I rose only sort-of-early in a French city that overlaps its evening and day crowds. It is Aix en Provence at 7:45 am and I am headed up to the Painters’ Ground with my small painting box, tripod and camera. The morning is pleasant and, though the walk takes about an hour, I enjoy the climb out of the old city center and into the more tranquil edges of the city. As I walk, I stop to rest on a bench just before the street reaches Paul Cezanne’s historic studio. But it is much too early to visit. Maybe we will stop in on our way back.
While I am climbing I am thinking about what it must have been like for Cezanne as a painter. What might he have been thinking about as he climbed this hill in the 1880’s? This was a time when he had separated himself from the ideas of impressionism. It was a time when Cezanne was working mostly on his own, developing a unique painting language that would later become a key plank and supporting strut in a bridge that eventually lead towards abstract painting. We often think of Matisse and Picasso in this regard but there are others that came later like Diebenkorn, an American expressionist and figurative painter, who also sites the influence of Cezanne. We could spend the whole of our climb discussing the relationships and the strengths and weaknesses of focusing on light, colour, form, realism and abstraction in the painting process. But we won’t. Let’s just say that Cezanne added some powerful and unique painting language to these conversations.
The street becomes quieter as I continue to climb and turn around meandering bends that lead me higher up the hill. I spot Cezanne’s mountain at an opening and stop to give it my full attention. Though a prominent outcrop on the horizon, in some ways it doesn’t really look like much. What was it that had him paint this landscape of the Sainte-Victoire mountain more than 87 times?
I keep walking until I see a sign on my right pointing across the road to the left indicating a trail to the Painters’ Ground. The path is rough-laid stones and though uneven, it is not difficult. I suspect that these are a newish addition – maybe to keep the ground from wearing away as admirers and painters such as myself trek up and down repeatedly. According to the little pocket-size walking tour brochure I picked up at the tourist office, “Cezanne’s most famous pictures were painted from this marvellous vantage point on Chemin de la Marguerite on the Lauves hill.”
Slightly flushed with the climb and excitement, I stop almost at the top and turn. This is it. This is the spot. There are places on this earth where the ground hums with a heartbeat of stillness, an energy that settles and becomes observable on the inhale and exhale of a breath. This spot is one of those places. This is what I believe brought Cezanne here to paint again and again. It was a place where he could work uninterrupted on his painting problems and the mountain became a convenient tool to this end. Oh, who knows if this is true or not. We both know I just made it up on the spot but I believe it could be true so I take a few reference images.
Then I go about the task of attaching my small painting box to the top of my camera tripod and maneuvering the tools around in the less than ideal conditions of facing the direct morning light. Just as I am about to start to apply paint to canvas an elderly couple wave and come down from the very top of the hill to greet me. We quickly establish that it was going to be a dramatic signing and gesturing conversation with bits of French and English Language thrown in for good measure. Believe me, this approach is often extremely effective when human-beings are determined to have a conversation that just MUST be had. The woman searches her pockets for her phone and made a long face. The fellow asked why she wants her phone and she said, for a photo. I thought she just wanted to be able to remember who I was so I reached into the top of my camera case and pulled out a business card. Her face lit up like halogen bulb but it wasn’t at my business card. It was because of my camera. With unrestrained enthusiasm she asks if she can use my camera to take photographs of me. What could I say? Yes, of course. I set the camera on automatic, put the cord over her head and, as best I can, indicate that it is ready to go and where it is she needs to press the shutter. She nodded repeatedly, pulled the camera down where she could see the dials and started turning them.
Well, my face must have given me away because the fellow said – its okay (hand up in the calming position). She is a professional.
Satisfied that she had the camera set the way she wanted it, Mme Miceli Brigitte directed me to start painting. What does a painter with a professional photographer at her disposal, up on the Painters Ground, in Aix en Provence, facing Cezanne’s mountain do with such an instruction? There is only one thing that can be done. I pick up the brush and go to work.
While I painted, the photographer moved around making satisfying and comforting comments in French that told me that she was having as good a time as I was. Among a few others, there was this moment…
and then this one…
and finally this one, which is likely one of my favourite photographs of me.
It is a favourite because at this point I had relaxed and was able to focus on my painting. I was aware of the photographer but she had lulled me into a place of comfort with her soft voice and slow deliberate movements. She had become part of my work rather than an entity capturing it. She was deeply inside my painting space which is something only I usually get to experience. The man was standing back a little, quiet and waiting in an unhurried kind of way. I had stopped noticing him all together. It was a beautiful moment at 9:08 am on May 18, 2014 between three individuals up on a hill with the most important language of all in common between them – the language of appreciation and respect.
The photographer hands me back my camera and both of them encourage me to keep a close eye on it and tuck it under the easel so that it doesn’t get stolen. I make a promise to comply. I have the good sense to ask the photographer to write down her name and address so I can send her a copy of the photographs. We say our good-byes and they continue on with their morning walk and I finish up the painting in the few minutes that I have left before I need to pack up and start back down the hill and into town.
We can take a quick snoop into Cezanne’s Studio garden. Do you want to?
Yes, I did go into Cezanne’s studio where no photographs are allowed. There is the dutiful splash of open turpentine for authenticity. However, on this day anyway, I do believe the painter was still up on the Painters’ Ground where we met the photographer this morning. But not to disappoint, one of most intriguing features of Cezanne’s studio is the opening he had built into the wall to bring large paintings in and out of the studio. I climbed all the way back up in the early evening to get an outside view of this for you…
and another photograph of Sainte-Victoire mountain.
Generally, I like to work in the morning but this spot would be most interesting in the afternoon and early evening. Yes, I am sure I saw a quick glimpse of Cezanne heading down the path by some tall bushes with his painting gear resting heavily on the shoulder of his weary frame that had put in a long day’s work figuring and painting slowly and methodically.
CEZANNE’S MOUNTAIN – 25 x 35 cm, 20 minute acrylic plein air painting sketch
(Art Prints are available in my Redbubble storefront HERE)
When was the last time you were totally blow away by the positive serendipity of a series events?
© 2014 Terrill Welch, All rights reserved.
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Creative Potager – Visit with painter and photographer Terrill Welch
From Mayne Island, British Columbia, Canada
For gallery and purchase information about Terrill’s photographs and paintings go to http://terrillwelchartist.com