The Travel Journal of an Itinerant Printmaker
Returning to Paris
I landed in Paris on a damp, gray morning after a smooth but compact flight from Chicago. At Charles de Gaulle airport I exited the plane and entered the undulating, dim white tile and stucco tunnels that lead to baggage claim. Up and down, over the interior hills, aboard a moving sidewalk, I slipped through the terminal and was ejected through an ascending plastic tube with a sluggish moving floor. The sensual experience of passing through CDG, primed my body to enter Paris proper, a place I know to be simultaneously physically confining and stimulating.
With bag in hand I boarded the RER B to Gare du Nord, where I transferred to the Metro 4. At Strasbourg St. Denis I surfaced in front of the large arch and searched for the small one, which is adjacent to rue René Boulanger, the street of Atelier René Tazé, Mâitre d’Art, the master printer or etching with whom I made a stage (apprenticeship) in 2001.
I found the chef alone printing a plate for a portfolio by Érik Desmazières. His hands and belly were typically black and shiny from ink and he greeted me with a familiar casual nonchalance. He cleaned up and we went out to fair des courses. We stopped at the supermarket for lunch stuff: eggs, potatoes and greens. Across from the store we went into a café for a routine aperitif. On our way back to the studio we bought a loaf of bread from the drunken wife of the boulanger.
Back at the atelier we prepared lunch on a small propane stove, which sits among typical kitchen stuff as well as studio chemistry. Our meal was familiar to me: omelet with potatoes, arugula salad and wine from a box.
Following our meal I walked through light rain to René’s apartment, where I would stay during my short time in Paris. I bathed and slept and woke after three hours, when René returned home from work. Before I went back to sleep, we sat and ate a small dinner and drank wine, which was tapped from the box at the studio, and transported home in a plastic water bottle.
SCAD + Bibliotheque national de France
In the morning René and I had breakfast. He had vegetable soup purée. I had toast with jam. Then I got ready for my meeting at the National Library of France (BnF), with a friend of mine in the restoration atelier and the students from Savannah College of Art and Design, who were studying at the SCAD Lacoste campus, in the South of France. This meeting would bring to realization a long-lived professional dream of mine, to give American students entrée into the enchanting French print world, which changed my life and commenced my career over a decade ago.
At the BnF I found my friend Benjamin Robert smoking a cigarette in the Library’s staff courtyard surrounded by a cluster of students, along with their teacher, Larry Anderson. I met Benjamin in at Atelier René Tazé in 2003 while he was making a stage, when I returned to Paris for Mois de la Stampe. Benjamin kindly welcomed the students into the restoration atelier and showed us how he cleaned, repaired and hinged old prints. Following his demonstration he lead our group to a print study room and showed us works from the BnF collection, including extraordinary working proofs from a large color etching by Van Gogh. I felt awe both first and second hand as I observed the impression of the experience on the students handling master works.
After the tour Benjamin and I walked through a garden passage and courtyard under construction, crossing paths with the pupils and their instructor, then finding a private table in front of a familiar café near the Comédie-Française. In the short time it took to enjoy our cafés, and him a cigarette as well, we informed each other of the eight years past since we’d last seen each other. On rue Saint-Honoré, Benjamin pointed me in the direction of Centre Pompidou then kissed my cheeks, and we parted.
I found the Pompidou easily, its primary colors and geometric shapes rising above the typical Parisian architecture. Unfortunately, I’d seen the exhibition-Lichtenstein-at the Art Institute of Chicago, so I turned around and traced my steps to visit le Louvre.
At the Louvre I had three hours before another meeting with the SCAD group and their guide, the Conservateur of the Réserve in the Département des Estampes et de la Photographie at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Madame Séverine Lepape. After queuing for thirty minutes for a ticket I decided to visit the section of the museum holding ancient Greek, Etruscan and Roman objects. Because of just visiting the print restoration atelier at the BnF, as I wandered through the displays of ancient artifacts, I felt more aware of each piece’s restoration and presentation. One piece in particular seemed most cared for: a large ceramic vessel, which was reformed through new clay and embedded with old shards, putting back together like a puzzle.
At 4:00 I found Larry and Séverine Lepape and the three of us waited for students to arrive. As a group, Madame Lepape led us to the exhibition that had just opened on the rare prints of the North, Les Origines de l’Estampe en Europe du Nord. She and Larry emphasized the rarity of the objects—singular prints and matrices—wood engravings, metal engravings and metal engravings in dotted manner.
The museum closed shortly after our tour. I surfaced alone through the pyramid; walked away from the Tuileries to rue de Rivloi; then I took Metro 1 to the 4 to find my way back to Atelier René Tazé.
At the atelier René was finishing his work. Before leaving he showed me a souvenir from Yves Klein’s former atelier: a jar containing a small portion of the artist’s signature blue pigment. René and I played by daubing a bit of the powder on us, anointing each other with the intense color.
On our way home we went to the market for fish, fennel and wine. Before heading home we had a glass at the bar across the road. Other local characters were already gathered, enjoying refreshments after their day’s work. We all stood together at the bar, sipping, snacking on peanuts and generally joking around.
At chez René we prepared a simple dinner: boiled fish, sautéed fennel and to drink… red wine, of course.
On Friday I met my Parisian “sister” Clementine de Champfleury—the niece of two legendary lithographers—at a Cambodian restaurant in René’s neighborhood. It was a quick walk across the canal and one street down. I found her as she identified me and waved in big gestures to get my attention. I recognized immediately her short blond hair, her grand physique and her dynamic presence. I will always remember fondly how she adopted me during my first stage in Paris in 2001 at her uncle’s studio, Atelier Fleur de Pierre. It was through my friendship with her that I was given entrée into the Parisian print world and ultimately met my chef René Tazé. At that time—and to this day—she was and is generous about showing me around. It was and still is a delight to be with a blonder, bolder, taller woman in a city where smallness is advantageous.
We two tall women folded ourselves at a table and ordered noodle salad and tea. As we caught up, the small restaurant filled with lunch diners. I observed that as people came and left, other diners in mid-meal, would patiently stop their eating and conversing to let strangers pass. This made me anxious for the moment we would leave. I expressed my concern to Clementine and she waved my worry away saying, “it’s nothing.” For the past twelve years of living and returning to France, Clementine has been giving me permission and example on how to be a—physically—grand dame in Paris. She spoke during our meal of how constricting French culture is to her and although I don’t feel bound by its old institutions and pedigrees, I do feel compressed by its quarters. To my relief, by the time we were finished, the passage from our table was clear and I wouldn’t have to disturb a stranger’s meal to exit.
Clementine and I split for a few hours and rejoined at Grand Palais for two exhibitions: Braque and Valloton. Because we were unable to print the tickets we had purchased online we had to negotiate with numerous security guards. At each check point Clementine would tell our story: we bought tickets online; we couldn’t print them; she was sent a text by the system but her phone has no internet to connect to the link; my tablet couldn’t download the confirmation email because the free WiFi was too weak. At each security point Clementine and the guard would converse and come to an understanding and she and I would then be given permission to proceed. She and I discussed this later; she said there are many rules in France and public workers are obedient because they like the benefits their jobs provide, but it is possible to break through the bureaucratic response if one explains the humanity of their situation. By the time we were allowed into the Broques show we were informed that Valloton was closing early so we quickly scanned the show, exited and prepared for another adventure of story telling to enter the next exhibition. By some chance the guards had been informed of our story and we were given immediate access.
After leaving the Grand Palais Clem and I walked to Place de la Concorde. The night was crisp with crunchy leaves under foot. Past the Luxor Obelisk, by the American embassy, we descended into the metro tunnels below the traffic and traffic fumes. We took Metro 1 to the 4 and parted at Strasbourg St Denis, where I found my way to René’s studio, where there his stagiers were having a petite soirée.
When I arrived René’s studio was full of young women, all approximately the age that I was when I worked for him in 2001. Like I had done, they all wore intense red lipstick; chain smoked; and rapidly drained wine from a box on the table. After the girls enjoyed a meal of hot dogs in baguette buns followed by fine artisan cheeses, they turned up the volume of the music and danced at the edge of the studio, readying them selves for going to a dance club. René, Thomas another printer, and I sat and talked about the glory days of printmaking in Paris, when I was a stage, before many studios shut. The men reveled in memories of the wild Mois de la Stampe parties and I quietly reflected on my youth in the beautiful faces of the printer-girls dancing in the corner.
I left Paris the next day to rejoin my husband, Georgi, at his home in Sofia, Bulgaria. After ten days with his family and three days with mine in London, I returned to France to fulfill the commitment that brought me to Europe, to give a lecture at SCAD Lacoste in Provence.
Arriving in Avignon/Lacoste, FRANCE
At the Avignon TGV station I found a taxi driver holding a hand written sign: SCAD BROOKS. In his silver Mercedes he turned on the radio and we listened to a broadcast of mostly American 80s pop music and rode for 45 minutes without conversation. Director, Kirt Wood, and Professor, Larry Anderson greeted me upon my arrival to the SCAD Lacoste village, which was once owned by the Marquis de Sade and is now mostly owned by the College and Pierre Cardin.
Kirt and Larry walked me to where I would stay for three nights at the Artist’s Residence. In the foyer, we walked past a ground-floor lounge where the Amalie soundtrack played infinitely, up to the first floor, where I was given keys to a cozy, private room. The men left me in my chamber to get settled in and Larry returned 30 minutes later to take me to a faculty dinner in the home of the student coordinator.
At Florence’s place, I was warmly welcomed by the host and a small group of professors. After introductions we sat around a table and shared pasta, potatoes, market roasted chicken and wine, then endive salad. For dessert we walked back down to the base of the village to two adjacent faculty apartments. Each teacher had a private, uniquely updated apartment with modern amenities and ancient stone accents. The atmosphere was warm and congenial as colleagues discussed their classes.
The next day there was a light rain in the village and wisps of fog in the valley below. After breakfast the exhibitions coordinator met me at my residence and gave me a brief tour of the village. We walked up the steep hill to Maison Forte to prepare for my lecture and as I returned to the base, I clutched the railing and descended slowly, sliding on wet stones.
After lunch Larry and I went for a longer walk, up to the Marquis’ castle and down to a stone quarry, which is used in the summer as an outdoor theatre. As we walked up to the top, every turn and set of stairs revealed a new, exquisite panorama. He and I discussed the pressure art students must feel to capture the beauty of the amazing views.
At the quarry I wandered around the sandy earth among the small scrubby plants looking for wild thyme. Having visited the area four years before with René, I knew the herb grew sauvage and I was determined to take some home with me. Without much luck I crouched down to take a picture of the stones and was met with the aroma of thyme, which I was standing on. I pinched off a few branches, placed them in my pocket and Larry and I returned to the base of the village.
Etching: the Practice of Alchemy and the Art of Connection
In the evening I gave my lecture and unfolded the story of my career, illustrating my early days in France with projections of old Lomographs (a pre-instagram film technology for taking intentionally poor pictures). My professional story began right where the students perhaps find themselves, finishing art school and stepping into the greater world without a lot of clarity about which direction to start walking in. In 2001 after graduating from Evergreen State College I followed a passion for a mostly dead craft and the advice of an admired teacher and went to France to live with my uncle and learn from French master printers. During two apprenticeships in four months, I acquired some new printmaking skills; the French technical vocabulary of my métier along with many useful vulgarities; as well as the recipes for the finest black etching ink and a standard French mustard-based salad dressing. Most importantly was my personal education in what I call the Practice of Alchemy and the Art of Connection. Ever the alchemist, René Tazé cultivates a creative environment by allowing all ingredients to blend: human and chemical; fiber and mineral; potable, edible and combustible; artist, artisan and apprentice. The art of connection requires stepping away from the familiar, into the unknown to assimilate into a foreign environment and become intimate with its inhabitants.
At the end of my two sages in France, it was curiosity and determination that pushed me to contact Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press to inquire about a job there and it was my naïve, artificially confident, yet innocent demand over the telephone, “This is Catherine Brooks calling from Paris” that got my call through to her. It was my luck that she was generous with her time over the phone and that there seemed to be a need for an intern in the studio.
During seven years at Crown Point Press I learned the technical and intentional depth of etching, as well as different relational recipes. Working as a master printer in connection with master artists was an incredible education in the alchemy of creative process. What I learned first hand and through Crown Point legends informed the writing of my book, Magical Secrets about Line Etching and Engraving, the Step-by-Step Art of Incised Lines (CPP, 2007).
Again curiosity, and determination pushed me to explore another role in the creative process, as the artist. Graduate school forced me through a maze of adopted, imitated practices and delivered me kicking and screaming at the door to my authentic work.
Most recently I have begun to apply the alchemical and relational formulas that I experienced in the premier French and American etching studios to my home studio, CASA VEDA, which is a living laboratory for creative exploration through art, movement and cuisine.