All travel stress aside, Paris was great. After all the traveling and work, I spent a lot of time that Friday in my hotel room, catching up on some drawings and listening to TV dubbed in French, with the tall windows thrown open to let in the fresh air and sunlight. I can’t believe how early spring came in Paris, compared to New England.
When I did venture out the remaining days, I was overwhelmed by all the spring buds, tulips, and blossoms in every courtyard, garden, and neatly manicured tree. It felt like May, not the first week of April. It was so nice to walk around and not need a coat!
The first evening, after I cleaned up following a long day of travel, I met up with Dave Douglas, one of my best friends, and a world traveler and talented painter. He and his husband have moved around a few times; they started in Chile, spent several years in Haiti, and just got stationed in Paris (tough gig!) Dave’s husband is a Chilean ambassador, so they move around every few years. At this point I think Dave knows Hebrew, Spanish, Creole, and French. Not bad!
That first night, we went to one of the best restaurants in the Marais, Chez Marianne, and ordered as much as we could off of the menu. It was so nice to kick back and hear what Dave had been up to over the last year, and to just spend time together like we used to back in college in between studio classes. We both ordered a Coke - looking to indulge in an innocent way after all the moving around (they were still staying in an Airbnb shopping for apartments after only moving to France the week before). So a nice cold, fizzy, sugary soda was exactly what we needed with our Mediterranean smorgasbord. One of the funnest parts of hanging out with Dave is that we will riff on a funny idea until it becomes completely outrageous and we break into uncontrollable giggles. At one point this was when we discussed what would happen if, when a server came to collect unfinished food, we ignorantly pretended that they actually wanted to eat our leftovers. So when they ask, “Are you all set?” say, “That’s all you, dude.” or “Killlll it!” This doesn’t make any sense and would actually be incredibly rude in practice, but we couldn’t stop laughing.
Other activities that we did together were getting ice cream with Dave’s husband on Saturday afternoon and then hitting up BHV for various purchases, shopping at the Sunday market at Bastille and then checking out a gallery in the Marais, getting crêpes, and shooting the shit on Monday night (my last night there), with (more) crêpes and making fun of the punks zigzagging around on electric scooters. It was so much fun to connect in a place that Dave and I both know intimately, but from different times. I lived in the Marais in the winter/spring of 2011 while I was studying there through Wells College, and Dave spent the better part of a year in the same neighborhood only a year later, doing a residency, where he first met his husband. We had talked about a lot of the same things, and had also discovered some of the same things independently, but had never experienced them together. It was also just refreshing because traveling internationally can be stressful, especially for work and with multiple countries in one trip, so spending time with a familiar face helped me see Paris in a different kind of familiar way.
Dave was also starting an intensive French language course, so during the day, when I wasn’t in the hotel, I ventured out to some of my favorite spots, mostly on foot. I did a long walk by the river on Friday afternoon/evening, and definitely walked along rue du Rivoli for way too long thinking it was parallel to the Seine and planning to cut over to Notre Dame, when I realized I was very far off track and had to make a sharp left. Along the road toward the cathedral, I grabbed a caprese sandwich, had it heated up, and then sat in front of Notre Dame admiring the view at dusk. On a whim, I decided to go inside. There was a service in process, so I only took a couple of covert photos and otherwise just listened and admired.
Another day, I took the train out to Père Lachaise, walked by my old language school, and parked myself in the cemetery to do a drawing for several hours.
On the way home, since I had finally figured out my Navigo pass and had unlimited rides for the week, I got off at Palais Royale/Musée du Louvre. Palais Royale is one of my favorite spots, and it was bumping with frolicking Parisians and tourists alike. I did another drawing, from the vertical striped pillar sculptures, though it got quite chilly and my hands started shaking. On the way home, I soaked up an amazing red sunset, on the river and by the Louvre. From there I headed back to the hotel on the train.
At some point, I sat by my old apartment building and did a drawing of the old water fountain at Square Charles Victor Langlois. Doing a drawing there has become a bit of a tradition. It’s part ritual, and part hope that I will run into my apartment host from back in the day. I always note that her lacy curtains are still in the living room window, but have yet to see her. I lost her contact info, and while I have sent her multiple letters, have not heard anything back. I suppose this is one reason to keep going back to visit the city :)
On Sunday night, I had spent quite a lot of time in the evening working on some drawings and photos, so decided I should go out for dinner. I was a bit homesick by that point, so I went to Breakfast in America, which as you might guess, is a diner based on the American breakfast. They play American rock and roll and have what you’d expect: pancakes, milkshakes, and burgers. I got pancakes and ate by myself, perhaps more quickly than necessary. I was a bit anxious because I didn’t really know what I should speak - English? or French? - and because I was one of only two customers and I hadn’t brought much to keep myself occupied. But it was still good to fill up my stomach and take a break in a place where I could feel some muscle memory.
On my last day in Paris, I had a goal in mind. There are so many parts of Parisian culture that are all about etiquette, and despite having spent 6 months living there at various times, I have never quite mastered the art of cafe culture. There is something very intimidating to me about sitting down at an outdoor table and expecting service, when there are so many little things to mix up. To build my confidence, I read through an article written by a Parisian about all the things to make sure to do and to make sure to avoid, and then decided to test it out at a café down the road from where I used to live, where I had dined several times in a group but never solo. On the way, I bought several postcards, and then made a beeline for a seat that appeared open and set for dining. It’s important to choose a seat that is set with flatware if you are expecting to eat, and not a table set only for only drinks.
Luckily the server was incredibly kind and patient, and he did not once take pity on me and switch to English. At this point, my pronunciation is decent, but my listening comprehension is pretty spotty, so it’s pretty common for someone to expect that I am more fluent than I am, and then the conversation comes to a halt when I have to admit, “Pardon… plus lentement, s’il vous plait?” But getting through the entire transaction without a bump was very reassuring to a person who has not had the occasion to speak French consistently since my last brief stay in France, four years ago. Still got it!
After that, I went back to BHV and bought some colored pencils for Dave and me, and then sat in Place des Vosges and drew one of the fountains until the park closed. It was a whirlwind 2.5 weeks, but by that final evening, I have to admit that I have rarely felt so at peace with where I am, and so sad to be leaving to go home.
Dave and I had our final crêpe that evening, and then said goodbye. I packed up while chatting with Chris over Skype, and then called it quits because I had to leave for the airport at 4:30am. By the way, the prevalence of video calling these days is such a blessing. When I was studying abroad, my family and boyfriend at the time used AOL instant messenger’s video chat feature. This was almost 10 years ago. But it was always such a relief to have and rely on. Throughout this trip, I used Skype in the same way. I looked forward to hearing what was going on at home, and to see Chris every night, hanging out in our living room or lounging on the bed. That level of connection kept me sane even when I was stressed and feeling unusually anxious with all of the pressure of work and solo travel.
The flights home were less stressful than some of the earlier legs of the trip, aside from having trouble updating my family where I was during a layover in Lisbon. This was also my first time in Portugal! I looked for a Harry Potter book in Portuguese in one of the shops but was not successful. The views from the plane were astounding - so many cliffs along the ocean! I’ll have to actually visit one day.
I’m back home now, and unpacked, and happy to be home. Another travel chapter comes to a close!
Also, for sketchbook pages, please click here.
I didn't have my phone on me during the opening (no pockets!), so didn't get any photos from the actual opening, but here are some photos of before/after! We were in the Brookline Tab as the #2 thing to do in Brookline this weekend. Not bad! Also including my statement below. Thanks to all who attended and came out to support local Brookline artists!
Artist Statement from Exhibition
The drawings and paintings collected here speak to the vulnerability, hope, energy, and rituals found in everyday family life, especially in young families. In most of my compositions, the parents are off to the side, or in the background, guiding the children, sheltering them, reading the paper, making sure everything is well. They are not the center of attention, and not engaging in anything exciting.
As I get older, I find myself relating more to the parents than the children in my drawings and paintings, even though I’ve only ever played the role of the latter. I think about how my parents did this for my brother and I when we were children, after years of shabby apartments and piecing together their rent. They bought a house near a park. They bought us new shoes every year that we wore on walks to the park. They bundled us up in hats and snow pants and pulled us on sleds. They brought home books from the library so they could read to us every night. There is a lot of selflessness there, to raise a child into an adult, but the children must figure out where to go from there. Meanwhile, the children I draw are playing, exploring, and being comforted. Drawing the parent/child dynamic allows me to meditate on the different roles that we play throughout childhood and into adulthood and parenthood.
After close to four years at the toy store, I'm moving on to a new and exciting opportunity, helping manage office space for startup companies in Kendall Square. Here's a drawing I did after my first interview, to work out the nerves. I'm very excited to start a full-time role and learn about an industry outside of children's books, board games, and LEGO's, although I will continue to manage the store's Instagram and help with photography work. My first day is tomorrow!
It has been such a busy month! Only a week and a half after the marathon, I took a week long trip to Paris with my family. This was good timing because after training for 5 months, I had that empty "now what?" mind block. And of course, it was such a wonderful feeling to be back in a place that I associate with some of the happiest memories and most enlightening experiences of my life. I explored old haunts and new favorites, and saw familiar shopkeepers and new faces. For instance, the man who runs my favorite book shop "I Love My Blender", which specializes in English books that have been translated into French, was still there and puttered quietly while I browsed. And the owner of the calligraphy boutique "Mélodies Graphiques" was still at his desk amongst dozens of beautifully addressed letters. On the other hand, the man who used to sell his artwork outside the fancy boutique below my window had been replaced by a group of women offering massages, and a tiny property down the block had become a bustling two-story Uniqlo.
Something about Paris makes me want to draw everything in sight. I am sure part of it comes from a desperation to keep a record, the same way every person who sees the Eiffel Tower is obliged to take out a camera (or, nowadays, a selfie stick) and get at least 3 dozen shots of their witnessing its immense size. It's the touristic impulse.
But I'm curious about this urge to draw whenever I set foot in Paris because there is no other place I've ever been that has elicited that response to such a high degree. Does it come from the fact that Paris is so deeply entrenched in art history? Entire neighborhoods have been home to groundbreaking artistic movements, and sometimes you can feel what I can only describe as a centuries-old creative contagion causing the city's occupants to continually record its charm and grandeur. And this is only advanced by the volume of work available for viewing by thousands of world-renown artists, whose masterpieces are displayed in dozens of exquisite museums across the city. And perhaps the architecture has something to do with it. While Paris has changed drastically since the Impressionists occupied Montmartre, it remains an unmistakable city. The buildings are consistently five stories high, the roofs so recognizably rounded, the many double windows so tall and wide and shuttered and screenless, the many cobbled side streets narrow and winding. One cannot look at a snapshot of a Parisian street and not recognize it as Paris. And besides the history and aesthetic, there's that uniquely Parisian mood about the cafes. Sitting between those narrow mirrored walls before a tiny table set with all kinds of dining accoutrements, or luxuriating outside with a heat lamp and a cigarette in the dead of winter conjures up visions of Toulouse-Lautrec and Hemingway.
My honors thesis at Alfred had been about using sketching to find familiarity in the strange (living in Paris) and strangeness in the familiar (returning to New York). But upon returning to Paris for the fifth time, a city that at this point has played the role of both vacation destination and home for me, the root of the urge to sketch shifted. This I felt most while I drew the park in the courtyard of my old apartment; I was not simply familiarizing myself with the unfamiliar, nor was I just looking for peculiarity in the familiar. Rather, I was kind of doing both. Some things had changed, others hadn't, just as I had noticed throughout the neighborhood, and as I drew I almost felt like I was taking inventory.
This process I suppose could be labeled reacquainting. Like revisiting a childhood home after renovations or a campus after a new generation of students has moved in. The climbing and riding equipment on the playground had been replaced, and the surface of the play area was new too. But the sand box in the far corner was still protected by the same structure with chipped red and blue paint. The well-dressed Marais toddlers playing in the square were the same age, but they were a new generation; the kids that had played there in 2011 were probably all in school now. All around, some things were similar, others different. But at the same time, when I looked up at my old living room windows, I was struck by the overall sameness.
Anne-Katerine's lacy white curtains that she used to pull back while smoking in the evenings were unmoved. They hung limp and delicate behind the glare of the glass just as they had when I was a student peering out from behind them four years earlier. I used to sit in a wicker chair at the window sill while I drank my morning tea. I had even drawn this very square from that window when I was sick and too symptomatic to go outside. Before dinner, Anne-Katerine would ask if I had any new drawings to show her, and we would lay out my sketchbook on the living room floor. I remembered all of these things and felt comforted by the idea that Anne-Katerine was still living there. Because while I had moved out, returned to school, graduated, moved to the New England, and held down a job for three years, the woman who hosted me for six months in a foreign city was right where I'd left her. Perhaps her life was different now, maybe she had retired or re-married or even just gotten a new cat, but she was still there.
After an hour or so, I had finished a drawing of the playground and was about to leave, when I looked up at my old apartment and saw that the window had been opened. My heart leaped, because it had to have been Anne-Katerine who opened it. After all, it was the same set of curtains. Perhaps she had even looked out over the square and seen me and just not known it was me, before going back to the kitchen to start dinner.
I didn't know what to do. I half expected to see her hand resting on the bars with a lit cigarette. I wanted to say something, but I knew it would be rude to call on her unannounced. And besides, a pass was needed in order to gain entry into the building to ring her bell, and I had lost her phone number years ago. I sat for a moment and considered if I should risk an attempt to pop in, but decided it would be best to stay outside and simply call up to her if she appeared at the window again. After all, it wasn't that warm of a day, so she would close it eventually.
While I waited I drew the face of the building, which glowed yellow in the afternoon sun. I took my time defining each window, each brick, and each gutter. And then, for a few seconds I looked down to carefully draw the roof's edge, when she must have returned. Because when I looked back, the window was closed shut. I panicked, and with a sinking heart realized I had missed my chance. If only I had looked up a second sooner, I could have spotted her and hollered. I held out hope that if she was shutting the window, perhaps she was heading out, and for the next 20 minutes, I finished up my drawing and paid close attention to anyone who used the apartment gate, just another thing whose familiar long squeak and clang rang with sameness. But I finished the drawing, and never saw Anne-Katerine exit. I wrote her a letter and sent it to the apartment the night before my return to Boston and included my email address in hopes that we could get back in touch. But so far, I haven't heard anything.
Paris is a special place to me, because it opened up my understanding of the world, which had been quite limited to upstate New York. Returning can feel like returning home in the way that visiting the house of a beloved relative feels like coming home. It isn't home, because it isn't yours, but you have such an intimate understanding of parts of it that it reads like home. You see its contents and consider its occupants, and it just makes sense. It is comforting. And yet, it doesn't belong to you and parts remain unexplored.
Returning to Boston, I am comforted by the city that truly is my home. It can be a little anticlimactic, descending from the clouds to see a city that is not host to the Louvre, nor Notre Dame, nor the little vintage shops that are filled with those French boat-necked striped shirts, but Boston is its own kind of romantic city. It is manageable and not so far from my family that I need a plane ticket to see them, yet it is also full of similar caliber museums and monuments and history. The banks of the Charles aren't the banks of the Seine, but running along the Esplanade and seeing the Harvard rowing teams glide by provides a wonderment that is distinctly Bostonian.
And because I am a Boston transplant, the city is still novel for me; I can still get excited about exploring Boston in a way that mirrors my thrill in Paris. I have relationships here, and I have responsibilities here, and I have roots here, but there is still so much I haven't seen here. So while it was bittersweet to bid Paris farewell once again, I return refreshed and inspired by what fueled me to draw Paris all week. I look forward to carrying that energy into some Boston drawings next, and wonder if I will be finding familiar in the strange, strange in the familiar, or if I will be reacquainting myself with places I haven't visited in a while. Thanks for the fresh eyes, Paris!
Over the last few months, I've been giving this website a makeover. New slideshows, a home page, a news feed (this is it), new banner, new photos, etc. Here are some other changes I've made to the site, in case you were wondering:
Sometimes I like the look of an unfinished painting, even if it can't stay that way. In progress photos are also helpful in diagnosing where a certain aspect of the painting went wrong, or if I am toeing the line between done and overworking, so I take these pictures as often as I can. I sometimes have more than twenty of a single paintings and they start to look like a rather poorly made stop motion video.
Introductions to Sketchbooks
I have a lot of sketchbooks. Here you can flip through their contents, and read about them and how they came to be.
Blogs/sites from Kara Kuntz, Thomas Moran, Dave Douglas, Eggy Ding, Mary Misura, Sandy Lowden, Bonfire Blue, Emily Rebecca Dwyer, and Marie Komanecky. I've lived with all of these people at one point or another, and I love what they do.
Bye bye Ceramics
I took down my ceramic work because I haven't made anything ceramic in a few years now. I can do without the dust, but sometimes I miss slip-casting and sgrafftio decorating. Everything is archived here if you're interested: ceramics
Hannah Dunscombe is a painter and portrait artist based out of Mansfield, MA.