She Thought The Light Would Make Her Well
A Californian in Sorezè
By: Noelle Oxenhandler for Home & Garden
© Condé Nast Publications, Inc. 1995
Recovering from Lyme Disease, an American artist is drawn to the famous light of southern France. Gradually, her loving transformation of a house in ruins begins to work its healing power--not just on her own mind and body, but on the aspiring artists who come to paint with her—and gradually, on the languishing village itself…
One rainy April morning, in an ancient house in a village in southwestern France, Carole Watanabe sat at her kitchen table crying. She'd bought the house the summer before, during a brief trip from California--and on what seemed more and more like a sudden wild whim. Now she'd returned to begin the work of renovation. For three weeks already, she'd been camped out: sleeping on a mat on the hard stone floor, picking her way through knee-high piles of debris, enduring the outdoor toilet which flooded the back garden every time it flushed, trying to get used to the occasional bat that flew at night through one of many holes in the walls.
She'd come expecting warm spring weather, but it had been raining for days, and as yet she had no heat or hot water. Two friends from California had recently arrived to help her—and though she'd greeted them ecstatically, she hadn't imagined how helpless the three of them would feel.
The final straw, on this particular morning, had been her discovery that underneath the large stone tiles that formed the downstairs floor in wildly warped and undulating patterns, there was: nothing. The tiles had wonderful character and she had pried them up with great optimism, expecting to find old floorboards on which to reset them. Instead what she found was several feet of several centuries' of dust.
Suddenly feeling completely overwhelmed, she cried.
It is not like Carole to cry helplessly for long, however. She is not only a very resourceful artist and craftsperson, she is also a true northern Californian—which means that she is open to inspiration from a wide variety of sources. On the mantel over the kitchen fireplace in Soreze, she keeps a laughing Buddha, a crumbling plaster Virgin Mary from the local flea market, and a pouch of rune stones: an essential divination ingredient for ancient Celts.
"I'm going for a drive," Carole told her friends. She got into her car, and with no particular sense of where or why, she began driving until she came to a house by a stream. In front of the house, she saw a man standing by a small van. Painted on the side of the van were the French words, "Chimneys. Sandblasting. Stone Masonry." Carole stopped the car.
She leaned her head out the window and asked, "Do you speak English?" "Of course!" he replied.
Moments later, Carole jumped into his van and they went off to the masonry to look for supplies. In the days and weeks that followed, Gerard Vergouw became an indispensable ally—guiding her through the restoration of crumbling walls and ceilings and doing much of the work himself.
The story of how she found Gerard is emblematic both of Carole herself and of the amazing transformation of her house. When you see the before and after pictures, you want to use words like "magical" and "miraculous"--and these words are apt. But an equal part of the story is her tremendous determination, her willingness to move through tears to whatever presents itself as the next step--no matter how absurd or daunting it might seem.
In fact, there were a lot of tears to move beyond in Carole's journey to Soreze. Five years ago she contracted Lyme Disease when her cat, fresh from a romp through tall grass, brushed up against her leg. Normally a bouyant and energetic person, Carole suffered from nearly paralyzing fatigue and severe joint point that went on for more than three years. "Before I got sick, we had so many plans," she says--the "we" being herself and her husband Don Watanabe, a San Francisco architect. Then one little tick changed everything...”
It was during her long convalescence that various events and chance encounters coalesced to lead Carole to the little village of Soreze. When she arrived, she found it even more beautiful than she had imagined: the immense fields of sunflowers, the meandering river Tarn and the encircling green hills, the little villages with their red tiled roofs and sloping walls, the church bells that still ring on the hour....When she saw the house at 10 Rue Ferlus she fell in love with it. It's right across from the town's tiny central square, where a few old men in berets sit on benches around a baby blue fountain and watch its plump cherub squirting water into the air. Inside, a winding staircase leads up to an attic that runs the full length of the house—and this was what Carole immediately visualized as an artists' studio.
"I had a dying urge for that house," she says. "I'd never even considered buying a piece of French soil, but I found I couldn't stop thinking about it. And finally one day I thought: It's small. 1 can fix it. The downpayment was $20,000 and she found a friend to put up half of it. Carole thought it would cost only another $20,000 to repair the house. She flew home ecstatic, with a great scheme to make 600 ceramic mailboxes, in the shape of small French houses, to raise the funds....
Now, after two years, $60,000, and thousands of hours of labor, Carole can laugh at her own naivete. Walls had to be gutted, the wiring and plumbing redone, the ceilings shored up, the floors reset. But when you ask her, "Would you do it again?" she says, without hesitation, "Mais oui!" And when you look around at the environment she's created inside her "Villa LiveArt," you know why. "I wanted it to look like a Bonnard painting," she says—and it does. You feel as though you've walked in through an open French window to a space that shimmers with the colors of summer fruits and flowers: apricot, peach, mimosa....Despite the fact that she worked like a fiend, there's a light and playful quality about the house.
Its wonderful crookedness and sloping walls make you feel how old it is, but she didn't trouble herself to restore a period piece. The rooms are airy and whimsical, and the inspiration willy-nilly, if mostly quite French: the upstairs bedroom, with its straw chair and bright blue beds, is "the Van Gogh" room, and on the bathroom wall Carole painted a large version of Matisse's goldfish and green fronds and unabashedly added his signature. Everywhere there are sunflowers—for Soreze is surrounded by them. There are vases of the huge yellow blooms on mantels and bedside tables, and there are sunflowers that Carole frescoed into the plaster walls of the dining room and kitchen.
It's not only the house itself that has been salvaged, but the house is full of salvaged things—things whose secret beauty was glimpsed by her artist's eye. Over the bed in her bedroom, a gauzy white fabric is draped over long, sinuous sycamore sticks. "It was when I was here last September," she says. "The summer was coming to an end, and they were pruning the sycamore trees that line the streets. I saw these piles of sticks and they looked so beautiful to me. I thought, 'I can do something with those
A thrown-out pile of sticks, a broken mirror in a dusty corner of the old brocante, or secondhand shop—things seem to call out to her, "Notice me! Transform me!" One of the things that Carole loves most about her life in Soreze is the way that being a foreigner lifts her out of her usual context. At the same time, she feels very protected by the environment. "I relate to everything so visually," she says. "If I'm in a place that has billboards, strip malls, newspapers blaring bad news, I tend to have protective walls to protect my psyche. Here, I can let those walls down. It's wonderful to have a place in my life where there's nothing but beauty."
For Carole, this experience is one that she's eager to share--in fact, it is closely linked to her sense of vocation. In the summers, Carole and her artistic partner Camille Przewodek, who is an accomplished northern California landscape painter, invite artists—new and experienced--to come with them and discover the beauty of Soreze and its surroundings. During the three 10-day sessions, participants live in Villa LiveArt and receive painting instruction in the mornings at various sites around the village. A cook brings a picnic lunch to them at noon and serves an elegant sit-down supper in the evening.
When you talk to the participants, it's clear that they, too, feel the renewing quality of the environment. "This place is an oasis," one woman told me over breakfast coffee and croissants in Carole's courtyard garden. "It's almost otherworldly. Everything flows, everything fits: the inside and the outside environment. Everything is taken care of. Because of that, you are free to concentrate."
Carole says simply, "It's the light. The Impressionists were drawn to southern France because of the light. They felt there was a special, almost magical quality in its clarity. And I firmly hold to the illusion or belief that if you go to the place where extraordinary art was made, you'll be able to make some more!"
If you spend some time around Carole, however, you know it's not just the light. It's also the expansiveness of her own creative energy. "All the surfaces in our lives are potentially art," she says. "It's very liberating to take the canvas that's usually a limited square and expand it into a world. We're so used to the edges. This is what I mean when I talk about 'live art.' I invite people who come to stay with me here to take up the motto. Dissolve parameters."
What might seem a mere slogan from somebody else's lips is, for Carole, an actual reality. The healing that she herself has experienced in creating her dream in Soreze, and that she shares with the artists who paint with her, is spreading out to the village itself.
Three years ago (1992), the prestigious boys' school, which for ten centuries had been the heart and pride of the village, closed. In its wake, the one still functioning hotel went under, and other merchants have felt the pinch. Ordinarily, one might have expected the inhabitants of a small French village to look askance at an adventurous American woman who breezed into town, bought up a house, and began inviting her compatriots to stay with her--but the people of Soreze have been extremely welcoming. Everyone in the village seems to know Carole. If, with your unfamiliar face, you walk into the Boulangerie to buy your morning baguette, they ask you, "Vous etes americaine? Une amie de Carole?"
The mayor himself is a great fan of Carole's. At the conclusion of the first summer's series of workshops, he invited the artists to show their work at the local gallery, Gallerie d’ Terson. ”It was a wonderful occasion," says Carole. "Nearly the whole town came, and when they saw our paintings they said, 'Oh, but I have a beautiful garden you should have painted....'"
In his plans for revitalizing Soreze, the mayor favors projects which celebrate and preserve the town's rich past. Needless to say, he's thrilled with Carole's new scheme to purchase the town's one grand hotel, which has not been in operation for some twelve years. An imposing structure with 33 bedrooms, it has a fully equipped kitchen, a cafe, and a restaurant with painted murals. Carole plans to make fifteen apartments out of the bedrooms and to transform the restaurant into a studio and performance space. The idea is to expand on what already happens at Villa LiveArt--inviting painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, and performance artists to live and make art together. Extravagant as it seems, the people of Soreze would say that she is simply growing new blooms from old roots—and indeed, a look at the hotel's old register would reveal extended visits by none other than Toulouse Lautrec.
Last year Carole worked on a series of paintings that began with words in bold script that covered the canvas. Then she would paint still lifes or figures over the words, sometimes allowing letters or word fragments to show through the layers of paint. Of these paintings, two were especially significant to her. One began with the words, "She Thought the Light Would Make Her Well," and the other, "It's Hard to Paint Life As Beautiful As It Is."
After I returned to California, Carole wrote me a letter from Soreze in which she mentioned these two paintings.
"I realize now that both those painted prayers have been answered," she wrote. "I know that here in Soreze, with its golden light, I am living as I have always wanted to live. As I live this experience and share it with others, I am living the painting of life that has been painted as beautiful as it is."