Saturday, August 29, 2015

An eye for detail: Meet artist Gill Shaw

Last week I wrote here about Geraldine Jones, an artist who uses dyes derived from plants to create her fabric art. This week, I profile Gill Shaw, another talented artist who also finds inspiration in nature.

Artist Gill Shaw, photographed at the vernissage for her exhibition in Eymet

Shaw’s husband’s profession as an architect, took the couple to Nairobi, Kenya, Tanzania, Cyprus and back to the U.K. Retirement brought Gill and John Shaw to the Lot-et-Garonne department where they’ve spent the past few years renovating a pair of ancient farm buildings on the outskirts of Cancon.

Artist Gill Shaw, right, and her husband, John
Throughout her travels, Shaw has created beautiful art inspired by images and objects found in the world around her. Her methods combine painting, embroidery and appliqués. 

Shaw describes her process as exciting and painstaking:

“Over weeks and often months, I very gradually develop and then evolve a final conceptual design, which I transfer with paint onto the fabric base. Then begins the painstaking and often exciting evolutionary process of hand embroidery, using cottons, silks and metallic threads with appliqués of netting, gauzes, beadwork, suedes, wools and leathers to create the singular, totally unique final picture.”

In Shaw’s pictures, one can vicariously share the artist’s journeys. Elephants, rhinoceros, lions and ducks, which the artist sketched or photographed, are among the models for pieces she created while living in Africa. More recent pieces feature French flora and fauna. 

A South African shelduck is featured in a piece by artist Gill Shaw.

Wild garlic (ail sauvage) by artist Gill Shaw
In her more than 25 years as an artist, Shaw has created hundreds of pieces. I asked if she had any favorites:

“I have several pieces that I am (especially) fond of … some I no longer have as they have been sold or given away or are on loan to an art gallery in Gloucester,” she says. “However, I have one that I will never part with as I was asked this same question by a lovely gentleman I was caring for when I worked as a care assistant in a nursing home. He bought the favorite picture in my exhibition and then left it to me in his will.”

Water on seashore rocks (mare entre les rochers)
by artist Gill Shaw
In addition to her art and the home renovations, Shaw also teaches English a few hours a week at a nearby school. She often spends time with her grown children and six grandchildren; Louis, 15 months, lives nearby and she’s happy to babysit when needed.

Seaweed in rock pool (algues marines) by artist Gill Shaw
Gill Shaw’s art can be seen at Café des Arts in Eymet (24) through Sept. 23, 2015. The exhibit is free and is open 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2-5 p.m. every day. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mid-summer scenery

I continue to practice my new (re-learned) photography skills. My Fuji comes with me wherever I go. Here are some photographs I took this past week that remind me that autumn is just around the corner.

Natural frames: A field viewed through a row of trees
A little dab of color: A vine in Couze-et-St-Front
Berry nice: On the ground at the entrance to Grottes de Lastournelle
Late flowers: This sunflower field is still vibrant. 
Sad flowers: Most of the field of sunflowers this time of year look like this.
Gone flowers: Many fields of tournesols already have been harvested.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Nature inspires ‘dye-namic’ artist

Textile artist Geraldine Jones
Pomegranate peels, onion skins and eucalyptus leaves are just a few of the materials artist Geraldine Jones uses to create scarves, wall-hangings, clothing fabric and throw blankets. Her home and atelierare located close to where the Gironde, Dordogne and Lot-et-Garonne departments converge. 

“I consider all three departments to be my neighborhood,” Jones says.

Geraldine Jones at work in her atelier,
Before Jones and her husband Pete settled in France two decades ago, they lived far from Geraldine’s birthplace of Yorkshire, England. Pete’s job required a lot of travel, and they raised their three children in exotic locales including the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea, East Africa and Australia. 

“For many years I worked in several tropical countries teaching movement, dance and art while at the same time developing an enthusiastic interest in the decoration of fabric,” Jones says.

Vegetable skins and leaves are some of the ingredients in Geraldine Jones’s
natural dyes.
Building upon her formal music training in England, Jones attended workshops in Paris, Sydney, Halifax and Edinburgh where she developed a range of fabric-dying techniques.

Detail of Geraldine Jones’s workshop
Her art is continually evolving. Nowadays, Jones opts for natural dyes derived from plants that grow in this area.

On the afternoon of my visit, she carefully unwraps a long swath of soft, fine-quality Merino wool in which a variety of leaves and pedals as well as a shard of steel have been tightly bound. 

Artist Geraldine Jones prepares to unroll recently dyed fabric.
“You never know exactly what you’re going to get,” Jones tells me. Despite the element of surprise, Jones’s art, particularly the wall-hangings, are abstracts conveying time, place and emotions.

In a notebook, she keep track of the various dye materials, soaking times and reactions to the dyes on different fabrics. With 28 years experience — and experimentation — in dye arts, there’s a lot to remember.

Her workshop contains samples of art she has created through the years including a painted silk shawl inspired by the colors of the South Pacific and a velvet jacket on which she created designs using the devore technique where fabric is etched. 

On working with plant dyes, Jones says the nose is an important tool.

“I can smell when the extraction is ready or has over-cooked,” she says.

Fabric art with colors derived from plants by Geraldine Jones

I first met Jones at a holiday craft fare in 2013 where I bought one of her lovely silk scarves with swirls of blue and brown. Jones says she is doing fewer craft fairs these days as there often is not enough space to display her pieces. She is getting ready for an upcoming exposition in Saint Avit-Sénieur.

A handy felt sack contains a hand-dyed scarf.

The exposition includes Jones and two other artists: Judy Pickering and Ann Stephens. The trio will share their mutual interest in fiber as an expression of art. The exhibit takes place at the Presbytère in Saint Avit Sénieur (24) from 2-6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, Aug. 25 through Sept. 6, 2015. It is sponsored by the Association Saint Avit Sénieur Arts; information about the ASASA can be found on the organization’s website here.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Salers: Land of the red cows

Salers, France

Perched at the western edge of the Cantal department in the Auvergne region, le plus beau village of Salers offers a time-travel excursion from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Its well-preserved architecture reflects styles from the 14th through 18th centuries with plenty of turrets, belfries and ramparts to admire.

Many of the buildings in Salers are constructed of dark
gray volcanic stone.

Turrets and belfries abound in Salers, France.

Architectural detail in Salers, France

As any French cheese aficionado knows, Salers is renowned for its cheese. The semi-hard cheese is a unpasteurised farmhouse fromage. The handy website provides this description:

“It has a cylinder shape with hard, brown, natural rind that becomes rough and crusty with age. The aroma is very meaty, and the rich yellow interior is redolent of wild flowers, including dandelions, and fresh green grass. There is an overlying nutty taste and a strong, savory, raw-onion bite. Salers must be made only from the milk of cows that graze on mountain pastures in the summer.

“In the Salers region mountains are covered with snow half the year which gives the summer grasses a special richness. Gentian and blueberry grow here. The cheese’s crust is thick and has a gray colour. Its pâté is firm yellow and relatively hard. It is a strong cheese and can be matured up to 18 months.”

Salers cows, of which, unfortunately, I didn’t get any good photos on our recent trip, are magnificent. With their red-brown coats and bells clanging around their necks as they graze on hillsides, they are a sight to see.

Back in the village, a statue of Tyssandier d’Escous stands in the main square. D’Escous is credited with the preservation of the Salers cow pedigree.

A statue of Tyssandier d’Escous, the person responsible for the
preservation of the Salers cow pedigree, stands in the main
square of Salers, France.

A street in Salers, France

Although we don’t have a lot of time to linger in Salers, we take a stroll along the Barrouze esplanade and enjoy amazing views of the Maronne and Aspre valleys. 

View from Salers, France

From the high vantage point of the village, we can see the little town of Fontanges, which we passed through on our way to Salers. An unusual site in Fontanges is the late-19th-century monolithic Saint Michel’s chapel, carved deep in a rock. A 15th century gothic church also is located here.

The village of Fontanges, as seen from Salers, is worth a short stop for its
monolithic chapel, carved deep in a rock.

If you go

Less than 200 km from Perigueux, le Pays de Salers is a wonderful destination for a mini-vacation. Our short visit allows only a small taste of the beauty and culture of the area. Hiking, canoeing, museums and more cheese will be on our agenda next time.

The tourist office in Salers offers guided visits of the village every day at 3 p.m. through September, but an appointment is recommended. Call or email

Salers, France

Friday, August 7, 2015

Château de Murol in France’s ‘land of castles’

High on a basalt hill in the Puy de Dôme department sits a majestic symbol of feudal Auvergne — Château de Murol. Our recent visit to the fortress includes lunch in the village of the same name, where I try a local specialty: la truffade.

Château de Murol

Construction of Château de Murol began in the 12th century on a site that probably contained a primitive fort. The location was, of course, strategic, overlooking roads to Besse and Chambon. Adapted over the following centuries, the castle was spared by Richelieu after the French Revolution and became a prison, a den of thieves and eventually a stone quarry. In 1890, its last owner, Henri-Guillaume de Chabrol gave the fortress to the Puy-de-Dôme department, which in turn gave it to the town of Murol in 1950.

Château de Murol sits on a mountain of basalt.

View of volcanic mountains from the ramparts of Château de Murol
We enter the château through the lower courtyard and take the path through the former farm, where we see a smattering of agricultural equipment and beehives. After passing the archery field, we arrive at the northern gate.
Beehives on the grounds of Château de Murol

Stairs to the northern gate at Château de Murol

Just off the high courtyard, we check out the Honor Room and the Hall of Arms. The views of the Sancy mountains and across the Couze valley are amazing on this crystal clear day.

Honor Room at Château de Murol

What the fashionable knight wore at Château de Murol

High Courtyard at Château de Murol

Architectural detail at Château de Murol

Atop the ramparts at Château de Murol
Our self-guided tour includes a peek inside the castle’s kitchens and bakery and finishes up with a little fashion exhibit. 

Fashion display in the cellar of Château de Murol

Although we avoid sightseeing trips when schools are out (I’m not good with crowds) a visit to the Château de Murol in the summer allows visitors who don’t mind braving the winding mountain roads after dark to enjoy a nocturnal spectacular on Tuesdays and Thursday through the end of August (reservations are required). Details about Château de Murol’s hours, tariffs and tour options are available on its website here.

Time for lunch

The village of Murol, a couple of kilometers from the château, holds its own charms. We’re ravenous after our castle visit, so we head directly to lunch. I had seen la truffade on the menu of several regional restaurants and I decide to give it a try. My arteries are surely happy that I rarely eat food this hearty. The delectable dish is made from potatoes and a lot … a whole lot … of cheese (specifically tomme fraîche du Cantal).

La truffade is a traditional dish from the Auvergne region.
After a meal like this — and no, I couldn’t finish it — we take a walk through the village. 

A sign in Murol contains a vintage village photo.

That same street view on the day of our visit to Murol

Château, church and charming house in the village of Murol

Murol is located in the valley Couze Chambon on the eastern slopes of the Massif de Sancy. About a three-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in the Lot-et-Garonne, a trip to the Auvergne region is worth the drive. The closest city to Murol is Clermont-Ferrand, about 45 minutes to the north. Thus far, we’ve made two trips to France’s Massif Central and we’ve explored just a tiny bit of this breathtaking region. There are 43 castles open to the public along la Route Historique des Châteaux d’Auvergne. And of course, there’s the cheese. I’m already looking forward to our next trip.