On a crisp Paris morning some years ago, my friend P. woke up in hospital after collapsing in a diabetic coma. Am I in prison? were reputedly her first words upon opening her eyes as she stared at the unfamiliar grey walls around her. A doctor reassured her that she had not been incarcerated, however, she had just had heart surgery and several stents had been put in place. After a short hospital stay, she was allowed to go home.
At that time P. and her husband had been living in Paris for several years, occupying a fourth floor apartment at an enviable address along Boulevard Saint Germain. From the balcony of her flat jutting over the plane trees below, you could just catch a glimpse of the Eiffel tower. A retired journalist from Florida who nurtured a creative streak, P. had always been very active in the expat writers community in Paris, attending the readings, workshops, and Shakespeare & Co. events that fill the datebooks of literary-minded expats. She is well known for the emotional and practical support she has generously offered to her many writing friends, including the feeding of hungry crowds at holiday time.
Her period of recovery entailed the reorganization of priorities, cutting back on some social events and on her expectations. Prior to her surgery, her main form of creative self-expression had always been writing. Her assignments as a journalist had often involved social issues and required field research. The rational side had always been in charge.
But as she adjusted to her new lifestyle, an unexpected passion was born: painting. She began to feel hunger to express herself through shapes and colors. Words were too grey. They weren’t enough.
She found an artist who kept an open atelier and joined the group of older French women who were attending lessons there once a week. Her progress has been astonishing. Her technique is instinctive, naif, and impressionistic. Her verve and sense of color are an explosion of joy, and her compositions have a satisfying focus, balance, and movement. Rather than representing an image as a pre-constructed idea, she recreates a feeling connected to her subject – a landscape, portrait, or still life.
I have often thought that P. would have fit right in back in the 1920s on in the late 1960s, two art-loving eras which have much in common. Part pixie, part southern belle, part bohemian and yet a practical soul, with artless aplomb, she sports sparkly, knitted caps, voluminous vintage coats, and pastel socks. Her personal style expresses an artist’s underlying playfulness. Certainly she never dreamed of becoming a visual artist when she moved to Paris, but by some miracle that has happened. Now making pictures is as vital to her as writing once was.
One of my favorite pieces of her work is a typically Parisian scene: A bridge and houses along the Seine. In the foreground, dark trees composed of daubs and swirls form a proscenium through which we view a row of houses à la Hundertwasser . The river flows red and orange along a quai, where two tiny figures with umbrellas are swept along a powerful diagonal towards the point where the quai and river join.
I never tire of looking at this painting which is a celebration of life and of what I love best about Paris, just the flaneur’s pleasure of walking around and looking at things. The fiery Seine is the great creative energy, like lava, flowing through this city and through all those who have been touched by it. This painting, like many of P.’s others, testifies to the creativity and capacity for joy that we often hold inside, unbeknownst to ourselves.
It also brings me back to ruminations on the soul of place. Certainly, an appreciation of beauty and the compulsion to make art are deeply rooted in the genius loci of Paris which draws thousands of visitors every year, hungry for artistic experiences at many levels. Sometimes, as in P’s case, contact with the genius loci can be life-transforming. Paris has bestowed upon her the gift of seeing as artists see and has given her the basic means to express it.
Who wouldn’t envy that?
Who knows what talents might be unlocked if we opened our doors of perception to the soul of place?
For more on the soul of place and creative expression see Linda Lappin, The Soul of Place Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci (Travelers Tales, 2015)