketched a street of shops outside the Eric Kayser boulangerie where I went for breakfasts, then a sketch of the hotel facade. As I wandered through Paris I continued to sketch grilles and chairs, an orange juice in a narrow glass.

I came home with a half-empty sketchbook. What to do with it?

That’s when the Caerus Residency stepped in: I petitioned to get in after the deadline and committed to working four hours a day with the goal of filling my sketchbook by the end of two weeks.

The trouble was that sketching at home was not as much fun as sketching in France — I wasn’t regularly seeing new, entrancing things. I had left the city devoted to artful living for my small, pretty suburban hometown. I sat in the breakfast room on a cold, overcast July day sketching a peach on a plate with a knife and fork. This sketch is dark, devoid of the light in France.

I tried a  peach sketch with less ink, more acquarelle. Still dark and somewhat overworked.

In desperation I cast about for something else to sketch. I went toward the dark this time, sketching my black cat, Fiona as she lay on a chair, on the bed. Better.

Then Suzanne posted a photo of the green sofa in her studio. I have one of Suzanne’s cast-off green couches in my bedroom and I thought, “I could draw that.” I did, with Fiona curled up in the corner and was pleased.

The next day I sat at a bus stop with a long wait. I pulled out my sketchbook and pen and cast my eye around for something to draw. At first I didn’t see anything. I began to focus more closely on plants and trees: when there are no enticing architectural details, nature is a reliable inspiration. My eye settled on a Japanese maple tree outside a shop and I began to draw its multiple trunk, its star-shaped leaves. As I drew I began to see how its pattern meshed with pillars and rafters of a nearby building.

After that I made a sketching expedition to Arlington Avenue, the main street of my small town. My destination, the drugstore, one of the oldest buildings and a business in operation continually since my childhood here. Alas, the bench I planned to sketch it from was occupied. I went across the street to the bus stop and sketched a line of shops with tiled roofs, ignoring the traffic barrier and cyclone fencing occluding my vision. By the time I had finished that sketch, my hand cramping from the repetitious work of depicting rows of curved tiles, the bench outside the pharmacy was free. I sat down to sketch again, focusing on the old Rexall sign.

Saturday I brought home an odd bunch of flowers from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, plunked them in a cobalt vase on my writing desk, sketched them in ink, colored them with acquarelles. I still don’t know what the flowers are with their fractal shapes, their stiffness, their green and purple interiors. As I often do, I put in the background last, first smudged lines and circles of blue and violet and then a solid black area surrounding the vase. After I sketched the puffball flowers, I picked up a square watercolor pad and did a quick, bright painting of a tomato salad on a blue-edged platter, no ink, coming full circle back to my usual style: characteristically, the last thing I painted was a red and white checked tablecloth underneath the tomatoes, basil and platter. I noticed that the strokes were loose, the colors bright, the opposite of the ink-tinged sketches earlier in the week.

Sharyn Dimmick

A note from Suzanne:  Sharyn’s blog, The Kale Chronicles,  examines eating locally, seasonally, and well.  I love her recipes; they work well in real kitchens.  Each post features excellent writing and a new, original  painting by Sharyn.

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