Fleas and Territory - An artist's Paris
“rest, nature, books, music…such is my idea of happiness…” – Tolstoy
I have currently now been in Paris for 105 days (although it feels like a lifetime, or perhaps many lifetimes as during my ‘New Yearly’ tarot reading from a good friend, clairvoyant and healer of mine we fell into some regression, and it seems I did in fact subsist in Paris in a previous life. A little anecdote also confirmed by a reader here in Paris... but these are stories for another day).
In these 105 days I have been many places, seen many things and met many people. I have also discovered two little artist sanctuaries.
This first I have mentioned in a previous post; Shakespeare and Co. My little left bank heaven, situated right opposite the Notre Dame, once simply George Whitman’s apartment in the 1950’s and now a monument of writing, writers, books and travellers in the centre of the city; paradise. I have lost many blissful hours just wandering the narrow passages, attempting to comprehend the mash of languages, carefully navigating the tables and books books everywhere that could easily come crashing down I fear with one unfortunate swing of a shoulder bag, playing the dusty piano, and hunkering down for a good read upstairs on what I am positive must be flea infested beds. You can almost hear the pens and pencils scratching on paper in the quiet of night, the great minds allowing the energy from all those before them and still to come inspire their words and thoughts and turn simple dreams and musings into works of masterful art over a bottle or two of vin rouge. You can feel the love that built this empire, a place Mr Whitman initially named after a girl he loved, and the love that has gone into maintaining and nourishing it since. It is an institution, a home away from home, a place he created as a sanctuary to allow writers, artists and other wandering souls a place to lay their head, and be with friends.
'Time was soft there:a Paris sojourn ' ...
'Time was soft there:a Paris sojourn ' ...
Inspirations of my own, Jeanette Winterson, Anais Ninn (who it is said left her will under George’s bed) Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac have graced Shakespeare and Co with their presence along with hundreds of others over the years.
The original Shakespeare and Company was owned by an American, Sylvia Beach, on Rue de l'Odéon. She gave struggling and penniless writers a place to stay, lent them books, found them work where she could along with her partner and published James Joyce’s’ Ulysses when no one else would due to its provocative nature. Hemingway was a regular, and wrote about it in A Moveable Feast, speaking of simpler times and happy days reading writing, and breaking bread by a cheerful stove among books and photographs. It was a time when Paris was thriving with great talent, and romantically so, remembered as an era.
Sadly it closed after the war but George kept the spirit alive, re-naming his shop after hers, and his daughter also after her.The understanding to this day to sleep in the shop (on the teeny tiny beds cushioned among stacks of books which teeter at odd angles in piles and piles and piles), is volunteer for so many hours a day helping out with the running of things and most crucially... read!
I hear there is no hot running water and no heating much like when it started (and much in keeping with the Paris tradition of not providing a very good public service) but it doesn’t matter! What matters here are the books, more books, the people and the bohemian ideals.
I read a quote in an English paper in which George’s daughter Sylvia (who now runs the store) said, "We sell books for a living, but it's the books that are our life." There is a spirit to be honoured here you will never find in any other bookstore... I am still on the waiting list to get in! Keen to do a few voluntary hours, and say I was one of the people who ‘blew through’.
The other treat I have discovered is ‘The Territory’. A rabbit’s warren just off a quaint petit blue Montparnasse street, with corrugated plastic and /or plastic wrapping for a roof, freezing temperatures not aided at all by the independent heaters scattered around, old sofa’s, creaky doors hanging precariously on their hinges behind hanging pieces of fabric masquerading as curtains, vintage looking teapots and cups scattered randomly on coffee tables amidst cigarette butts, paints brushes and, piles of ginger.
Where Shakespeare and Co houses the writer, The Territory is the home away from home for artists. A sort of commune dedicated to artistic poverty, but yes they apparently do have ‘parent’s days’!
The community is run by successful artist Sergio Ostroverhy. A man I had read much about and was supposed to meet months ago for assistants position, but decided against at the last minute, and aimed for a paid job instead.
However, having taken part in ‘artists assistant’ work before and very much enjoyed the experience gained and friends made, my curiosity lead me back there recently, to meet him. At first he seemed quiet and serious, leading me to believe he was one of these artists who were more introverted and solitary, which I later found to be true as he told me he likes to spend half of every day alone. Understandable as he has family at his private home, and a family at the Territory, along with 4-6 assistants working with him at any one time of various projects just so he can paint, and answer telephone calls. A short but warm conversation with him in which a few jokes and smiles were cracked led to a tour of the warren (I thought I was going to get frost bite, and though I believed I did dress for the occasion, learnt that his modern take on a traditional Russian winter attire was probably more appropriate for the future) and an offer of a voluntary position to help his other assistant compile his dossier.
As a fan of modern art, I find his portraits to be quite dark and literal. But they were curious nonetheless. I came across no-one else on site apart from the parents and the young artist taking them for a tour, and got the feeling the place was so large you could probably walk around all day and not come across another soul unless in the ‘kitchen/smoking room’. But this simply just added to the mystery and the notion that there must be many secrets and great works yet to be revealed behind the many makeshift doors.
In the last four years I have spent many a very happy hour in an artist’s makeshift ‘studio’, cleaning brushes, doing research, filling out paperwork, getting headaches from toxic fumes and such. Laughing talking and falling in love. To walk back in to such a studio was a wonderful if not slightly trippy trip down cobblestone memory lane. The life of this particular kind of artist I assure you is fascinating, enormously frustrating to be around, and never ever boring!
Similarly, the idea here is, is you offer your time to assist Sergio with his work and /or running or the community, and he offers you a space to work in, in return. All one needs to do is send an email and sell him your enthusiasm and expertise.
The place itself is much like a blank canvas, awaiting each person to lay its stroke of genius on. I am so merely curious that I may take him up on his offer of continuing to compile a dossier that has so far taken four years and has not been completed, for no money, to observe this Russian man with his oddly Russian/French accent, his entrepreneurial air and I suspect obsessive mannerisms (such as tying himself to his assistants with chains), and the people that choose to live with him to see what it is all about.I wonder what else is Paris so artfully hiding?